The story in Acts 3-4 describes the healing of a lame man by several fisherman-turned-revolutionaries, and goes on to tell of their subsequent flogging, imprisonment and release. This story is bookended by two fascinating descriptions of the early Christian community which include an interesting economic detail –- the shift among the believers from private wealth to communal wealth.
Directly before the pivotal account we are told, “All the believers were together and had everything in common. They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need” (Acts 2:44-45).
And directly after the event, the Christian community is described in this way,
“All the believers were one in heart and mind. No one claimed that any of their possessions was their own, but they shared everything they had. With great power the apostles continued to testify to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus. And God’s grace was so powerfully at work in them all that there were no needy persons among them. For from time to time those who owned lands or houses sold them, brought the money from the sales and put it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to anyone who had need” (Acts 4:32-35)>
It is interesting that this story of healing, proclamation and persecution is flanked by a description of community. Not an ethereal, idealistic description of community, but a practical, financial one; for how we relate to our money lies at the heart of the practice of the Christian faith. For instance, John the Baptist tied what we do with our money to proof of repentance and Jesus speaks more frequently about greed as sin than he does about sexual impropriety. Our relationship to money and possessions is among the clearest pictures of how the grace of God is evidenced in our lives. In the early church, the grace of God manifested itself by pooling their resources. That grace was so powerfully at work that “there were no needy persons among them.”
In our latest foray into Christian community we got to observe this economic phenomenon first hand. We spent several days living in a conservative Mennonite community in northern Wisconsin.
We learned about a couple specific incidents that tested this principle of communal wealth. One Mennonite family in North Carolina racked up $750,000 of catastrophic health care costs. The nationwide community of this Mennonite group[i] pooled their resources and paid the entire bill. Closer to home, a man in the Wisconsin community where we stayed passed away. He left his wife and children with some debts. The 18 families in this community banded together, paid off the family's debts and established them in a sustainable farming operation.
So far as we could see, there were no needy among any of the families. Then again neither was any living in lavish wealth. They lived very simply. Of course a certain amount of money is freed up when you’re not being enticed into materialism through the TV or internet. The savings on fashionable clothing and techno-gadgetry alone would add up to a surprising amount for many of us.
In addition, on principal these families do not buy health insurance, life insurance, and home insurance. Their commitment to the faith and to one another is insurance enough, and the Wisconsin authorities exempt them from auto insurance (these are car-driving Mennonites) because they have no doubts these guys will pay for any damage they cause. What’s more, they are exempt from Social Security. This stems more from their convictions regarding the separation of church and state, but it also reflects the confidence that when they grow too old to work, the community will take care of them.
We were also impressed to see the way they loved and cared for those members with special needs. There are about 4 or 5 in the community we stayed with who have developmental disabilities. These community members were as thoroughly part of the life of the body as anyone else. A deaf boy, for instance, lived among a neighboring Mennonite community. All the other boys in his school learned sign language so that they could take turns translating the lessons for him and include him in all their extra-curricular activities. Even the “needy” are not needy in these communities!
I am not saying that this community is a perfect representation of the ideal church. The people we lived with readily admitted that they were broken and sinful and likely had many things dead wrong. Nor did this community practice the kind of common purse it appears the Acts church did – each family had their own source of income, their own home or farm and their own savings. What it did reveal is that it is possible to practice a form of communal wealth such that there are no needy among us. Their lives of radical dependence, radical simplicity, radical hospitality, and radical generosity ought to inspire more of us to resist the highly privatized and materialistic version of life the world feeds us and call a few of us to live out the powerful grace of God such that our resources and the needs of our brothers and sisters are in healthier balance.
[i]Nationwide Fellowship Churches