Now the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common. With great power the apostles gave their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all. There was not a needy person among them, for as many as owned lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold. They laid it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need. There was a Levite, a native of Cyprus, Joseph, to whom the apostles gave the name Barnabas (which means ‘son of encouragement’). He sold a field that belonged to him, then brought the money, and laid it at the apostles’ feet.
For some readers, the first thing they notice about this text is the part about the holding of everything in common and the end of private ownership. Perhaps Marx comes to mind and the maxim that ‘property is theft’. They will light on the parts about the lands and houses being sold so that no one was hungry or in need. Barnabas from Cyprus sells a field, gets a new name and a firm place in the history of early Christianity.
For other readers this passage is not so much about the end of private property, but about the impressive authority of the apostles. There are no less than four references to ‘the apostles’ in these short verses and they add up to a kind of insistence that the apostles had a huge amount of power and authority. They gave their testimony to the resurrection with great power. The money from the sales of possessions were laid at their feet. And the apostles gave people new names –they who turned Joseph into Barnabas, a ‘son of encouragement.’ They have the power to preach the Gospel, they have power over the money and even over the identity and naming of new members of the community. For some readers, this passage is about the apostles and their significance and belongs not in the political category (where we are inclined to put ideas about property and redistribution), but in the ecclesiological box (where we put the things that make the Church what it is, including ‘one, holy, catholic and apostolic’).
I find some things difficult about both readings (and no doubt there are other readings that might trouble me too). I am rather attached to the relatively small (or should that be large?) amount of private property that I have. I dread ending my days in a place where I might wear a nightie that someone else chose. The things I treasure are freighted with memory that no one else would see in them. I am content to give generously and to change the world for good, but I am reluctant to live in a community where everything is owned in common. Similarly, I am wary of a model of Church where some have the kind of authority described here, to claim a privileged witness to the Gospel, to control the money and to name others.
So, this reading challenges me. I am challenged to let my own life be shaped by the witness of the apostles as much as people were in the first century. My possessions and my possessing, my politics and my giving, should be shaped by their authoritative witness. I have been ruthlessly shaped by a culture that values privacy and individuality, and that rejects external authority. But my life is given to Christ, whose Gospel and challenge I have heard through the witness of the apostles. May this text, and their witness, speak to me still, and let me hear it.
O Christ who calls me into your Church, let me discover again that the Church is One, rejoicing in its unity and diversity, reaching out to meet my brothers and sisters.
O Christ who calls me into your Church, teach me what it means for the Church to be Holy, and to be touched by that promise, that my life may be holy too.
O Christ who calls me into your Church, show me how Catholic is your community, the broadness of its tent and the wonder of its peoples.
O Christ who calls me into your Church, let me hear again and again the witness of the apostles and find those who faithfully echo their testimony today.
Shape me into your body and give me grace to be conformed to you, nonconformist though I am. Amen.
The Rev’d Dr Susan Durber is the minister of Taunton URC.