A sermon on Acts 2:42–47, for Kensington Community Church, San Diego, CA
The passage Kate read for us is from the Acts of the Apostles, is the first book to follow the gospels in the Christian canon—Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, Acts.
Its placement is no coincidence; it’s there because, best as we can tell, it was pretty much always paired with a gospel, specifically the gospel of Luke, when passed around by early Christians. All signs point to it being written by the same person as Luke was, and its opening sentence is nearly identical—a greeting addressing the book, like a letter, to “my dear Theophilus,” a name which means “lover of God.”
Many scholars take that literally, seeing these two texts written to an individual person named Theophilus. But there’s also a pretty common interpretation—an interpretation that I personally favor—that “Theophilus” was used as a sort of synecdoche for all the people who might read these texts in a passionate search for the God of the Christian people. That these books were not written to just one lover of God but to all of us, to everyone in the future who loves God and seeks to know God more.
The first book this author wrote, the gospel according to Luke, was all about Jesus’ life on earth. In general, the genre of the gospels is gospel—they’re their own thing; confessional texts, texts rooted in real stories but that are not generally intended to be historical as we think of “history” today. They have more of a conviction to them. They’re in the Op-Eds section.
The author of Luke, though, is a natural historian and you can see in his writing that the his gospel feels like it’s performing the act of historical documentation.
And in this book, his second one, the author just unleashes himself and goes all-in on the history stuff. He’s documenting the first believers and what they did after Jesus left, like our Richard Marcellus documents this church’s history.
Last week on The Founding of a Religion
Acts opens up with something like the “last week on…” segments at the start of an episode in your favorite dramas or soap operas, the ones that remind you about the cliffhanger at the end of last week’s episode.
In it, Jesus is talking to the apostles and says “I’m going to leave, but you can’t. Stick together, don’t go out from Jerusalem. Something amazing is gonna happen.”
And that sounds sweet and lovely, but if you were one of the apostles, wouldn’t you feel a little… ripped off?
You’ve been on quite a roller coaster with Jesus so far.
Jesus came with promises to bring the powerful down from their thrones and to lift up the lowly, to fill the hungry with good things and send the rich away empty. You would be thinking like, okay yes, finally, we’re gonna be free from Caesar.
But after 3 years of talk about the insurgent Kingdom of Heaven, Jesus is executed by the empire. Capital punishment by way of a cross.
Then three days later, he rises from the grave — hope again! Jesus defeated death; surely he can defeat Rome!
Then now he tells you he’s going to ascend to heaven?
While the powers that oppress you are still here?
I can’t imagine this wouldn’t sting at least a tiny bit.
Jesus was certainly understood by many to be more than a rebel coming to overthrow the earthly powers colonizing Israel.
But to the vast majority of people—and especially to who saw him as the Jewish Messiah—he couldn’t possibly be less than that. That was the whole point of the prophecy! That the son of David, lamb of God, would reign over Israel!
So even at in their most hope-filled moments, I suspect the apostles weren’t hoping for what actually comes next; for what Jesus actually has in store. Maybe they’re thinking Jesus’s second coming will be real soon, in Jerusalem, and he needs them to be all in one place so he can meet them and get to work right away.
Maybe they hope he’s gonna come with drones and tanks and all kinds of armory to take Jerusalem back from Rome. Who knows.
But the scripture tells us Jesus leaves, ascending up to heaven on a cloud. “A cloud took him out of their sight,” Acts tells us. And the apostles look up, watching in awe.
Then, it seems, their faces turn down a bit.
First century house parties
They attend to some organizational matters. Judas has left in disgrace; we might say today that he was “cancelled”—and for a pretty good reason, if you remember the Easter story. He ends up dying a gruesome death as a result of something like a curse for his wickedness. So the apostles spend a few verses choosing a new guy, Matthias, to replace him.
After Matthias is chosen, the text transitions into the Pentecost story. People from all over the Middle East and North Africa have come to Jerusalem for a holiday. The city is packed.
The followers of the Way of Jesus meet together in a one of the Jerusalemite Christians’ houses.
If we trust archaeologists, a typical house at that time would’ve looked something like this one [SLIDE UP], maybe a thousand square feet or so. Most of the entertaining happening in the “upper room” you see on the second story. So, I imagine, this group wouldn’t have been very large. Maybe a couple dozen if the house was really packed. [SLIDE DOWN]
Then while they’re hanging out, suddenly a strong wind comes through the house. A thunder echoes around the room.
That wind was loud enough for people to hear all over the city, and apparently local to just that room or just that home, because folks started coming to the house to check out what was up.
All greek to me
When they get there, people are shocked by what they experience. Instead of hearing the Aramaic they’re probably used to hearing around Jerusalem, everyone is hearing the disciples speak in their own home languages.
It reminds me of something I experienced a little over a decade ago, when I was working with this professor on a research project, studying political corruption in the Americas. We were traveling around Panama, visiting small towns and villages to gather documentation and interview voters before an upcoming election. My terrible Spanish was getting really pushed to its limits.
Our research questions left us mostly talking to working class people and welfare recipients—folks who typically spoke little-to-no English.
It was so mentally taxing to hear or read something in Spanish, translate it in my head, then have whatever academic thoughts I was having or come up with the questions I wanted to ask next, then translate those back into Spanish to ask the person I was interviewing or whatever else. Wash, rinse, and repeat.
It was absolutely exhausting.
But towards the end of that trip, we spent some time in Panama City. There, it wasn’t unusual to come across someone who would see my very pale skin and very blonde hair and pity me by switching over to English.
And what a relief! It felt like I was right at home, no longer a wanderer in a foreign place asking people personal questions about their voting history. I remember telling the folks I was with that it Panama City felt just like being back home in LA.
I can imagine the visitors to Jerusalem must have felt something like I felt in Panama City; experiencing the comfort of home, even when far away from my beloved memory foam mattress.
The scripture tells us that everyone was perplexed when they realized that people with whom they’d previously struggled to communicate were suddenly speaking their native languages perfectly.
Someone in the crowd asks, “are these guys drunk or something?”—which, for the record, I find hilarious. I have not experienced being drunk drunk since college, but generally speaking, I become worse at English, not better at other languages.
But Peter stands up and goes “no we’re not drunk. It’s only 9am.” He literally says that.
Then he starts preaching this long and beautiful sermon about the story of Jesus and how Jesus sent the Holy Spirit to bring together those who are far off and those who are near.
And the scripture says that basically everyone who heard Peter’s sermon wanted to join in on the story, and 3,000 people joined the community of believers that day.
3,000 people, brought together by a small group of believers hanging out in a small mud-brick house filled with the Holy Spirit.
That’s when we get to the passage Kate just read.
These 3,000 believers said “I want more of whatever this is” and they stuck around. They started spending day and night hearing the Word of God, investing time with their new community, sharing meals, praying together.
They were in awe of just how connected they’d become.
Then the apostles start doing the most magical things, signs and wonders. And everyone is drawn in even further by that. These folks are all just totally united, sharing everything—and I mean literally everything.
That sentence the Common English Bible translate as “And the believers were united and shared everything,” is one many translations render as “and they held all things in common.”
They have, in effect, formed a commune.
No one had any lack because if someone was sick and needed care or someone ran out of the money they brought with them from Galilee or Samaria, another Christian would just sell some property to take care of them.
This is something that fills them all with gladness and simplicity.
Some translations use the word “generosity” instead of simplicity, and that’s because the word we’re looking at is somewhere between idiom and metaphor in the original Greek. The word is “aphelotes” and its literal translation is something like “the opposite of stubbing your toe.” It’s something you do on accident, without even realizing it until you feel its affects later. The historian is describing a simple-heartedness, a tenderness. It’s the kind of tenderness that makes you take off your coat and gently drape it over your partner’s shoulders when you see they’re cold, without even having a moment’s thought about how cold you’ll now be. They gave to one another in the way you “give” to your spouse; the way you “give” to someone who’s so intimately tied to you that it doesn’t even feel like giving so much as transferring from one account to another.
And in that unity, the scripture tells us, they praised God. The steadfast love they held for one another showed the goodness of God to all the people around. Everyone who saw that love and that unity wanted to join in—everyone wanted to be a part of the community of saints meeting here. Everyone wanted to be in the mutual aid collective that gave all they had until all needs were met.
And like, I guess it’s certainly possible that this was driven by some kind of asceticism that drew them to the pain of giving up all they have. I suppose Kate and the Ministry of Finance and Stewardship might like it if I were to tell you—on Stewardship Sunday of all days—that if you want to be a good Christian, you should be giving until it hurts.
But the way fact “God added daily to their numbers” is placed right after “they praised God and demonstrated God’s goodness to everyone” causes me to read this more like “the goodness of God was revealed to all by the impulsive generosity of these simple-hearted people, people whose hearts were so overflowing with love that they wouldn’t even think of the possibility of saying ‘no’ to a neighbor in need. Then everyone who saw that goodness and generosity, they knew they’d spotted a new a spiritual home; they knew they found the community of care their hearts were longing for, so they joined in on the party.”
Solidarity not charity
That kind of abundant community care is something my community organizer friends might call the principle of “solidarity not charity.”
“Solidarity not charity” is about choosing a transformed approach to personal economics, integrating into a practice of mutual aid into the rhythm of your life. It’s about choosing to approach the challenges of life together with your neighbors rather than separate from them.
It’s a mode of living that that gives and receives with equal joy; that does not seek to be a wealthy other bestowing sustenance on the poor, but to be a whole-hearted equal in every way, seeing your neighbor’s struggles as your own struggles, so much so that you wouldn’t even think of side-stepping them—they’re your problems to solve.
At the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, before institutional safety nets materialized, mutual aid groups all over the country took root.
Mutual aid collectives organized in Facebook groups and on websites like RiseUp.net, growing like amoebas, as folks realized that they had nothing but each other to rely on, even in a time when it was so hard to access each other.
Parents who were out of work saw their friends trying to work from home while schools were closed and offered to form childcare and homeschool “bubbles” to share the burden of parenting. Those whose income was steady—and plenty of those whose income wasn’t—shared meals and one of the rolls of toilet paper they stole from their office on the last day of work with friends who were broke. And that’s just the start of it.
Here in San Diego, more people filed for unemployment in the last two weeks of March 2020 than in the entire 2008 recession. The wait time for unemployment payments to process grew way past anything anyone would imagine calling acceptable, and more people began experiencing homelessness for the first time in their lives than in any point since demographers had began measuring first-time homelessness.
That was happening at the same time as the rise in racial justice movements.
Anti-racism activist Athena Bazalaki took to the streets to fight for the rights of Black Americans. In those streets she noticed the growing rate of homelessness. She also saw the solidarity homeless people showed anti-racism movements, and the ways their struggles were similar, with so many unsheltered people also at risk for State violence.
So she extended her antiracism activism into community care for her homeless neighbors by making breakfast for them, accidentally founding Breakfast Block, a mutual aid collective.
In addition to their signature Saturday Breakfast parties outside of Slappy’s Garage in East Village, folks from Breakfast Block now help each other with access to birth control and emergency contraception, organize rallies for LGBT rights, all kinds of things.
If you’ve been a part of something like that, you know just much it can make you feel… alive. Finding people who you can give and receive with, who are your people, just lights your soul on fire.
The disciples, in their moment of fear and loneliness after the shepherd was no longer with them, built a community of hope for something new that can be built together.
Athena, in her moment of pain, built a community of hope for the kind of something new and good that you can only build when you’re a family.
And really, if you think of it, that kind of thing isn’t terribly uncommon. It seems like there’s something special about the way God made humans. At our best, we respond to pain by looking for people around who can help us.
Think about, for example, the recent rise of unionization.
If you talk to the Starbucks workers organizing their colleagues around union efforts, you’ll hear from so many of them that they formed or joined the movement in a search of comfort in the midst of pain, but wound up finding themselves in a community built around great hope. They came together because the pace of work and treatment from their bosses became unsustainable; they stayed together because they wound up absolutely addicted to the joy of spending their time after work helping one another find housing, or fundraise for surgery copays they couldn’t afford.
Or think about the great number of “me too” movements we saw not too many years ago. Women who found themselves harassed, assaulted, or worse at their workplace started speaking up, sharing their stories—taking back power from the abusers whose own stories had thus far been dominant in popular culture. Then, as they started speaking up, they found community in one another, they found the strength they needed to imagine a better future, to care for one another. They joined Facebook groups and made phone calls where they helped each other find new jobs. They used shared Google Sheets kept track of known abusers so they knew who not to work for, and on the way, began to share bonds of sisterhood.
Even that song Eva sang for us—it was written by a 12-year-old girl who felt lost and alone among her crowd of friends, who had no identity of her own… until she did the dorky thing, joined the school band, and found her soul come alive when playing and singing with her new friends.
The things we can only do together
If we go back to the scripture we read real quick, you’ll notice the Holy Spirit only shows up after Jesus leaves, once it’s the disciples hanging out with just each other, in Jerusalem.
Once Jesus isn’t walking around as a human being for folks to physically follow, with the kind of implicit hierarchy that comes from God-in-flesh speaking words to you and telling you out loud where to walk, once they have to rely on each other and work out plans together, figure out who’s going to replace Judas together; once they have to grow together. Once they move from a network of followers of one guy to a family, unified with simple hearts… that’s when they get the power of the Holy Spirit to do signs and wonders, that’s when they magically speak each other’s language, that’s when they start to hold all things in common.
Stewardship Sunday, and stewardship at church in general, is not just about how we steward our individual resources, or even about how we steward the sum of the individual resources that contribute. It’s about how we steward the unique thing that happens when we are all together.
It’s about how we steward the unique and special gift of impulsive, implicit generosity granted to us by God’s Spirit; the thing that makes us a church and not just a preschool with an especially pretty auditorium.
The financial gifts that we commit here are certainly important—the scripture we read wouldn’t quite be the same if people just had warm feelings for one another, but still ignored each others’ needs. But finances aren’t the whole thing, right?
Money can build a sanctuary, but money can’t build a church.
If we weren’t a “church,” if we were all just co-owners of like, a preschool with a very pretty auditorium, we wouldn’t do the things that we do here.
Other event spaces wouldn’t invest in a live-streaming set up for 8 to 12 people to watch live each week. Other event spaces would only invest in live-streaming if they have a real big online audience to justify it.
We invest in live streaming because keeping the 8 people who log in each week connected to this community is important to us.
If we were just co-owners of a building, you wouldn’t see Sharon and Louise show up on a Friday afternoon to prepare the most grand altar you’ve ever seen for Día de los Muertos.
If we were just co-owners of a building, I wouldn’t show up at a Ministry of Finance and Stewardship meeting and see Kate Garcia plus four grumpy old men lovingly bickering over the most Christian way to select IT vendors—which, for the record, I found just precious.
So this stewardship Sunday, if you—like me, if I’m being honest; whoops—if you haven’t yet sent in your commitment card yet, I want to encourage you to think outside of and beyond the financial part.
Yes, fill in that part; we need it so we know how many candles we can budget for. But even if you put “0” in the financial giving box, that’s fine. We’ll work out the money part.
The more important thing, to me at least, is that you spend some time in prayer about what it is that you bring to this community, what spiritual gifts you show up with and how those gifts can be transformed into something special and new in this community.
I pray that you’ll join me this week in discern with God how we can build together the simple-heartedness, the impulsive generosity, the care-by-default that it takes to say “my neighbor’s struggle is my struggle” here. The stuff it takes to be a church, and not just community center.