April 28, 2023 • Life for Leaders
Scripture — Acts 2:42-47 (NRSV)
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.
What do we do about the needy and exploited among us? If we have much, how can we help those who have little? If we have little, what can we expect from those who have much?
As the Easter season continues, we continue to hear in our readings from Acts about the story of the early church. Last time I wrote, I talked to you about Peter’s Pentecost sermon and how it brought thousands of people into the Christian community. Acts 2:41 says that over three thousand people accepted baptism on Pentecost. That’s a lot of people. Imagine if your church had to figure out what to do with that many people! And, as Acts 2:47 makes clear, new believers just kept coming.
The Book of Acts proceeds to describe the rules by which this suddenly-immense community began to arrange themselves and the way in which their common life together stabilized. They met for the “breaking of bread and the prayers” (probably a reference to the Eucharist, as I mentioned last time we discussed this passage, but also to daily prayer.) The apostles did many wonders and signs. The people gathered frequently in the temple, and the joy of the Lord permeated their homes as well, especially at community mealtimes. And they held all things in common, selling their possessions and giving to any in the fellowship who needed help (Acts 2:44-45).
After being connected to what is loosely known as the faith and work movement for a little over a decade now, I can tell you that there are a couple of Scriptural elephants in the room that the evangelical branch of the movement finds it difficult to discuss, and Acts 2:44-45 is one of them. It’s very easy for people to agree in theory that our work matters to God and that we should do it with excellence, and even (though this took us a bit longer) that people can be exploited in their work and that Christians are to seek justice on behalf of those who need it.
But when the Bible appears to be making specific economic pronouncements, people get nervous and start asking questions. Is holding all things in common one of those Bible rules and examples that are normative for all Christians everywhere (such as loving our neighbor), or was it limited to that time and place for specific reasons (similarly to the injunction in Leviticus 19:19 about not wearing clothes made of blended materials)? Will outside forces come and make Christians hold things in common? (Acts doesn’t say anything about or endorse that, by the way. It simply says that this is something that the early Christian community decided to do on its own.) Doesn’t the Bible speak in favor of private property? Has anybody ever actually made it work to have all goods in common? (Different Christian groups over the years, from the monastic movement to the early Anabaptists, have definitely tried.)
I think that all of these questions look at the elephant the wrong way around. Better to discuss them, of course, than leave that poor elephant standing there. But I think the first question that we need to ask ourselves is the one I believe those early Christians asked themselves: what do we do about the needy and exploited among us? If we have much, how can we help those who have little? If we have little, what can we expect from those who have much? What do we do about community needs based on the rules we already know apply to us always and everywhere, such as loving the Lord our God and loving our neighbor as ourselves? Next time that elephant wanders into the room, we could do worse than start there.
You may want to consider some of the questions already raised in today’s devotional.
One of my grandfather’s very favorite hymns was an early 20th-century hymn arising out of what was called the Social Gospel movement. Written by Methodist pastor Frank Mason North, it was called “Where Cross The Crowded Ways of Life,” and it challenges us with a vision of loving our neighbors in the name of Christ. I really like this modern version. Listen and ponder.
Lord, what would you have me do with my goods for the needy? Amen.
Banner image by Aaron Doucett on Unsplash.
Find all Life for Leaders devotions here. Explore what the Bible has to say about work at the unique website of our partners, the Theology of Work Project’s online commentary. Reflection on today’s Life for Leaders theme can be found here: Lord, what would you have me do with my goods for the needy? Amen.
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Jennifer Woodruff Tait (PhD, Duke University) is the editor of and frequent contributor to Life for Leaders. She is also the managing editor of Christian History magazine and web editor for the Theology of Work Project, and a priest in the Episcopal Church. She has written a book of poetry, Histories of Us. Jennifer lives in Berea, Kentucky, with her husband, Edwin, and their two daughters.
Click here to view Jennifer’s profile.