Connections 04.08.2018: Uncommon Generosity

Acts 2:43-47; 4:32-37

The generosity among the people in these passages is phenomenal. And honestly, it’s not something I encounter very often. I’d like to think that I’m generous. My husband and I give a large portion of our earnings to various causes and charities each year. Isn’t that generous? I work for very little pay at a nonprofit that benefits children with cancer. Isn’t that generous? I pride myself on trying to be a peacemaker, giving people as much grace as possible even when they treat me poorly. Isn’t that generous?

Before I get too confident in my generosity, though, I have to look at my motivations. While my husband and I certainly believe that those who have material blessings should share with those who don’t have them, we also appreciate the tax benefit we get from our financial gifts. While I have witnessed and helped alleviate poverty and desperation in my work with families experiencing cancer, I also feel relieved that I can retreat to my comfortable home with my healthy kids. And while it’s important to extend grace to others during disagreements, I tend to do so more to protect myself from conflict than because I truly care about showing love to other people.

Motivations matter. What was the motivation of the people in these passages from Acts? What made them so uncommonly generous? Was their lifestyle of sharing everything they had really as peaceful and beautiful as it is described? How long did it last before their motivations got the better of them and they began to cause harm?

I’m not sure of the answer to these specific questions, but history tells us much about how the church evolved and behaved in the centuries since Jesus walked the earth. The story has its beautiful, uncommonly generous, and peaceful moments, but more often it has moments of cruelty, bigotry, and oppression.

Sadly, we human beings are wired for self-preservation. Just consider my personal examples above. Even in my most generous moments, I’m still looking out for myself and my people. That’s a hard truth to face.

It also represents an extremely pessimistic view of these lovely passages from Acts. It’s time to turn things around and highlight the ideal presented here. Yes, humans are selfish. Yes, we tend to look out for ourselves above all others. Yes, it’s hard to share what we’ve worked so hard to have. But, because of the spark of the divine within us—because we are made in the image of God and Christ lives in us—we are more than capable of extending our view outside ourselves. We can be uncommonly generous because of Christ. In our faith, there is no better example than Jesus of what it means to be self-sacrificial. Can we say, then, what Paul said? “I want to know Christ…. Not that I have already obtained this or have already reached the goal; but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own” (Phil 3:10-12). We’re not perfect. We will fail. But we can admit that and keep pressing on because we belong to Jesus!

Discussion

1. What strikes you the most about the uncommon generosity among the early believers in Acts?
2. Have you ever witnessed this kind of generosity in a community? If so, what inspired it and how did it affect the people in the community?
3. Do you think it’s possible for a community to sustain this level of generosity? Why or why not?
4. Why do you think motivations matter when it comes to being generous with others?
5. How can you, like Paul, strive to know Jesus Christ more deeply? How could strengthening your relationship with Jesus make you a more generous person?

Reference Shelf

Verses 42-47 present a Lukan summary of the newly restored faith community. This particular summary offers an ideal portrait of early Christian life. Verse 42 introduces features of such communal life upon which vv. 43-47 elaborate. First, the community was devoted to the apostles’ teaching. Previous material in Acts allows readers to understand that this would have included scriptural (Old Testament) interpretation and gospel proclamation. Verse 43b adds that apostles also performed “signs and wonders.” This recalls 2:19b, which speaks of “signs below.” Apostolic teaching includes the mighty works that give demonstration to the reality of God’s in-breaking rule.

Second, the community was devoted to “fellowship” (v. 42). At the root of the word koinønia is the idea of sharing. While Christian fellowship can take on many characteristics, in this context such sharing manifests itself in the early community’s practice of having all things in common (koina, v. 44). It was not uncommon for ancients to describe a community’s origins in ideal terms, which include communal sharing. Given the formulaic character of such communal societies, some might be suspicious of the strict historical accuracy of Luke’s description. Still, a community of sharing where people give to others “as any had need” is a goal, idealized or not, to which the covenant community of God’s people should strive.

Third, they broke bread together. This would include both the celebration of “the Lord’s Supper” and so-called “regular meals.” The place where such meals took place was “at home” (v. 46), implying not one particular house, such as “the house” of 2:2, but various homes.

Fourth, they were devoted to “the prayers.” The use of the definite article might imply specific prayers, such as those of daily Jewish prayer. This would complement the note in v. 46 that the early community daily attended the temple. It is possible that they went to the temple outer courts each day only to preach. But there may also be an allusion to Luke 24:53, which concluded the Gospel saying that the disciples “were continually in the temple blessing God.” Acts 2:46 is the first reference to Jesus’ followers being “in the temple.” This text may represent the more detailed narrative realization of the initial reference found in Luke 24. Connection with temple worship related this early community to the Gospel’s beginnings, which was also in the context of temple worship (see Luke 1). It also affirms that this remnant, restored Israel, is faithful to its heritage. Thus, other people in Jerusalem are favorably disposed to the new community, and many choose to join the ranks of the remnant, or “to be saved” (v. 47).

J. Bradley Chance, Acts, Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary (Macon GA: Smyth & Helwys, 2007) 59-60.

Kelley Land, a graduate of Mercer University, has been an assistant editor for Smyth & Helwys curriculum and books since 2001. She attends church and leads an adult Sunday school class in Macon, Georgia. She is also the office administrator for Jay’s HOPE, a local charity serving families of children with cancer. Kelley enjoys spending time with her daughters, Samantha (12) and Natalie (10) and her husband John. For fun, she tries to stay caught up on the latest amazing TV series (including Doctor Who, Sherlock, Gilmore Girls, and The Crown).

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