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. With great power the Apostles bore witness to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great favor was accorded them all. There was no needy person among them, for those who owned property or houses would sell them, bring the proceeds of the sale, and put them at the feet of the Apostles, and they were distributed to each according to need.Acts of the Apostles 4: 32-35
Today we read a description of the very first congregations of Christians after the resurrection of Jesus. It describes the communion of heart and mind among them, and their radical living out of life in common. As Jan van Ruusbroec would state some centuries later, when we truly come to know the love of God we know it as “a love common to all.” Perhaps, for our age and culture, the most striking aspect of the description is that there was “no needy person among them, for those who owned property or houses would sell them, bring the proceeds of the sale, and put them at the feet of the Apostles, and they were distributed to each according to need.”
Throughout the history of Christianity we have experienced how radical, seemingly bordering on impossible, is life in common. It takes apparently no time for the church to begin to break into classes of people: hierarchy, clergy, religious, laity, men, women, churchgoing, lapsed, and on and on. In time the life described in Acts becomes totally inverted, so that wealth and possessions come to be seen as signs of virtue, while poverty becomes blameworthy. Initially, the sign of the resurrection is life in common. In the course of time, however, our human value comes to be judged in light of our possessions. Whereas we, as individuals and as church, seek to increase our possessions, the first Christians sold any possession they had so that there would be no poverty among them.
For some decades now, it has been clear that the sense of a common life (which arises out of a common love) and of community has been eroding. In the United States, even the most so-called liberal of politicians campaign on what we as individuals will gain from their election. Almost no one speaks of the common good and our common responsibility. This lack, I would think, is precisely what leads Pope Francis in his encyclical Laudato Si to speak of the earth as “our common home.” For us who have been formed far more by a secular and capitalist form tradition than a Christian one, it is quite possible that the description of the first Christian gatherings are not even appealing. I live just outside the city of Baltimore, for example, and those of us who have possessions seem not particularly attracted by a vision of this city being a common home of all of its inhabitants. What would this city look like if all of us had the consciousness that every neighborhood of the city is our common home, that we would have a shared life that would include each and all of us?
To really take in today’s reading, it seems we must honestly begin by acknowledging that the life described therein does not come naturally to us. What the capitalist ethic understands is that for our pre-transcendent selves, in our “non-resurrected” lives, self-interest is more motivational than the common interest. In fact, actual efforts at creating social structures that embody the values of the communal and the social (“communist” and “socialist” values) have often floundered on the lack of a truly “common sensibility.” Be it the experiments of the transcendentalists in the United States or the much larger scale Marxist experiments around the world, maintaining the motivation for living all of one’s life in common is difficult if not impossible for most of us.
That this radical aspect of the mystery of Jesus is not natural for us is clear in the history of the church. While, at least according to the account in Acts, common life was the rule for the first Christians, quite quickly that broke down. Thus, in time, there emerges in the church attempts to recreate the initial impulse of the resurrection through a designated form of life for those who sought to devote their lives to a moving against the basic human impulses of possession, autonomy, and self-interest and in this way making a truly common life possible. Because at the level of our unconscious, we move toward self-centeredness, a program of ascesis was seen as necessary for life in common. That ascesis involved the renunciation of personal possessiveness of persons, material possessions, and even of one’s own ego as ultimate. In view of the church’s understanding and tradition, the life of the evangelical counsels and the common life are inextricably bound together. To attempt to live the asceticism of the counsels of poverty, chaste celibacy, and obedience other than in service to communion and community is fruitless. Unless these ascetical practices are a means to coming to know in every sense the love common to all, they too readily devolve into selfishness and narcissism.
The account in Acts makes very clear that being “of one heart and mind” finds its expression in not claiming any possessions as our own but having everything in common. Thus, our refusal to hold all things in common is a reflection of our not being of one heart and mind. Is not our demand for possessions, for accumulating more money and possessions than others have, ultimately the cause of all the violence we inflict on each other and on our very planet? It is because they see their responsibility first to themselves and then to their shareholders that the leaders of the fossil fuel industry would continue to destroy the very planet that their own grandchildren will inhabit. It is because Jews and Palestinians both claim a divine right to what they see as their own land that they are enemies to each other. It is because the so-called American way of life (meaning affluence) is seen as an entitlement that Americans see the lives of others whom they fear as threatening that as expendable.
Somehow we turn the resurrection of Jesus into a dogma of belief that will distinguish the saved from the unsaved, when it is really the expression of a saving love for all humanity. The truth of the resurrection is manifested originally in the love that the believers have for one another. They are “of one heart and mind” because they now have the mind and the heart of the Risen Jesus. The great heresy is to make Jesus a possession of some and not others. To be raised with Jesus is to live a love that is common to all, an effective love that desires nothing for itself that is not for everyone.
In the microcosm of humanity that are the communities of my own congregation, we struggle every day with the call to the common life. As all human beings, we want to make sure that we have what is ours, what we are entitled to. We fear and even resent that others may have something more or different from us. The vows that we make to live the counsels of poverty, chaste celibacy, and obedience are designed to reform our hearts from such selfish desires and fears, so that we may more fully live the life of the Risen Jesus and discover the possibility of a shared love common to all. For all of us, it can seem that our hearts are not large enough for such a life and love. It is, however, the constrictions and obstacles of our unredeemed hearts that inhibit such a life and love. Salvation and redemption are not a private and individual matter. To forsake the common life is to abandon real faith in the resurrection. It is the struggles of sharing in common, of trying to live with nothing of our own and trusting that this is how the needs of all of us will be met, that are the impetus to our deepening transformation.
One way to keep “giving things back” in mind is to always ask ourselves how any particular choice or decision we make will affect the poor. Paul Farmer puts the question this way: “How is this relevant to the suffering of the poor and to the relief of that suffering?” Cultivating the habit of asking such questions in our vocational discernment is a form of spiritual discipline that potentially puts us in touch with great spiritual energy and power. It can become like a “talisman” (a spiritually powerful object worn or carried for protection from evil) that we carry with us at all times. Here is what is known as “Gandhi’s talisman”:John Neafsey, A Sacred Voice Is Calling: Personal Vocation and Social Conscience p. 844
“I will give you a talisman. Whenever you are in doubt, or when the self becomes too much with you, apply the following test. Recall the face of the poorest and the weakest person whom you have seen, and ask yourself if the next step you contemplate is going to be of any use to that person. Will that person gain anything by it? Will it restore that person to control over his or her own life or destiny? In other words, will it lead to freedom for the hungry and spiritually starving millions? Then you will find your doubts and your self melting away.”