Tuesday, April 13, 2010

The Community Of Believers Was Of One Heart And Mind.

Tuesday of the Second Week of Easter
Reading I
Acts 4:32-37
The community of believers
was of one heart and mind,
and no one claimed
that any of his possessions was his own,
but they had everything in common.
With great power the Apostles bore witness
to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus,
and great favor was accorded them all.
There was no needy person among them,
for those who owned property
or houses would sell them,
bring the proceeds of the sale,
and put them at the feet of the Apostles,
and they were distributed
to each according to need.

Thus Joseph, also named by the Apostles Barnabas
(which is translated “son of encouragement”),
a Levite, a Cypriot by birth,
sold a piece of property that he owned,
then brought the money
and put it at the feet of the Apostles
A picture of the early Christian community.

We Christians are sometimes accused of being socialists or even Marxists and Communists. It is not an accusation we should be altogether ashamed of. The socialist ideal is “To each according to their need; from each according to their ability”. If this is the essence of socialism, then it is hard to see how any follower of Christ could disagree with it.

What people often do is to confuse the ideals of socialism (and Communism) with the ways in which it was implemented, as well as the atheistic materialism which it proclaimed. As we saw so clearly during Communism at its height, justice without love does not work (and we Christians might also remember that there can be no true love without justice).

Today’s reading from the Acts is one of three portraits of the early Christian community. Probably it is more the expression of an ideal than a historic description but it is no less valid for all that. Today’s description emphasises the communal ownership and mutual responsibility of the community members for each other.

Four elements are mentioned in the first sentence:
» The believers form a community
» They are of one heart and mind, deeply united with each other
» No one claimed anything as belonging to themselves; everything was held in common
» They gave witness to the central element of their faith - the Risen Jesus -
    with great power, through signs and healings.

There were no rich or poor in this community. “Those who owned lands or houses sold them.” This was a voluntary sharing to provide for those who did not have enough for the essentials of living. Each one’s aim was to ensure that the needs (not necessarily the wants) of the others were met rather than each one looking only to their own needs.

It is important to note that this was possible because “the community of believers were of one heart and one mind”. Their material sharing was simply an expression of the care which they felt for each other at a much deeper level.

The passage concludes with a striking example. Joseph, also known as Barnabas (”son of encouragement”), sold property he had and put the proceeds at the feet of the apostles. He was a Levite from Cyprus. (Jews had been living there since the time of Maccabees.) Generally, Levites did not own inherited land in Palestine but the rule may not have applied in other areas. Or the property may have belonged to his wife. Barnabas, will later become a missionary partner with Paul.

Barnabas’ action will contrast with another couple, Ananias and Sapphira, who claimed to be doing the same but who in fact only gave part of their possessions and kept the rest for themselves. They were severely punished. One after the other, they both dropped dead. (Their story is told in the following chapter but is not part of our Easter readings.)

Do we find such sharing communities in our Church today? One obvious example are the many different communities of religious life whose misleadingly named “vow of poverty” is primarily not a vow of destitution but one of total sharing of resources coupled with a life of material simplicity. Clearly, some communities live this life more effectively than others.

There are also in our own time many other groups of lay people who try to implement this Christian vision, this version of Christian “communism”. One thinks for example of Jean Vanier’s ‘L’Arche’ movement.

We have to admit, though, that many Christians - including religious - can be caught up in the individualism, hedonism, consumerism and materialism that dominates so many of our prosperous societies today.

Perhaps today we could reflect on our own attitudes to material goods: how we acquire them, how we use them, to what extent we share our material blessings with those in genuine need and not just out of our surplus.

This is something we need to reflect on as individuals, as families, and in our parish community.

There should not be any people in real need in our parish communities; if there are, how can we speak of ourselves as a parish community?
+++    +++    +++    +++
Psalm 93
The Lord is king; he is robed in majesty.

The LORD is king, in splendor robed;
robed is the LORD and girt about with strength.
The Lord is king; he is robed in majesty.
And he has made the world firm,
not to be moved.
Your throne stands firm from of old;
from everlasting you are, O LORD.
The Lord is king; he is robed in majesty.
Your decrees are worthy of trust indeed:
holiness befits your house,
O LORD, for length of days.
The Lord is king; he is robed in majesty.
+++    +++    +++    +++
John 3:7b-15
Jesus said to Nicodemus:
“‘You must be born from above.’
The wind blows where it wills,
and you can hear the sound it makes,
but you do not know
where it comes from or where it goes;
so it is with everyone
who is born of the Spirit.”
Nicodemus answered and said to him,
‘How can this happen?”
Jesus answered and said to him,
“You are the teacher of Israel
and you do not understand this?
Amen, amen, I say to you,
we speak of what we know
and we testify to what we have seen,
but you people do not accept our testimony.
If I tell you about earthly things
and you do not believe,
how will you believe
if I tell you about heavenly things?
No one has gone up to heaven
except the one
who has come down from heaven,
the Son of Man.
And just as Moses
lifted up the serpent in the desert,
so must the Son of Man be lifted up,
so that everyone who believes in him
may have eternal life.”
We continue today Jesus’ night-time dialogue with the Pharisee Nicodemus. Nicodemus, while accepting in principle what Jesus has said about being born again in the Spirit, now wants to know how it can be brought about.

Jesus accuses Nicodemus and his fellow-leaders of a lack of spiritual insight and a refusal to accept his testimony as coming directly from God. “If you do not believe when I tell you about earthly things, how are you to believe when I tell you about those of heaven?”

Jesus does not speak simply on his own initiative. He speaks of what he shares with the Father. It is the Father’s words and teaching that he passes on to us - he is the Word of God. His is not just a speaking Word; it brings all things from nothing, calls the dead to life, hands on the Spirit, the source of unending life, and makes us all children of God. To experience all this we need to have faith in Jesus as truly the Word of God and to live our lives in love.

But the Word is not always easy to understand and it requires, above all, an openness to be received. It is this openness that Jesus is challenging Nicodemus to have. People respond to the Word in so many ways. Some believe fully, others go away disappointed in spite of the many signs. One is reminded of the parable of the sower. To which group do I belong?

And, up to now, only the Son has been “in heaven”, that is, with God. (”In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God…”). It is from there that he has come and “pitched his tent among us”. He is in a position, therefore, to speak about the “things of heaven”, that is, to speak of everything that pertains to and comes from God.

The only solution is to put all our focus on Jesus. “Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the desert, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that all who believe may have eternal life in him.” This is a reminder of the incident in the book of Numbers where, as a punishment for their sins, the Israelites were attacked by serpents. God told Moses to erect a bronze serpent on a pole and all who looked at the serpent were saved.

Jesus, in a much greater way, will also be “lifted up” both on the cross and into the glory of his Father through the Resurrection and Ascension. And he will be a source of life to all who commit themselves totally to him. Only then will we be washed clean by the water from the pierced side (cf. John 19:34 and Zechariah 13:1).

To what extent are we “looking at” Jesus? Is it merely a sideways glance when we think about him or at certain fixed times (e.g. Sunday Mass) or is he the centre of our attention in all that we do and say?

Let our constant prayer be: “Lord, grant that all my thoughts, intentions, actions and responses may be directed solely to your love and service this day and every day.


Sarah in the tent said...

I find this reading from Acts disturbing, not just because it reminds me of Communism, but also various mind-control cults.

Communism and cults practise separation. We had the iron/bamboo curtain and the Berlin wall, while the worst cults are always the most secretive. The Apostles, however, taught openly in the Temple, suffering the consequences. They followed Jesus in this. Sometimes people call the Catholic Church a cult, or some group within it, like Opus Dei. But even the most cloistered groups are under the authority of the wider Church, which is itself responsive to the wider society (more or less!).

The Apostles had enormous power from the Holy Spirit, but they used it only to proclaim the risen Christ. This, I think, is how they avoided the risk of that power corrupting them.


Nicodemus became a follower of Jesus, so I suppose this conversation must have been relayed to John by Nicodemus himself, directly or indirectly. Knowing that Nicodemus helped take Jesus down from the cross and, with Joseph of Arimathea, placed him in the tomb, the words 'so must the Son of man be lifted up' must ultimately have had a very deep, personal meaning for Nicodemus.

Nicodemus bound the body of Jesus in linen cloths. The shroud of Turin is supposed to be one of those cloths. It too is lifted up so that people may believe in the Son of man.

Jesus calls Nicodemus 'Teacher of Israel'. Surely the clearest lesson he ever taught is the lifting up of Christ crucified.

Fr. John L. Sullivan said...

Sarah, the words of Luke in Acts 4:34-37) are not merely similar to the saying of Karl Marx, the words of Acts 4:35 are virtually identical: "...they were distributed to each according to need." The difference, at the human level, is one of purpose. In the Book of Acts, all the members of the Christian community willingly shared what they had with one another, even to the point that the wealthiest among them -- the homeowners -- sold their homes and gave the proceeds to the community. In the Marxist system, the wealth of the "upper class" is taken from them, but the poor people do not benefit from the proceeds. If it were otherwise, the Marxist nations would be materialistic utopias -- and they aren't!