Awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles. 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. 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, 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.
So, ever since I was eight years old, I wanted to be an archaeologist. And before you ask, no, an archaeologist has absolutely nothing to do with dinosaurs. My wanting to be an archaeologist probably had something to do with the fact that I first watched Indiana Jones with my dad when I was eight, but it also had to do with a certain fascination I had for the past. I always loved to imagine how people used to live, especially in pre-historical times – those times where we don’t have any written documents to tell us what it was like. So, archaeology seemed like a perfect passion for me, because archaeology is a branch of anthropology, which is the study of people, and it is specifically the study of people in the past using the things they left behind – artifacts. Most artifacts end up in the dirt, and you wouldn’t believe what kinds of things get left behind – pots, bowls, and arrowheads, yeah, but also gold, jewelry, and all sorts of items we might consider ‘valuable’. Indeed, both the treasure hunter and the archaeologist are after the same items – albeit for different reasons.
My fascination with archaeology never really died out. I actually got my Bachelor’s degree in it, funnily enough. But as much as I like archaeology, I have to admit that I always liked thinking even more. I like to think about things that, I imagine, most people don’t usually think about. I’m rather weird like that. For example, have you ever thought about who the first property owner was? Like, who was the first one to pick up a rock, bang on it a bit until the edges were sharp, and then carry it around with them wherever they went? Who was the first one to pick an apple and decide it was theirs? And then whenever I consider questions like these, there’s always the moral component that pops up in my head – were they right to do that?
I suppose this love of thinking and this peculiar tendency to think about the most random, albeit ‘big picture’, questions is what led me to study theology. That’s how I ended up here today. But I didn’t necessarily leave archaeology behind; in fact, my anthropological and archaeological training often informs a lot of my theological thinking.
Which is why there are two details about those aforementioned artifacts that stick out to me. 1) Most artifacts inevitably end up in the same place – in the dirt; and 2) with the exception of burial items, most artifacts give no indication as to whose, specifically, they were. In fact, if you know who an artifact belonged to, it usually means that that person was someone extremely important. The rest of the stuff – all of the pots, pans, bowls, jewelry, knives, etc. (not to mention all of the stuff that didn’t stand the test of time, like most textiles and wooden items) – is owner-less. If and when it is put on display in a museum somewhere, it will only carry the label of the people group that made it or the community in which it was found. It will be a “Roman sword” or an “Egyptian pot” or a “Mayan necklace”. And, if it hadn’t been found, it would have simply become, once again, a part of Creation.
Now, there’s a reason I follow Jesus; there’s a reason I believe in Jesus, and it’s not just because I was told to or because a lot of other people do. I’m a Jesus follower because a lot of the stuff he said just makes a lot of sense. It seems right; it seems truthful; it seems Godly. In fact, I don’t really believe in what Jesus says because I believe Jesus is the Son of God. On the contrary, I believe Jesus is the Son of God because I believe in what he said and did. And I have a feeling that a lot of his original followers felt the same way. I mean, it can’t just be the resurrection, because Jesus had quite the following, and even a few people calling him the Son of God, before the resurrection. So, I have to think that those early Jesus followers must have been drawn to him because of his message and teachings. And one of those teachings that comes through loud and clear and that resonates with everything I have observed in my lifetime of studying archaeology and thinking about things is this:
Stuff doesn’t really matter. Possessions are not what life is about. In fact, possessions often become the greatest hindrance to our relationship with God. And in case anybody tried to misconstrue his words, Jesus came right out and said it rather plainly: “You cannot serve God and money.” Things weigh us down. In trying to have more, we become less. People are far more important than things. And, ultimately, everything belongs to God anyway, and if you try to claim ownership over anything in this life, that ownership isn’t going to last very long. In the end, all of our stuff just ends up buried in the dirt without our name on it. So stop being so attached to your stuff, and focus more on your relationships, because those are significantly more likely to last into eternity.
It seems pretty simple, and fairly logical; I mean, it’s really hard to argue with Jesus here. So, why is it so hard for us to actually do what he suggests? And let me, once again, be the first to raise up my hand. This is extremely hard for me to follow. Especially for someone whose assets essentially amount to negative thousands of dollars. I don’t feel that I can realistically give away a lot of my stuff. But that’s just a lie I keep telling myself because, let’s face it, I like my stuff. We like our stuff. I like my video games; I like to be able to play them in my free time. I like the experience of watching a movie with my wife. I like to enjoy a glass of wine every now and then with dinner. There is a certain purpose in owning things, no doubt about it. Ovens make it easier for us to cook food. Beds help us to sleep comfortably at night. Shoes keep our feet warm and safe from stepping on sharp roots or rocks. But the truth is all of these things are really luxuries. If you think about it, as I certainly have, we survived quite a long time without stuff. We ate what we could find, we slept wherever we could, we created things to do for ourselves when we were bored. As important as stuff might be for making our lives easier, I don’t think any of us could really make the argument that we need it. As long as we have access to food, water, and shelter, everything else is technically superfluous.
But that’s a hard pill to swallow. We can always come up with more reasons why we might need our stuff, even if, deep down, we don’t really believe them. Many of us would be loath to give up most of our possessions. Indeed, they are ours, aren’t they? Why should we have to give them up?
But the truth is they’re not ours. Not really. If you go back to that original question – you know, that peculiar one that nobody ever really thinks about except for weird old me, ‘who was the first person to own property?’ – you realize that whatever property that person owned, they got it from somewhere. They took it out of Creation, worked on it a bit, and then called it their own. In fact, the very first property owner probably didn’t even do anything to the object; just picked it up and kept it. Think about it. Since then, all that society has been built upon, everything we make, everything we own, has all been derived at some point or other from natural resources – from Creation. It’s true. Every single thing comes from Creation, the earth. And even though considerable work may have gone into extracting the resources and shaping them into the things we buy and sell, it wasn’t necessarily hard work that originally allowed us to acquire those resources. Instead, we acquired them simply because when we got there, we made a conscious decision to take them for ourselves. And if we got there first – or if we had more muscle than the person who did – then there was no one to stop us from taking it. So, the harsh reality is that we have deceived ourselves into thinking that we deserve everything we have, and that everything we have indeed belongs to us, when in fact it was never ours for the taking in the first place. The truth that Jesus asks us to consider – the truth that both the Biblical witness and the science of archaeology confronts us with – is that all that we have, all that we claim ownership over, in fact belongs to God. It has been gifted to us, and we have been charged with the responsibility to take care of it. But it is not technically ours.
The Church in Acts 2 seems to have recognized this. They were able to use the teachings of Jesus to see through the lie of “stuff”, and to understand that people are more important than possessions. We are told that they “held all things in common, and distributed what they had to all, as any had need.” They understood that the things they had did not come to them because they deserved them, but rather because they were a gift, and God expected them to steward that gift according to God’s own will. And you know what? It worked. Day by day, the Lord added to their number those who were being saved. If you think, as I do, that the purpose of the Church is to model and effect the Kindom of God here on earth, then this description in Acts pretty much fits the bill. In addition to having everything in common, the Church spent time with each other every day in the temple. They ate together in each other’s homes. They were joyful, they were generous, and they praised God for all that they had been given. And as a result they had the goodwill of all people, and their numbers grew.
Ladies and Gentlemen, that is what a church looks like. It’s not a place that we go to just get our spiritual fix. It’s not something we do to get our God obligation in for the week. It’s not a club for the “morally upright”. It is a community of people dedicated to enacting God’s Kindom here on earth, and that cannot happen as long as we continue to play by the world’s rules. It cannot happen as long as we continue to regard our personal possessions as more important than people. Indeed, if a church is simply a group of individuals that meet in the same building once or twice a week to sing songs and listen to a speech, it’s not going to last. Heck, anybody can do that! The church is a commitment to a community, because once you’re in, you’re all in. Look at the church in Acts. They were invested – literally! Imagine what the Church could be if every single Christian throughout the entire world did this. Imagine a network of congregations that pooled their resources and helped out anytime another was in need. Imagine God, day by day, adding to the Church’s number, until all of humanity was united in the stewardship of God’s Creation, allocating the gifts of God to all, as any have need. Imagine that, and I daresay you will have imagined the Kindom of God here on earth. Amen.