Today – despite what our calendars and the sales prices on the few remaining chocolate eggs in our supermarkets say – is still Easter. We are in Eastertide and counting down the Sundays until the day of Pentecost. But as we read through the book of Acts in reverse we are seeing the shock waves – if you like – from those two events – Pentecost and the Resurrection reverberating through the early church.

And in today’s reading we see how those shock waves impacted the forming of this early Christian community. This extraordinary expression of communality – in mission (verse 32; “the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and one soul”) and in their attitude to things (still verse 32; “everything they owned was held in common.”) We’re told there was ‘great power’ in the apostles’ testimony to the resurrection of Lord Jesus and ‘great grace’ among them all.

And there is a clear connection here between the power of their witness and the amazingness of this grace! There’s a little word missing at the start of verse 34 – ‘for’. There was great power and great grace ‘for’ “there was not needy person among them”. This community’s care for one another was a clear and irrefutable sign of the transforming power of Jesus’ message. Luke 9:24: “For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will save it.”

There is a little story – sometimes called the ‘allegory of the long spoons’ – attributed to a Lithuanian rabbi, Rabbi Haim, but also found in Hindu, Buddhist and Middle Eastern traditions, where a person is given a vision of hell, and in this vision, hell is a group of people sitting around a pot of stew. The stew looks and smells delicious, but the people are famished and desperate because all of them are holding spoons with long handles – which reach the pot – but because the spoons are so long, they cannot ladle stew into their mouths. Their suffering, in the vision, is terrible.

Then the person is given a vision of heaven, and the scene is identical! Again, there is group of people sitting around a pot of stew, but this group are happy and smiling! They look well nourished and cared for. “I don’t understand!” says the person. “It’s simple” God says, “These people have learned how to feed one another.”

The early church, as described in Acts, chapter 2, and here in Acts, chapter 4, were people so transformed by Easter Day, they had learned how to feed one another.

And, in doing so, they were fulfilling the ancient vision for God’s people were meant to be. The reference to being of “one heart and soul” is a phrase found repeatedly in the book of Deuteronomy and verse 34, “there was not a needy person among them”, comes from Deuteronomy 15:4-11. Our psalm for today, Psalm 133, also speaks of the blessing of communality. How very good and pleasant it is when kindred live together in unity!”

And these descriptions of early church communal life also reference the communal ideals of the Greek and Roman world. The Greek philosopher, Aristotle, stating, “among friends everything is common”, or Roman author and naturalist, Pliny the Elder describing the practice of hospitality where one’s possessions belong equally to one’s guest.

But before we, too, hold them up as an ideal community, and then, as an ideal that no other, certainly no contemporary, Christian community can reach, we need to remember they were also human.

Commentator Michal Beth Dinkler of Yale Divinity School writes, “Like all humans, they were limited in understanding and ability; like all humans in community, their efforts to live and serve together did not always go smoothly. The book of Acts as a whole and, indeed, the entire New Testament attest that the communities of early Jesus-followers disagreed about many things, and that Christian communities were characterized by diversity of many kinds from the start.”

And if we read on, we quickly discover both a positive example of communality – Joseph (or Barnabas, as he was known, ‘son of encouragement’) selling a field and laying it at the apostles’ feet, and a negative example, the terrible story of Ananias and Sapphira who wanted to appear completely selfless, stated they were completely selfless, but held back part of the proceeds of their sale.

But, as Dinkler says, these less than perfect stories help us relate to the early church. “Though many aspects of the apostles’ world do not sit well with us (slavery is but one example) – It is very challenging that the early church did not challenge slavery! Although inside the church, slave owners and enslaved people were brothers and sisters (Galatians 3:28, Colossians 3:11) they remained owners and enslaved people in society. [Yet] “we can still relate to the existential and practical challenges that always arise when humans are “human-ing” together.” And we can recognise that what it might mean to be the community of Jesus in one context will be different in another.

So, I want to take a closer look at this passage, at what it meant for the early church to be transformed by Easter Day, so we can think about what it means for us.

Firstly, the first century Roman world is very different to twenty-first century Australia. Most people, historians agree, at this time lived at or below subsistence levels. They had to share to survive. To be described as ‘being in need’ was literally a matter of life or death. So those with resources pooled them so people could survive. I mentioned on the 1st Sunday of Easter, those records; that circa 250 CE the church in Rome was feeding 1500 widows and 155 Christian workers and around 350 CE the church in Antioch was feeding 3,000 people. Justin Martyr, in the second century, (100-165 CE) comments, “We who once took pleasure in accumulating wealth and property now share with everyone in need…” They had learned to feed one another.

This idea is familiar to us. We are familiar with the call for wealthy people to be generous to the poor, but something more is happening here. “For as many as owned lands or houses”, verse 34 says, “sold them…brought the proceeds” …and, verse 35, “laid it at the apostle’s feet.” Professor of New Testament, Matt Skinner, comments that what this phrase suggests is, “they are doing more than redistributing wealth; they are willingly handing over status, privilege and security as well.” They are not becoming wealthy benefactors. They are becoming one in heart and soul with this new community – a new kind of community!

And something new also happens among the needy who are helped in this community – and I am particularly intrigued by the widows I mentioned earlier.

As I said on Easter Day, the early church was heavily populated by women. American sociologist, Rodney Stark, lists the reasons for this: Christians did not condone female infanticide. So more baby girls survived. They condemned divorce, incest, marital infidelity, and polygamy. So it was an attractive culture for women. And specifically, the early Christian community made it possible for widows to not remarry. Remarrying was now not the only survival strategy for themselves and their children!

And these widows then become pastors, teachers, and leaders in the early church. Paul refers to the order of widows in 1 Timothy 5:9-10, as does Ignatius of Antioch (35-108), Polycarp, Bishop of Smyrna (69-155) and Tertullian (155-240). There are references to the order of widows caring for the dying in the third century, and, in the fifth century, being seated around the altar during the Eucharist with the other clergy. There is also a fifth century document from southern France, Statuta ecclesiae antiqua stating, “they were not to teach in church, or teach men or baptize” – which as historian Elizabeth Muir points out – “they must have been doing, if the church [an increasingly patriarchal church] felt a need to prohibit these acts.”

Again, though our efforts to live and serve together do not always go smoothly, as I said earlier, the ‘great power’ of the witness of the early church is clearly connected to the amazingness of their grace! ‘Great grace’ marked by meeting the real needs of their community and becoming one in heart and soul together; some laying down their lives and resources in service and others being lifted up for service. The marks of a community completely transformed by Easter Day.

Acts 4:32-35 is not a blueprint for all Christian communities for all time, but it is a challenge for us to think about how ‘great grace’ is revealed among us. What are the real needs of our community? How are we becoming one in heart and soul? Who are the ones laying down their lives and resources in service, and who, among us, are being lifted up for service? How are we still being transformed by Easter Day?

Here at CBC, the example that came to mind for me was Cooking Circles where people from different backgrounds with different abilities come together – literally – to feed one another! But this group has also learned to feed one another in other ways – meeting real needs for friendship, capacity building, community. Looking through the list of cooks over the next couple of months it is clear there are people laying down their lives in service, well-paid public servants taking a day to come and cook, and people, people who are in care, being lifted up.

You can probably think of other ministries of this church that fit this profile – as well as our gathered worshipping community, all of you, who strive to witness and care for one another – and whose care for one another is your witness.

And this is why Steve is leading the Community Engagement Exposure Tours in May so we can learn from others how they have learned to feed one another. (I would really encourage you  – especially if you only have the weekend – to join the visit to The Community of the Transfiguration. This is a Baptist monastic community (that is fascinating!) and possibly it is the community that most closely resembles this community in Acts, but with a twenty-first century, Baptist spin. Go see it for yourself!

It is still Easter Day. We, we here, and we the church around Australia and our world are still being transformed by Easter Day in the ways we witness, in the ways we form community, in the great power of our witness and in our witness to great grace. In a moment we are going to pray – and I am going to involve people to come to the microphone and pray for aspects of our community – or our desires as a community – that are signs it is still Easter Day. But before we pray, can I invite you to reflect again on the Allegory of the Long Spoons in this animation from Caritas, Catholic Relief.

Prayers of Intercession – “It is still Easter Day”

When Mary ready to embalm the dead
ran in fear from the empty tomb
it was Easter day.

When Thomas touched the wounds
and set himself free
it was Easter day.

When Emmaus became synonymous with welcome
and the breaking of bread with strangers
it was Easter day.

When the disciples looked from afar
at a breakfast of fish on the beach
it was Easter day.

And it is still Easter Day!

Can I invite you to come forward with your own prayers – and invite everyone to join in the response – “It is still Easter Day”.

When those in need are fed at the table
the same table as the rich
it is still Easter day

When weapons are beaten to ploughshares
and peace is a word to be shouted
it is still Easter day

When the stranger is welcomed in community
and the lonely are restored to relationship
it is Easter still day.

(other prayers…)

When God’s people are still giving their testimony to the life they’ve found in Jesus

and caring for one another and others

it is still Easter day. Alleluia. Alleuia. Amen

~ originally written by Roddy Hamilton, and posted on Mucky Paws.