“They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers…All who believed were together and had all things in common. They would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all as any had need. And day by day the Lord added to their number.”
With these words, Luke, the author of the Acts of the Apostles, provides a snapshot of the life of the early church. First, he tells us, about their worship: they listened to the teaching of the apostles, had fellowship, broke bread together, and prayed. That has remained the model for the Christian liturgy ever since. Still today, we reflect on the teaching of the apostles recorded in the New Testament, have fellowship, share in the Lord’s Supper, and pray together. But Luke also tells us that those early Christians shared everything they had. They were not just a group of individual disciples getting together once a week to worship; they were an “intentional community” committed to a common life and purpose in which sharing what they possessed according to each member’s need was basic. Finally, Luke tells us, new members joined the community every day in response to the preaching of the gospel and the community life and care for others of those first Christians.
When Luke wrote Acts, around the year 85, the church’s pattern of worship was well established, but because it was scattered across the Middle East it was no longer an homogenous, largely Jewish, intimate community, but increasingly Gentile, culturally diverse and prone to divisions. As the letters of St. Paul also tell us,there were leadership tensions, cultural, economic and gender disparities, and different understandings of the gospel and its implications. That is why the apostle had to insist that in Christ Jew and Gentile, rich and poor, male and female, were equal; why he had to address leadership conflicts; and why he had to encourage congregations to care for the poor.
Luke wrote what he did in Acts to remind the church of his day of its origins and essence, and so provide a guide to help it retain its identity as it expanded across the world. But the picture he painted had wider social significance because, as Paul insisted, the church was a prototype of the new humanity established through the death and resurrection of Christ. This meant that the church was called to demonstrate to the world that people of different nationalities, cultures and classes could be reconciled, become united in love for each other, and serve the needs of society. Being a model of the new humanity was part of the church’s mission in the world. So if the church failed to be a community in which all people are equal, even though they may have different gifts and fulfil different roles, and if the church failed to share its resources and serve the needs of others, especially the poor, then it was no longer a faithful witness to Christ, serving God’s purpose for humanity. The salt, as Jesus said, had lost its savor and was no longer fit to serve its purpose.
In a previous meditation I referred to the Christian defence of racism as a heresy. But there is another heresy which destroys Christian community and witness, namely the belief that because Jesus calls each of us personally to follow him, and because he respects the dignity of each us as created in God’s image, therefore individualism is a Christian virtue. Certainly, we must defend the dignity and rights of individuals, encourage individual creativity and initiative. But the idea that individuals have a God-given right to “do their own thing” irrespective of the common good is a perversion of Christian faith. As Christians we must oppose the claim that some people have the right to exploit others and thereby undermine the common good in the name of “Christian individual-ism” and freedom. The pursuit of self-interest instead of the common good, destroys communities, whether in the church or in society. We have hopefully learnt this during the Corona-virus pandemic. You can’t selfishly relish your own freedom at the expense of the well-being of society.
Christian faith insists that, even in times of solitude, we humans only exist in relation to others. We are meant to be members one of another. Individual self-interest is a sin because it destroys these God-given relationships. By contrast, the doctrine of the Trinity in which “Father”, “Son” and “Spirit” represent three inter-related persons, not three independent individuals, teaches us that because we are in the “image of God”, we are meant to be persons-in-relationship. That is why Bonhoeffer tells us “that God does not desire a history of individual human beings, but the history of the human community.” Individualism is a heresy because it undermines human solidarity.
Once, long ago now, I was invited to preach at a prestigious boys’ school in Cape Town at a time when the full might of the apartheid regime was being unleashed. The occasion was the annual “old-boys” re-union service. Given the circumstances, I preached on the need for social justice. After the service I overheard one “old boy” say to another (referring to me), “he must be a communist!” That was not the first time I had been called that, but in truth I was being a Christian. Our witness to the gospel is not narrowly confined to individual salvation. Indeed, the good news expressed in Mary’s song, the Magnificat, at the birth of Jesus, is that God wants to “fill the hungry with good things” and will if need be, “send the rich away empty.” (Luke 1:53) So, just as Bonhoeffer also said that no one who did not stand up for the Jews in Nazi Germany should sing Gregorian chants, neither should we sing the Magnificat today if we do not work for a caring society in which individualism is uprooted and economic justice prevails. For starters, the church should itself be a community that is inclusive and economically just, caring for all in need, especially the most vulnerable, but it should work with others to achieve the same goals n society, and support government and communal policies that seek to achieve them.
Time and again throughout history Christians have rediscovered what it means to be the church by reflecting on what Luke tells us about the first Christian community described by Luke in the book of Acts. Whether it was in the rise of monasticism in the third century, the foundation of Benedictine and Franciscan orders, or later movements of reformation and renewal, this radical vision of the church as an “intentional community” of common worship, caring for each other, inclusivity and witness through serving the world and seeking economic justice, has inspired and energized Christians. So, it should be today in this “new ordinary time.”
John de Gruchy
Volmoed 25 June 2020