by Peter Lockhart
Late last year playing golf one of my playing partners discovered that I was minister and proceeded to criticise the church in general until finally declaring something along the lines, “All Christians are communists”.
My response was to suggest that in reality the Bible paints a far more radical vision of life.
Consider for a moment Luke’s words to Theophilus in the book of Acts:
“All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need.”
I have always read these words as some of the most profoundly confronting in the New Testament. I once received a letter from a friend who had become a missionary in India who wrote to me something similar, obviously alluding to Jesus words in Matthew chapter 6, he said “sell everything you have, come and join me, and build up treasures for yourself in heaven.”
Such visions of the Christian life are positively Franciscan in orientation and certainly far beyond any concepts of socialism or communism as I understand them. The idea of “sharing all things in common” is about a new way of living and being human community which is far more confronting than communism.
However, when Luke writes these words to Theophilus it may be that what Luke is doing is idealising the situation of the early Christian community as a new beginning for humanity.
Luke would have come across a similar idea of people sharing all things in common in the Greco-Roman philosophical world. For example, in Plato’s Critias, Plato ‘pictures the early days of Athens as a time when “none of its members possessed any private property, but they regarded all they had as the common property of all.” Whilst in the Roman poet Ovid’s Metamorphoses the description of the Golden Age contains similar themes of community.
So when Luke describes the early Christian community in the way he does to Theophilus one of the things he appears to be doing is capturing these ancient visions of utopian communities and declaring a new beginning for humanity, a new way of civilization.
In actuality the early Christian community, inspired by the Holy Spirit, may have lived a far more communal life although it may not have been quite as radical as Luke suggests. Nonetheless, the vision was for a different way of living based on a new beginning.
The new beginning was of course the advent of Jesus Christ in the world who claims a unique union with the Father in heaven and invites us into the peace and joy of that unity. The Christian community sought to live together in koinonia with each other in that new relationship established by God with human beings in and through Jesus by the power of the Holy Spirit.
This concept of koinonia implies more than is often translated in the word ‘community’. I have often referred to our lives being intertwined in each other’s lives as we are drawn into God’s life in Jesus. My life in yours and your life in mine and ours in God: mutuality in existence.
As I suggested this implies far more than concepts of community and sometimes the word used to describe koinonia is communion, but that in itself can create some confusion as we also use the word communion in a variety of ways as well.
In the book of Acts by suggesting that the people held “all things in common” Luke is trying to help establish the understanding that Jesus Christ brings about a new way of human community and life. This way of life was clearly understand as a consequence of encountering God’s grace, a joyful response to what Jesus had done, as opposed to a way of earning God’s favour.
There can be no doubt it was counter cultural and a challenge to the accepted norms of life at the time – social, economic, religious and political.