For the first Christians, the resurrection of Christ was more than just a miraculous event in the life of Jesus; it was a powerful symbol of the coming of a new age. It was to change absolutely everything in their lives, because, in their minds, it had changed absolutely everything on a cosmic level. We get an indication of just how seriously they took this in today’s reading from the Acts of the Apostles. And so I’d like to reflect on this today, as well as on why this same spirit has been so elusive ever since.
As reported in Acts 2.42-47, the Church in those first weeks and months after Pentecost is described like this:
They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. 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.
Acts here presents us with a ‘Golden Age’ vision of the earliest Church. The wistfulness of the passage probably means that this was already not a universal experience when the text was written, likely even within a generation of the events it describes. (Paul’s letters too point to a very different — and far more recognizable — experience of community life in the first century!) But this description of life in the nascent Christian community in Jerusalem is certainly profound and inspiring. It paints a picture of a people devoted to teaching the faith, to sharing life together (the Greek word translated as ‘fellowship’ is koinonia, which has strong connotations of sharing and ‘the commons’), and worship. Big things were happening in and around them and there was a kind of hushed excitement (’awe’, in Greek phobos, literally ‘fear’) about what God was doing. Then comes the more challenging part for most of us: The community had no private property, but held everything in common. The text goes deeper into this a couple chapters later:
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. With great power the apostles gave their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all. 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. They laid it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need. (4.32-35)
We don’t know too much about this, but we do know this was taken very seriously. Acts 5 tells the story of two disciples, Ananias and Sapphira, who lied about how much money a sale brought in and were struck down by the Holy Spirit for it! (Yikes!)
What are we to make of these ideas, and how do they fit into twenty-first century life? At this point, reflections on this text normally go in one of two directions, either saying this communal sensibility should be normative, or arguing why it should not. I’m not all that interested either of those approaches. To me it seems clear that both extremes present extraordinary potential for abuses, whether in the tyranny of the wealthy if you reject the collective spirit of the Acts 2 Church or the tyranny of the collective if you affirm it. What’s more interesting, I think, is the question of why the idea of holding everything in common was so attractive (and, if the rise and fall of communal communities over the centuries is any indication, why it has remained so), and why it didn’t last.
The short answer for the first half the question is that the first Christians believed they were living in a new age in which the values of the Kingdom of God would prevail, and so, logically, there should be neither extreme wealth nor poverty, there should be no rivalry or fear of abuse or scarcity to keep people from sharing willingly all that they had with their new-found adoptive family ‘in Christ.’ And this remains true: Inasmuch as we support policies that don’t increase equity across all demographics, we cannot say we are operating from within a ‘Kingdom of God’ mentality. But that’s only the first half of the question. The short answer for the second half is, simply, ‘sin.’ People, like Ananias and Sapphira, were still going to scheme to hold things back ‘just in case’. Those used to riches were still going to try to take more than their share. (Both Paul and James address this problem in their letters (see 1 Corinthians 11.20 and James 2.1-6). The best intentions of members and leadership would not prevent disagreements over major issues of group identity, to say nothing of how to disburse funds. And, as time went on, it became clear that the Church leadership could not always be trusted to have the best interests of all of its members at heart — St. Ignatius of Antioch, writing around the turn of the second century, famously opposed using the common purse to fund the manumission of slaves; if enslaved persons were expected to give everything they had to the community, and the community would not put money towards their freedom, this policy effectively turned their enslavement into a life sentence!
What becomes clear as the story of the Church progresses is that the first Christians had to learn that, despite living in the new age of God’s Kingdom, they were still living in a world where the rules of the ‘old age’ were still in full operation — including in their own lives. They had to learn the frustrating reality of what we often call “the now-but-not-yet” of our faith. We are called to be “in the world but not of the world,” to be the new age present within the old age. And this is a tremendous challenge, to say the least.
The witness of Acts 2-4 remains as a powerful and important challenge for us. It reminds us that our prayers for God’s Kingdom to come “on earth as in heaven” need to be lived out in tangible ways — ways that impact not just how we spend our money, but also our sense of identity and the boundaries we have with others. Is it workable in real life? Aside from some monastic communities, history has shown that, if it’s workable at all, it’s really difficult to do well. And that’s why the expectation of full sharing of life seems to have broken down pretty quickly, and why most communes have failed within a generation of being set up. But that doesn’t make it any less the vision of God’s Kingdom present in the world.
So where does this leave us? I think, honestly, it leaves us in a place of repentance for all the ways our sin makes God’s vision for the world impossible to live out. And, it leaves us with the need to reflect on how we might make this spirit more alive — even just a little bit — in our lives and communities today.
Thy Kingdom come, Thy Will be done, on earth as in heaven.