2nd Sunday of Easter
The community of believers was of one heart and mind,
and no one claimed that any of his possessions was his own,
but they had everything in common. Acts 4:32
A day or two after Easter, the daily life of most Christians returns pretty much to the normal routine of the world, but this was clearly not the case for the first Christians. Today’s first reading from the Book of Acts shows us just how radical the change was in the lives of the first Christians, who had been convinced that Christ is risen and is truly the Son of God. The fact that Jesus was raised from the dead dramatically altered not only their daily life but also their whole way of looking at this world. The world had not changed for their neighbors, but it was no longer the same world for them, at least in terms of how they viewed it and lived in it.
Surely nothing strikes us as more radical than the fact that many of these first Christians, based upon their belief in Jesus Christ and His resurrection, enthusiastically chose to hold all their earthly goods in common. The Sacred Scripture tells us that “all who owned property or houses sold them and donated the proceeds, laying them at the feet of the Apostles to be distributed to everyone according to their need. It was evident to these first followers of Christ that once they were truly “one in mind and heart,” that is, possessed of the mind and heart of Christ Himself, the goods of this earth were of quite secondary importance in life, and were simply intended to meet the basic earthly needs of all. Like Jesus, who chose to live a simple life in this world, they too would free themselves from the burden of possessions so that they too could live a life of total dedication to His and their Father.
Of course, we know that certain modern ideologues, have tried to create utopian societies where all property would supposedly be held in common, and where all would receive from the common store of goods what they needed to live well. Indeed some contemporary theologians have even tried to suggest that these utopian ideas are fundamentally Christian, based upon the example of Jesus and the early Christian community, as we just heard. But of course history has proven that these modern experiments have been a disaster both for human freedom and the economic well-being of the very people they were supposed to benefit. It is a great error to confuse these experiments with what we rewad about in today’s reading from Acts.
In reality, these social experiments are not at all similar to the extraordinary events we just read about. First of all, these first Christians freely chose to give their property to be held in common. And they surrendered it not to the state, under real coercion, but to the Church, to be freely distributed to the community under the leadership of the Apostles. These modern communistic experiments, on the other hand, actually confiscated the property of everyone and simply transferred the ownership to the state, to be controlled by the very ideologues who confiscated the property in the first place. Historically, we know that they distributed the spoils more according to the needs of their political party rather than the actual needs of the people. The difference between the two situations is that failed experiments did not possess the mind of Christ, and thus the leaders were not “one in mind and heart” with the people, whom they basically robbed and then reditributed their goods for political ends. It was a criminal enterprise and it ended in the death of millions.
But what about this early Christian venture in holding all property in common, did it also fail and simply disappear? It certainly did not persist as we read about it today, where it seems that at least a large part of the Jerusalem community of Christians shared this communal way of life. One thing we can learn from this experience, however, is that this common ownership of earthly goods was an indication that the Church already firmly believed then, as it does now, that the goods of this world are intended by God for the good of all according to their human needs.
We see this truth revealed in the state of innocence in Paradise. Some Fathers of the Church taught that there would have been no need for private ownership had innocence survived, since there would have been no sin, no greed, no avarice, no selfishness. It may well be, then, that the early Christians, in the light of the resurrection, were expecting an immediate return of Christ which would reestablish that paradisal state of mankind, making the possession of property unnecessary, just as it was in the beginning.
At any rate, this was not really a “social experiment,” but simply the natural impulse of their new found unity of mind and heart and their common conviction that Paradise was at hand once again, when all want would disappear . However, when the return of Christ turned out to be not so immediate as they hoped, and as the Church grew and became somewhat less unified in mind and heart than was the case with these first disciples, whose experience of the resurrection had made them so unified, we see that this way of life passed into what we now call religious life. Thus this common life remains in the heart of the Church as a witness to the hope of our resurrection and the Paradise to come with Christ when all things will forever belong to the blessed.
But then we mighty ask, does not this special way of life, perpetuating the life of the early Church newly born, divide the present Church into two levels of disciples, those who fully imitate the Lord and the life of the early Church as a whole, and those who only partially do so? Or to put it another way, does it not divide those who fully believe in the resurrection and stake everything on it from those whose faith is weak and who try to hold on to both worlds at once?
The answer would certainly be yes, unless it were also true that even the Christians who do not belong to religious communities within the Church, and who do not, therefore, hold their property in common, must nonetheless in their own way, in their own state of life, imitate this pristine way of life of the early Church including the way they possessed their earthly goods.
Now what is really critical here for Christian faith is not the issue of whether earthly goods are possessed privately or held in common, but the way these goods are held and used, that is whether they are used primarily with the common good in view, or primarily for the private good of their possessor. The Christian who truly believes in the resurrection of the body and in the life of the world to come cannot be selfishly “possessive” of his or her possessions in this world. The Christian’s living faith will lead him to follow Paul’s admonition, to “Buy, as though they did not possess.” (I Cor. 7:30)
Holding on selfishly to one’s earthly goods in the face of the very real needs of the poor, and the needs for advancing the Kingdom of God, reflects a lack of deep faith in the Lord and the truth of the resurrection and the life of the world to come. Thus Christians who live in the world, if they are to imitate their Divine Master, must come to see the goods of the world, including those they possess, as destined by God primarily for the common good as well as their own private good. Following this way of life, even the rich can inherit the Kingdom vy using their wealth for the common good, to take care of God’s poor, and to advance the work of His kingdom. Ineed, these are the very two things mentioned in our first reading: the apostles bearing witness to the Resurrection and thus bringing growth to the Kingdom, and the apostles (the Church) distributing the common wealth to meet the needs of all, including the poor who contributed little or nothing.
Belief in the resurrection truly reorients our whole way of looking at the world and its goods. Jesus spoke about all this many times, and He lived his own life as the great example of freedom from the cares of earthly possessions. The whole church is called to imitate this way of life and share in this freedom of Christ. Religious orders do this by a literal imitation of the life of Christ and the early church, literal poverty, as a witness to their lay brothers and sisters and the clergy who live in the world. And the laity who are consecrated to Christ by their Baptism, which entails being poor in spirit, must be spiritually detached from the goods of this world which they use not only for their own well being but for the good of all. The same is true for secular clergy in the state of life.
But Neither of these ways of life is really possible within the Church without a deep faith in the resurrection of Christ, as our own destiny, and without the grace that comes from the resurrection of Christ. Only when we truly believe that our life is far greater in reality and destiny than anything the goods of this world can contribute to it, will we learn to imitate the simplicity of Jesus’ life, and thus share in His magnificent freedom already here on earth. May God give us all such faith.