< May 11, 2014 >

Commentary on Acts 2:42-47

 

Acts 2:42-47 summarizes the daily life of the earliest Christian community in Jerusalem.

The passage is fairly easy to understand in terms of the picture it describes. Its challenge comes in discerning how to apply it. Is the life of this community to be taken as a model for Christian life today? If so, it would be hard to deny that most Christians are missing the mark on some key points. If it is not to be so taken, then what shall we do with the passage?

The account follows directly on the story of Pentecost, where the Holy Spirit had been experienced powerfully not only by the gathered remaining followers of Jesus, but also by many others in Jerusalem in the neighborhood of their gathering (2:1-13). Peter had given the first Christian evangelistic sermon, explaining that what the people were experiencing was the end-times gift of God’s Spirit promised by the prophet Joel, now poured out on them by the risen and exalted Christ (2:14-36). The response to the sermon was tremendous: Three thousand people repented, were baptized, and joined the Jerusalem Christian community (2:37-41). This week’s passage describes what the life of the resulting community looked like.

Most of the activities described as characterizing the community’s life are uncontroversial and have often characterized Christian congregational life throughout history. This is especially so with the opening description of verse 42. Teaching, fellowship, eating together, and prayer have been common Christian practices for ages. The middle two of these may be especially significant -- fellowship (the Greek word is the well-known koinonia) and eating together, mundane as they seem, are not activities we just happen to do but are essential acts of Christian life.

Teaching and prayer are likely more obvious as Christian activities, but many congregations will nonetheless be helped by a reminder of their centrality. There is some debate about the precise nature of the third and fourth activities: Does “the breaking of bread” refer specifically to the Lord’s Supper or more generally to shared regular meals? The answer is probably both, as 1 Corinthians 11:17-34 suggests that the Lord’s Supper was celebrated as a part of regular meals in the early church. The fourth item says “the prayers,” not simply “prayer” as some translations have it; this probably refers to the set prayers occurring at the temple (see Acts 3:1).

Verses 46-47a provide a similar additional description of the community’s life, repeating the ideas of their fellowship and shared meals, while adding their praising of God and the goodwill experienced by them among the rest of the people. The latter may surprise some, as the common stereotype is that early Christians were constantly the object of ridicule and scorn. That is at least not the case here, though certainly trouble will arise in the following chapters.

It is verses 43-45 that have tended to cause the most debate about this passage. Verse 43 describes the miracles done in the community. This naturally raises the question of whether and to what extent miraculous activity ought to characterize Christian life today. The importance of the picture here might be mitigated by the fact that God is the initiator of the miracles -- contrary to many of the major translations, including the NRSV, the Greek text says not that they were done “by” the apostles but that they were done “through” (Gk dia) them. Performance of miracles is not primarily a matter of human volition, though one might still ask why miracles occur in one setting and not in another.

The chief challenge of the passage, however, clearly comes in verses 44-45. The members of the community sold their possessions, held all things jointly, and distributed to others as there was need. Ought all Christians to follow this example? The strongest reason for answering “no” here comes from setting this passage in the context of the overall New Testament witness.

While it is not hard to find examples of the community’s other described activities throughout the New Testament, the New Testament as a whole does not indicate that early Christians broadly lived in this radical communal fashion. We do not even find it in Acts outside of the original Jerusalem community. We certainly find concern for the poor and concern about economic oppression in places like Paul’s letters, James, and Revelation (and the rest of Acts), but all other indications about Christian living, whether direct or implicit, are that Christians retained their homes and basic possessions.

We must beware, however, of dismissing this passage too easily. Most of us have no desire to live in this fashion and are thus overly motivated to find reasons not to do so. And surely it is no coincidence that this activity is described as following the powerful gift of the Spirit and the performance of miracles through the apostles! These points suggest that where God is especially at work and where God’s presence is especially experienced, such giving and sharing is the natural Christian response.

Thus Jesus’ own followers during his lifetime likewise lived in such an intensive community. That our own lives look quite different is likely an indication that we have not experienced such divine work among us. I do not mean this as an indictment but merely as a recognition. We still live in a fallen world, and such powerful experiences of God’s activity are not common. But where they occur, our response should be one of celebration rather than suspicion, and we ought to seek such things, not avoid them.

In the meantime, our lives, communal and individual, ought to reflect our own experiences of God’s grace and action in and among us. What message do we send to the world about God by our own attitudes and deeds concerning our possessions? How can our own lives better reflect what God has done for us and the living presence of Christ in our midst?