Wednesday, April 4, 2018
All Things In Common
During the Easter season, we read from the Acts of the Apostles every Sunday, and, this week, we get a glimpse at my favorite part of Acts: the unity of the Christian community. In Acts 4, we read that "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." That's Christian unity. Where did that kind of unity go?
Throughout history, there have been attempts to legislate common ownership. Political systems and religious cults have arisen around the theme of common property. The utopia of equality is appealing. Even reading Acts, I find myself wondering what it would take for a church community to look like that again. As far as I can tell, all of the individuals and groups who have tried to impose common ownership have all failed--failed at least in the sense that the property was really owned by all. Maybe that's because Acts 4 isn't a recipe for a unified Christian community. It's a description of it.
Actually, there are some communal Christian groups that work. Religious communities of monks and nuns continue to thrive in their own, isolated ways. I don't know the details, but I understand that individuals have their own rooms where they keep their own sentimental possessions but put everything of value at the disposal of the order. In order to become a member of a religious community, you must be debt free because otherwise any debt that you have would become the order's responsibility. When I went to monastery to see a spiritual director, I wrote a check to the individual director who met with me, but that money wasn't hers. It reflected her contribution to their common life. How does it work for present-day monks and nuns to live in a community that is remarkably similar to that described in Acts?
I, too, live in a Christian community where all things are held in common. It's called a family. We all share everything that we have. The peanut butter doesn't belong to any one of us, even if it is my favorite brand. When the milk runs out, no one accuses anyone else of stealing it. We just get more. Sure, there are arguments over what toy belongs to whom and who stole a piece of candy out of whose Easter basket, but, deep down, we all know that all things are held in common. We pass down underwear from one child to another, for Pete's sake! It feels less surprising that a family would figure out how to hold all things in common, but that's where the success lies.
A community is able to hold all things in common because it is truly united. That's the point of Acts 4. You can't create unity by forcing everyone to surrender her property. Sure, surrendering property will help reinforce unity. So many of the letters of the New Testament remind us that economic differences have a tendency to rip the community apart. But you can't magically unify a diverse group of people by making them give up private ownership of possessions. How is it possible for a community to be that unified? The Holy Spirit or, to put it another way, a community's complete and total dependence on the one principle that unites them all.
The Christian community in Acts is a group of believers who have lost their own individuality. Their needs, their concerns, their hopes, their dreams have all been folded into those of the group. They aren't being asked to forgo their identity. That would be artificial. That's what happens when communal property rules are enforced by a few. Instead, they voluntarily surrender that identity because, when they look at the group, they see their true identity. Their needs are the group's needs. Their dreams are the group's dreams. Unity like that works when we look around and see that our true identity already belongs to the group, and that's the kind of transformation that the gospel enables.
What does that mean for the preacher this week? Good question. I don't think it means a sermon about giving up more of your money in order to be unified. There's a place for that, but that's not the point of Acts 4. This week, it's time to preach the unifying power of God's victory over sin and death. If we believe that God has put to flight all that separates us from one another, then it is possible for us to become the community of Acts 4. As we pray in this week's collect, "Grant that all who have been reborn into the fellowship of Christ's Body may show forth in their lives what they profess by their faith." Our aspiration is a community so united by the Holy Spirit that we become one body. We can't get there by forcing people to give up what they love. We get there by letting God teach us to love unity.