There Was No Needy Person Among Them
What does it mean to be a Christian? What does it look like? Today’s first reading offers us a glimpse into what some of the early communities understood the ideal situation to look like, marked as it was by several well-known key features: unity in heart, unity in belief, unity in resources, and no one goes without what is necessary — there is no need.
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.
New Testament and Early Christianity scholars are generally sure that this quasi-utopic vision of early Christian life is idealistic rather than verbatim historical recounting of a specific community. Nevertheless, what this Lucan passage tells us is that the early Christian communities, after several generations, looked back at their origins and at least imagined what it would have looked like to be more closely following the Gospel.
This passage, in other words, is not really about returning to the past or looking back as much as it is about looking ahead and striving to emulate what an instantiation of the vita evangelica, what the “Gospel Life” would really look like if lived as truly as possible.
It is no surprise, then, that Francis of Assisi’s own Regula or “Rule of Life” begins with the line: “The Rule and Life of the Lesser Brothers is this: to observe the Holy Gospel of Our Lord Jesus Christ by living in obedience, without anything of ones own, and in chastity” (RB 1:1). It is an attempt to express, in both spiritual and legislative terms, what the Acts of the Apostles passage expresses narratively: living out one’s baptismal vocation is to observe the Gospel, to follow Christ, to live as a hearer of the word (obedience), without anything of one’s own (poverty), and in right relationship with others (chastity). While these evangelical counsels (as they are technically called) or religious vows (as they are more popularly known) are often understood to be something reserved for those women and men who have a vocation to religious life, the Acts of the Apostles reminds us of our universal call through baptism to live these virtues in whatever state we find ourselves.
This does not mean that everybody is to live in exactly the same way, but it does mean that we have one source for how to live and to imagine what it looks like to do so authentically: the Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ.
Long before John Lennon wrote the beautiful song “Imagine,” the worldview of the early followers of Jesus Christ was transformed in such a way that they, too, asked themselves — as they ask us today — “Imagine that there’s no need or want and all live in peace.” Can we imagine a world about which we might say: “There was no needy person among them?”
You might say that I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one.