Saturday, April 12, 2008

Acts 2.44-45: A Further Note on Easter IV

In today’s first first reading we are told that

All who believed were together and had all things in common; and they sold their possessions and goods and sitributred them to all, as many had need. ~Acts 2:44 (RSV)

Another passage in Acts gives the same picture:

Now the company of those who believed were of one heart and soul; and no one said that any of the things which he possessed was his own, but they had everything in common property to them. And 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 were possessors of lands or hosues sold them, and brought the proceeds of what was sold and laid it at the apostles’ feet; and distribution was made to each as any had need …. [Barnabas] sold a field which belonged to him, and brought the money and laid it at the apostles' feet. [4.32-37 RSV]

The literature on these passages from the Acts of the Apostles is too vast for even a shallow summary here. It is usually held that this experiment in communal or family living was only attempted by the Church at Jerusalem and only for a while. The mention of Barnabas is seen as a specal case (or why else should it be mentioned?) and proof that not the practice was not universal; indeed it is pointed out that Barnabas sold a field, not his whole property. The later incident of Ananias and Sapphira (5.1-11) is adduced as evidence that it was not compulsory. Others reject this as an attempt to weasle out of the clear evidence of Scripture (see, for example, Conrad Noel, Socialism in Church History (1911), pages 97 ff.) Many the Church Fathers clearly thought that the Church in their day had betrayed and declined from this ideal (for example St John Chrysostom).

Without attempting a judgement on the question of this “apostolic communism,” I offer a few thoughts. W. M. Furneaux in his commentary on Acts, notes that this community of goods was an extension of the apostles’ own experience:

During the Lord’s ministry the little band of disciples had been a brotherhood with a common purse, recruited by he gifts of women and others, who ‘ministered to him of their substance’ [Lc 8.3]. The Twelve would have been steeped in this life. By Christ’s command they had practiced its principles in the earliest mission journey [Mc 6.8], and they naturally sought now to realize on a large scale the perfect type of all society, the family, as a true expression of the new bond of brotherhood.

He holds that while Acts 2 and 4 idealize the picture of the early Church a little, there is some historical basis to it:

Though all who possessed property did not literally remounce their private interest in it, all did cease to feel that they held it for their own exclusive benefit. They felt that they were trustees and stewards, bound to consider the community rather than the individual. What was any brother's was the brethren’s. To men so enthusiastically ‘of one heart and soul’ separate interests seemed treason and coldness.

Furneaux expects us to follow the example of the early Church in this generosity of spirit.
One point that seems very important to me is that there is no hint of compulsion. It seems that the new Christians have felt a unity with one another in heart and soul and in response give freely of their possessions for the benefit of their brothers and sisters.
But there is a question in my mind. If I have nothing, how can I give? If all things are shared, with what can I be generous? “God loves a cheerful giver;” how can I make a gift of what is ours? There has to be room for giving if men and women are to become generous, and community of property seems to me to act against it. The life of the first Christians in Jerusalem unquestinably passes a judgement on the Church of later ages and on human society in general, but it does not seem to be a blueprint for organizing society, or solving the tension between individual and community.
So there are some thoughts and questions arising from the reading of Acts, but no answer. I only have a quotation from G. K. Chesterton’s essay The Theology of Christmas Presents that needs to be thrown into the mix:

Christmas stands for this superb and sacred paradox: that it is a higher spiritual transaction for Tommy and Molly each to give each other sixpence than for both equally to share a shilling.

No comments: