Thursday, September 09, 2010

The Practice of Christian Community - Part 3. The Acts 2 Community.

I discovered Acts 2:42-27 when I was in high school. It struck a chord with me. I knew that I wanted to live in a community like the one described there. Here it is in the NIV:

42They devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. 43Everyone was filled with awe, and many wonders and miraculous signs were done by the apostles. 44All the believers were together and had everything in common. 45Selling their possessions and goods, they gave to anyone as he had need.46Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, 47praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.

It still stirs something within me. I am frustrated that I have learned so much over the last twenty years since it first captivated my heart. It was stunningly beautiful in my youthful innocence. These days, it reads more like a nearly-possible-but-not-entirely-likely future reality. With age comes a sobering realism. This is still the community I desire, but when it comes to living life together, the disciples in Acts 2 did have a few things in their favor that we do not:

1. The Resurrection. They had within their midst the apostles - eyewitnesses of the resurrection of Jesus. These days we all have a temptation to only see the resurrection through a metaphorical lens. I think that is a true way to see it. (To say that we metaphorically die to ourselves and live again is certainly a teaching of Jesus.) The rub comes when we only believe it metaphorically. It seems that the Acts 2 community, fueled by the 12 to 500 eyewitness of the resurrected Jesus, had no room for doubt in the physical resurrection. Their instant conversion to a radical communal lifestyle had to flow from that utterly unique circumstance.

2. Socio-political circumstances. There has been an assumption that the earliest disciples would have been shunned from the Jewish community in Jerusalem, including their own families of origin. If this is true then they may have been economically, socially and political ostracized forcing them to more fully depend on one another. Though not in North America, there are places in the world today where a conversion to Christianity results in persecution, or at least severe shunning. This forces believers together to meet real life needs. A similar thing may have been happening in Jerusalem.

3. The Eschaton. The last thing the leaders of the Acts 2 community heard from God was that "this same Jesus who you have seen disappear will return to you." They obviously took this to mean a quick (and very real) return - within a matter of days or weeks perhaps. They believed that they were living in the very last days before the great King would come and rule Israel. (These last days are called "The Escahton.") Their actions in Acts 2 mirror what they anticipated life to look like when their great King would come to reign. In essence, they began living as if the King were already reigning because they knew he was about to return at any moment. Decades later, these early Christians struggled with the fact that Jesus had not yet returned to fully reign. In II Peter 3, Peter writes to a group of churches saying:

3First of all, you must understand that in the last days scoffers will come, scoffing and following their own evil desires. 4They will say, "Where is this 'coming' he promised? Ever since our fathers died, everything goes on as it has since the beginning of creation." 5But they deliberately forget that long ago by God's word the heavens existed and the earth was formed out of water and by water. 6By these waters also the world of that time was deluged and destroyed. 7By the same word the present heavens and earth are reserved for fire, being kept for the day of judgment and destruction of ungodly men.

8But do not forget this one thing, dear friends: With the Lord a day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like a day. 9The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. He is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.


If Peter found himself in a position to remind followers of Jesus that he is still returning despite a delay of only twenty years, we can admit that the task is exponentially harder for us 2,000 years later.

With all of that as background, I cannot dismiss Acts 2:42-47 as simply history. I think it is a vision of pure Kingdom community lived out in Jerusalem circa 30 AD.  As the Kingdom (present and yet to come) invades any people or culture, these same realities begin to emerge: devotion to prayer, teaching, togetherness, meal-sharing, radical generosity, worship, expectation of the miraculous and numerical growth. What happened in Acts 2 still happens today. But, it gets messy. It got messy then as well. Acts 2 is a snapshot of the church on its honeymoon while the letters of Paul and Peter show us a messier version of community as the disciples begin to set into a daily life within their various cities.

So at this point in my life I try to avoid the most extreme positions on this passage. It can be dangerous when viewed as a prescriptive formula for church growth. (ie - we all have to sell our houses and live together or if we don't see any miracles this year we aren't a real church, etc.) The other extreme is the position that more or less excuses the Acts 2 community as an anomaly - just a bunch of excited new converts caught up in what they thought was the last days. This quickly takes us down the road of learning from their mistakes vs. learning from their faithful witness. I choose to believe that their response was valid and exactly what God wanted. If nothing else, they painted a picture for all of us to follow. Through Luke's pen, they showed us what  community will look like in the Kingdom fulfilled. As for me, I'd rather give my life to seeing us get us close as we can to that vision on this side of the Parousia.  These are the last days. We are in the Eschaton. We have been for 2,000 years...but to God that's like 48 hours. I'd love for Jesus to find my church looking a lot more like Acts 2 than anything else when he comes back to reign.

1 comment:

Jonathan said...

Joe, this speaks directly to my hearts desire. I'm right there with you. There are times when I begin to dream about being part of an Acts 2 church and then suddenly the problematic thoughts pour in. So many questions of how it could possibly work in a ever-detached society. I too believe people are hungry for this, I just hope God leads us down the path of making this a reality, at the very least in our small corners of this earth.