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Much Grace Was With Them All:
Our Distinctive Sign

For Sunday April 23, 2006

           Lectionary Readings (Revised Common Lectionary, Year B)
           Acts 4:32–35
           Psalm 133
           1 John 1:1–2:2
           John 20:19–31

Paul and Barnabas in Lystra, by Adriaen van Stalbemt, 1580-1662.
Paul and Barnabas in Lystra, by Adriaen van Stalbemt, 1580–1662.

           In his book The Heart of Christianity (2003) professor Marcus Borg of Oregon State University describes how his university students who grew up outside the church have a uniformly negative stereotype of Christianity. "When I ask them to write a short essay on their impression of Christianity," says Borg, "they consistently use five adjectives: Christians are literalistic, anti-intellectual, self-righteous, judgmental, and bigoted." I suspect that Borg's unscientific conclusions apply well beyond his university students to our broader culture. Why these stereotypes persist, the extent to which they are deserved, or whether they are even accurate, are all interesting and complex questions, but at least we can say this much—the emergent community of those who had followed Jesus gained a different reputation; they "enjoyed the favor of all the people" (Acts 2:47). Why the contrast between then and now?

           After a period of confusion, doubt and disbelief following the gruesome execution of Jesus, and despite threats from the religious and government authorities, his followers became convinced that "God has raised this Jesus to life, and we are all witnesses of the fact. We cannot help speaking about what we have seen and heard" (Acts 2:32, 4:20). To the shock of most everyone, these unschooled and ordinary Jesus followers proclaimed their message with courage and boldness. In Jerusalem converts joined the movement en masse, first 3,000 people, then increasing to 5,000 (2:41, 4:4). Luke gives us a snapshot of this vibrant Jesus-community that helps to explain the appeal of their message, its consequent expansion, and their local reception:

All the believers were one in heart and mind. No one claimed that any of his possessions was his own, but they shared everything they had. With great power the apostles continued to testify to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and much grace was with them all. There were no needy persons among them. From time to time those who owned lands or houses sold them, brought the money from the sales and put it at the apostles feet, and it was distributed to anyone as he had need (Acts 4:32–35).

A few pages earlier Luke describes a similar sort of primitive communism, as some have described it (see 2:42–47). Clearly, the public reputation of these first Christians in Jerusalem differed markedly from what Borg describes today at Oregon State. What gives?

Icon of Barnabas.
Icon of Barnabas.

           Luke's depiction of the Jerusalem believers identifies a signature characteristic of their movement—in a word, generosity. Their social generosity expressed itself in community, and their financial generosity expressed itself in compassion.

           Following the example of Jesus, the first Christians broke down social barriers and disregarded religious taboos that distinguished between the ritually clean and the unclean, the worthy and the unworthy, the respectable and the unrespectable. They were "one in heart and mind," writes Luke. They subverted normal social hierarchies of wealth, ethnicity, religion, and gender in favor of a radical egalitarianism before God and with each other: "There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus" (Galatians 3:28). About a century after Luke wrote, the early Christians had a well-known and well-deserved reputation for social generosity that built bridges of community rather than walls of separation. Tertullian (AD 155–220), for example, wrote, "Our care for the derelict and our active love have become our distinctive sign before the enemy...See, they say, how they love one another and how ready they are to die for each other."

           In numerous studies like Robert Putnam's book Bowling Alone (2001), social-scientists have documented how disconnected and isolated people feel today. We accumulate what Putnam calls a growing "social-capital deficit" that leaves people in our culture longing for a "more collectively caring community"—which "communal caring" is exactly the sort of social generosity that Luke describes in his historical description above.

The Stoning of Paul and Barnabas at Lystra, by Barent Fabritius, 1672.
The Stoning of Paul and Barnabas at Lystra,
by Barent Fabritius, 1672.

           In addition, financial generosity expressed itself in compassion toward the needy. Indeed, a few pages later in his account Luke describes famine relief efforts (Acts 11:29). Some people dismiss Luke's description of wealth divestment as a utopian dream, but that's not true. There are many believers who live this dream, as Garry Wills observes in his book What Jesus Meant (2006): "Eastern monks, the first Franciscans, the Shakers, Catholic Workers, worker priests, base communities [in Latin America], and Christian communities like Jonah House." The Catholic Worker Movement, for example, was founded by Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin in 1933. It espouses a strong belief in the God-given dignity of every human being. Today over 185 Catholic Worker communities remain committed to nonviolence, voluntary poverty, prayer, and hospitality for the homeless, exiled, hungry, and forsaken. Catholic Workers protest injustice, war, racism, and violence of all forms.1 The legacy of those first Jerusalem believers resonated three centuries later. The pagan emperor Julian the Apostate (ruled AD 361–363), who vehemently opposed Christians and stripped them of their rights and privileges, acknowledged: "The godless Galileans feed not only their poor but ours also. Those who belong to us look in vain for the help that we should render them."

           The so-called primitive communism of the early Christians subverted conventions of envy, avarice and accumulation. Judging from the letters that Paul wrote to churches throughout the Mediterranean basin, their practice of divestment seems to have been limited to Jerusalem. It was clearly voluntary and not compulsory, as the tragic example of Ananias and Sapphira showed (Acts 5:4). Luke also says that the selling of property occurred "from time to time," which is to say that it was sporadic and based upon a person's sense of God's call rather than compulsory or systematic. None of these caveats, though, diminish the revolutionary impact of financial generosity expressed in compassion for the needy.

           Neither Jesus nor his first followers advanced an economic, social, or political program, even though Christians on the left and the right do so today. Garry Wills even suggests that the Christians's alternate community of radical social and financial generosity was a sort of "anti-politics." A generation or two after the events described by Luke, the theologian Justin Martyr (c. 100-165) summarized the appeal of Christian community: “Those who once delighted in fornication now embrace chastity alone…we who once took most pleasure in accumulating wealth and property now share with everyone in need; we who hated and killed one another and would not associate with men of different tribes because of their different customs now, since the coming of Christ, live familiarly with them and pray for our enemies.”

Dorothy Day of the Catholic Workers Movement.
Dorothy Day of the Catholic Workers Movement.

           Luke concludes his general description of the believers's social and financial generosity with a specific example: "Joseph, a Levite from Cyprus, whom the apostles called Barnabas (which means Son of Encouragement), sold a field he owned and brought the money and put it at the apostles' feet" (Acts 4:36–37). Luke describes Barnabas as "a good man, full of the Holy Spirit and faith" (Acts 11:24), and even as an "apostle" (Acts 14:14).

           Barnabas exemplified all the goodness and generosity of those first believers. When the newly converted Paul tried to associate with dubious Christians in Jerusalem "who did not believe that he was really a disciple," Barnabas vouched for him (Acts 9:27). When news reached Jerusalem that even Gentiles were converting in Antioch, they sent Barnabas to them as their emissary. He "encouraged them," and brought Paul from Tarsus to them for an entire year (Acts 11:22–26). Barnabas trekked some 1400 miles with Paul to plant churches deep into Asia Minor (Acts 13–14). It was the wisdom of Barnabas (and Paul) that prevailed at the first church council at Jerusalem regarding the place of Jewish customs in the lives of Gentile converts (Acts 15). And it was Barnabas who had a "sharp disagreement" with Paul because he included his failed cousin Mark in further ministry after Paul adamantly refused to do so "because Mark had deserted them in Pamphylia and had not continued with them in the work" (Acts 13:13, 15:36–39). Years later Paul admitted that Barnabas was right (Colossians 4:10).

           I get irritated when I read about Borg's students at Oregon State, partly because I think they have a point. I wish that we Christians could somehow recapture the witness of those first believers who, because "great grace was with them all," demonstrated overflowing generosity to their neighbors, and who consequently "enjoyed the favor of all the people." Let that be what Tertullian called "our distinctive mark."

For further reflection:

* How do you respond to the stereotypes of Christians mentioned by Borg?
* What knowledge or experience do you have of Christian experiments with communal living and sharing?
* What do you think of attempts to reproduce what we read about in Acts?
* Do you know of any Barnabas-like believers today?
* See Jacques Ellul, Money and Power, and Justo Gonzales, Faith and Wealth: A History of Early Christian Ideas on the Origin, Significance, and Use of Money. 

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