The Episcopal Church of the Holy Innocents 

Easter IV...Acts and godly justice

© 2011, 2017 Frank B Crumbaugh III 

“Those who had been baptized devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. Awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles. 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. Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.”[1]

​This splendid portion of The Acts of the Apostles begins with language that we hear reiterated in the Baptismal Covenant: “the apostles' teaching and fellowship, the breaking of bread and the prayers.”[1] And it moves on to describe what life in a community of Faith looks like. What are the characteristics of a Faithful human community? What are the features, the obligations, accountability and actions by which we identify Faithful human relationships?

 

That depends on the community. In the smallest human community- the community of two persons we call a life-long covenanted relationship- we look for monogamy, mutual regard, mutual sacrifice, and an observable manifestation of God’s Love. We assess our life-long covenanted relationships using such standards.

 

In larger human communities, like the civil society we identify as a county or a nation, we identify public safety, public utilities, good roads, functioning law courts, and a protected dependable supply of food and water as the goods of human community. These are how we assess the larger human communities in which we live.

 

The Christian community that coalesced after the Ascension had relational features not unlike these, but they were framed in a challenging way; they “had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people.”

 

Some hear this portion of Acts and get edgy, interpreting the passage as weird cult behavior, or creeping socialism. Often these edgy folks are the ones who wring their hands about the disintegration of society, and our need to “get back to the Bible.” I cannot help but wonder if they really would make such remarks if they realized that by invoking the biblical goods of human relationship, they were asking to become part of a human community that “had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need.” My guess is that whatever biblical literalism they embrace would become shrouded in a self-justifying interpretative fog surrounding this portion of Acts.

 

“…(they) had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need” tingles many ears with suspicion. And it should. It should make us edgy because it models social organization that we think quaint, and perhaps even admire philosophically, but believe and know runs against our instinctive grain. We don’t actually want to work that hard- relationships rooted in gratitude, mutual accountability and sharing of this kind require constant work and maintenance.

 

We say we’re grateful, we usually believe that we mean it, and we do as far as it goes. We like accountability well enough I suppose, as long as it is someone else being accountable to us…someone else sharing with us. But mutual accountability and sharing, where the obligations of and for society run both ways and rest equally on all members of the community- the kind of mutual accountability we see in this passage from Acts- is less attractive to us. We usually arch our eyebrows, and with great philosophical gravity postulate accountability in communities or relationships as transactional- quid pro quo. This avoids the truth that we make ourselves authentically accountable - accountability is a personal action not a transactional reaction. We read this portion of Acts, and if we’re honest we acknowledge that it threatens our most deeply engrained and yearned-for cultural value- the unfettered practice of personal autonomy. It makes claims on us we are not prepared to honor.

 

An orderly, just Church and an orderly, just society do not rev our motor nearly as much as doing what we want when we want, without reference to or endorsement by anyone other than self. Now to be sure, much of our cultural ethos points us toward generosity, and we have more than ample evidence of that generosity among ourselves and with other societies. We have spent trillions of dollars and millions of lives in behalf of others- the 20th Century providing stunning proof of it. We should claim with righteous pride those parts of us that are seen in costly, sacrificial acts of liberation and defense and assistance.

 

Yet an equally vital strain of our cultural ethos says: “…there’s no such thing as a free lunch…I got mine, let ‘them’ (whoever ‘them’ is) get theirs…poor people are lazy and choose to be poor…anybody who wants to work can get a job and better their lot…if he’s beating her she can leave…hard work always succeeds…” You get the idea. Perhaps you have said these things yourself.

 

And it is absolutely true that life can harden one’s compassion, making such things easier to say. As a police officer I became as cynical as any person I know about people’s motives. Despite the genteel social façade in which I was raised and of which I was a part, Memphis in the 1970s was a violent, hard community. It taught me well, and I came to believe that equal protection under the law is noble rhetoric veiling the truth is that equal protection is directly connected to one’s ability to pay for competent aggressive representation. I came to believe that the good guys are just as likely to lose as they are to win. I came to believe that there are no motives that aren’t mixed and double-minded[2], and I came to believe that the deepest underpinning of human behavior is self-interest. I came to believe that public service under arms is not intrinsically honorable- that honor comes from the sacrifice and devotion individually given to the vocation- I had to the wear the badge, the badge could not wear me. The indelible learning of my years as a cop says that, left to the folly of our own desires, people are more interested in themselves than anyone/-thing else. Jesus taught me that altruism, empathy and a heart for human justice are conscious, chosen behaviors running counter to my primary instincts and my hardened experience. He taught me these things before I was a cop, and my experience in police work gave His precepts an awful beating in many experiences that could have burned it out of me. I am so grateful that it didn’t. Engaging human community under the conditions Acts describes is utterly counter-intuitive, learned behavior.

 

Having learned these things, I get it. I really do, and my cop’s cynicism is borne out every time an act of genuine honesty or sacrificial selflessness becomes a cause célèbre. Yet this counter-intuitive, chosen behavior is precisely the way The Holy Spirit coalesced the Church over against prevailing cultural norms, one person at a time. Choosing it daily signals our own conversions, and it may be the hardest choice a person can make.

 

These characteristics of the neo-natal Church still obtain. More than twenty centuries later we still are “called out”- ἐκκλησία[3]- to stand over against prevailing norms that “corrupt and destroy the creatures of God.”[4]  We may not like it, but we cannot avoid it. If we are the friends of Jesus that we claim to be, the communities we share in common must bear the features and characteristics described in Acts.

 

When we quibble about what “hold all things in common” means, we are avoiding truths we don’t like, seeking to limit abundance, deflect gratitude, and stifle the work of The Holy Spirit in us.[5] Learning how to avoid that is the life-long enterprise of the Faithful person. We may attempt to theorize or spiritualize it, and those attempts usually reveal to us what we don’t want to hear or do.  “hold all things in common” insists that we share in common among ourselves as the Church and among ourselves as a society a passion that cares about and actively strives for work, shelter, jobs, and food for all. We are called to “hold in common” as the Church in Acts held in common, a deep yearning and vibrant impulse to seek abundant life for anyone we can reach, not simply for ourselves alone (or first). We are not called to be the conservators of justice’s rhetoric, or avoid doing justice by debating definitions. We are called to be it, live it, challenging anyplace/-person/-thing that opposes it.

 

So, naming violence as a root cause of poverty, speaking out against it, and funding work to stop violence is “holding all things in common” because we speak for those who have no voice, and we risk- as we should risk- our own safety, knowing that until all are safe none are safe, and…

 

…figuring out how to stop bullies who intimidate women and children- those who pimp and traffic, those who siphon relief goods for their own purposes- is “holding all things in common” because we are called to steward abundance, not hoard it, and we do so rightly when we learn again what the words “safe” and “enough”[6] mean and…

 

…taking courage to talk about Jesus anywhere we are, anytime we can, is “holding all things in common” because we do not own Him, He owns us- He holds us all in common- and we speak of Him and our relationship with Him…because not doing so misses the greatest joy of all human life- living a life joyfully grateful, and devoted to thanking God.

 

The first move is the hardest- believing these things. If our hearts really did “burn within us”[7] as they burned within Cleopas and his friend, we could not resist “holding all things in common” because it is the grateful response that defines the word commonwealth[8] and describes the Church. Within us lies the power to “hold all things in common,” laboring for a just World in Jesus’ Name; we don’t do so because we enjoy our privileged status in a World that is unjust and holds as little in common as possible. We’re not bad people, we’re just comfortable in a World where being comfortable is rare. Lucky us. If we really did believe these things with a whole heart we wouldn’t flinch at what they may cost us- we simply would do them, and there would be no stopping us. And yes, it really is that simple.

 

Love you. See you in Church.

 

FBC3+, 7 May 2017, being The Fourth Sunday of Easter

[1] Acts 2:42-47  NRSV

[1] The Book of Common Prayer, page 304

[2] A perfect example of mixed motives and double-mindedness:  folks rail against governmental spending for human needs, yet are delighted when Medicare pays for their eye surgery…social assistance that benefits them directly is enlightened public policy while anything that does not benefit them directly is socialism. In this example, if public spending for human need really violates their fundamental principles, the action displaying greatest integrity has these folks handing back their Medicare cards.

 

[3] Gk ἐκκλησία, “those called out” transliterated into Latin ecclesiae and thence into English ecclesia, from which we derive words like ecclesiastical, etc., describing the Church

 

[4] The Book of Common Prayer, page 302

 

[5] It is easy to focus on distributive justice- seeking the same for all. That’s low-tech, and while it is just in its own way that does not require much of us. The Gospel is different; it focuses on Grace- seeking to bless each one as s/he needs it. That requires much of us- we must know one another well enough to do better than distributive justice. It’s messy and will always be questioned as to motive and effectiveness, and it is the way we are meant to be in Christian community.

[6] …without “redistribution of wealth” becoming a buzz phrase for things and people we don’t like…wondering instead if possessing so much is a right or a privilege…

 

[7] Luke 24:32  NRSV

 

[8] Virginia, Kentucky, Pennsylvania and Massachusetts style themselves as commonwealths rather than as states….interesting.