Now the full number of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one said that any of the things that belonged to him was his own, but they had everything in common. And with great power the apostles were giving 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 owners of lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold and laid it at the apostles' feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need. Thus Joseph, who was also called by the apostles Barnabas (which means son of encouragement), a Levite, a native of Cyprus, sold a field that belonged to him and brought the money and laid it at the apostles' feet. (Act 4:32-37)
I think it is difficult in the wake of the sixties to not have your reading of this passage be a little biased one way or another. Everyone wants to turn this into a commune, and then begin to criticize modern Christians on the basis of it. Then on the other side you have people wanting to ignore this and move on.
I’m not always sure what to make of it one way or another. But it seems to me we have a little bit of a sketch of the reality that doesn’t begin to tell the whole story, and yet manages to betray the fact that there is a large story behind this. One thing is for certain, no one was being shamed into giving their possessions here, and it is a bad use of the text to shame others today with such readings. Neither do I think this had anything to do with misconceptions concerning the immediacy of Christ’s return.
What you had were the apostles preaching the resurrection and others coming to believe it. This was not without consequences. Some who came to believe were rich and owned homes and lands. This last year I enjoyed reading “Through the Eye of a Needle” by Peter Brown, a book that deals with wealth in the Roman world, and then looks at how the church dealt with wealth mostly in the fourth century and on. But it opens a person’s eyes to just how different things were in antiquity. Land owners, a person who owned a house, well they could afford to do and or believe whatever they wanted. But the rest of the people, even if they were “free” tended to be dependent on land owners as patrons. And there was a lot less freedom there. Changing beliefs and adopting a new religion could cost you your patronage, your job, and livelihood. So preaching the resurrection preaching Christ and essentially starting a new religion, one that mandated you leave your old faith behind, would cause scandal and societal unrest. The new believers were losing their lives for Christ. They were losing family, jobs, and they were gaining Christ, and a new family. It was a matter of survival for these new believers that they be one in heart and soul, and it was a reality that was created by the work of the Holy Spirit. So they were looking out for each other, as Christians do even today.
I scratch my head when I hear people criticizing “the church” or churches for not caring etc. I hear people complain about how much a congregation puts into building a church and how that money could have better gone to charity etc. It rings hollow to me. The people who spent their money building a church, well one they provided work for the community when they did that. That is no small thing by the way. But two, those people give more to charity, and by charity I don’t mean what they give to the operating budget of a church, than any other demographic you can point to. The LCMS alone will often dwarf the Red Cross in relief efforts, and will be working in the places that need it long after other efforts have left the scene. And when needed they have door offerings and so on for congregations such as those in Pilger Nebraska that see their church building enter the land of OZ. And why? Because of the resurrection.
Here’s the thing. Christians understand the value of life. Christians value life. And not just their own. One can’t really value one’s own life without valuing the life of others. That’s the thing. This is what was turning the Roman world upside down with the preaching of the resurrection, it meant that God valued your life, that God valued the life of others. He paid for your life with blood, with his own life. It was worth that much. Who can put a price on the blood of God? And when God assigns that kind of value to you, then what does that say about the value of your neighbor for whom Christ dies. See then, then it’s a bit harder to use and abuse your neighbor, even if you did purchase him or her at a slave market. And it begins to make you wonder a bit about this whole notion of being able to purchase a person for a few hundred dollars when in reality that person was purchased with the blood of Christ. And the Christian slave is going to have that same attitude towards his owner. At least we hope. The problem is that sin is still a part of all of this, and the potential for even a Christian to abuse a fellow Christian is quite unbelievable. But then that is something that the gospel reveals to us too. Before the resurrection was preached, no one really thought twice about it. Sure, love your neighbor as yourself, was something taught in the Old Testament. And yet apart from the resurrection the story of the good Samaritan was foolishness. And the love for your neighbor was you trying to earn salvation. Even today one can catch glimpses of this. It isn’t really love, it is an effort to use your neighbor. People come up with bare minimums and try to define who their neighbor is. They try to split hairs with it. And the motive is wrong and then the whole thing is wrong. It is a failed love. A failed attempt to fulfill the law. And the people sense it, when your love of self is the motive. It can only be overcome by the love of Christ in the forgiveness of sins. Because it was on the cross that the law was finally fulfilled, and fulfilled for you by one who did not need to do it. He did it for love, because he loved you. And that inspires a man like Barnabas to sell a field for his brothers and sisters in Christ, who lost their lives for the sake of him who gave them his.