First Thoughts on Year B First Reading Acts Passages from the Lectionary

Easter 2

William Loader

Easter 2: 8 April Acts 4:32-35

This is an ideal scene, which would have warmed the hearts of those who knew the philosophical ideals of the time. Shared resources, no one in need. It was an ideal also hailed and lived out in some Jewish communities, especially the so-called Essene movement who had connections with the group which lived by the Dead Sea and whose library was discovered only last century in the caves. It also has very specific roots in what had happened according to the gospels in the ministry of Jesus. He had called some to abandon their local livelihood, a much more serious upheaval than it would be for many in developed countries today where wealth makes mobility and adventure possible. Most "followers" of Jesus did not follow him around. They stayed where they were, equally committed to living out his radical message. But he challenged some, as we know, to follow him in a more literal sense, travelling with his band around Galille, dependent on local hospitality and trusting that like the birds of the air and lillies of the field their needs would be met and it seems they generally were.

Such a movement was already in itself a challenge to the intricate systems of power and dependency of the day, in which your survival depended on belonging to a larger circle of people dependent on richer and more powerful people for work, who in their own interests helped keep you alive and well. There was no welfare safety net, apart from the generosity to the poor which some synagogue groups fostered. Stability was essential for survival. Extended families ensured the right matches in marriage with an eye to keeping what little land was possessed in the family and providing offspring for future support of those who survived into age. Jesus, himself, a first born son, normally expoected to take the lead in ensuring family stability, had abandoned it. And now he had called others to do so. This was a kind of protest against the dominant regime. It went along with a proclamation which declared God's goodness reached out to all, the good and the bad, and on the basis of love and community promised good news for the poor.

The poor included anyone who was sick, unemployed, marginalised. The vision was too great to be realised to any great degree in the towns of Galilee, but it pointed to a belief that this must be surely God's intention for all. Israel's prophetic tradition inspired dreams of change. One of Jesus' favourite ways of expressing this was to pick up the popular image of the feast, one to which all would be invited.  People were not so poor and malnourished that they lacked the sustenance to make such thinking possible. The troop around Jesus would never have survived if people had been living in abject poverty where they would lack resources to offer hospitality. The vision of hope could be taken up by those sufficiently nourished by Galilee's harvests and, as with Jesus' family, by the employment generated by big spending Herod Antipas, to be able to lead and articulate the possibilities of change. But to join the team of those who abandoned what security there was in the local economic system was to expose oneself to vulnerability.

Hardship breeds solidarity as a matter of survival. And as in the days when the first European settlers faced the harshness of Australia's outback, pretence and hierarchy of race or gender or class had to go out the window. Egalitarianism breeds in such solidarity, but it was also nourished by the message of Jesus. As John the Baptist had everyone, high and low, descend into the Jordan to show their willingness to be immersed in God's goodness, so Jesus declared God's generosity towards all in word and action. This was something welcomed by the socially outcast and resented by those who saw no need for such radicality. Declaring that this was what God's rule looks like could not help but be political in the sense of calling the systems of his day into question. That meant not just the tight dependencies of the economic system, but also the rule of those who steered and profited from them. It would not have been unexpected that Pilate sought to put a stop to the movement by executing its leader. That is standard practice in totalitarian regimes and even Rome's more civilsed judicial system could resolve that the lesser evil was to execute than to allow unrest to fester, leading potentially to much greater ills.

The calculation that the movement would fade once Jesus was lumped together with other change agents and hung on a cross proved a mistake. Some half a century or more after the events Luke assembles the stories to reconstruct the aftermath. It is certainly consistent with the teaching and behaviour of Jesus and the group around him during his ministry that, when he had gone, they continued with the same values. Now they declared Jesus vindicated by God througfh resurrection and elevation to God's heavenly presence. The task Jesus began had to go on. Now there was more to say: not only the message of grace for all, but also the message that God had underlined its validity by elevating Jesus. So Luke reconstructs likely scenes of a revived group of disciples and their associates, daring to proclaim their old and new message, and facing backlash from the authorities.  Here they were in Jerusalem facing a new day.

They had learned that sharing resources was the only way to survive. Ideal as the scene may be as Luke imagines it, it captures funadmental values of the movement which have (or shoukd have) informed it ever since. There can never be justification for privileging some above others. There can never be a departure in word or deed from being good news for the poor. There can never be satisfaction with surrendering to systems which keep some poor and make others rich. To our own day we struggle with the issues. We affirm the huge advances which modern understandings of the state have brought: care at so many levels which in those ancient cultures was unimaginable, human rights, aid of many kinds. We also face constant pressures to protect the vulnerable from solutions to complex economies which impose the costs unevenly on the more vulnerable.

Despite Luke's image, the viability of a growing group of followers of Jesus, was not assured. Many  had been dislocated from the security of their family setting or had been encouraged to sell up their assets. This was bound to create problems in the long run, especially when times of adversity and food shortage struck. When, only a decade or so later, Paul arranges a collection to support the poor among the saints in Jerusalem, we are probably dealing with the unforeseen outcomes of such abandoning of assets. They had nothing. Compassion and social justice, embracing the good news and its implications, have to mean having flexibility to respond to new situations in new ways. Paul was one of the best at thinking deeply on such issues. As a strategy he decided that part time work was a sensible way of continuing his ministry, rather than always being dependent on congregations for support. Some condemned him reminding him of Jesus' instructions that missioners should not work but expect locals to provide for their upkeep. Paul was good at seeing beyond rules to the heart of the matter and despite being declared a person lacking in faith, he persisted. Love led his ways not laws. You can read about it in 1 Corinthians 9.

What a passage like this call us to do is to embrace its values, not to emulate its particular pattern, and certainly not to idealise it into a kind of enforced communism. It remains true for all ages and in all situations: we are called to live in a way that we are good news for the poor. Anything less than that is an abandonment of faith.

Gospel: Easter 2: 8 April John 20:19-31
Easter 2: 8 April  1 John 1:1 - 2:2