THE Evangelists rarely speak of their own writing. Luke 1.3 says “I decided”. John 20.31-2 speaks obliquely, giving us a self-effacing “these are written” rather than “I wrote”. His final sentence gives us his unique first-person reaction to Jesus (21.24-5). John has chosen his material to support our believing; that is his primary objective. He sets it out immediately after the story of Thomas, giving us courage to say “My Lord and my God” without having yet seen for ourselves.
The fact that the Evangelists rarely express their intentions should not stop us asking what their writings are trying to achieve. They are not mere reports, but exercises in persuasion; and our existence as living Christians two millennia later is evidence of their success.
When their intention is to persuade us that Jesus is the Son of God, or that he was resurrected from the dead, this is uncontroversial. Our acceptance of those beliefs goes with our discipleship. But, in the reading from Acts, we enter sensitive territory. It is more than a rare statement: it is unique in the New Testament, namely, that, among the first Christians, private ownership was dissolved into the holding of all property in common.
This is shockingly radical. Can we really be encountering proto-communism in scripture? For the most part, Christians have been happy to sidestep it with a shrug: “That was then; this is now.” In terms of practical living, we do not dress, speak, or think exactly as they did; so why should we coexist as they did? And, anyway, they were the apostles, gifted with “great power” and “great grace”, which made their acts of goodness more extreme than our ordinary ones can be.
That excuse will not hold water. The apostles in Acts are plainly giving us examples to imitate. So, if relinquishing private property is a Christian goal, we should be doing it. Some Christians already are: men and women who are called to the religious life (as monks or nuns) are living that apostolic paradigm today. The rest of us? Not so much.
This may be the only clear example of an apostolic teaching on common ownership, but it is reinforced by a cautionary tale: Ananias and Sapphira (in Acts 5). Ananias’s punishment was fierce enough; but Peter and the others could have given Sapphira a chance to repent and save herself. Instead, they virtually entrapped her. The very existence of their story hints at misgivings concerning common ownership among some of the faithful. After this tale, the teaching fades from view.
When we turn to the First Letter of John, scripture and liturgy merge in verses familiar from the Book of Common Prayer daily office and holy communion. These powerful verses challenge us to radical honesty, and give us a coping mechanism (confession of sin) without which the Easter faith could hardly have survived down the years. They could have been the solution for Ananias and Sapphira.
John the letter-writer is here inclusive, not exclusive. Christ’s atonement is for the sins of the whole world, not just for believers. Set for this day, when we reflect on the outworkings of the resurrection, his words encourage those who have been believers for some time, but struggle with their inability to live a perfect Christian life.
How do we take to ourselves the common holding of property in Acts? In truth, most of us don’t. It is written as a third-person statement rather than a command, which seems to give us room for moral manoeuvre. But, in 1 Corinthians 11.1-11, Paul orders women to cover their heads, though — much more readily than with male headship, for some reason — many Christians freely ignore him.
If we want life lessons from our readings, we can highlight that it’s legitimate to set aside biblical examples for good practical reasons; that trust is best, but Jesus does not condemn doubt or scepticism; and that our fellowship with one another is a necessary condition for our fellowship with Christ.
For a human family, or a Christian family, to live together in unity is, indeed, good and pleasant. But that does not mean that everyone has to be exactly the same in terms of what they own, or how they behave. We do better to live by the principle that the fact that we are all different is a cause for celebration.