32 The community of believers was one in heart and mind. None of them would say, “This is mine!” about any of their possessions, but held everything in common. 33 The apostles continued to bear powerful witness to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and an abundance of grace was at work among them all. 34 There were no needy persons among them. Those who owned properties or houses would sell them, bring the proceeds from the sales, 35 and place them in the care and under the authority of the apostles. Then it was distributed to anyone who was in need.
The book of Acts can be read as a series of sequels to Easter. Notice how Luke “sandwiches” the description of the apostolic proclamation of the resurrection of Jesus (v.33) between his account of the astonishing financial responsibility this community took for one another (vv.32, 34-35).
Astonishing is too weak a word for our response as North American Christians to this community’s communal financial practices. “Unbelievable,” “impractical,” “unfair,” “communistic,” and even “unbiblical” would be more realistic responses. Yet Luke anchors this communal life around the preaching of Jesus’ resurrection, thus making this a sequel to Easter.
Three features of this sequel to Easter jump out at me today. Let me phrase them as contrasts.
Community not individualism
Jubilee not self-interest
Communitas not fellowship
The latter terms of each contrast give us a good profile of what it means to be American. We are individuals, and proud of it. We see ourselves like billiard balls rolling around the billiard table. We occasionally bump into each other and head off in other directions but the “relationships” occasioned by such contacts are in no way essential to our self-definition and self-sufficiency. Like the billiard ball we are complete and sufficient unto ourselves and in need of nothing outside us for completion.
The Bible says human beings are created for each other, need each other, and cannot be full and mature humans without a network of relationships. Similar to the models of molecules I made in high school chemistry class, where we took toothpicks or pipe cleaners and Styrofoam balls and connected the balls to each other via the toothpicks or pipe cleaners and created replicas of molecules with their different elements in configuration, humanity is like that molecule. We only are what God intends us to be in relationship to others. These relationships are essential to our self-definition and vocation in the world. After all, God himself is a triunity of “persons” – always and the same time the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit.
This early community in Jerusalem, enlivened by the resurrected Jesus, were freed from our captivity to a billiard ball type of existence to live in a network of rich and varied relationships.
We are also self-interested. It’s not our fault really. That’s what we’re taught to be from birth on. Not only our economy but our whole approach to life seems to be that if everyone pursues their best with all they’ve got, somehow everyone will benefit and society will improve in ever greater measure. “If you don’t look out for yourself, no one else is going to” is the creedal expression of this view, “Looking out for #1” its bumper sticker slogan.
The Christian community lives by the reality of Jubilee. Jubilee is God’s dream for his world found in Lev.25 in which there is no economic disparity, slavery, or lack of opportunity. While the specifics of the legislation are for an agrarian society, Jesus drew on its imagery to characterize his own work (Lk.4:16-21) and that vision of a world of equality, justice, and generosity for all is deeply inscribed in the Christian psyche. The economic sharing of this Jerusalem community reflects the kind of church (and eventually) world God desires. That the Acts 4 church reflects this reality is another effect of Jesus’ being raised from dead. For in this action, God certified his way of life, his Jubilee-orientation, as the life he approves.
Americans believe in fellowship, or community, as “voluntary gathering of like-minded people around matters of shared interest” (or something similar). In other words, a consumer-oriented community gathered for their own sake and benefit.
The community of faith, as we find it here, is a group called to come together to serve God’s purposes. This community is bound to in shared enterprise, like a joint partnership (the meaning of koinonia, the Greek word usually translated “fellowship). Their commitment to under God to each other leads them into ventures that push them beyond their comfort zones and even into danger. These kinds of shared ventures create what anthropologist Victor Turner calls “communitas.” The group morphs into a new and deeply bonded community willing to be available for and liable to each other in ways normal society cannot mimic.
Community not individualism, Jubilee not self-interest, and Communitas not fellowship – this community in Jerusalem was what it was because of the resurrection of Jesus from the dead.
Dare we believe our communities can become what they were for the same reason?