< April 19, 2009 >

Commentary on Acts 4:32-35

 

For the early church depicted in Acts, the resurrection of Christ is less a creedal article of individual faith and hope than a creative force of community formation and fellowship.

According to our text summarizing the "state of the union" of the first believers in Jerusalem, the apostles had borne "testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus," thereby mediating "great power (dynamis)" and "great grace (charis) ...upon ...all" who embraced their message (Acts 4:33).

From the start, the risen Jesus charged his witnesses to share the good news of his resurrection with the world (Luke 24:44-48; Acts 1:1-8). After all, this is the climactic (eschatological) sign of God's light-giving, life-saving purpose for all people and places, even "to the ends of the earth" (Acts 1:8; cf. 13:47). The resurrection forges new communities of light and life. Only in such fellowship (koinonia) is the meaning of the resurrection progressively discerned and demonstrated, learned and lived out.

As in our own day, the early church worked out its resurrection faith through regular communal practices, such as baptism, the Eucharist, scripture study, and prayer. An earlier summary reports (following Peter's Pentecost sermon): "So those who welcomed his message were baptized... They devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers" (2:41-42).

But they also engaged in a radical resurrection practice not so popular today: "Now the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common (koina)" (4:32).

Our text particularly highlights the habit of land/homeowners' selling their properties and laying the proceeds at the apostles' feet for distribution to anyone in need. Accordingly, "there was not a needy person among them" in this power- and grace-filled resurrection community (4:34).

What a remarkable group! They held everything "in common," yet were notably uncommon by normal social standards, both in the limited goods, zero-sum world of Mediterranean antiquity and in the private-boosting, wealth-expanding economy of modern Western capitalism.

How did Christ's resurrection motivate such a unified, generous community? Or, conversely, how did the practice of communal goods inform the early church's understanding of the living Christ?

First, Christ's resurrection is inextricably connected with his crucifixion. God did not raise Jesus from just any death, but death on a cross, signifying ultimate self-emptying and sacrifice. Jesus dies bankrupt and bereft, stripped of all earthly possessions (including clothes - cf. Luke 23:34) and reliant only on his Divine Father into whose hands he commits his breath/spirit (pneuma, Luke 23:46).

It is out of this experience of complete surrender that God brings fresh, resurrection life to Jesus. Losing his life, he saves it. Forfeiting "the whole world" of self-aggrandizing profit, he gains the true wealth of God's kingdom. The crucified and risen Jesus thus inspires his followers to find new life as they "deny themselves and take up their cross daily" (Luke 9:23). They relinquish all they are and own into God's hands or, more literally, at the feet of God's apostles in Acts 4:35.

Second, raising Christ from the grave signals anew God's creative sovereignty over all creation (cf. Acts 4:24). According to one biblical image, God's bringing life from death is likened to a seed falling into the ground, "dying," and then bursting forth, "rising" in fruitful bloom and flower (see John 12:24-25; 1 Corinthians 15:36-38).

Resurrection thus stakes afresh God's claim on the whole earth. "The earth is the Lord's and all that is in it" (Psalm 24:1). "The land is mine," God announces, as grounds for the Sabbath/Jubilee provisions of restoring properties to original owners and remitting debts so "there will be no one in need among you" (Leviticus 25:23; Deuteronomy 15:4). Fittingly, then, the community of the resurrected Christ ceded private ownership and pooled the resources of their "lands and houses" to meet the needs of all (Acts 4:32-35).

Finally, the resurrection of Christ marks the "first fruits" not only of a new, singular beginning, but also of a climactic restoration of all things.

For the early church, this conviction forged a close nexus between Christ's resurrection, ascension and parousia (final re-appearing). "Christ is risen!" joined naturally with "Christ is coming again soon!" Hence, with this imminent hope of a remade world, investing in "lands and houses" for the long haul might seem unnecessary at best, unfaithful at worst.

There is some question about whether selling one's possessions was compulsory (as with the apocalyptic Jewish sect at Qumran) or voluntary for membership in the earliest Christian community. But our summary text suggests it was the norm, if not the rule. And although Peter informs Ananias in the next chapter that he was free to dispose of his property as he wished (Acts 5:4), the fact that Ananias publicly lies about contributing all the proceeds from a land sale (and then drops dead!) demonstrates the strong community pressure to pool all possessions for the common good (5:1-6).

Of course, however much we might admire the radical communitarian practice of the early Jerusalem church, we may also pity, even decry, their shortsighted, impractical economic vision. Quite possibly, it contributed to hard times down the line, requiring assistance (bailout) from the more prosperous congregation in Antioch (11:27-30).

Turns out they were in it for the long haul, or at least a longer haul than they expected. And the clock is now ticking well past the 2000-year mark. It is all too easy, then, for us not simply to pity the early church's practice, but to dismiss it altogether.

But we thereby also run the risk of dismissing their vibrant resurrection faith that ignited their extraordinary common-fellowship (koinonia) in the first place. And resurrection faith that does not profoundly shape communal practice lacks depth of meaning and breadth of appeal.

So, how shall we live out our faith in the risen Christ today?