Starting in my childhood, at that unknown age when I began to pay attention to sermons, and continuing through the majority of my adulthood, the passage in Acts about how the early Jerusalem community of believers held all things in common and spent a great deal of time together in worship and the breaking of bread, was held up as one of two things. First, it was proof that the early Christians modeled the ideal of socialism that we must regain. Second, it was proof that socialism is inherently unstable, easily disintegrating under the burden of its own weaknesses. I cannot remember a sermon or bible class that did not begin with one view or the other.
I think they both miss the point by a huge distance. The story in Acts has nothing to do with socialism or anything like it. It has everything to do with redefining family. Families in Jesus’ day, as with traditional families of the region yet today, held all things in common, joining three generations or more in one household, often including various uncles, aunts, cousins, etc. The abiding symbol of family was the sharing of bread, the family meal. The story in Acts, building on the episode recorded in Mark 3, Matthew 12 and Luke 8, illustrates Jesus’ own meaning of family as the gathering of his followers living in communion with one another.
It wasn’t perfect. It was beset by betrayal. Israelites and Hellenists didn’t get along with each other. Theological differences arose between leaders who experienced Jesus through different lenses. Nevertheless, the breaking of bread, the sharing of the family meal, in Christ’s name, in Christ’s presence, remained the center of life and the core definition of family. It was communion, Holy Communion.
The ritualized nature of our own Holy Eucharist retained the power of its symbolism as long as the ideal of the family meal was embraced by society, but I think it’s more difficult in America today where so many rarely sit down to a family meal, and there is little sense of it as an ideal. I’m reminded of my own childhood. Every Sunday we sat down to a Sunday supper of a roast, potatoes, vegetable, small salad and bread. There were two iron clad rules. Grace would be said, and bread would be broken. There were only the five of us: mom, dad, my two younger sisters and me. My parents had moved as far away from rural Kansas as they could get, leaving the extended family behind. But the grace we said was the same grace they said. The menu we ate was the same menu they ate. The ritual of breaking bread was the same ritual they observed. Most often, the meal would be followed by a hurried, loudly voiced long distance phone call to Kansas. In that context it was not hard to understand the parish as family, and the Eucharist as the shared meal that bound us together, no matter what our differences were or what the preacher said about socialism.
My guess is that that sort of family ritual is uncommon today, which makes it all the harder to understand the symbolism of Acts 2 as an illustration of Christ’s call to a new understanding of family. A few years ago, some popular church consultant, I don’t remember who, even railed against the language of congregation as family. It was, he said, just the sort of language that too easily excluded strangers and seekers. OK, that’s a danger, but it seems to me one that we can live with if we are to be serious about following where Jesus has led: “ Then his mother and his brothers came to him, but they could not reach him because of the crowd. And he was told, “Your mother and your brothers are standing outside, wanting to see you.” But he said to them, “My mother and my brothers are those who hear the word of God and do it.”” (Luke 8:19-21)
In that family no one is without brothers, sisters, mothers and fathers, aunts and uncles. How precious the gift of family so gathered in Christ’s name.