A sermon delivered by Wendell Griffen at Second Baptist Church, Little Rock, Ark. on October 9, 2011.
32 Now the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common. 33With great power the apostles gave their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all. 34There was not a needy person among them, for as many as owned lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold. 35They laid it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need. 36There was a Levite, a native of Cyprus, Joseph, to whom the apostles gave the name Barnabas (which means ‘son of encouragement’). 37He sold a field that belonged to him, then brought the money, and laid it at the apostles’ feet.
This passage informs us that the early followers of Jesus was such a generous community that “[t]here was not a needy person among them, for as many as owned land or houses sold them and brought the proceed of what was sold” to the apostles to be distributed “to each as any had need.” Barnabas is named as one of those generous people who sold a field he owned and gave the money from that real estate transaction to the apostles so that no one would be needy.
So what is the Holy Spirit telling us?
Oneness with God is a call to community. Following Jesus is without question a personal relationship, but it is never a private relationship. Union with God includes union with others. God’s love leads us into fellowship with people who are like us and who are different from us. God’s love calls us to enter into their lives, know their hopes, witness their suffering, and recognize their worth.
That union with others isn’t a footnote to personal faith. It isn’t something tacked on. It isn’t an option. Union with others is integral to union with God. Whether we are considering the moral instructions attributed to Moses or the gospel imperatives of Jesus, we never escape the compelling idea that God demands that we love God and love others. So we shouldn’t be surprised to see that concern for others marked the fellowship of the post-Pentecost period.
Divine grace includes economic responsibility and accountability for others. Barnabas and the other Jesus-followers weren’t just stirring up trouble with religious traditionalists by talking about the resurrection of Jesus. They were also radical in the way they took responsibility for and held themselves accountable about caring for people who were needy. Somehow they got the idea that following Jesus meant sharing their wealth. Somehow they became a community where affluence wasn’t considered a private entitlement and poverty wasn’t viewed as a private affliction. They didn’t declare a war on poverty. They just decided to take responsibility for it.
The idea that following God could lead to a notion of life where people are inspired to divest themselves of personal wealth in order to alleviate need wasn’t inspired by political or social theory. Barnabas and the other people who sold their property in order to care for needy people were inspired by the teaching and preaching of the apostles about the resurrection of Jesus and God’s grace. Great preaching and teaching about the grace of God inspired graciousness and generosity in those who believed.
Their example shows that the idea that everybody is on his or her own in the world doesn’t come from God. Instead, this passage reveals the divine impact of grace in the lives of people who understand what grace means.
- Grace means that God gives.
- Grace means that God shares.
- Grace means that God takes responsibility for us despite our condition.
- The grace of God that became personal in Jesus Christ shows that God refuses to be comfortable with our poverty, however it is revealed.
- In Jesus Christ, God divested God-self to provide for us.
- To live as people of grace includes sharing God’s discomfort with poverty and obeying God’s example in Christ to address it.
- Following Jesus means becoming economically responsible for the suffering of needy people and holding oneself accountable for remedying it.
It’s never popular to talk about being economically responsible and accountable about others. But economic responsibility and accountability are at the heart of the Christian gospel. We don’t have a “prosperity” gospel. We have a “social responsibility and accountability gospel.”
Barnabas and the other Jerusalem believers were obeying the Good Samaritan lesson that Jesus left us. They weren’t content to leave their needy sisters and brothers at the mercy of the economy. Like the wounded man in the Good Samaritan lesson needed someone to take responsibility for him, needy people will always be economic victims unless others take personal responsibility for meeting their need.
Economic responsibility always carries a cost. The gospel of Jesus teaches that the cost for bridging the gap between human need and divine justice cannot be shirked but should be shouldered. If we claim to be followers of Jesus, we must follow Jesus in taking the needs of our brothers and sisters upon ourselves. That is what Barnabas and the other Jerusalem followers did by selling their houses and land to care for needy people in their fellowship.
The Spirit-filled life is a generous life. Let’s remember that Acts records what people did who were impelled by the Spirit of Pentecost. When we are living by the power and under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, we are led to understand that persons trump possessions.
- The Holy Spirit led the apostles to teach and preach a gospel of divine generosity that we call grace.
- The Holy Spirit inspired those who believed that gospel of grace to understand their moral responsibility and accountability concerning the economic plight of others in their community.
- And the Holy Spirit inspired them to act in generosity. It is heartwarming to read how Barnabas and the others willingly sold houses and land to help provide for their brothers and sisters.
The Holy Spirit-led life is a “good” life because it is a generous life. To be good includes being generous. Generosity is always defined by what one does to help others at personal cost. I can’t be generous if I won’t expend myself. Barnabas sold his land and generously handed over the sale price to help needy people in his community because Barnabas was “sold out” in the Holy Spirit.
Needy people are suffering around us much like they were suffering around Barnabas. Are we more concerned about our personal affluence than their plight? How can we follow the life and teachings of Jesus and be agents of divine grace and justice for people who’ve been battered, bruised, and who often languish in relative helplessness because of the crass materialism that defines our version of the Jericho Road?
- See needy people and the underlying factors that produce and perpetuate their plight. Don’t look the other way. Don’t ignore people in need. Include them in how you define community. Understand the underlying social, economic, personal, and other factors that contribute to economic inequities.
- Take a materialism inventory. Ask yourself: “What do I have that can be used to help alleviate suffering caused by neediness?” Practice Barnabas-style divesting.
- Live to give rather than grab! Barnabas realized that he could change life for needy people by changing his perspective on the meaning of “the good life.” The “good life” is about giving so life can be better for all, not about getting to be privately comfortable.
- Challenge the pervasive greed culture and mindset. Greed and generosity can’t mutually co-exist. Greed produces and worsens neediness and poverty. Generosity alleviates suffering and challenges the factors responsible for it. The religion of Jesus isn’t a “prosperity religion.” It’s a “generosity religion.” Followers of Jesus should challenge the mindset that treats private wealth as proof of moral, social, or any other kind of health.
- Embrace God’s view that justice is measured by how we protect and provide for the vulnerable. The grace of God operates to use power to protect and provide for “the least of these.” Any philosophy or practice that ignores the needy or which elevates concern for the affluent ahead of the needy violates divine justice. We who follow Jesus should condemn it, no matter who promotes it.
God’s Spirit is calling us, through the life of Jesus and the discipleship of Barnabas and others, into living that is “sold out” to the generosity produced by God’s grace. In the final analysis, you and I are God’s answers to the suffering of needy people. There’s Barnabas living and giving for us to do. Let’s follow the Spirit and do it! Amen.
Pastor at New Millennium Church in Little Rock, Arkansas, a state court trial judge, a trustee of the Samuel DeWitt Proctor Conference, author of one book and three blogs, and a consultant on cultural competency and inclusion.