A Noble Beginning


Acts 4:32-5:11

Mention the word “communism”, and the word “godless” is almost immediately attached to it. “Godless” and “communism” go together almost as well as peas and carrots. The two are nearly inseparable. I think that this is especially true for people who are in my generation, or perhaps a tad older. When I was growing up, the communists were coming to get us. They were right on our doorstep. Some of them, we were sure, were already here, ready to pounce on us, and destroy our way of life. And the bombs were coming, too. And so we learned to hide under our desks and to stick our heads between our knees. In retrospect, I’m not sure at all what that posture accomplished other than to assure us that we would most surely die for our country in the most uncomfortable position possible. And so communism, especially the red kind, was, is, and perhaps ever shall be a formidable enemy of the American free market system. Growing up, I obediently learned to fear and hate the communists, to respect the demonic power that motivated them, and to commit myself to vigorously supporting the noble cause of eradicating them from the face of the earth.

And that is why most of us are extremely uncomfortable with the words that we read in verse 32. We want to know, why would God’s people even think to engage in such a godless practice, and that so soon after the resurrection of Jesus? Didn’t they learn anything from him? Well, yes they did. They recalled that Jesus said things like, if you’ve got two coats, give one of them away to someone who doesn’t have a coat. And once, when Jesus was chatting with a fellow who had many possessions, Jesus required that the fellow sell all of his possessions, and give the proceeds to the poor. To us, that sounds way too much like the redistribution of wealth, and so we have learned to hem and haw our way around Jesus’ words, in order to make them less significant than they really are. Jesus lost a potential disciple that day. I can’t help but wonder how many he’s lost since.

And so in light of the power of Jesus’ resurrection from the dead, and in utter amazement of the unity and the single purpose of mission that they felt among themselves, the early Christians adopted the practice of pure communism. We would even be so bold as to call it godly communism.

Now a big question in most of our minds this morning, is why in the world did they do this? Was it something that the Apostles dreamed up? Did they make it a requirement? Was it law that if you wanted to be a Christian and you wanted to join the church, that you had to sell your possessions and give the money to the church? I don’t think so. The words in this passage speak of spontaneity to me. I think it just happened all by itself. It was something that seemed right. Luke tells us that no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common. This is bold, brave, and courageous living. There is a unity of purpose and mission that is driving these people to live in a radically different way from everyone else around them. Luke tells us that “those who believed were of one heart and soul.” I am amazed, stunned and in profound awe of that statement. And I react to it that way because Christianity today is so divided and so chopped up that the concept of being of one heart and soul has quietly, but noticeably passed out of existence. We just aren’t like the people we read about in the Scriptures anymore.

But I am also very sadly aware that being of one heart and soul has a very formidable enemy. And that enemy seeks nothing more than to divide and conquer those who sincerely want to live boldly, bravely and courageously within the power of Christ’s resurrection. That enemy may have a hellish name, but it is more commonly known as greed.

I sincerely believe that our sisters and brothers in Christ fully intended, because of their faith in the risen Christ, to live this way. They agreed to hold all things in common, to dispense with the concept of private ownership, and to redistribute all of their wealth to each as any had need, so that the net result was that there was not a needy person among them.

In theory, communism is the most perfect, most godly way to conduct a society. But because human beings practice it, and because human beings are overcome by greed, communism is a failure. Now lest we get all self-righteous and deify the free market system and capitalism, keep in mind that those systems thrive precisely because of greed. Without greed as a motivator, those systems also would fail. The avaricious amassing of wealth is a well-respected hallmark of our culture. We honor those who do it well.

And so with a bit of sorrow, watching the passing of a noble beginning, we must honestly approach this passage with a confession from our earliest brothers and sisters. In all likelihood, our Christian forebears would label this passage, “This is how we intended to live; this is what actually happened.” I suppose that we should note that if the Christian church could not practice communism and make it work, then no government should ever attempt it.

The bit about Barnabas, even though Luke makes much of his identity, is sort of irrelevant to where we’re headed. Barnabas is simply an example of how everyone intended to live. He does the right thing while there was still time to do the right thing. But he also stands in stark contrast to Mr and Mrs Prevaricator.

And to more fully understand Mr and Mrs Prevaricator, I’m convinced the we have to insert a whole lot of time between verse thirty-seven and verse one. The chapter division here is very important, because quite a bit has changed between the time that Barnabas sells his field and the time that Ananias and Sapphira complete their real estate transaction. I strongly suspect that months have passed between verses thirty-seven and one. And I suspect that, because the language has changed completely. In the early verses of this passage, it is very clear that the church is joyfully practicing pure communism. The language about that is very strong. People are handing everything over, nothing is held back, not even houses, which I am at a total loss to explain. And there is clearly only a common purse, because no one is claiming private ownership of any possession. And as much as we might wish to deny it, the wealth is clearly being redistributed. No one is needy.

But in the second half of the passage, almost all of that has changed. Principally, a sense of private ownership has re-emerged. Where once people were joyfully participating with wild abandon, with one heart and one soul, all in praise and in honor of the resurrected Christ, the excitement has abated a bit. The fervor has cooled. People are being far more practical, and truthfully far more cautious. I’m pretty sure, that with the word “But” in verse one, Luke is telling us already that communism, at least as it was practiced joyfully, has failed in the Christian church. And this becomes totally clear in Peter’s interrogation of Mr and Mrs Prevaricator. Peter’s words clearly indicate that the church has abandoned communism, and adopted a version of the free market system. This is how we intended to live; this is what actually happened.

Actually, it is kind of sad. There is no cause here for celebration. Greed has destroyed a noble beginning. And quite tragically, ten years later, in a very different world, the Apostle Paul is doing his very best to receive a collection from the churches with whom he is associated, in order to relieve the abject poverty of the Christians in the church at Jerusalem. This church at Jerusalem, which once had not one needy person among them, is now so poverty stricken that the Apostle Paul is pleading with others to aid them in the relief of their poverty.

So where do we go with all of this? Paul’s collection for the needy Christians at Jerusalem is a good place to begin. Throughout its history, the Christian church has been known by the world at large for its compassion for the poor. In its earliest centuries the Christian church took care of the poor, the sick and the dying when no one else would. The Christian church thrived because of its commitment to the relief of pain and suffering, and because it integrated into its fellowship those who would have been otherwise ignored or abandoned by the society around them.

The Christian church has never wholly or successfully reclaimed communism. There have been little pockets of it that have erupted from time to time, but but it has never really taken off again because it is so difficult to dispense with greed. And so it might be that this passage speaks not so much to the success or failure of communism, but rather to how we mange to live with one another and with God in a covenant relationship. The passage raises questions about our responsibilities to God and to one another, it calls us to examine our own attitudes toward our possessions, and it challenges our attitudes and response toward the poor and the needy. The second half of this passage portrays not so much the failure of communism, or even the failure of a noble beginning for the Christian church, but rather it portrays the awful specter of Mr and Mrs Prevaricator who willingly tried to pass themselves off as better people than they were. That’s not such a rare thing,

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