Updated: Nov 3, 2021
This blog is one in a series of reflections on chapters in the book Called to Community.
Fridays at the farmer’s market were a unique joy because it was the only day that the local, hippie, cult came to sell their fresh baked bread. I loved this for two reasons: I thoroughly enjoy engaging people of various beliefs and creeds. Second, the bread was the absolute best. Over time, I grew more and more acquainted with this little band of followers. They were small, but took their teaching from Scripture. They all received new names and lived in a commune where simple living and shared possessions were the norm. I still have a lot of their literature and it is littered with pictures of people holding hands and running in a circle.
I love that.
You may not be surprised to learn that much of their lifestyle is mirrored after the passages in Acts that discuss sharing and inclusion in the inaugural days of the Church. Now I have sat in many American pews and heard pastors squirm subtly or wax eloquently over why the shared life of the early Church is not anything Jesus would want us to adhere to today. I confess to my readers that I don’t completely disagree with the claim that what happened from Pentecost to Solomon’s Porch was a unique product of a unique time. I am, however, also slow to accept any teaching that says we should dismiss these practices outright.
Acts 4:32 Now the full number of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one said that any of the things that belonged to him was his own, but they had everything in common.
As we continue through the book Called to Community (see previous posts), Christoph Friedrich Blumhardt and Joseph Hellerman tackle the concept of a shared life in the community of believers. They recognize that community is essential to carry out the command to not worry. This first observation should be enough to stop us in our tracks for a moment. Jesus gives several significant commands and teaching about reducing and eliminating worry in our lives. Blumhardt and Hellerman challenge us that part of our ongoing problem with worry and anxiety is that we have dismissed key components of community. Having practiced this myself, I would attest that there is not enough time in a day to do enough mindfulness exercises to eliminate worry as it creeps in from every crack in the wall. There needs to be something more.The authors make a connection between God’s provision and promise as it is lived out in the shared lives of believers.
There is credence to this kind of a society but those who have sought this utopia through history have a poor track record. Many have tried and all have failed. It is not difficult to dream fondly of a life where everyone helps each other, cares for each other, and shares resources. But after we rouse ourselves and remember that we are still in the same spot in the carpool line that we’ve been for the last half hour, we dismiss these utopian musings as far fetched. But Blumhardt believes that it is not the shared life that is far-fetched, but the fact that we do not recognize the impact of sin as well as a limited understanding of our identity in Christ.
Blumhardt believes that "freedom of heart" must come first for such a society to exist. The members have to be "fully converted" or they are not ready for such a community. "This is especially so if you draw in people who are materialistic, envious, unfree, and unwilling to go the whole way. It would be better if they remained outside and had the cares of the world. They are not yet fit to be co-fighters." It feels very counter-cultural to design your life so as to be dependent on others and not independent of them. But Blumhardt claims that hording savings for ourselves which render us independent of the community is "the ruin of any Christian community. It is a mockery of Christ’s body." He insists that there is a necessary connection between unity in both material and spiritual matters.
Communities that are just united spiritually but not materially do not last (Blumhardt). This is a strong and somewhat unsettling claim. While I cannot recall one modern small group leader who ever suggested this kind of integrated community life, it is also not completely foreign to American Christianity. If you grew up in a rural town or in a small community church, you might have an inkling of this image. Some churches experience communities that are spiritually bound yet also connect in the day-to-day needs of life. This might manifest in special offerings passed around to help a sick member with medical bills; neighbors gathering to bring in the harvest of an understaffed farm owner; meals for new mothers; bake sales to fix the church van, and so on. The writings of Wendell Berry resound with this picture of community.
Heller points out that the early church is situated socially more like a family than an institution (religious or pagan). To qualify this, he relays a story from the early church of an actor turned Christian who quits his corrupt, pagan profession. The church has an incredible amount of authority over his vocational choices (and he willingly submits) but also understands that to do so means they must care for his livelihood and provide for him as a community. Both the local and regional church is willing to back this play. The communal framework of a family best describes this kind of community.
"From the beginning, ever since Christ was born, people have sought such a society, a fellowship of the kingdom, free from cares and worries. There is an enormous strength when people stand together, when they unite in a communal way. The idea of private property falls away, and they are so bound together in the Spirit that each one says, ‘What I have belongs to the others, and if I should ever be in need, they will help me’ (2 Cor. 8:13-15). This firm and absolute solidarity in a shared life where each is responsible for the other is the kind of life in which you can indeed say, 'Don’t worry!’"
But how does a committed group of believers become such a community? One regular pitfall I observe is that folks will feel convicted of this disparity and convinced of the biblical shared life only to rush forward to create structures and rules by which this achievement is maintained. I hear there is a lot of holding hands and running in circles.
Perhaps we need to move backward instead of forward and anchor into the abiding events
of Pentecost. This idea of shared possessions & dependence cannot be divorced from the other major events of Pentecost that shaped this early church. C. Norman Kraus writes about
how Pentecost is both an end and a beginning. "Christ is not dead or absent in some far-off spiritual realm. The kingdom he announced is not set aside to some future millennium but enters a new era of fulfillment. His ministry is not concluded but universalized through his new body." (32) Kraus emphasizes the miracle of of this "new community" and how (like in the formation of Israel in Exodus which Luke makes many allusions to) this community turns "a ‘mixed multitude’ into a ‘people.’"
If we recognize the astonishment of unity arising within diversity, the authority and influence this body had on it’s members lives is even more striking . This reversal of Babel and the Spirit in wind and fire, just like the Presence of fire and cloud showing up in the formation of Israel, ties into Peter’s sermon on Pentecost. Peter claims that this occurrence is the fulfillment of prophecy. "Just as the Israelites were ‘baptized in the sea’ (1 Cor. 10:2), marking decisively their separation from their old family identity in Egypt, so Peter called upon his audience to be baptized and to save themselves from the old ‘crooked generation.’ Just as Israel received their new identity as the people of God at Sinai through the gift of the law, so the new people is constituted through the gift of the Spirit." (34) This connection from Old to New Testaments and the formation of Israel and the formation of the Church make claims about the identity of Christ followers that is hard to ignore.
Kraus claims: "To be as explicit as possible let me perhaps overstate the point. It was not a matter of ‘receiving Jesus into their hearts’ and then being urged to find a church (voluntary society) of their choice for fellowship. It was not a matter of an inner experience of justification or even of conversion that made them members of the spiritual or invisible body of Christ to be followed by baptism and ‘joining the church.’ It was not a matter of ’saving their souls’ and then gathering them into conventicles or visible religious societies … Peter’s promise that following repentance and baptism they would receive the gift of the Holy Spirit (2:38) was not the promise of a ’second experience’ but the announcement that it is within the community of the Spirit that the new reality is to be found." (35)
Our identity in Christ that gathers us as members of His body in Him and each other, will inevitably create a new reality. While this new reality is both justification and sanctification existing in each individual believer, it is not solely individual. When we gather and connect all these housings of the Holy Spirit into a unit, then something changes and shifts in the way we exist together. This new reality not only shapes us individually, but it also shapes our relationships. I cannot say exactly how this will manifest and it may not involve Birkenstocks and drum circles, but it will draw us deeper into the way of Christ where a shared life enables us to better following the teachings of Jesus and the movement of the Holy Spirit in us.
"How can we escape this appalling, sinful social order? When we think about this, how can we still laugh and enjoy our gardens? How can we drink our coffee at breakfast when we know that it is offered to us at a reasonable price through the infamous policies of our governments, at the expense of the hungry in coffee-producing countries? In such blind alleys, the consolation of the forgiveness of sins is certainly necessary. But forgiveness of sins can never mean, ‘Carry on just as before.’" (41, Helmut Gollwitzer)