The handsome pastor at my church has been preaching through Acts. Last week, we studied how “All the believers were one in heart and mind. No one claimed that any of his possessions was his own, but they shared everything they had… There was much grace upon them all. There were no needy persons among them.” And I got fired up.
2014 is very different from first century Roman-occupied Israel. In that context, very few people owned land. Most were tenant farmers of sort. There were oppressively high taxes, great injustice in the court system toward the poor, and very real poverty, especially for those who were not under the protection of a husband or father. But something unworldly happened among the new Christians. They began to sell their possessions and goods and land and they gave to everyone who had need. Materially, they considered that their “stuff” existed to bless their fellow believer.
What we see in this community is, as far as I can tell, the first and only successful expression of “communism” in history. They had “all things in common” according to Acts 2:44. I remember back in my college political theory classes, some used this verse to support a socialist agenda. True, the product of socialism and the fruits of the early church is similar; the rich were giving to the poor and the poor had their needs met. They had all things in common- even a sort-of communal kitchen for widows. But there is one critical distinction which sets the early believers apart from Mao’s China and Stalin’s Russia. One thing that either makes communal living an immeasurable delight, or a politically-imposed hell. In Acts, every occasion of giving was voluntary.
You see, communism is the perfect system if people are selfless. But anyone who is living in the land of the obvious knows that is not the case. Human nature is selfish. We want what we want when we want it. And in today’s America, we are told that we are entitled to it too. Of course all of us have had moments of generosity, but few will choose to give up a luxury (yacht, weekly Frappuccino, the mani/pedi, the second home, new mascara, the powertool) to meet someone else’s need. Well, maybe we’d do it for our child, or parent, or very close friend. But a stranger? Quite unlikely. And let’s be clear, I’m talking about me. Katy. I am “Exhibit A” in self-interest. I struggle with being generous. I feel like I have a right to my stuff, and sometimes it’s hard to let it go.
But there was something afoot in that early church that the earth had never before witnessed. A new nature. And not just one person with a new nature, but a group committed to one another who were all given this new nature. People who naturally wanted to sacrifice for others. And it wasn’t just a couple rich people giving, though we have accounts of that happening. “The haves,” those who owned land and homes, still “had” and probably still had more than others. But the “have nots” now had food, shelter and clothing. What the poor no longer had was- need. Not only that, but the poor were giving too. Everyone shared what they had. Everyone gave something, everyone received something. And there was no compulsion. No one was going door-to-door checking off the list of who gives what, how often or how much. It was simply: if you see a need, then you’re part of meeting that need. Later on, the church added some structure to the mix, where collections were taken up for a specific purpose and people were put in charge of allocating resources. But the voluntary aspect of giving remained. The result was what might look like socialism to some outsiders. But internally people were filled with joy.
How do I know this? Because now more than ever, I am living this out with other amazing women. I have been “in the church” for a couple decades. And when I say “in” I mean “in.” When your husband is a pastor you really see it all. You know what’s going on underneath what may look like a shiny exterior. At every church I’ve been to, there have been generous people. Other’s… not so much. But when my man read that verse about all the believers “having one heart and mind and sharing everything they had” I wanted to leap out of my first-lady-of-the-church-front-pew-seat. Because that is what our life is right now. Our church is not perfect, by any stretch. But what we have at this church, especially with our group of moms, is the closest thing I’ve ever experienced to those first-century believers.
Among our group, we have shared food, toys, a vintage desk, cars, clothes, housing, appliances, bikes, luggage, countless meal trains for moms with new babies or after surgery, outfitted one woman’s children for a family wedding with three days’ notice, and so much more. And it’s not just “stuff.” We’ve swapped hundreds of hours of babysitting, cared for one another’s pets, arranged for emergency childcare after an accident, descended upon an extra bedroom and transformed it into a nursery in one day, and set up round-the-clock hospital vigils for sick moms. But wait, there’s more. Because we have instituted radical (and biblical) principles for confidentiality, we are constantly sharing our hearts with one another. I’m not just talking one isolated conversation here and there, but each of us have dozens of women with whom we can share that complete mothering fail, the self-doubts, the heart-cries, the anxiety over school decisions, or vaccines, or struggles with picky eaters. We are learning to share not just our possessions but our very selves. There are even times where there has been a virtual throw-down over who will meet said need, with some of us vying to get the meal to the sick family first. Women (and later their husbands) have been won to our church and to Christ by how loved they are by this group of women who are so unlike one another, but so united in heart and mind. And there is much grace upon us all.
This is my life, people. My very blessed life so I’m just gonna keep on talking and I know this is long so feel free to skip to the bottom for the wrap up but there is much to tell. I could honestly go on all day about this. Because every week there are new examples of selfless giving, wrongs forgiven, and needs met. There have been times where I have actually refrained from mentioning that I am under the weather on social media because I know that a couple women will drop what they are doing to rush to my aid. (Don’t ask me how the early church functioned without Facebook. I certainly do not know.) You can’t even mutter a prayer request without receiving private texts and messages offering food and goods and prayer. And the incredible part is that because we are doing this together, there is enough to go around. I know that I cannot meet every need and I don’t have to. (Talk about taking the pressure off the “Pastor’s Wife.”) Because there are scores of us who are in on this. And one or nine others will be ready and able to help even if I can’t.
I remember one mom who remarked that she was cautious about everyone giving so much to her because she worried that “the well would run dry” and she would use up those friendships. But after one horrible week when her daughter was in and out of the hospital this friend, who does her own share of generous living, realized that it’s not a well after all. It’s a spring. Springs don’t dry up- there is no bottom.
There are seven in our house including our exchange student. We live on one income. And we have more than enough. We buy food and gas and spend money on our mortgage and utilities. Everything else is shared, borrowed, handed-down, swapped or donated. (And if all else fails, Goodwill has got us covered.) We live well and have everything we need. Those within this community of women have drastically different standards of living. But everyone, as far as I can tell, is giving something. And everyone is receiving something. And if there is a need that is not being met, it’s likely because it’s unspoken.
Two things about giving. First, it draws you near to those who are sharing with you. Sometimes I see that Facebook meme about “How if this is a Christian nation that doesn’t feed the poor then we have to pretend that Jesus is just as selfish as we are.” Steven Colbert gets credit for that one, I believe. But I often think about when the disciples were telling Jesus to send the hungry crowds away. What did He say? “Tell the government to do it!” Nope, that’s wasn’t it. I believe it was “YOU give them something to eat.” Personal involvement is what Jesus is after because yes, people need food and clothes and a replacement blender. But more than that they and I need to be changed through giving. And sometimes I need to be helped by real people who are giving something up for me. It bonds you, ya know? And if this passage in Acts is to be believed, God is all about His people being united in heart and mind.
Second, there was a saying in the early church: “Everyone who gives, gives to God. Everyone who receives, receives from God.” Our giving and receiving not only brings us closer to one another but closer to Christ too. When you give directly to another, when you put that new pair of running shoes or that ergo-carrier or that flat-screen TV into their hands (or on their porch), gratitude to God and the giver mingles together and you get nearness to both. From the accounts I read of life within the Cultural Revolution or under the Khmer Rouge, joy and nearness wasn’t exactly a hallmark of relationships. And yet that is exactly what these first century Christians, and every church that follows in their footsteps, receives.
Here’s that pithy wrap-up I promised you: The church as it was made to operate is the solution to so many of today’s struggles. For the family who is in between jobs and just needs a little more food on the table- the church. For those who mourn the loss of their child- the church. For the lonely woman- the church. For those rejoicing because the toddler whose speech was so delayed has finally put two words together- the church. For the widower- the church. For the one who still isn’t over the loss of her child even though it’s been years- the church. For the blogger who may seem like she has it together but “Heavens!” that girl has no fashion sense- the church. (People, socialism can’t tell you when it’s okay to wear black and brown in the same outfit. No, it cannot.)
In the land of hundred-mile-long Facebook contacts and bursting storage units, this life of community sharing should be cake. Especially for the Christian. And yet, it can be hard! Embarrassingly hard. Sometimes I jubilantly thrust the new sandals into my friend’s hands- after all, it would be a year or two before my girls will wear them and we don’t have the closet space to store them and her kids need them right now. But sometimes I catch myself thinking “nope” and pretending I didn’t hear the need. (Sinner, right?) Only later do I come to my senses and say to myself “Good heavens girl! You could have done without that extra bag of frozen veggies!” This is where the new nature needs to body-slam the old nature to the ground. And these days, I am happy to report that the old nature is getting pinned more than ever.
And there is much grace (and casserole, and jeggings, and lattés-delivered) upon us all.
Take that, Stalin.