Acts presents a remarkably different world from the one so familiar to readers of the gospels, for the resurrection has changed everything. Instead of opposing or misunderstanding Jesus’ intentions, as had been the case earlier, in Acts the disciples now achieve clarity of insight retroactively about what Jesus was doing while he was with them, as well as Spirit-filled discernment as to what they should do next now that he is not.
In this week’s New Testament lection, the text describes in tangible terms the transformation which has taken hold within the life of the community of Jesus’ followers. These would have included not just the holdovers from the gospel account but also the new converts who had joined The Way, which is how the author of Acts describes this new movement (way too early to call them Christians, which is a slur ascribed to the group decades later, apparently first in Antioch).
The text describes two themes of the newly transformed community, the first of which is missional “unity”. It is striking that this statement is made, not just of the original followers of Jesus who had been in the Upper Room pre-Pentecost, but also about the purported thousands of new arrivals who seemingly have already been integrated into the community within this short period of time. This in turn, is important because of its relation to the second theme of the passage, which is that possessions were held in common. Unity of mission leads to and supports a communitarian attitude towards things. What should we make of this?
One of my teacher Luke Timothy Johnson’s most important contributions to scholarship is his decades of research and reflection on the meaning of wealth and possessions in Luke-Acts (the name by which scholars describe the two-volume work written by one whom tradition calls Luke). No other writer in either testament places greater emphasis on the “stuff” people have, what they do with it, and how God thinks about it. Johnson says that, while many of us go searching through the scripture looking for rules which will tell us what to do, what we find instead, particularly in Luke-Acts, is what he calls a “diversity of mandates” rather than a unified field theory of stewardship which would explain everything and provide a check down list for every possible item we might possess in whatever setting we might cone to acquire it. The reason we don’t get something like this unified field theory in the Bible, Johnson argues, is because Christianity isn’t an ethical system that tells you what you’re supposed to do all of the time. Instead, it tells you who you are and through the shaping of that identity you then grow to discern, by the power of the Spirit, which mandate of the many given in scripture is the best one to be followed at a given moment.
The pathetic thing about our own generation is that despite the “diversity of mandates”on the subject in Luke-Acts, to say nothing of even others elsewhere in scripture, our current understanding of wealth and possessions bears scant resemblance to anything the Bible commends. Modern thinking about wealth, even within the Christian faith, has come untethered from religious norms which in previous generations had limited the scope of economic predation by threats of hellfire or public ridicule. Now, however, with the utter secularization of economic life, it’s a race to the bottom in the great game of exploitation. The Consumer is god and the Market is his holy temple. That which is good is any transaction the government does not interfere with and which both sides agree to, irrespective of the circumstances of either before or after the exchange. In our present context, it is easy to see why, even in the Church, such a manner of life, in which possessions were held in common, as is described in Acts 4 would be greeted with as much scorn and ridicule as if one had suggested the normalization of pedophilia.
As it was in Acts 4, there is an intrinsic correlation between our missional unity, or in this case, disunity, and our understanding of our possessions. We can’t imagine a situation in which we might share what we have in common because so many of us are in communions which are fracturing before our eyes. In my own communion, the Presbyterian Church USA, congregations and presbyteries all across the US are “lawyered up” in preparation for coming battles over who gets the property in the conflict. Sadly, this fight about who gets to keep the sanctuary and such comes at a time in the life of our country in which so many are in desperate need of the basics of life. When we should be living out hospitality together as an alternative way of life in opposition to militant consumerism, we instead have become that which we have otherwise been called to convert.
Timothy F. Simpson is an editor of Political Theology. He is a board member of the Presbyterian Peace Fellowship and is Minister for Worship at the Lake Shore Presbyterian Church in Jacksonville, FL, where he also teaches Religious Studies at the University of North Florida.