by Shane Claiborne
There is no place where it is more clear that economic sharing was a core practice for Christians than in the life of the early Church; this little community that Jesus has formed to continue to live into that ancient hope that the people of God could show the world what a society of love looks like.
In the book of Acts, the Scripture says this:
“All the believers were together and had everything in common. Selling their possessions and goods, they gave to anyone as they had need…All the believers were one in heart and mind. No one claimed that any of their possessions were their own, but they shared everything they had… There were no needy persons among them. “ (Acts 2:44-45, 4:32-34)
All the believers were together and shared everything in common. They put their offerings at the feet of the apostles to meet needs. At one point the text even says that there were no needy persons among them.
One of the signs of the birthday of the early church at Pentecost was this – they ended poverty. How unbelievable is that!
What they had to figure out early on was the best way to care for their most vulnerable members, “the widows and the orphans” (Acts 6). Amid all our bureaucracies and institutions, it is important to remind ourselves that the first “system” set in place in the Church was to insure that the poor were cared for. If it could be said that the early church had committees, then one of the first committees was devoted to meeting the needs around them. Throughout the life of the early church we see how central need-sharing and redistribution is. “Bearing one another’s burdens” was a part of who they were (Galatians 6:2). “If one person suffered they all suffered” (1 Cor. 12:26). The resources of one person were God’s instrument of provision for another – all things were held with thankful hearts and open hands.
A terrible tragedy of the early Church there in Acts is the story of Ananias and Sapphira. The story goes that Ananias and Sapphira held back their possessions from the common pool and lied to God about it, and God struck them dead. That’s not something we see much of in the New Testament (or today… thank heavens we’d probably have much smaller congregations!), but it surely should alert us to how essential this idea of common sharing was for the early church. Sadly, the story ends with the youth carrying their bodies out to be buried. Imagine what their folks heard when they asked how youth group was that night! But the lesson is unmistakable – economic sharing was part of what it meant to be Christian.
A place we can see this vision of a new humanity and a new economy most clearly is in the Eucharist, or the Lord’s supper. This meal, which Christians still share all over the world, every single day, captures part of the “mystery” of what it means to be Christian. The communion meal is a vision of the divine banquet where rich and poor come to the same table as a new creation. Interestingly enough, the elements of communion are not bread and water but bread and wine. Bread is a simple, staple food of the poor. Wine is elegant, often seen only as a luxury of the rich. But the two come together in holy communion. Both bread and wine have some things in common. They are made up of parts that have to be crushed and broken in order to become something new. Grapes are crushed to become wine, and grain is ground down to become bread. So we are part of the body of Christ. In the communion meal, it is we who are praying that we would be digested into the Body of Christ, that we would truly understand the old adage “You are what you eat.” It is also a reminder that we do not come to the table as rich and poor, but as a family.
Paul scolds the early Church in Corinth as they come to the communion table, because some of them are coming to the Lord’s Supper hungry, while others are stuffed full of food. They have desecrated what the meal is really about. “When you come together, it is not the Lord’s Supper you eat, for as you eat, each of you goes ahead without waiting for anybody else. One remains hungry and another gets drunk…. What shall I say to you? Shall I praise you for this? Certainly not.” (1 Cor.11: 21-22). One can hear the echoes of the prophet Amos as he scolds the Hebrew people for worshipping God while ignoring the needs around them. A fundamental of communion is sharing bread: we break off a piece and pass it to a brother or sister. No one is to go without; it is a symbol of what is to come. As one of my Catholic friends says, “As long as a belly is aching in hunger, the Eucharist is incomplete.” The banquet is still imperfect, unfinished. Part of the prayer we are taught by Jesus that so often accompanies the communion feast is: “Give us this day our daily bread.” This is a prayer that the poor know well. It is also a warning to those of us who might pray for tomorrow’s bread, or those of us who might pray for a steak. We are not to pray for “my” bread but to cry out with the poor for “our” daily bread. We are not to pray for the poor, but to pray with them… and to realize that as long as anyone is hungry, all of us are hungry.