Becoming the Beautiful Community

Becoming the Beautiful Community
Photo by Alexander Grey / Unsplash

In Eastertide our lectionary turns its attention briefly away from the Hebrew Bible—the Old Testament—and focuses in on the Acts of the Apostles. This is not because the Hebrew Bible is unimportant. Rather, the Acts are a collection of stories from the early Christian community, focused on the events after the Resurrection and Pentecost. If I had to offer a one-sentence summary of the Acts of the Apostles, it would be something like “The book of the Bible that is constantly taking up the question of what the resurrection of Jesus Christ has made possible.” This is why we read it in Eastertide; to remind ourselves that reality has indeed changed from what it was and to encourage our contemplation of what has been made possible as a result.

Today’s passage is just a few verses long and describes a beautiful, idyllic community of early Christians. They share all of their property and money in common. Not only that, but so communal is their life that “the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul”. This goes beyond the sharing of material things and speaks to a deeply-held and shared identity. This community is exploring in profound ways what it means to be one with Christ and, through Christ, to be one with each other.

As an example, held up for us wondering what this really meant, Acts tells the story of a Levite from Cyprus, who the apostles call Barnabas. Barnabas is a new member of the community and comes from considerable means. He sells all of his property, including a field, and brings the money to the apostles for use by the community. This is the standard demonstrated and expected by these early Christians. Of course, because this is a human endeavour, the beautiful idyll does not last forever.

Ananias and Sapphira, a husband and wife, also join the community. They also come from means, owning land. They sell the land but conspire between themselves to give only a portion of the money to the apostles, not the whole amount. When Ananias brings the money to Peter, he is asked why he has allowed Satan to fill his heart and persuade him to lie to the Holy Spirit about how much money the property was worth. Ananias’s crime is not lying to the community, but trying to enter into this relationship with God based on deceit. Once Ananias has heard all of Peter’s rebuke of his deceit, Ananias falls down dead. Peter then goes to their home and confronts Sapphira with the same knowledge and she too drops dead at his words. 

This is so serious because it goes beyond the material possessions involved. In the world of first century Judea, just like our world, giving up property and possessions and money is also tied to giving up status and wealth. One cannot be submerged entirely into the Jordan with Christ and keep a toe in Caesar’s pool. This idea has strongly influenced many Christian thinkers and communities. Some groups, like the Hutterites, have structured their entire life around the idea of shared property and money. These are also texts and stories that have strongly influenced monastic ideals about shared life and sustainability.

We live in a world where the resurrection has made many things possible. We recall Advent, Christmas, and Lent every year to our benefit, but we are Easter people. If this is the economic pattern of the household of God in an Easter world—all money and property shared in common, each cared for according to need, none left behind—then it should give us cause to stop and question our own economic arrangements. How do they square up against the Godly ideal presented by early Christians in the Bible?

Canadian culture, along with most of the Western world, values individualism, private property, and the accumulation of wealth above almost anything else. One need not be particularly talented or wise or even useful to become a celebrity today. Indeed, one can consistently be a clueless, lying, fool before an audience of millions and as long as the wealth is there, it’s immaterial. Having a large enough net worth will ensure that one is on the list of invitees to places of power and privilege and has access to as much—or as little—media spotlight as one wishes. In a culture where this kind of selfish hoarding is the ideal, what would it mean to live more like the Christian community described in the Acts?

When we make decisions about our money and property, what are our priorities? Do we inquire about the principles and practices of the banks and credit unions whose customers we are? We, as a church, have never really made peace with the idea of usury; our definition of it seems to shift easily, depending on where our financial priorities lie.

I have focused here on material things because they seem easy to apprehend. Food, water, shelter, and money are readily-understood needs. Some of which we have even enshrined as things to which every human has a right to possess. Of course, our reality still seems to prioritize the private hoarding of money over the rights of others.

As we think about the possibilities that God has laid out before us in the resurrection—like Barnabas’s riches at the feet of the apostles—we are confronted with possibilities that seem a long way from our reality. After all, if we cannot see our way to sharing simple things like food and water equitably, how are we to approach the real promise of the resurrection: A people who share a heart and soul?

Our joy in Eastertide is that such wonderful possibilities have been offered to us! These are not fantasies, but realities that God has made possible for us and toward which God guides us daily, like the current in a river. Our calling as Easter people is the challenge of plunging all the way into that water, frightening and foreign as it may seem, and trusting God to lead us into that beautiful community. 

Andrew Rampton

Andrew Rampton

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