Life Is Good
April 19, 2009
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. 33 With great power the apostles gave their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all. 34 There 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. 35 They laid it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need.
Life is good. And I may have just violated copyright laws, because that sentence is the registered and trademarked name of the Life is Good company. Yes, there is such a company. Perhaps you have seen the emblematic smiling face of Jake on a Life is Good T-shirt or coffee mug or Frisbee. No, not the yellow Smiley plastered on novelty merchandise in the ’70s and today used by Wal-Mart as the price rollback symbol. The Life is Good logo is a stick figure named Jake who wears a black beret, beatnik sunglasses, and flashes a giant Cheshire cat grin. Jake is posed doing any number of activities that bring pleasure to life—hiking, surfing, flying a kite, walking the dog.
The “Life is Good” company started inauspiciously as brothers Bert and John Jacobs hawked homemade, novelty T-shirts in Boston streets and door-to-door through college dorms. They were literally living in their van down by the river. Their big moment came when they printed 48 shirts of grinning Jake over the saying “Life is Good” for a 1994 street fair in Cambridge. The shirts sold out by noon.
People were crazy for the straightforward, uncomplicated philosophy; so much so, that the simple slogan has become an $80 million a year merchandise line sold by 5,000 distributors in 14 countries. Now Bert and John go by the titles Chief Executive Optimist and Chief Creative Optimist.
One key to the success of Life is Good merchandise lies in the interpretation of those who own the products. Someone wearing the kayaking Jake shirt announces both his hobby and the simple pleasure that makes his life good — “Life is good when I am kayaking.” Cancer sufferers and survivors have also flocked to the merchandise line due to its simple, clear worldview. “Life is Good” is the hopeful battle cry of the cancer-afflicted, and the victory song of cancer survivors. So everyone, from rock climbers to octogenarians, likes the slogan for their own reasons. The brothers Jacobs are quick to note the humility of the assertion: life is not perfect or great, but life is good. They know that bad things happen, but they deliberately focus on the good. John Jacobs claims that the slogan is an affirmation of the here and now: “Don’t determine that you’re going to be happy when you get the new car or the big promotion or when you meet that special person. You can decide that you’re going to be happy today.”
I am not sure what the early church would have thought about Jake and the Jacobs’ brothers. Life is bad might be a better way to describe what the early Christians experienced. The church had begun as inauspiciously as the Jacobs’ business venture. There were 11 disciples — one had just committed suicide — hunkered down in Jerusalem, wondering what was next after their beloved master had ascended to heaven. While Pentecost brought new power, it also brought new persecution.
The book of Acts reads like a police report from a rough neighborhood. Peter and John get arrested (4:3). Then all of the apostles are jailed, flogged and given a preaching restraining order (5:40). Stephen is stoned to death (7:58). The church is persecuted and driven out of Jerusalem (8:1). A death bounty is put on Paul’s head (9:23). James is beheaded (12:2). And on and on through the first few centuries.
Life is bad. Right? No, it’s not. Most Christians would have said Life was good. So we have to ask: How can anyone who is part of a group that has been arrested, threatened, put in prison, beaten and killed say that life is good? Their sense of belonging to a chosen community made life good.
Randy Frazee in his book, The Connecting Church: Beyond Small Groups to Authentic Community, [Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 2001] notes three distinct values of any effective community, and all three are reflected in this passage from Acts: common purpose, common place, common possessions.
Let us begin with a Common Purpose, because this is the most important part. The purpose makes everything else possible. V32: “Now the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul.” Historian Wayne Meeks notes this as the defining characteristic of the infant church: “One peculiar thing about early Christianity was the way in which the intimate, close-knit life of the local groups was seen to be simultaneously part of a much larger, indeed ultimately worldwide, movement or entity” [Meeks, Wayne A. The First Urban Christians: The Social World of the Apostle Paul. New Haven, Conn. Yale University Press, 1983.]
The purpose of the early church centered on Jesus, the savior and Lord of his people. This was the mission statement of every local group of Christians. They organized themselves around Jesus, and this purpose made them radically different from their culture.
As the new converts gathered together, they began sharing life in ways governed by a new purpose. In Acts 2, they took in the teachings of the apostles, fellowshipped in the temple and one another’s homes, witnessed miracles, praised God, and saw daily additional converts (vv. 42-47).
And this first church had a common place. They met together in the temple and visited each other a lot. This was not a group of people that saw each other once a week for an hour or two. They saw each other every day. They lived and worked together.
Today, everybody laments that neighbors do not do much visiting of neighbors anymore. Many people do not even know who their neighbors are. That is part is the way our society is organized. A generation ago, practically everyone lived and worked in the same town. If you lived a mill town, for example, your neighbor might work next to you on the job, and sit in the pew next to you at church.
Generally speaking, those kinds of intertwined relationships do not exist anymore. Today people live one place, work another, and go to church another. Many do not go to church at all.
Technology has not helped in this regard. Technology has expanded and changed our circles of relationship. We can call on the telephone or leave a text message or an e-mail. The latest thing seems to be to leave a video on Youtube. Did you hear about the Scottish singing sensation, Susan Boyle, who had previously only sung in church? She posted a video on Youtube that has since been viewed more than 3 million times. Maybe the choir ought to work on that.
And travel is so much easier today. We can fly across the continent in a matter of hours. The first settlers who went west took a couple of months to make the same journey.
But Randy Frazee believes all this technological progress has made us more fractured and less connected. He says that we still need a regular church community where we meet people face to face. He is not talking about a preaching service necessarily. A preaching service supplies the common purpose, which is Jesus. But we need other services, like our Wednesday night service, or the men’s breakfast this morning, when we just share together. Frazee says several things can happen at such a gathering. He lists four essential relational characteristics:
1.Spontaneity. People may react differently than we expected and we learn things that we did not suspect.
2. Availability. People are there, close enough to lend an ear.
3. Frequency. The early church met daily. The fact is we cannot have relationships with people we seldom contact.
4. Hospitality. Frazee says that historically shared meals are the centerpiece of close relationships.
The church in Acts 4 had all of that. In Acts 4, we are talking about the church before the persecution of Acts 8 scatters Christians in a dozen different directions. After Acts 8, many different churches began to develop and by Acts 15 major division has erupted within the fellowship.
So we can see Acts 4 as a little interlude of calm before the storm, and, therefore, some would argue that we cannot apply these verses to the church today at all. Today, there are well over a billion Christians scattered into what sometimes seems like a billion denominations. Everyone is going their own way, doing their own thing, and what has that to do with a time in our history when all of Christianity was one rather small church in a small town.
Well, we can still learn something from this first church. The lesson is that Christians need Christians. We need each other.
Perhaps the most staggering feature of the early church was the way they treated their possessions. One thing made it clear that Jesus changed people. Believers disregarded private ownership in favor of a common purse. We see the same thing in Acts 2 where we read in v44, “All who believed were together and had all things in common.” That kind of attitude does not happen apart from God. Give as you can. Take as you need. I own nothing. We own everything. That is a radical community where life is good.
Now in seminary they tell you that some things in the Bible cannot be preached on. This is one of those verses that you are never supposed to mention—because it leads to that dread word, “Socialism,” which is a curse word to most Americans, for some unknown reason.
Of course, all that has changed somewhat in the last year. No one can have much faith in capitalism when we see the greatest companies and corporations in America running to the government, hat in hand begging for billions in taxpayer’s money. But however that may be, I have to say that I do not see the book of Acts as promoting state socialism. Acts is about sharing. This is not about your government bailing out your neighbors. This is about you bailing about your neighbors.
To make the application, suppose your neighbor is about to lose her home because she lost her job and cannot pay her mortgage, and you own a vacation home. Well, sell your vacation home, give the money to your neighbor and save her home. Now I know what your reaction is to that. No way — that is the job of government. Right? And I know that you can say we are the government. We pay taxes. April 15 has just passed, and we are well aware that we pay taxes. So when the government bails out businesses or homeowners, it is actually us. We are doing this. And that is theoretically true, but the government is so big and so remote from us that it does not seem like we are doing it, in fact many of us may oppose some parts at least of the government bailouts.
So let us get back to Acts. There is no doubt that Acts teaches that we are supposed to “bailout”—if you want to use that term—our neighbors. We are supposed to help each other.
In our society, in our time, we are supposed to be Acts 4 Christians, and that requires us to believe that we are the body of Christ, and thus we are connected to each other through Jesus Christ, and therefore we are responsible for each other. Money and possessions are tools to help others and not just for sustenance or indulgence for ourselves.
A Denver church has found deep satisfaction in creating this kind of community. To help out members of the church who are in financial trouble, the pastor and most of the Elders of the Session have had non-family live in their homes. One neighborhood group has created a tool co-op. They split cost and ownership of table saws, garden tools and even a pickup truck for hauling. So what they are saying is that co-dependency can be a good thing. They choose to create relationships based on shared resources.
In another example, Mike Nelson says, “When I served a church in a small town in northern Minnesota, I had an elderly parishioner in her 90s, Esther, whom I would visit in her senior citizen apartment. Although she was one of the oldest residents in the building, often she was the one who would check in on an ailing neighbor. She was the one who would pick up on a not-so-subtle hint from a gentleman in the building that he had been craving “old Swedish rye bread like my wife used to bake.” And when a resident’s eyesight got too poor to mend a torn seam on a blouse, it was Esther who came to the rescue. When a social-service agency visited her, wanting her to sign up for a new assisted-living service they were planning to offer in her building, I teased her, ‘Esther, aren’t those the services that you already provide for your neighbors?’ Esther’s often stated philosophy of life was, ‘Life is good … if you don’t weaken.’ Her love and care for her neighbors was the way she lived out her mission as one of Jesus’ disciples” [Homiletics, March-April 2009, Volume 21, p66-67].
This is how Esther carried out Act 4. The challenge to us is what do we do, for each other.
If you have questions or comments, email Tony Grant
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