To All, As Any Had Need
First is the text itself, this week from the book of Acts. Followed by my commentary and suggestions for preaching. Don’t skip the extensive notes at the end because they contain a good deal of analysis and background material on the story that can also be used in the sermon.
As usual, comments are welcome.
Fourth Sunday of Easter, Year A
Good Shepherd Sunday
Jubilee Justice Sunday
The First Converts
Jubilee Justice Sunday
The First Converts
42They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.
Life among the Believers
43Awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles. 44All who believed were together and had all things in common; 45they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. 46Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, 47praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.
Notes and Commentary and Sermon Thoughts
or many of our churches this is “Good Shepherd Sunday.” And to keep within that theme, many people will want to highlight the reading from the Gospel (“I am the good shepherd”) or the Psalm (“The Lord is my Shepherd”). Both highlight important themes in our interpretation of Jesus.
However, a few years ago, the interfaith organization, Jubilee USA, asked me to write up potential sermon notes for member for this day for their congregations. Jubilee USA’s work is to campaign for global economic justice issues like debt cancellation and financial transparency in the (mainly) developing world. Once a year they used to host a “Jubilee Sunday” to lift up that work, and one year this was the passage of the day. And, with a few updates and revisions, here were my comments for that Sunday. If you want to find out more about them, follow this link and sign up for their newsletter. They are a great organization and deserve your support.
Acts 2:42-47 is actually a good choice to highlight a Jubilee/Justice message. It is a remarkable description of the early church attempting to recreate the justice and equality of the ancient Jubilee. Following Peter’s Pentecost sermon (which was the Acts the reading for the previous week), the disciples receive the Holy Spirit, discover a new vision of oneness, and immediately begin selling and sharing their possessions to benefit “all, as any had need.” In your own sermon, it would be an easy transition from Acts 2 to John 10: the Good Shepherd, who calls us by name, protects us from the wolves and predators and guides us into the fellowship of God.
There is a good argument for seeing the sharing aspects of this and later sharing stories (see 4:32-37; 6:1-7; 11:19-30; 24:17) as first century adaptations of the ancient Jubilee and Sabbath year laws of Leviticus and Deuteronomy. The idea of a “Jubilee” was first conceived by priestly “legislators” as a way of addressing the growing crisis in poverty and debt and debt slavery, among the most vulnerable in the agricultural sectors. It was also an attempt to press the “reset button” on a social order that had become dangerously skewed toward the wealthy.
On the surface, the law appears to have been accepted by the ruling classes, but over the years so many riders and conditions were added to its provisions that it became impossible to execute in practice. An interesting experiment in your church would be to get a hold of a copy of the regulations for implementation of the Jubilee as described by the Jewish historian, Josephus (Antiquities of the Jews, 3:12:3), and read it aloud to your congregation and then see if anyone could repeat back to you just exactly how the Jubilee was supposed to take place (hint: nobody can). And then read a few paragraphs from the procedural steps required back in the nineties by the IMF for debt relief under the “Highly Indebted Poor Country” initiative and see if anyone could figure out a way to implement that plan (hint: possible but daunting). They sound eerily similar, and probably were written by people of similar mentalities and goals: to make sure that as few poor people as possible ever get any debts cancelled.
Almost as quickly as the word “Jubilee” was created, it was dropped from public usage (fear of reprisals?) but it emerged later in coded, inspirational phrases for a vision of a time that was to come that would finally create (or recreate) the world that God had intended. It found voice in such expressions as “the year of the Lord’s Favor” (Isaiah 61:2; Luke 4:19) and “The Kingdom/Realm of God/Heaven.” (Matt. 11:2-6; Matt. 5:3-10; Luke 4:18-21, 43; 6:20-21).
The actions of the apostles in Acts 2:42-47 stand in that Jubilee tradition. By their deeds, they are acting, embodying, the sharing and redistribution inherent in Jubilee. They sensed it lying just beneath the surface in Jesus’ proclamation of the “Kingdom (or realm) of God,” and their first organizing task as a new church was to act it into reality. Steven Biko, the South African freedom fighter, once similarly said that their task was not to bring about freedom, but to be freedom. “Our task is to prepare for the freedom that is already coming, and to live now as those who are set free.” That was what was happening in the sharing actions of the apostles. They weren’t canceling debts; they were deciding to act now as though the Jubilee age of cancelled debts had already arrived.
The theological link between Acts 2 and the Jubilee is the theological conviction that no one actually owns their possessions. Theologically, in the end all things belong to God and are intended for the human commons, what Martin Luther King referred to as the “beloved community.” Our desire to hoard possessions and deny our connection to the weak and powerless in our society is, therefore, an affront to the unifying intention God. The Jubilee laws were a visionary (perhaps unrealistic) attempt to bring the world’s unequal existence back to the relational homeostasis it once had in God’s original design. (Think Garden of Eden.) They address the truth that, left to our own sinful inclinations, we will inevitably create societies of rampant poverty and inequality and injustice. The policy advocates who were trying to pass the first “Jubilee Act” in ancient Israel, were attempting to craft legislation that would address that human inclination by mandating statutory years when the world would be returned to the balance that God intended it to have.
There is a potential homiletical movement in the passage that could begin with the Apostles being “cut to the heart” by Peter’s sermon, then devoting themselves to the “teachings” (didache, presumably the scriptures, salted with the words of Jesus), “fellowship” (koinōnía), “breaking bread” (early form of the Eucharist, begun first with the stories of feeding the hungry multitudes) and then “prayers” (proseuche). A sermon on this passage could walk through each of these four concepts pausing on each with commentary, stories, and applications to issues of church life, international debt, the housing crisis, banks, and yawning inequality.
If you do preach following these four concepts in the passage, pause for a moment on the important word most often translated as “fellowship” (koinōnía or koinós). It is central to the passage and is the link to the Jubilee and Sabbath passages, and also to the life of Jesus (Luke 8:1-4; 12:33). When the apostles began to “believe,” the walls of differentness between them fell away and they were drawn “together” as one, which in turn drove them to hold “all things in common” (koinós). It is that sense of being together, of being one, that made them attempt the acts of radical sharing. It was the “beloved community,” God’s original ordering of life, and it harkened back to the Jubilee vision of the world as God intended.
King frequently used this phrase when he wanted to describe the America that God wanted us to become. In 1957 he said that the purpose of the Montgomery bus boycott was “reconciliation… redemption, the creation of the beloved community.” And the purpose and goal of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference was “to foster and create the ‘beloved community’ in America where brotherhood is a reality.” For King, this community bore striking similarities to the sharing stories of Acts 2 and 4.
It is important to point out for your congregation that koinōnía is a stronger word than the contemporary (and very passive) fellowship. It is more than the good times had at the last church supper or that nice retreat by the Youth Fellowship. It is a much more powerful (and more dangerous) concept than that. It is a noun of presence that implies action in its implementation. That can mean (at least) three things:
First, human existence in the world as we know it is estranged, polarized, and isolated. After the last presidential election that polarization became stark and scary, but it has been growing rapidly under the surface for many years. At the same time, we who are people of faith realize that all of creation is the family of God. The first step in our “salvation” (from the Latin, salvus “to heal”) and “atonement” (meaning to be “at one”) is to regain an awareness of our lost oneness. We are called to reclaim the oneness of creation that is heralded in the Jubilee of the Hebrew scriptures and in the body of Christ in the Christian scriptures.
Here you might tell stories of people who felt ill will toward another race or class or ethnic group until they discovered a similarity in “the other” that transcended their hatred.
In April, 2017, PBS presented a documentary about a black jazz pianist who “accidentally” befriended a fan who was a leading KKK member. The two had nothing in common but their love of music, but that contact over time mended the hatred of the white man (and much of the fears of the black man) and they both were changed.
In the spring of 2014, there was a commentary on NPR by a young college student from India, now at Boston University. He said that when he was young he was taught to hate Pakistanis, and he did so with great relish. He told bad jokes about them and made up lies about them whenever it fit the occasion. But then when he moved to the US he serendipitously wound up rooming with one. And he discovered that they looked alike, sounded alike, liked the same foods and liked the same music, and were close to being indistinguishable. And suddenly he felt embarrassed to horrified at all of the things he used to believe about his “cousins.”
We are not involved in the global struggle for economic justice because we are wealthy and therefore we should help the poor. That would be charity at best and naiveté at worst. We are here because we are all cousins. When one part of humanity hurts, all of it hurts. The eye, as Paul says, can’t say to the foot, “I have no need of you.” Or the head to the feet (1 Cor. 12:21). Jeremiah advises the captives in Babylonia to pray for their captors because their welfare is our welfare (Jer. 29:7). If they go down, we all go down. “In a real sense,” King once wrote, “all life is interrelated. The agony of the poor enriches the rich. We are inevitably our brother’s keeper because we are our brother’s brother. Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly.”
Second, the very fact of their forming an alternative community made the first Christians suspect in the eyes of the religious and political authorities, as did Jesus earlier with his wandering band of healed cripples, women, misfits and sinners. The idea of modeling equality and unity in an age of isolation and free-market individualization is a threat to the status quo that believes in inequality and unequal power. The Death Squads targeted the leaders of the comunidades de basa in the eighties in El Salvador, and Vladimir Putin bans unauthorized protests today in Russia. They do it because authoritarian regimes are always afraid of alternative models of social existence. Clarence Jordan’s “Koinonia Farm” in south Georgia and Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s underground seminary are important historical stories that you can add as examples.
Finally, most of us don’t notice this, but the Greek word koinōnía also has the meaning of the action of sharing, not just the being of sharing. It includes both the sharing in (i.e. Christ’s mortality, Heb. 2:14; Christ’s body, 1 Cor. 10:16) and the sharing of (i.e. possessions, finances, cf. Luke 5:10). If you are in a caring fellowship, then you do the sharing among your members. That’s what being a member of the fellowship of Christ means. And when you have been captured and challenged and changed by the belief and vision that your fellowship consists of all of human kind, and that you are “of one heart and soul” with all of God’s creation, then you cannot help but want them all to be nourished, well, and educated. When the apostles were captured by that vision, they could not help but share with others “with glad and generous hearts” (2:46). In good measure, that’s what it means to be “saved.” Saved from the sinful nature that wants us to stay alone and not a part of the body. That’s what it means to be “redeemed.” Redeemed from the inward, self-orientation that makes us isolated, alienated, and competitive and combative with others in God’s creation.
To live inside this understanding of fellowship may mean that you want to sell some of your (usually overpriced) possessions in order to help lift the wellbeing of people around you from their poverty, “those who had any need” (v. 45). It might also mean that the IMF would want to sell its overpriced gold in order to cancel the debts and lift the wellbeing of countries “who had any need.” It also might mean that the good people of the United States might willingly decide that they want to share a larger portion of their income in the form of taxes so that the poor, the elderly, and children among them, might be cared for, supported, and kept well, and so that the dream, the vision, the commitment to the good society might be made manifest.
The US in the last few years has enacted numerous and economically damaging tax cuts and more recently the Trump administration proposed what it calls “one of the biggest tax cuts in the American history.” And following each of these cuts in our federal income there are calls for cuts in spending for the poor, education, health care and more. The logic (phrased my way, not theirs) is that we simply can no longer afford the luxury of entitlements like Medicare and Medicate and Social Security because our public coffers have been emptied out by tax cuts (and trillion dollar wars). We have to be brave and make “hard choices” on the poor, elderly and non-white, in order to continue allowing the wealthier parts of our economy to benefit from smaller taxes. However, if we lived our lives and governed our country according to a biblical, Jubilee vision, we would instead say that unless all of us in all of America believe that all of us (rich and poor) are cousins, we will never come close to embodying the realm of God as Jesus envisioned it.
You could also illustrate this same point by referencing the writings of Paul, someone often unfairly maligned as not having the social conscience of Jesus. In fact, he truly understood this principle because he often used the word “fellowship” when referring to giving financial contributions to the poor (Rom. 15:26; 2 Cor. 9:13; and 2 Cor. 8:4). In 1 Cor. 11:17-22, he criticizes the class divisions in the church and he chastises the wealthy for coming early to the Eucharistic meal and eating up all the food, leaving nothing for the poor who arrive later and hungry. “Do you not have homes to eat and drink in” he asks? “Do you show contempt for the church of God and humiliate those who have nothing?” In describing their coming together, he doesn’t use the word koinōnía, but he does use sunágō, which means “hospitality” or “care.” He says their meal should (meaning it’s non-negotiable) embody sunágō (“caring togetherness”), but instead it shows schísma (“division”).
These are the very key elements of Jubilee, community, and sharing and with sensitivity and care, they can be crafted into a powerful sermon.
 “They devoted themselves” (ēsan proskarturountes). Periphrastic active imperfect of proskartureō as in Acts 1:14 (same participle in Acts 2:46). (Robertson, Word Pictures in the Greek New Testament)
 “Apostles” (ἀπόστολος apostolos) Noun masculine. From apostéllō a delegate, messenger, ambassador, one sent forth with orders.
 “Teaching” (διδαχή didachḗ) gen. didachḗs, fem. noun from didáskō, to teach. The act of teaching, tutoring.
 “Fellowship” (Koinōniāi). From koinōnos (partner, sharer in common interest) and this from Koinos what is common to all. It has a variety of meanings all relating to sharing in a spiritual fellowship bound together by love of (and by) Jesus Christ). Co-operation in the work of the Gospel (Phi 1:5) or contribution for those in need (2Co 8:4; 2Co 9:13; Rom 15:26). The distribution of funds in Acts 2:44. The oneness of spirit in the community of believers or to the Lord’s Supper (as in 1Co 10:16, Phm 1:6) in the sense of communion or to the fellowship in the common meals or agapae (love-feasts).
 “Breaking of bread” (tēi klasei tou artou). From klasis for “breaking.” Used only by Luke in the N.T. (Luke 24:35; Acts 2:42), though the verb klaō occurs elsewhere as in Acts 2:46. The question for interpretation is whether, as used here, does it refer to an ordinary meal, as in Luke 24:35, or to the Lord’s Supper, as in Luke 22:19. The same verb can be used for both. Outside of Acts it is only used of the Eucharistic meal or of Jesus’ feeding stories, so it is highly likely that Luke here means it in the same sense. A.T. Robertson believes it could refer to both: “It is generally supposed that the early disciples attached so much significance to the breaking of bread at the ordinary meals…that they followed the meal with the Lord’s Supper at first, a combination called agapai or love-feasts” (Word Pictures in the New Testament).
 “The prayers” (προσευχαῖς tais proseuchais). “Services where they prayed as in Acts 1:14, in the temple (Acts 3:1), in their homes (Acts 4:23). (Robertson)
 “Awe” (φόβος phobos) Sometimes terror or fear (as in kjv) but better as here, awe, which implies being fearful, but also heavily tainted with reverence, respect and honor. The net has “reverential awe.” See also in Mark 4:41; Luke 7:16; 1Peter 1:17.
 “Everyone” (ψυχη φοβος ). Lit. “every soul” (ψυχή psuché), fem. noun from psúchō. To breathe, blow. “The vital force which animates the body and shows itself in breathing” (Thayer’s).
 “Wonders” (τέρασ teras) Noun neuter. Miracle, omen. Often used with sign, as here.
 “Were being done by the apostles” (διὰ τῶν ἀποστόλων ἐγίνετο). Some mss. add “by the apostles in
; and great fear was on all.
And…” “It is exceedingly difficult to ascertain the original text
of this passage. It can be argued, as Ropes (The Text of Acts, ) does, that the words ἐν Ἰερουσαλήμ, φόβος τε ἦν μέγας ἐπὶ πάντας καί were omitted because they seem to repeat
ver. 43a. On the other hand, Haenchen (Die Apostelgeschicht ) supposes that the words are an
expansion smoothing the way for ver. 44. (Bruce
Manning Metzger and United Bible Societies, A Textual Commentary on the
Greek New Testament, Second Edition a Companion Volume to the United Bible
Societies’ Greek New Testament (4th Rev. Ed.) (New York: United Bible
Societies, 1994), p. 262. Jerusalem
 “Had all things in common”( εἶχον ἅπαντα κοινά) “they shared all their belongings with one another.” “In common” (κοινα, from κοινός, adjective, plural accusative, neuter gender). “Available to all.” Sometimes translated “unclean” or “unholy,” similar to the British derogatory expression, a commoner, or “how common.” The idiom, ἔχω κοινός, means literally “to have in common” to share with one another equitably—“to share, to share with one another.”
“The mutuality of sharing may be expressed in some languages as ‘each person shared with all of the rest’ or ‘each person gave to the others and received from the others.’ (Louw and Nida, Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament : Based on Semantic Domains, 2nd edition. (New York: United Bible Societies, 1989), 1:568.
 “Sell” (epipraskon). Imperfect active, a habit or custom from time to time. Old and common verb, pipraskō. (Robertson) “[T]he imperfect tense denotes an on-going, repeated activity, not a once-for-all act. Thus v. 45 should correctly read, ‘they were time and again selling their goods and distributing them to all, as any had need.” (Walter Pilgrim, Good News to the Poor: Wealth and Poverty in Luke-Acts (
Minneapolis: , 1981), p. 150. Augsburg
 “Possessions and goods” (κτήματα καί τάσ ύπάρξεισ) Vincent makes a distinction between “possessions” (κτήματα) as landed property and “goods” (ύπάρξεις) as possessions in general; movables. The meaning, then, would probably be that they sold the former and divided the proceeds, while they distributed the latter. The net Bible notes agree with that possibility, but add, “it may also be that the two terms are used together for emphasis, simply indicating that all kinds of possessions were being sold. However, if the first term is more specifically a reference to real estate, it foreshadows the incident with Ananias and Sapphira in Acts 5:1-11.
 “Proceeds” nrsv: Gk them. The word is αύτά, auta. “The referent (the proceeds of the sales) has been specified in the translation for clarity.” (net Bible note)
 “As any had need” (kathoti an tis chreian eichen). “Regular Greek idiom for comparative clause with an and imperfect indicative corresponding precisely with the three preceding imperfects.” (Robertson)
 “At home” (kat’ oïkon) nrsv: Or from house to house. Κατά , kata is used as a distributive, so the implication is that the services traveled.
 “The term glad (Grk “gladness”) often refers to joy brought about by God’s saving acts (Luke 1:14; Luke 1:44 also the related verb in Acts 1:47; Acts 10:21).” (net Bible)
 “Generous” nrsv: Or sincere. Noun, Fem. (άφελότης aphelotēs) simplicity, singleness
 “To their number” The kjv here has “to the church.”
 “Those who were being saved.” (tous sōzomenous). Present passive participle. Probably for repetition like the imperfect prosetithei. Better translate it “those saved from time to time.” It was a continuous revival, day by day.
Sōzō like sōtēria is used for “save” in three senses (beginning, process, conclusion), but here repetition is clearly the point of the present tense. (Robertson)
 Quoted by Dan L. Flanagan in “The Dark Side of Christmas,” Lectionary Homiletics, Vol. XIX, No. 1, Dec. 2007, p. 42. Emphasis added.
 For “together” the parallel story in Acts 4:31 uses the word sunágō, which has the sense of hospitality, outreach, care.
 “Martin Luther King’s Vision of the Beloved Community,” by Kenneth L. Smith and Ira G. Zepp, Jr., The Christian Century (April 3, 1974), pp. 361-363.
 Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community? (Harper & Row, 1967)’ p. 181
 For good resources, see Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1954) and Dallas Lee, The Cotton Patch Evidence: The Story of Clarence Jordan and the Koinonia Farm Experiment, 1942-1970 (Americas Georgia: Koinonia Partners, 1971).
 David Jackson and Herb Jackson, “Trump team rolls out 'really big' tax cut package, but Congress is wary,” USA Today, https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/politics/2017/04/26/donald-trump-tax-plan-steve-mnuchin/100923518/. Retrieved, April 26, 2017.