Our lectionary study group took less time than usual to get off the track this week. The culprit was the very short episode in Acts 4 that describes the communal life style of the nascent Christian community in Jerusalem.
No one ever seems to notice that this brief moment of utopian communal life did not last long, and was not replicated in any other place where early Christians gathered. So the first departure from the track had to do with the common assumption that it was the general rule in the life of the early church, and is prescriptive of the way we should live, at least as a romantic ideal. It’s evidenced by a sort of collective sigh accompanied by a vaguely expressed thought about how sad it is that the Church has drifted so far away from that ideal. Of course we have not the slightest interest in living like that, and are content to point at, but not get too near, various Amish and Mennonite communities as living in the way we should if we had any desire to do so, which we don’t, and wouldn’t even if given the chance.
That is not to dismiss the value of that early communal life style. No doubt it really was an earthly moment in time reflecting a little something of the eternal life in community that awaits. It could endure for a while because of the overpowering presence of the resurrected Christ whose reconciling love cascaded over and through the early believers. That reconciling love is still ours to share in the already but not yet between times in which our earthly lives are spent. But it is ours only in part because we remain a work in progress, complete with the human weaknesses of Ananias and Sapphira, the grumpy apostles who had to wait on tables, the hellenistic faithful who were not treated well by native Israelites, and all the rest of them who were unable to maintain that communal way of life for very long.
As for me, I’m delighted that they were able to give us a foretaste of the feast yet to come.
So much for theology. The other way we got off track with such ease was the temptation to compare the communal life in Acts to communism and socialism. Most people have very little idea of what either actually is, but that doesn’t keep their very little idea from being firmly held. The one thing they are certain of about communism is that Marx, Engels, Lenin and Stalin were all Russians committed to world domination and the destruction of the American Way of Life. As for socialism, it’s the junior cousin of communism largely responsible for the nanny state excesses of Europe, and the demise of the Christian faith everywhere. Beyond that, there seems to be little interest in knowing more about the political theory and practice defining either one.
If nothing else, it would be helpful to be reminded that the people of Acts never heard of either one, and would be dumfounded to discover that they were being held up as an example of them. Nineteenth and twentieth century political theory and practice need to be kept where they belong and not transferred back to the first century. It would be even more helpful if those with strong opinions knew what they were talking about before they started talking.
Just to be fair, it is equally true that, regarding the American Way of Life, far too many, skeptics and true believers alike, do not know very much about capitalism, private enterprise vs. free enterprise, the principles of republican democracy, or, for that matter, the differences between the various types of democratic systems of government.