Acts 2:42-47; 1 Peter 1:17-23
In this Easter series, I am speaking of “Life for others” as the shape of Christian life. Now, I don’t think normally that we live too much for others; I don’t think we are usually too selfless. It is easy in our culture to focus on yourself and to ignore others. But a total life for others sounds a little frightening. As a Christian, do I no longer have a life to myself anymore? Is life all for others? Our reading in Acts might make us wonder. It describes the heady days of the community among the first Christians. “Day by day, they spent much time together in the temple. they broke bread at home [which suggests that they were eating together in each other’s houses] and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people.” It sounds lovely, doesn’t it? We should all desire to have that kind of closeness as a community—and indeed, in some respects we do. But I skipped a line: “All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need.” Hmm. That’s really lovely too. Imagine if we all sold our possessions and goods and shared the proceeds. Yeah. Still with me? This practice of sharing is picked up again in chapter four: “Now the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul”—that’s nice—“and no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common.” (I thought I just heard purses being clutched a little more tightly.) It goes on to say that they sold everything and then laid the money at the Apostles’ feet. Yikes. And in chapter 5 we get the infamous story of Ananias and Saphira, a believing husband and wife who sell their property but keep back “some of the proceeds for themselves.” Do you know what supposedly happened to them? They fell dead at Peter’s feet.
No, this is not a stewardship lesson. This is horrifying. According to Act’s description of the early church, they practiced a kind of communism, abolishing private property. Acts has the first church really practicing what we’ve been calling life for others. And the beauty of it is, we are told, “There was not a needy person among them.” That’s really great; we could do more to emulate them in this regard. We could expand our use of the Deacons’ fund, for instance. But I don’t think we want God slaying some of us for holding back a little private property. (Maybe I’m wrong—are you ready to give up all your property?)
But why not? What could be more “life-for-others” than what Acts describes? If we owe everything to God, as we say, why should we expect to have private property? Why shouldn’t we give it all up?
And let’s not talk just about property. The apostles and others in the community were sent out to preach the good news. It became their life. Paul worked a little on the side to support his ministry, which he did for free; and he could do this because he had no family or anything else going on. How much ministry are we doing? Like I said last week, a few of you put in incredible amounts of work for this church and in others forms of ministry. Most of us don’t. I don’t do my ministry here for free by working a little on the side. And unlike Paul I enjoy being married—fortunately to someone making more than I do. But none of us, I imagine, are avidly pursuing ministry the way Paul and the early disciples did. Well, why not? Is our Christian life not a life for others? Did the apostles not exemplify life for others? You know, we wouldn’t be here if they had not done this ministry; the church would not have expanded so rapidly and become a worldwide body of faith, extending well beyond its local Jewish roots, without this selfless work of apostles like Paul.
There is a genuine dilemma for us here that we need to dwell on. I believe it is a dilemma that helps us make sense of the cross—the suffering and death of Jesus. Now, usually we think of the cross as God’s answer to our personal sinfulness. Jesus had to die in order for God to forgive me. You will hear in our closing hymn a line to that effect. There may still be some insight in this way of thinking about the cross, but nowadays we pretty much assume that God is loving and merciful, and our sin is not so grave. Our need for forgiveness no longer poses the kind of great dilemma to which the cross is the clear answer.
In fact, for many UCC-type Christians, sin is no longer in our vocabulary. (A mistake, I think; but we need to think about sin in fresh ways.) Without sin, the cross is no longer very important. What matters is trying to inspire people to do more good works and to support the church—which is good. But I worry about losing the cross, and about perhaps getting so wrapped up in good works and social justice that we no longer can understand why we gather to worship—shouldn’t we just be out doing good things?
I think the dilemma that our Acts reading poses for us might help us get a better perspective on the cross. Again it was this: Why aren’t we sharing all our property? Why aren’t we subordinating everything else about our lives—our career and family and friends—to spreading the good news of Jesus Christ, like the first apostles did? It’s not impossible for us to do this, and I hope and pray that some of us will. But let’s face it, we don’t, and that’s our dilemma. If a Christian life is life for others, why do we get anything for ourselves? Jesus told his disciples: take up your cross and follow me. We’re not doing that, mostly. Sure, we obey the ten commandments, mostly. But why aren’t we sacrificing ourselves to others they way Jesus did? What gives us permission to disobey Jesus, and not take up our cross?
The simple answer is, God’s grace. God gives us permission to not sacrifice ourselves. Remember that before we are life for others, God is life for others, and Jesus is life for others—and that means life for me. I’ve thought a lot about this, and it seems to me that it is helpful to understand that much of our life is not horribly sinful, but just, for want of a better word, “natural.” Living for myself and those close to me is not so much sinful as natural. This is the created life we share with God’s creatures: be fruitful, and multiply. It’s not completely selfish, although of course it includes tending to my bodily and psychological needs. But almost no one devotes himself solely to himself. We enter into all kinds of relationships—with friends, lovers, parents, children—by which we yoke our own interests and desires with those of others, often giving up some our desires for the sake of others. And we enter or are born into communities and institutions that, if basic justice prevails, provide mutual benefit. I pay taxes and participate in our democratic governance, and the United States protects me and makes my peaceful and productive life possible. I work for my employer (that’s you, actually), and my employer pays me and gives me benefits. Sometimes these relationships are more just than others; sometimes individuals are selfish, and sometimes institutions are oppressive. But the basic principle is mutual benefit. That’s natural, and we see relationships like that among creatures in nature as well. /
What Jesus did on the cross was not natural. To give one’s life to God on behalf not of just your friends or your own children but on behalf of everyone—including those who are crucifying you—is not natural. It is supernatural. We usually think that supernatural stuff entails magical powers or defying the laws of physics; but with Jesus supernatural means above all that he goes above and beyond the law of human nature—that I’ll do something for you with the expectation that you will pay me back. I’ll live for others if others also live for me. But Jesus goes above and beyond that rule—infinitely. He gives up his life for all others, in all times, in all places, no matter what they have done for him. / We won’t get to the bottom of how Jesus does this today. Our reading in First Peter tells us that we were ransomed from our futile ways by the blood of Christ. It tells us that “through him you have come to trust in God…so that your faith and hope are set on God.” But it doesn’t explain how that works very clearly.
Here’s one clue: It compares Jesus to a “lamb without defect or blemish.” The supernatural work of Jesus is his perfect self-giving for others, like a sacrificial Passover lamb by whose blood the Israelites were delivered. This self-giving of Jesus destines him for sharing in God: We are told that God “raised him from the dead and gave him glory,” which for us is the origin of our Easter faith. But the real origin of Jesus’ self-giving goes back to God’s eternal plan: “He was destined before the foundation of the world, but was revealed at the end of the ages for your sake.” Jesus’ perfect, supernatural self-giving has its source in God. God didn’t have to create the world. God wasn’t lonely or incomplete without creation. God is always, even now, absolute fulfillment and perfection, dwelling in eternity beyond all need and suffering. God is perfect, but sacrifices perfection to give life for others. God is infinite, but sacrifices infinity to give life to a finite world. God blesses a world that is chaotic and finite, where death and life are inseparably joined, so that life—even the imperfect variety, the kind that would inevitably sin—can be abundant. So God is the ultimate source of Jesus’ selflessness and sacrifice.
Now, we could all imitate Jesus, take up our cross, and give our lives completely away to others. We could give away all our property and devote our time completely to ministry. The perfection of God might even seem to demand this of us. But in this regard I believe the cross gives us this message: only Jesus Christ, because he was God in the flesh, was required to give himself up like this. We are not God. It is ok for us to be natural, not supernatural. It’s ok to be just creation—taking pleasure in fulfilling our needs, receiving our daily bread, enjoying friendship and family and lovers, being fruitful and multiplying. God created us for this. We human beings are still natural creatures. Jesus Christ took our human form to the limit, beyond the natural, so that we don’t have to; he took the cross so that we don’t have to.
But at the same time, Jesus shows us that it is possible for our human form to be supernatural. It is possible and beautiful and divine for us to be life for others without restriction or qualification. We do not need to do this in a self-sacrificing way; no one need ever literally give up his life to God for others again. We can participate in the supernatural life of Jesus while still living our natural lives.
Now, the natural response at this point is: how much? How much do I have to give up to God’s supernatural life for others, and how much do I get to keep to myself? I urge you not to rush to that question. It is easy for us to think that there must be some minimum requirement, something we must do to get our reward, rather than leaving everything to God’s grace. Our Christian traditional has unfortunately encouraged us to see salvation as an all-or-nothing game: if you do enough, you get it all—heaven—and if you do too little, you get worse than nothing. This way of thinking about salvation—which after all is a mystery that we do not understand—encourages us to return to what is in it for me. We end up always thinking in the back of our mind: am I doing enough to get into heaven?
Try this instead: God has by grace given you your natural life. God through Christ has not made you sacrifice this life; it is yours. God asks two things of us natural creatures: we should not sin, but treat each other justly, honoring our commitments to mutual benefit. And we should receive this natural life as a gift from God. God could demand our life of us, but does not, by grace through Christ. And of course we live our natural life on borrowed time. But as long as we have it, and if no one is oppressing us, it is ours.
All of us live this natural life. But it is, in the words of First Peter, ultimately futile. It is finite and limited. The good it achieves is limited and ending. The justice it achieves is partial and local. It is not bad, but futile. First Peter does not say Christ ransomed us from sin; it says “you were ransomed from the futile ways inherited from your ancestors.” In other words, Christ has liberated us and called us, the church, to participate in his supernatural life, a life for others without qualification. We are all living this supernatural life, all sharing in it. This is God’s life, and by sharing in it we are living eternal life. None of us is giving up our natural life completely, but all of us are living it, even just by acknowledging God’s grace in Christ and by praying for others. And we live this supernatural life in many other small ways, like giving to our denomination and supporting its worldwide ministry of peace and justice. We do not each have our own individual portion of this eternal life. That’s how we sometimes think: am I saved? Are you saved? No: our eternal life is in Christ, and we the body of Christ all share in it together. And that makes sense. Life for others can’t be mine exclusively; it means always going out of myself. It has to be shared.
So salvation or eternal life is not all or nothing. Only Christ’s life was all for others; we share in that life by the work we do together, by worship, and by uniting ourselves to Christ through baptism and communion. On the other hand, none of us has nothing; we all have our natural life as a gift from God, and we participate in this supernatural life through the church as much as we feel called.
And that’s the key. You shouldn’t have to anxiously deciding how much of your life to devote to God and to the church. This isn’t some bill you have to pay, some sacrifice you have to make until it hurts. Sometimes we do suffer when we live life for others, but that’s because of the sin of the world. But our participation in Christ’s eternal life, life for others without price, is itself a gift from God, not a tough decision you have to make. If it isn’t inspired and joyful—although joyful does not mean painless—then it isn’t life for others without qualification, it is life for yourself in disguise, masquerading as charity or duty or obligation to your community or whatever. Don’t confuse genuine, supernatural life for others with natural life consisting of exchanges and contracts. The love that we have in our Christian life for others is far above the love that we have in our exclusive, mutual agreements, even if there are some similarities. First Peter tells us that keeping this supernatural life for others pure and holy is the key to real Christian love: “Now that you have purified your souls by your obedience to the truth so that you have genuine mutual love, love one another deeply from the heart.” Let it be so.