Testimony with Great Power

Text: Acts 4:32-35
Date: Easter II + 4/15/12

Christ is risen! He is risen, indeed! The resurrection of the Lord Jesus is the big thing, the main event, the heart and center of the entire Christian message. Resurrection from the dead is what’s behind everything else that is taught, believed and goes on in the Church, everything else in the Christian’s life. It is the Lord’s resurrection that makes for and defines Christian faith and Christian unity and community. We could say that the apostle Thomas didn’t become a Christian until a week later than everyone else because at first, “on Easter Sunday” he didn’t believe the testimony of the rest of the Apostles that the Lord is risen (John 20:19-31). Without their testimony there is nothing much to believe. And without faith their testimony remains an idle tale (Lk 24:11). Without the risen Christ all theology is empty and powerless. Like Thomas, you and I cannot claim to be Christians unless and until we have been changed and made new by faith in the risen, living and reigning Lord Jesus. That’s what your baptism is all about—actually dying to self and being buried, buried with Christ by baptism into death, “in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life” (Rom 6:4). The Lord is risen and we are made to be new people because of it.

We do not hear a reading from the Old Testament this day but rather St. Luke’s description of this new resurrection community, the Church, in the Book of Acts. It’s as if we are being asked today why and for what purpose was your Easter celebration? St. Paul cuts to the chase when he says, “if Christ has not been raised then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain…. …if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins” (1 Cor 15:14, 17). The doctrine of the resurrection is all-important.

Certainly it is difficult and even impossible without the aid of the Holy Spirit working in our hearts to think of our celebration of Easter as anything more than a familiar history lesson. So St. Luke’s snapshot of the first resurrection community, the first Christian Church makes us stop to rediscover what is the significance and the power of the resurrection also for us today. For in these short verses we are told that the resurrection of Christ draws all believers into unity of faith by the preaching of the doctrine of Christ, with the result of the fruits of that faith in a fervent love for the neighbor.

Let me say before we go into the text that these words are not meant to be prescriptive, that is, the model or blueprint for every Christian congregation in every detail. They are meant, rather, to be descriptive. The faith and love described here are to be realized in every Christian congregation but in differing ways and details.

Luke writes, “The full number of those who believed were of one heart and soul.” That “full number” was no little gathering that could be easily ignored but was more like five thousand men, not counting women and children, especially after adding some three thousand on the Day of Pentecost alone (Acts 2:41). Their life together Luke described for us in Acts chapter 2, saying, “they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers” (2:42). They met together for preaching, teaching and worship of Jesus Christ as the heart and soul of the Christian community. The highest compliment that can be given a Christian congregation is, as Luke does, to be called “those who believed,” believers. And “believers” in what? Well, believers that the Lord is risen, believers in the resurrection! For this not only locates faith in the heart of a person, but also immediately announces the object of such faith, namely, the doctrine or teaching of the apostles, that is, the teaching of the risen Christ.

It is because of this faith that Luke describes Christians as being “of one heart and soul.” Our unity and oneness is not to be found in a common ethnic identity or any merely human distinctions but in the one faith in Christ. It is the Gospel of Christ that motivates the very center of our being and our life. As we say in our Lutheran Confessions, “The church is the assembly of saints in which the gospel is taught purely and the sacraments are administered rightly. And it is enough for the true unity of the church to agree concerning the teaching of the gospel and the administration of the sacraments.”  That teaching of the apostles, the gospel, is best summarized, of course, in the ecumenical creeds of the Church which we confess at every baptism and every Divine Service.

This is so difficult to maintain and to communicate in the secular world and especially in our American culture today where things religious are thought to be nothing more than up to only one’s private, personal opinion. And while the true faith is personal, it is never “private.” It is proclaimed by the apostles as being the truth for every human being. As St. Paul says, “as by a man came death, by a man has come also the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive” (1 Cor 15:21-22). Because of sin all people are dead in the trespasses and sins (Eph 2:1). But now because Christ is risen all who believe are of one heart and soul in the one, true faith.

Such unity in faith, Luke continues, manifests itself in love. Again we need to emphasize (especially these days) that these words are not prescriptive but only descriptive. In other words, when Luke says “no one said that any of the things that belonged to him was his own, but they had everything in common” he in no way means, as Paul E. Kretzman put it, “the expression of fantastic and illusory socialistic theories or of an absolute communism, but a spontaneous manifestation of Christian love.” Those who know the prophesies of the Old Testament see in this spontaneous care of the needy and the poor the fulfillment of the law of the Sabbatical Year in Deuteronomy 15 where it is written that, if anyone becomes poor, “you shall not harden your heart or shut your hand against your poor brother, but you shall open your hand to him and lend him sufficient for his need, whatever it may be…. You shall give to him freely, and your heart shall not be grudging when you give to him, because for this the Lord your God will bless you in all your work and in all that you undertake. For there will never cease to be poor in the land. Therefore I command you, ‘You shall open wide your hand to your brother, to the needy and to the poor, in your land’” (Deut 15:7-11). If this law was ever and always done only out of reluctant, legalistic obligation, it is now a pure fruit of the Spirit done willingly and cheerfully (2 Cor 9:7).
This is the “great power” with which the apostles were giving their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus and the source of the great grace that was upon them all—nothing more and nothing less than the lively, Spirit-given, heart-felt faith in the risen, living and ruling Lord Jesus. In Him alone we have the forgiveness of sins. In Him alone life and truth and love is ours. For He alone is, as Thomas said, “my Lord and my God!” And when you believe it, you have life in his name.