The community of believers was of one heart and mind, and no one claimed that any of his possessions was his own, but they had everything in common.
Acts 4: 32
Amen, amen, I say to you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and the Spirit. That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not marvel that I said to you, ‘You must be born anew.’
John 3: 5-7
We hear today in the passage from Acts a description of the earliest Christian community. They are distinguished by being of “one heart and mind” and by holding “everything in common.” This community is the fruit of the being “born again” of which Jesus speaks to Nicodemus. It is the life of “the kingdom of God.” In his commentary on the third chapter of John’s gospel, Francis J. Maloney writes:
Seeing and entering the kingdom of God are consequences of a ritual of water that accompanies the gift of the Spirit. . . . The kingdom of God refers to a community of believers, a group of Christians who profess and attempt to live the Johannine understanding of Jesus The original readers of this gospel were aware of a passage away from the former situation of life style and belief, be it Temple or synagogue, into a community bound by Christian belief and practice. The result of a gift from above “of the Spirit,” being born again “of water” enabled people to see and enter into the kingdom of God. (The Gospel of John, p. 93)
To live a life “in common” (the kingdom of God in community) is to live together with the intention of living from that distinctively human core of life which is common to every human person. This is only possible, says Jesus in John’s gospel, for those who have been “born again” by “water and the Spirit.” It is not something we are capable of by “flesh and blood” but only by the gift of the Spirit which awakens and enliven our own spirit in such a way that we become aware of and begin to realize, that is to give form to, our common identity and destiny.
Often the community of Acts is spoken of by us as the ideal community, a view which reflects our own recognition that being of “one heart and mind,” claiming no possessions as our own, and holding “everything in common” does not really seem humanly possible. As we well know, to claim no possessions as our own and to hold all things in common are not behaviors that come naturally to us. The reason for this, at least in part, is that we do not realize the illusion of our sense of separateness. Our true and deepest life is, in the words of Jan van Ruusbroec, a life that is “common to all.” The first communities of Christians were living out in a material way the truth they had come to realize in their hearts and spirits, that they together are the body of the risen Christ. Whatever possessions and talents each person has is a gift for the common wealth. To desire or accumulate things or possessions for oneself is but to erect a barrier, a false self, between oneself and God. It is only in being free of all that it is possible to direct one’s mind and heart to the “one thing necessary.”
Jesus says that no one can enter the kingdom without being born of water and the spirit. The community of believers is the community of the “transformed.” While we can strive to dispose ourselves to receive the gift of the Spirit, we cannot transform ourselves. Transformation is a gift. So, perhaps real community, in the spiritual sense, is only possible to those who have turned their hearts and minds toward God alone. It might well require of us that recognize that we are together primarily to “mutually help, encourage and edify one another” in our desire to live for, with, and in God and then “to work together” in the common call we are given.
Too often we find ourselves in self-enclosed, insular gatherings of well meaning people whose relationships are more those of force than of love. “That which is born of flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit.” Communities of the flesh will always, eventually, manifest “The heartache, and the thousand natural shocks/ That flesh is heir to” (Hamlet III,i). The great irony of the spiritual life is that what is most common to us all is also that which is most hidden. We are both flesh and spirit. We should not be scandalized or discouraged when our life together suffers from the pain “that flesh is heir to”. Yet, we must at such moments not despair of the truth that our deepest life in God is a common life. Instead we must always repent and turn back. Thus, human community is destined to occasionally resemble the community of Acts, but perhaps more often to be a place of power struggle and competing gratifications.
It is the reality that what is most fleshly in each of us will also, in time, show itself in relationship with others that makes community a “school for the service of God,” as St. Benedict called it. The kingdom on earth is a community of those who are reborn of the Spirit but who continue to live very much from the flesh. In life together with others, however, we can hopefully experience that when we have lost sight of and forgotten who we truly are, there will be others who have not and who will remind us what it is that is common to us all and of the One in whom we live and move and are.
No one can possess this common life unless he is a contemplative, and no one can contemplate or enjoy God unless he has within himself these six things, ordered in the way I have previously described. For this reason, all those persons are deceived who consider themselves contemplatives and yet love, practice, or possess any created thing in an inordinate way, or who think they are enjoying God before they have become free of images, or who rest before they have come to enjoy God. Such persons are all deceived, for we must devote ourselves to God with an open heart, a peaceful conscience, and an unveiled countenance and must live without hypocrisy in sincerity and truth. We will then rise from virtue to virtue, contemplating God, enjoying God, and becoming one with God, just as I have said. May God grant that we all attain this. Amen.
Jan van Ruusbroec, The Sparkling Stone, Conclusion