42 They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. 43 Awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles. 44 All who believed were together and had all things in common; 45 they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. 46 Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, 47 praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved (Acts 2:42-47 NRSV emphasis mine)
If you did not know that the above quotation was from the Bible, would you have assumed instead that it is a description of the typical church in Canada? I am guessing not. It is a picture of incredible devotion, togetherness, and generosity which we might lament we do not live up to. On the other hand we might be glad that this does not describe Christian churches in Canada; do we really want such crazy giving away of our stuff? We might be concerned that this passage is setting up an ideal for the Christian community that we neither want nor think we can attain. Is it, and are we falling short?
Whether the passage is reflecting an ideal or not, it is describing what was real. This is how the first Christians acted immediately following the calling and establishment of the Church at Pentecost. Let us note three things.
- There is great giving. The first Christians are enthusiastic enough to sacrifice their stuff for those in need.
- There is ongoing giving. The tense of the verb describing the selling of stuff indicates ongoing activity rather than a one-time thing.
- There is spontaneous giving. This is not a response to imposed law. While the Old Testament law makes provisions for the poor we do not get the picture here of the apostles imposing such and making demands on the people. They don’t need to, the generosity is spontaneous.
Why is there such great, ongoing, and spontaneous generous activity? There are a lot of verbs in this passage as there is a lot going on, but tucked in there also is a description of the hearts of the people: They have “glad and generous hearts” (v.46 NRSV). There is spontaneous generous activity because hearts are being changed. It is a heart thing!
Some of you may think of a different translation of that phrase “glad and generous” for the word generous in verse 46 can also be translated as singleness or simplicity of heart. We might want to ponder the fact that simplicity and generosity go together. When we are not feeling particularly generous toward someone we have a tendency of cluttering up our thoughts with rather complex rationalizations. For example, “you have need, I have plenty, but I cannot help you because . . . [enter rationalization here].” Or, “you need my forgiveness, I have the potential for being generous with grace, but I cannot forgive you because . . . [enter rationalization here].” Sometimes generosity is the simplest way forward. And it was the way forward for these first converts to Christianity.
So how did the first Christians come to have such glad and generous hearts? It is Pentecost and the Holy Spirit is changing hearts! As one Bible commentator notes, people are “fundamentally selfish,” but on the Day of Pentecost, with the outpouring and indwelling of the Holy Spirit, hearts are being changed.
The language people often use of people “getting religion” just does not work when people genuinely come to faith in Christ. You will sometimes hear it said that so-and-so “got religion.” The three thousand who came to faith in Jesus that day did not get religion, they already had religion, being Jews devout enough to be in Jerusalem for the Feast of Pentecost. What they “got” was Jesus, recognizing Him as Lord and Messiah. And with “getting Jesus” they also “got” the Holy Spirit. Indeed the New Atheists are onto something when they say that religion can be bad for you and for society. Religion will destroy you, the Holy Spirit will restore you. The three thousand on Pentecost got Jesus, they got the Holy Spirit, and their hearts were changed for the better.
So how do we develop glad and generous hearts today? While we do not want to take the application of this passage in a wrong direction and push for a commune-style of Church, we do want to long for our church today to be a people marked by glad and generous hearts. If we find we are falling short on this how do we proceed? Should we institute a plan to become an Acts 2 kind of church, getting the leadership together with a vision and umpteen step plan of how we will get there? Or do we legislate it, writing into our constitutions that if you want to keep your membership you had better have a glad and generous heart? It seems to me that our typical churches do a lot of those kinds of things. Or is the solution much simpler: we long for it, we ask for it, we pray for it – “Lord, with you Holy Spirit in us, fill, refresh, convict, overwhelm, and remake us: give us glad and generous hearts!”