This is a reflection on Acts 4:32-35, the first reading for Sunday, April 12, 2015.
I’m a big fan of the beginning chapters of the Acts of the Apostles. There is something almost utopian about the early church covered in these passages. Today’s opening reading, Acts 4:32-35, paints a vivid picture as to what the early church aspired. More than some utopian dream, these verses should serve as a standard by which our churches today, indeed our own practice of discipleship, might be measured.
One of the first things we notice in verse 32 is that the communion of the early church is demonstrated by sharing—not just any sharing but material, economic sharing. They held all of their possessions “in common”. One of the regular exhortations of demonstrators against corporate globalization in the late-nineties was that people were not created to serve the economy but rather the economy was created to serve the people. The implication was that an economic system is just insofar as it meets the needs of the people; and conversely, unjust systems are those which value the bottom line over people. For Catholics, every pope of the last two centuries has echoed this description of the early church when they have called on economic systems and ideologies to serve the needs of the people, specifically the needs of those who are the most vulnerable, the biblical “least of these” (Matthew 25).
The passage goes on to express in the particular what this “everything in common” looked like:
- No needy person among them
- Those who owned property or houses would sell them and put the proceeds into service for the entire community under the direction of the apostles
- And the apostles would distribute those proceeds based on the needs of each member of the community
It is a really stunning witness. And it makes clear that the early church understood how the value of their witness to Jesus would be understood by others according to how they took care of one another.
Some of our churches still use the terms “brother” and “sister” when referring to other members of their congregation. For the early church, there was nothing “symbolic” about those terms. The expectation was that each member would really be taken care of as if they were an actual brother or sister. As new converts joined the early church, it concretely meant entrance into a new family (and often shunning or ostracism from the family, tribe, and communities to which they formerly belonged, along with the implications of lost livelihoods and economic security which those institutions offered).
As with the teachings and practices of Jesus, many of our first-world churches spiritualize (i.e. soften or minimize) the practice of the early church so as to make it a nice story that requires very little of us. Passages like today’s are often turned into appeals to tithe more to the church, practice some charity toward the “less fortunate”, or worse, skipped over in silence all together. Another choice would be to allow these passages to speak to us, to critique us as the heirs to that original community of faith. Let it make us uncomfortable with just how far short we fall from that radical witness of our ancestors. Let it make us delve more deeply into conversation about what kind of individual and communal economic practices we should be developing in relation to who we believe Jesus to be and who we say we are to each other. Let the witness of the early church draw us into wrestling with authentic questions of faith like how we spend our money, how we care for the needy among us, what our relationship is to our possessions, how do our political or economic beliefs and ideologies jibe with the scriptural portraits of Jesus and the early church … and so on.
This is what I have always loved and believed about these stories: that they are meant to challenge us, to shake us and poke us when we have become too unquestioning and lazy about our own relative ways of being faithful people in the world today. Such stories are not meant as a measuring stick for the rest of the world “out there”; rather they are aimed directly at us “in here,” at us who call ourselves “church”, at each of us who identify as “Christian”. Let’s really hear them, and ask how we measure up.