They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. Awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles. 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. Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.
Most Biblical commentators describe this passage as “idealised” – in other words, this is Luke’s picture of what the early Christian community should ideally have been like, rather than how it actually operated. The letters of Paul suggest that if things ever were like this, they soon degenerated – and 1 Corinthians 11 describes a church in which people would not share their food equally even at communion, never mind selling all that they had.
Whatever our views on Biblical authority, most of us are comfortable with this idea that the passage is idealised – because, after all, we haven’t sold all our possessions either.
But what if this is how Christian life is meant to be? My family and I had the immense privilege for seven years of being wardens of Coleg Trefeca in Breconshire, home of Howell Harris, the first Methodist (converted before Whitefield and the Wesleys, in 1735). He took this passage utterly seriously, and in 1752 established in Trefeca a community, all of whose members did sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all (well, they actually gave their possessions to Harris – he was a bit of a control freak – so that he could distribute them). It continued in that form long after Harris’s death in 1773, becoming a more conventional college in 1811.
Most of the members were ordinary tenant farmers – they had very few possessions to sell in the first place. At times the community was in debt and in the 1760s it was ravaged by smallpox. But by the 1770s it was noted for having over 70 different trades practised – the members shared their talents as well as their wealth. More than a century before universal education, all the children of the community and the surrounding village were educated and could read and write in both the English and Welsh languages. A sanatorium was established which offered health care, free of charge, to the local community – 170 years before the NHS. The community’s farms were models for introducing the new techniques of the agrarian revolution into Wales. The security of shared wealth meant that individual tenants could afford to experiment with new techniques without facing starvation if things went wrong.
They did all this because they had read Acts 2.42-47 and decided that, in the name of the Risen Jesus and in the power of the Holy Spirit, they could live it too. Like those early Christians, their lives were surrounded by prayer – three times a day – and by weekly attendance at the parish church, where they provided the music.
I wonder what we could achieve as a church and a society if we took this passage seriously?
Loving God, help me to read this passage and imagine what life would be like if we lived it, as Howell Harris and the Trefeca Family once did. And after the imagining, Lord, give us the faith to act. Amen.
The Revd Gethin Rhys is National Assembly Policy Officer for Cytun (Churches Together in Wales) and a member of Parkminster URC, Cardiff.