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.
This is a rather challenging passage for most of us, if we take it seriously. How many of us share resources in this way with a community larger than our own household? I suspect almost all of us may pay taxes and even give generously to charity – but still control the rest of our wealth ourselves, rather than surrendering it for the wider good. Mind you, I wonder how long the early Church managed to sustain such a model – in the second letter to the Thessalonians, Paul is strictly admonishing the community that “anyone unwilling to work should not eat”, which sounds rather more like the conditionality requirements of UK benefits than some form of universal income. The letter may pre-date the book of Acts, but radical sharing does appear to be the exception rather than the rule in Christian history (the Taborites in 15th Century, in what is now the Czech Republic, being one such exception – though they benefited from sitting on an actual gold mine).
There are a couple of areas where I think this passage should prompt further reflection. First, what would it mean if ‘there was not a needy person’ in our society? What really are our basic financial needs, and how could we make sure everyone had what they needed? What are the other needs we have – for friendship, care, inclusion? How can we as Christians and churches help people meet those needs.
Second, how should this passage shape the way we use the Church’s resources? How do we really understand the “need” for stipendiary Ministry, for example, rather than simply spreading the pool of Ministers pro rata? I don’t think these are easy questions, making it all the more important that we reflect on them prayerfully together.
Lord, we give thanks for the apostles, who kindled the flame of the gospel and continue to challenge us to live a faithful life. Help us understand how to use the talents and resources we have been given wisely, in our own lives, in our families, and in our churches and communities. Hold us fast to a vision of your Kingdom where all are included and loved, and inspire us to work for that Kingdom to come on earth, as in Heaven. Amen.