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.
Now I will say that I don’t take this as a dictum for National Economic Policy, any more than I take “Turn the other cheek” as a description of judicial practice. Perhaps this is my own cynicism at the fore, and a better me would dream bigger dreams. But to get right to the heart of the matter, I do believe this is an ideal toward which we could strive as a Christian people. My home is your home; come and stay with me. My food is your food; come, and break bread. Your concern is my concern: what ails you ails me too, your burdens are my burdens, because we are one body in Christ. Today, we receive and bless new members--a serious undertaking. Today, we commune and reaffirm that we are altogether like one body. Think about how much a bad toothache affects the rest of your life, and you will realize that we cannot let anyone in our midst suffer without sharing in their pain.
This morning, I want to talk about how we live this out in our lives. It may not seem possible to you yet, that you should want to share your belongings as broadly as those in Acts did, but it’s my job to challenge us all to consider living into a text completely. And, I think that by and large, the longer we are alive, the easier that becomes.
I can remember as a child the careful, tedious negotiations that went into the splitting of a jelly doughnut. My brother and I would share one from a six-pack we brought on long car trips to Vermont. You can imagine the problems with the exact division of a doughnut filled with oozing red lava--we were each hell-bent, and I don’t use the expression lightly, on getting our own fair share. This was a hold-over from our youthful days, a childish obsession with fairness that we couldn’t quite let go of.
Over time, we learned that most things work out. The jelly may glom with one half more than another, but the next division will break the other way. We might fight about violations of an invisible line that ran down the middle of the back seat, but in the end life would have its ups and downs, unmeasurable against one another. I was younger, which left me always feeling the sting of youth; but my brother was teased mercilessly throughout his school days. We each had our points of pity and pride--but we were together. We were family. Somehow, that made us more.
No one claimed private ownership… and there was not a needy person among them.
How this passage resonates with so many stories from the good news! When Jesus fed us, the bread was broken and shared, and there was always more than enough, more than what was needed. When the manna was sent to the Israelites in the wilderness--read the story of Moses in Exodus--there was enough. But when Jesus broke bread with the crowds that sat on the green grass by Galilee, there was *more* than enough, so much that the broken pieces were more than the loaves that had been sent out.
“They gathered up twelve baskets of broken pieces, and of the fish.”
As a child, however, what was mine was mine! I was adamant about this; my parents coaxed and scolded, and I learned to share… but I was always aware of what was mine by right, and what wasn’t. I was not, that is, a good Acts Christian.
But I grew. I remember in fourth grade learning that Pennsylvania is a “commonwealth.” That’s a term that comes straight from Acts; the people in that state must have been quite economically courageous, believing that its wealth should be held in common, and used for the common good. This was the state of the Founding Fathers, the idealists upon which our nation was built. They believed that our wealth should benefit all. As Christians, we go one step further in saying that we say we give ourselves to Christ. We are offering our whole selves, not just our wealth; we are saying that everything we are, in work, life, relationships, friendships, in dreams and in silence--that all these moments of our lives are God’s to claim, God’s to use. We are members of the Christian “commonself”.
We become adults. As adults, we are aware of all the responsibilities we must keep, and the idea of letting go of our possessions sounds too much like letting go of our ability to keep our word. If it didn’t work out, our credit might be damaged. Our promises to our children might not be able to be kept. Our financial promises to car companies and mortgage banks might not be met. We need control in order to be able to keep our word.
But at some point, when we get older and our bodies start to fail and betray us, we begin to think differently about what of our gifts must adhere to our lives. Once we accept that our lives are finite, most people start to think with some concreteness about how we will give it all away.
I remember, for instance, my friend Ruth. As she started to think about leaving her home, for a room in a facility nearer to her children--she started to ask if people wouldn’t like her things. “You’d like these mugs, wouldn’t you?” she’d ask. Or: “Go look in the bedroom. Wouldn’t you like that quilt?” She had everything marked for someone: the art on the walls, the baskets on the rafters, the perennials in the garden. She was ready to let go of everything. She wanted to know where it was going--who would enjoy it, when she couldn’t any longer.
Walter did the same thing more radically when he knew he was dying. He started telling his children and his friends what he wanted them to have. “I want to imagine them enjoying it,” he said. “I don’t want to leave a mess behind.”
Sometimes, someone gives a treasure away, just because they can. Every once in a while, someone acts upon some great thrust of generosity, and OH--the joy it brings, to let go! To give, and believe that that gift has been God-blessed to be GOOD! With a true gift, we don’t hold on anymore to control or judgment on its use; we trust and love, with the same spirit with which Jesus gave life on a cross.
Somehow, those Christians in Acts were able to adopt this perspective without being on their deathbeds. Was it that they had just seen Jesus die that made them feel so fluid about this world? Was it their understanding that they were truly giving their own lives away for Christ? Was it the threat of persecutions that put a pall on their future? A time comes that we are forced to recognize what Jesus has been telling us all along, that young man who knew life was fleeting; that there is more than enough. That the Psalm we started this service with was right when it said,
How very good and pleasant it is when kindred live together in unity!
It is like precious oil poured over the head, running down upon the beard
upon the beard of Aaron, running down over the collar of his robes.
The plenty of the oil, of the bread, of all our blessings--it is more than enough.
The older we get, the more we see it. How sad is that rich old man, who dies imagining how he will possibly keep every bit of his grain for himself! How poor we find Citizen Kane to be, as his belongings are catalogued and discarded after his lonely death. We don’t fill our pyramids with possessions, or pack gold to take with us to the hereafter; we believe that of everything we consider ours in this world, it is only our soul that goes forth into new life, escorted by those who have already followed the Way. How rich is Jesus, who died retaining nothing in the world, but cascaded love and salvation over all humanity!
For us, as the mortality of the body grows closer, we long more and more to be reminded of the soul that is within us that does not die, the part that carries on unchanged, the part that is our timeless investment in Life. The day comes that even our breath becomes food for the trees, and our body goes back to the ground from which it was formed… and only a soul arises, robbed from all its earthly trappings like the husked wheat that becomes bread.
This is ahead of each of us: this time of letting go. It stands before us, at the last: a time when there is no longer mine, no longer possession… but we distribute to each as they have need. For any who gather in vigil as we die, all things are shared in common; there is no longer any needy person among us. But we become of one heart and mind in Christ; and we give our testimony at the last: a witness to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, like that first Easter, so very long ago.