Sermons

A Golden Age

Mike Lowe

Good morning, today our reading jumps from the Easter story to an early moment for the church in Jerusalem, pretty much directly following on from the outpouring of the Holy Spirit at pentecost. On the surface it seems a fairly cut and dry example of how a church should act. I’ve always heard it preached as a yardstick for us to measure ourselves as a community of believers. This is problematic though isn’t it because our church doesn’t look like this, and bar a few notable exceptions practically no churches throughout history have looked like this. So where does that leave us? In my opinion this passage is not and was never intended to be a stick with which to beat churches and I’d like to take a few moments to explain why I think, and it’s only my opinion, this is a passage intended to inspire us and fill us with a hope for the glory of God and the kingdom to come.

How often do you hear social commentators or journalists describe us as living in a golden age of one thing or another? A quick google search led me to discover that we are currently in a golden age for pension scams, investing in technology stock, and digital surveillance. What a time to be alive hey?

Apparently, from some even less rigorous sources, 1972-1974 was a golden age for pop music. England football had it’s golden generation in the early 2000s. Many people consider the Edwardian era of the beginning of the 20th Century to be a Golden Age of Britishness and something to look back to in our current post-brexit reality. I’m sure there are many lively discussions in public houses about this sort of thing and even more angry, hate-filled ones on twitter.

To someone living in the ancient Mediterranean the idea of a Golden age wasn’t merely an exercise in nostalgia or pop-culture references. The Golden Age was quite a vivid and real cultural belief. The first known references to a Golden Age of man was written by a greek poet called Hesiod and several other Greek and Roman poets and philosophers added to it including Plato and Virgil. It was the first age of man, before everything went wrong. It was a time of perfection where people lived without pain or sorrow, in harmony with one another and the Earth produced food without the need for agriculture. In Plato’s description he describes a world where people reject the use of the words “mine”, “not mine” and even “alien”. It shares many similarities with the Hebrew and Biblical creation tradition doesn’t it? Another word might be Utopia. It was the way everything was intended before someone or something messed it all up. Whether you consider that to be Adam and Eve eating the wrong fruit or Pandora opening a box thought ought not be opened, the point is that things were good and then they weren't anymore.

There was also the belief that this age was to return. It’s not hard to understand why, life in that part of the world at that time was hard. Something like 9 out of every 10 inhabitants of the Roman Empire at the time of Jesus lived just on or below the subsistence line. It was an empire of utter poverty and powerlessness for the vast, vast majority of its occupied inhabitants. This vision of a return to justice, fairness and even the chance of leisure would have been such a source of hope.

I think this is what Luke, the author of our reading today, is using as a literary device in his account of the early church in Jerusalem. It can sometimes be uncomfortable to think about the writers of the Gospels using literary devices or having agendas. It’s easier to see them as opinion-less, factual narrators documenting purely historical facts, even though I just don't believe that to be the case. You could argue that the idea of a historical account being entirely factual hadn't even really been invented yet. This is a manifesto of hope. This is Luke marketing Christian community to those on the outside. This is Luke describing a return of the golden age, where possessions are shared, the sick are cared for and the hungry fed.

This post-pentecost moment of spiritual fervour and energy had enabled the members of this church to cast off the weight of the fallen, broken, corrupt and oppressive Roman Empire and create a new society, a society of equality and harmony. The Roman view of Utopia was already here, they were living it. The Roman Emprie's view of utopia was about order, structure, power and profit. Clearly, some people were living something of a utopian existence without striving, pain or lack. It probably just didn't register to them that a utopian society would be a utopian society for all.

Like much of Luke’s writings, he is really attempting to stick it to Rome, I suggest with some success. The power structures and institutions had left these people behind, the new golden age if it had come, hadn’t come for them. God’s kingdom though was an entirely different animal. Caesar was never going to make your life better, but Jesus would. Now it’s probably fair to say that the number of people in the congregation with anything to sell was pretty small, but the act of doing so was enormous. To go from being a land owner to essentially being part of the peasant class of the day meant sacrificing status, position, power, privilege, security and access to justice. They would have been sacrificing the aspects that separate them as a community and impede their ability to be wholly committed to one another and their shared purpose of spirit.

In many ways though, if you had encountered the Holy Spirit, seen what the apostles had done, mayeb even witnessed Jesus’ miracles first hand, then you probably would have a fairly changed view of the future and therefore your need for wealth in it. Jesus had said the destruction of the temple and the end of the current world order was imminent. So why not sell everything you have? The point here is that these individuals had been wholly convinced of Jesus death and resurrection and everything that meant. What we see here is a community, of probably about 5000 adults, filled with the passion and zeal of the Holy Spirit to go all in. It probably did feel like a sprint, not a marathon. The passage also talks about the power of the apostles testimony to the resurrected Jesus. Maybe that testimony also looks like 12 men with no previous administrative experience accepting vast quantities of donations, then distributing them so that none went without. If they mess that up, or keep a bit for themselves, the whole story is changed. They end up being just like the roman elite and the new golden age is a sham.

We can see in the next chapter the story of Ananias and Sapphira, and the risks of playing by the old rules in this new utopia. I actually don’t think this passage ever appears in the lectionary, and its a shame because this passage is wild. I would love to hear people’s take on it. A couple basically sell their belongings, but only give some of the money to the apostles (the general consensus is that they openly claimed they were giving everything but didn't, although the text isn't that explicit). They get found out and drop dead right there and then. I mean, what!? I honestly can’t really tell you what goes on here, or whether that counts as everyone sharing everything they had through fear and coercion but suffice to say, it seems like it would have been obvious if the apostles were cooking the books.

The account of a church of one shared heart and soul is utterly unimaginable to me. In other translations it says they shared one mind. Can you imagine it? Thousands of brand new Christians, long before Christianity as we know and experience it has been invented, who are all entirely on the same page. You immediately think of sectarianism, but what about smaller things. We know that there was often tension between Greek Jews and native Jews within the early church, does that just go away? Were they all in agreement about what songs they should sing. Did they all interpret scripture the same way? To add a contemporary example, would they all have agreed about whether to hold in person services in a pandemic? We often talk about God loving diversity, that’s quite a common phrase to see on social media, how do we balance that with Luke’s description of this perfect Acts church involving only people who think, feel and act in the same way? That’s a really challenging thought isn’t it. I once read, although I can’t find the book anymore, that’s better to think not that they had a conformity of thought or identity, but that they had a consensus of purpose. They were so convinced in their spirit of what they had to do together that the things that were different didn't matter as much as they had. I’ve always really liked that.

Because to me at least, I don’t think Luke was writing a model for the church to follow. I don’t think the church in Acts 4 is a blueprint for us to attempt to recreate today. By all accounts, the church in Acts 4 didn’t stay this way for that long anyway. The bickering returns, and you can see that in the splits and divisions that Paul writes about in his letters. The organisation didn’t last either, by chapter 11 of Acts the church in Jerusalem is having to write to the church in Antioch for money because they'd ran out. That doesn’t mean that it failed though, I don’t think those post pentecost days were the return of a golden age that failed, I think they were a glimpse. I think they were a taste of the Kingdom to come, God’s kingdom. A temporary moment in time when the Holy Spirit broke in so powerfully that the entire fabric and order of society was upended.

To view the church in the passage today as a standard to live by is nothing more than an exercise in futility and disappointment. You can’t strive, and try and force a community to be of one heart and mind. You can’t force a community to give up its possessions, or at least not for ever. We must always remember that these people saw something of the Holy break into the Earthly for that moment in time, and they couldn’t help but be swept up in it. I can only speak for myself but this way of living, to ignore my desire for security and status is unsustainable without being totally filled and constantly refilled with the Holy Spirit. I don’t think we can push ourselves to live by their standard, until we have seen what they saw, experienced what they experienced and are filled with the Holy Spirit as they were.

It’s happened multiple times through history, I’ve recently read about the community in Tabor in modern day Czechia, who abandoned the society of their day to dig a brand new city for themselves to live in total commitment to one another by this Acts example. I believe it will keep happening and keep happening until the day when God’s kingdom becomes fully established on Earth.

In God’s kingdom we will all share that common purpose, there will be no striving, no sickness, death or want. We’ll all be fully committed to God and one another. We will see the re-establishment of the Golden Age hoped for by so many for so long. We will see the love, joy and power of God manifest in each of us as we live united as one, in heart and soul. Until then, we should keep looking, keep searching for the breakthrough of the Holy to the Earthly and try to be there and be swept up in all the Holy Spirit wants to do with us.

Amen