The early church in Jerusalem was of “one heart and soul, and no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common” (Acts 4:32). The resurrection changed the funding formula for ministry! Private ownership gave way to pooling resources so that “there was not a needy person among them” (v. 34). Caring for their own spurred an outward spiral of compassion that led the early apologist Aristides to write of these Christians:
Their oppressors they appease and make them their friends; they do good to their enemies. . . they love one another, and from widows they do not turn away their esteem; and they deliver the orphan from him who treats him harshly. And he, who has, gives to him who has note, without boasting. And when they see a stranger, they take him in to their homes and rejoice over him as a very brother . . . (Apol. 15).
A recent article by Jon Meacham, “Heaven Can’t Wait” in Time (April 16, 2012), suggests that this kind of Christianity attracts young adults as this younger generation is “driven by causes.” Rather than thinking of heaven as the reward that removes persons from the cares of the earth, activist Christianity that demands acts of justice now connects heaven and earth in constructive ways. Following the thinking of preeminent New Testament scholar N.T. Wright, Meacham writes:
. . . the scholarly redefinition of heaven as a manifestation of God’s love on earth . . . puts believers in closer proximity to the intent of the New Testament authors and should inspire the religious to open their arms more often than they point fingers. Heaven thus becomes, for now, the reality one creates in the service of the poor, the sick, the enslaved, the oppressed. It is not paradise in the sky but acts of selflessness and love that bring God’s sacred space and grace to a broken world suffused with tragedy . . .
Witnessing the resurrection, where the separation of heaven and earth was bridged, early Christianity sought to forge communities of accountability and service.
We tend to think this was a simpler challenge for our forebears in faith; after all, they were not faced with some of the complexities of health care and pension plans. Yet, their attempts to “hold all things in common” were severely tested as they welcomed Gentiles, male and female, slave and free, into their identity as the people of God. Some of the partitioning of church and synagogue was due, no doubt, to issues of social class, i.e., those who could contribute resources for the apostles to distribute and those who could not. Many in our day resent that their taxes help fund those more dependent upon entitlement programs than they are. As a Christian who longs for the embodiment of the resurrection ethics of Acts, I would rather err on the side of compassion than participate in a calculus that reduces the dignity of those in greater need.
Molly T. Marshall
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