Inequality is a relentless blight. The hopelessness too often engendered when a lack of resources aligns with insufficient educational access, the easy prejudice of one's neighbors, and the ubiquity of oppression is dehumanizing and crushing.
In recent days, much of our political discourse has focused — at least in words — on economic inequality. From the left and right alike, laments arise about the shrinking of the middle class and the widening and yawning gap growing between those who are thriving in a rebounding economy and those left behind by a rising Dow.
The next presidential campaign will likely be dominated by questions of economic justice and the American promise that hard work and perseverance can yield a better life. Is this dream a myth or reality? How we answer this question will say much about our hope in the future, our trust in one another, our faith in a God who promises life abundant, though an abundance that comes in a form we might not expect.
This week, we read a text about the life of the early church. Acts narrates how in these idyllic days, the faithful sold all their possessions and shared all they had with their sisters and brothers in faith so that there was not a needy person in their midst.
Acts makes it seem so clear, so easy. All these problems with inequality would evaporate if we lived in such an exemplary and faithful way! This is a picture of the ideal community, one in which no one lacks for anything!
Things are more complicated than this as we know too well.
Often times, Christians have turned to the Acts of the Apostles hoping to find there the perfect church or at least a really good model of what church might be like. We hope that if we could just do church the way the early church did, we would be in a much better place.
This passage is one key motivation for these nostalgic hopes. Acts notes that this is a community of “one heart and soul.” Doesn’t that sound like what we yearn for most? In a world where many of us don’t know our neighbors, where we are so easily divided over political questions, where we can’t seem to agree on anything, where we legislate the privileges of some over the simple liberties of others, don’t we yearn to be of “one heart and soul?”
Now, notice that this is a community that talks the talk and walks the walk. They love one another by selling their possessions. And why do they do this? We find the answer in a verse we too often miss.
Verse 33 reads: “With great power the apostles gave their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all.”
They were not of one heart and soul because they tried really hard. They did not sell their possessions because it was the right thing to do. Instead, everything they did was because of their belief in the resurrection. They so believed in a Jesus who defeated death and promised life to us all that they trusted every bit of their lives into the hands of God and their neighbors. They so trusted each other that they gave all that they had to one another so that there would be enough for all. They believed because if God can raise the dead, then surely God will provide our every need. They believed in this God who can raise the dead and in this way discovered what it meant to be children of a God of hopeful abundance.
But come on. Isn’t Luke being naive? Doesn’t he know that such a community seems impossible?
Actually, he does.
Remember that the chapters and verses in our Bibles were added later, and sometimes they were added in the worst places. Because v. 37 concludes ch. 4, we assume Luke is turning a new page when he begins chapter 5. But the beginning of ch. 5 and the end of ch. 4 must be read together. There is an important “but” at the beginning of ch. 5: “But a man named Ananias…” And soon we hear about Sapphira as well. We learn of their greed and deception. We learn of their untimely demise.
That is, right after this community begins to unify, the greed of one couple starts to tear the community apart. As soon as this community starts to come together, as soon as everyone’s needs are being met, it all starts to fall apart. And perhaps this was inevitable. We know what we are really like. We are not all that surprised that we have established systems that privilege some and neglect others. This is what we do!
And this is precisely why Acts is not a mere blueprint for the perfect church or even an instruction manual for putting it together. The church in Acts is as flawed, as difficult as any community we are a part of.
So what do we do with these stories? Do we lament our inability to live as this early community did? Do we excuse ourselves from the call to serve our neighbor? Do we dwell in guilt that we have more than enough while others lack the basics? Do we ignore the plight of others because there is nothing more we can do? Do we seek to enfranchise our "rights" at the cost of the rights of others?
No, the gospel calls us to imagine what it would be like for us to live in such a community. The gospel calls us to wonder what would keep us from selling all we have for the sake of the other. The gospel calls us to wonder whether our stuff has become our “stuffing” in life. Does our stuff give our lives shape and meaning? Or might it just be that our stuff is a gift not for us but for others? That our stuff is never about us.
What might it be like to trust — really trust — our neighbors with all we had? And an even more radical thought for many of us: what might it be like to rely on God to form me into a person and us into a community worthy of such precious trust?
Rev. Dr. Eric D. Barreto is Assistant Professor of New Testament at Luther Seminary in St. Paul. VIa ON Scripture.