They Had All Things in Common

The First Reading for this past Sunday in the Three-Year Lectionary, from the Acts of the Apostles, began with this summary description of the early Church: “The full number of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one said that any of the things that belonged to him was his own, but they had everything in common” (Acts 4:32). We know that included the material needs and possessions of those early Christians, because, “as many as were owners of lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold and laid it at the Apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need” (Acts 4:34-35). And that example of loving care for the temporal needs of the Body of Christ – in the freedom of faith in the Gospel – is still instructive for us in this modern day and age. That’s not a matter of compulsion or demand, but the Church should not relinquish her provenance of almsgiving, charity, fraternal fellowship, and hospitality, nor relegate this work to the world with its political authorities and social agencies. It is especially within the life of the congregation – and then also within our church fellowship as a Synod, beginning within our circuits – that we should care for one another in the love of Christ.

That being said, the unity of the early Church – and of the Body of Christ in all times and places – does not begin with (nor does it depend upon) the sharing of material possessions. Almsgiving, charity, and hospitality are rather the consequence and good fruits of the unity we are granted in “heart and soul” through faith in the Gospel. As a case in point, between the verses cited above, St. Luke describes the fountain and source of Christian unity in this way: “With great power the Apostles were giving their testimony to the Resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all” (Acts 4:33). It is the preaching of the Resurrection of the Crucified One that gives life and unity to the Church and all her members. For it is by this Ministry of the Gospel that the Holy Spirit “calls, gathers, enlightens, and sanctifies the whole Christian Church on earth, and keeps it with Jesus Christ in the one true faith” (Small Catechism, Third Article).

Likewise, already a couple chapters earlier, St. Luke has indicated the heart, soul, and center of the Church’s unity in “the Apostles’ Doctrine and Fellowship, the Breaking of the Bread, and the Prayers” (Acts 2:42), which is to say, in the Means of Grace, within the Liturgy of the Gospel in Word and Sacrament. And again, by and from this apostolic ministry, “all who believed were together and had all things in common, and they were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need” (Acts 2:44-45). The life of “fervent love toward one another” is the fruit of faith in the salutary Gifts that God freely bestows upon us in the Word and Flesh of Christ Jesus.

So does the Apostle St. Paul “urge you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one Body and one Spirit – just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call – one Lord, one Faith, one Baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all. But grace was given to each one of us according to the measure of Christ’s Gift” (Ephesians 4:1-7). It is by the Gifts Christ freely gives that we live and walk in love, doing good to everyone as we are given the opportunity, but “especially to those who are of the household of faith” (Galatians 6:10).

Along the same lines, and for much the same reasons – because we have the Means of Grace and the Ministry of the Gospel in common – it is also appropriate that we should have the rubrics, rites, and ceremonies of the Liturgy in common; not as a matter of compulsion, but in charity for one another and for the clarity and consistency of our catechesis and confession of Christ Jesus.