Different churches may not agree on much. But most seem to share a kind of nostalgia for what we call “the early church.”
Usually we’re talking about the church we see in the first chapters of Acts. We want to have their commitment, their unity and their dedication to the gospel. We probably wouldn’t mind three thousand people joining at a time, either, as well as the daily addition of new members. We Methodists would probably have to refill the baptismal fonts a few times.
But I’ve found we sometimes overlook this part or at least we don’t emphasize it much. This part about holding everything in common. Say it in some parts of the country and get a cold eye while people ask you if you’re some kind of communist.
Hey, it’s a reasonable question. Karl Marx said the central idea of communism was, “From each according to his ability, to each according to his need.” I don’t think you can read Luke’s description of the earliest church and see them as doing anything different from that idea. If someone was in need, then another believer who had something to sell did so, and passed out the proceeds to the needy. He didn’t get a receipt or turn in records to the church for reimbursement or take a deduction from the IRS. Some folks even think Marx borrowed the phrase from Luke, but who knows?
OK, but the difference is that communism didn’t work, right? Definitely true, thank goodness, but the church doesn’t seem to follow this pattern anymore either, at least not as often as they apparently did here.
The two ideas are different, even if they’re expressed the same way. But the difference is at their core.
Obviously, the church’s system involved God, and the communist system was very clear about its atheism. But that alone wouldn’t make the difference, I think. Let’s say I’m a member of the church who has more stuff than someone else does, and we find out that believers are in need. The church elders come to me and ask me to sell my second car so the needy can have food. I don’t want to, why should I, I ask. Because God said so, they tell me.
Well, that’s really no different than the way the communist system relied on state power to make resources were distributed evenly. One group of leaders tells me God says I have to give up stuff I paid for; the other group tells me that all of the fellows with rifles say I have to. Neither sounds like the earliest church to me.
What Luke writes about worked because God was involved, yes. God was at the center of this system of relationships among the believers. But God was at the center of the system because he was at the center of the believers’ lives, not because he was somehow legalistically pasted onto something someone already dreamed up. No one had to tell people to sell stuff and help each other out – they wanted to do it.
The communist system dreamed up by Karl Marx was just one of an endless number of ways people have tried to create a perfect system made up of stubbornly imperfect people.
Time after time, in philosophy or novels or political speeches and writings, folks have offered a blueprint on how to build paradise. Some of them did better than others, but none of them made a paradise. Sometimes they leave out what seems like a lot of details and sometimes they leave out only a few. But even if they left out only one, they’d never build a paradise as long as that one thing they left out was God at the hearts of the people involved.
The church in Acts 2 succeeded at this kind of communal living because the people centered their lives on God rather than on themselves. Our spirits were made to seek something greater than ourselves, which we Christians say means we were made to seek God. If we don’t seek God, we’ll make gods of our own out of something or someone else – sometimes us. And when we’re the gods of our own lives, we sure as heck aren’t going to inconvenience ourselves for someone else’s benefit. Unless there’s something in it for us, that is.
Rather than asking, “What’s in it for me?” a Christian asks, “What’s in it for God?” When his children help one another, then “what’s in it for God” are actions and words that uphold the dignity and worth of even the least of them.
It’s a better deal than we might think, too. Even while we ask, “What’s in this for God,” we can be reminded what God has told us – he’s in it for us.