Lectionary Year B
April 30, 2000
Acts 4:32-35

Step V: Hermeneutical Bridge


The Heaven's Gate suicide has brought the American (perhaps worldwide) psyche to be aware of and sensitive to cults (one more time). The text before us, particularly if expanded to include the larger immediate context (chapter 5) feels particularly dangerous to deal with at this time. The community described in Jerusalem appears in some ways quite cult-like in a modern sense.

In fact, I have to sympathize with the Jewish leaders as the assumed stability of their society seems to be attacked from every angle, i.e., Roman control, Zealots (bandits and terrorists), the Pharisees and Saducees (the "religious right"), John the Baptist and the Essenes (not necessarily one in the same) calling people out of the city to seek religious purity (quite cult-like). Now Jesus (who brought a similar message into the cities and was supposed to be a problem finally dealt with) has disciples proclaiming resurrection and doing the same kinds of signs that brought him to public attention.

We should think about the community described and its characteristics as viewed from the orthodox positions. (I grant that the "orthodoxy" from which this description of the early Christian community will have to be determined. Three possible positions: from the perspective of the Jewish orthodoxy in the days described; from the perspective of a Roman/Hellenistic world view at the time the text was written, or from the perspective of American orthodoxy as the text is read.) Regardless of which group is chosen, we should try to think about this community objectively.

The group has:

entrance rites that do not easily align with the goals of most societies: to be right and considered righteous, (Christians confessed themselves sinners with no innate righteousness, but totally dependent upon grace), and to be secure.

bizarre rituals whose descriptions confused and often ostracized the participants from the larger community. (Christians were reported to practice cannibalism: (eucharist) eating the flesh and drinking the blood of a deceased human being. [JA - source? Correspondence between Pliny and Trajan?])

[(WL) JA asked about a source for drinking blood and eating flesh. I have read it in several places over the years. One source is Will Durant's -Caesar and Christ-, vol. 3 of his "The Story of Civilization." The comment is on page 647. His footnote reads: "Minucius Felix, Octavius, ix,5, in Tertullian, Apol." In another place he references the Loeb Classical Library edition of Tertullian's "Apologeticus,etc." I don't have Tertullian's work on my shelf.]

proclaims a man to be God incarnate. (Caesar as a representative of the state, maybe? A Jewish carpenter, never!).

proclaims the dead to rise, not figuratively, not in some final resurrection, but literally in a contemporary context. Stands against all human experience and reason.

demands that all one has to is to join. Everyone has the admission fee, but it means leaving nothing for your family or to fall back on if you later decide to opt out. And it is suggested further perhaps that if you practice deceit and hold out on the group God will bring judgment on you.

I remember an experiment reported by a sociology class at the University of Florida in the 1970s. They paraphrased the Bill of Rights and sections of the Declaration of Independence and tried to circulate it as a petition to the government. For weeks, they were at shopping malls and public events in different parts of the state. They were cursed, spit upon, called Communists, radicals, and anti-American. The tendency for all groups is to move away from the radicalism of the founders and towards a domesticated, socially acceptable form of life together that does not not make radical demands on the individuals. There are many who admire radicals from a distance but do not join because of the fiscal and social cost associated with full participation.


Can Christianity be without cost? Can it be domesticated? Can we make it comfortable for the middle class, or even for the poor? Does discipleship have to have a cost? What does it say about a church that strives to be seen as "mainline"? Do radical demands cost churches members? Does the non-radical approach mean that none or few of our membership is fully committed?

Is the issue of property and the way we are related to it, a fundemental question of individual faith, a question of caring for the poor, or is the role of property "layed at the apostles' feet" an issue of community survival and empowerment? Is the surrender of our worldly power and property for the benefit of the one who surrenders, for the benefit of the needy to whom it is given or for the benefit of the community of faith? Would the church support the idea of "tithing" as strongly if all the contributions were brought to the altar and turned into smoke? (Of course in our modern context, we would probably see a lot of checks for the full amount of the tithe if we promised that they would be burned before getting to the bank!).

(a humorous aside: The pastor goes to Farmer Jones and says, "Farmer Jones, if you had two million dollars in cash, would you give a million to the church?" "You know I would, Pastor." "Farmer Jones, if you had two large farms instead of one, and they were both paid for, would you give one of them to the Lord?" "You know I would, Pastor!" "Farmer Jones, if you had two hogs, would you give one of them to the Lord for the church barbeque next month?" "Pastor, that ain't fair. You know I've got two hogs.")

The fact that Joseph is a Levite from Cyprus means in essence, I suppose, that he is a foreigner and yet a Jew. He comes and takes the apostles at their word (or perhaps at Jesus' word). My supposition is that he was either the first, or maybe the most pronounced example of this phenomenon. Perhaps the fact that he makes such a self-sacrifice is a powerful sign and witness to the apostles. Perhaps he is the encouraging sign needed by the apostles. He confirms Jesus' words, not only in this action, but as Barnabas (the companion of Paul) he is an encouragement and good news throughout the rest of the gospel story.

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