2nd Sunday of Easter

05 April 2018

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Acts 4.32-35; Psalm 133; 1 John 1.1-2.2; John 20.19-end

OUR reading from Acts offers us “a concrete definition of holiness in action” (Jaroslav Pelikan, Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible: Acts). It depicts a community filled with grace, powerful in preaching, and generous with its material goods. As St Luke tells us, “those who believed were of one heart and soul.” This spiritual unity flows in turn from a life centred on devotion “to the apostle’s teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread, and to prayer” (Acts 2.42).

The passage is a powerful reminder that Jesus cannot be followed in an individualistic way. To follow him is to become a member of the body of which he is the head. In our Gospel reading, Jesus breathes the Holy Spirit on the Church, and gives its apostles authority (as in Matthew 16) to bind and loose sins. They are sent out to share in the saving work that the Father has entrusted to Jesus. The life of the Church is a participation in the life of her Triune God.

In Acts 4, commitment to the common life of fellowship lies at the heart of the practice of holiness. As St John Chrysostom explains, “Association increases love. If a stone rubbed against a stone sends forth fire, how much more soul mingled with soul!”

We find the same message in our Psalm: “Behold how good and pleasant it is to dwell together in unity.” The Psalmist has taken a family saying and placed it in the context of a hymn to be sung by pilgrims as they journey towards Zion (Walter Brueggemann and William Bellinger, New Cambridge Bible Commentary: Psalms). Once again, we are being summoned from an individualistic understanding of discipleship to recognise ourselves as part of a family which extends beyond the ties of biological kinship.

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A second feature of the “concrete holiness” in Acts 4 is the sharing of material possessions. As Chrysostom observes, the Church of Acts lacked not only material inequalities but also the more subtle inequalities of power that often exist between benefactors and recipients. Those who had been wealthy “did not presume to give into their hands, nor did they ostentatiously present, but they brought to the apostles’ feet”.

As Pelikan notes, the holding of all goods in common is not the only model of economic sharing which is evident in the New Testament Church. The Pauline epistles depict a Church in which some believers clearly own property. But the economic sharing depicted in Acts 4 highlights the fact that holiness necessarily has a social and economic dimension.

One contemporary theological expression of this social and economic dimension is found in the teaching of the “universal destination of goods” found in Roman Catholic social teaching. This teaches that, while private property is permissible, every Christian must recognise that their goods ultimately belong to God — and, therefore, that their use of them must reflect his care for those in need.

Our epistle reinforces the centrality of fellowship, both in the Church and with God. It emphasises that this fellowship, if authentic, will flow out into practical holiness. As David Rensberger puts it, the “ethical realism” of the writer demands that our talk of the love and power of God become a “concrete reality in the ethical character of daily life”. Otherwise, it remains a mere “spiritual fantasy” (Abingdon Bible Commentaries: 1 John, 2 John, and 3 John).

The “realism” of the passage includes its warning against spiritual pride: “If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.” This is a particular danger among those who apply the Gospel’s ethical teaching with greatest rigour.

These two aspects of “concrete holiness” — abiding in the fellowship of the Church, and engaging in practical acts of generosity and sacrifice — are reinforced in the encounter between Thomas and the risen Christ. While Thomas demands to see for himself the wounds of Christ, Jesus teaches that those who do not see but believe the apostolic testimony will be “more blessed”.

The life of faith is not simply about being convinced intellectually and individually, but being drawn into a body of disciples. Just as the risen body of Christ still bears the scars of his self-offering on the cross, the body of his Church will be marked by sacrificial love. For it shares in his mission of love for the world, and is infused by his Holy Spirit.

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