Would They Recognize Us?
Whenever today’s reading from the Acts of the Apostles is proclaimed at Mass, I can’t help wondering whether the early followers of The Way would recognize today’s Christians. Let’s take an inventory.
“The community of believers was of one heart and mind.” It seems that right off the bat we find a major difference. Not only is there division within the Catholic Church today, but disagreements among Christians over the years have divided the Christian community into a staggering number of churches and faith communities. We are hardly “of one heart and mind.” Of course, this early sense of unity did not last long either. Like any earthly utopian society, it fell apart pretty quickly. Paul’s writings to the Corinthians and the controversy that led to the Council of Jerusalem are scriptural testimony to the divisions that affected the followers of Christ very early on. No wonder Jesus fervently prayed “that they may all be one, as you, Father, are in me and I in you, that they also may be in us, that the world may believe that you sent me” (John 17:21). The ideal community that Luke portrayed in Acts may be out of our reach, but that doesn’t excuse us from being open to the grace Christ wants to bestow in order that his own prayer be answered. A good place to begin is right here online and on social media. There might be significant disagreement over policy, politics, and theology, but there should be “one heart and mind” in the love and respect we show one another.
“No one claimed that any of his possessions was his own, but they had everything in common.” Once again, it seems that we are very different from those first Christians. The very idea that we should have “everything in common” quickly raises the ire of those who suspect a Communist agenda. We hold private property so sacred that we have laws in some places that allow us to use deadly force to protect it. I’m quite certain, though, that a pro-life Church should always value human life—even that of a criminal—over personal property. St. Thomas Aquinas, in fact, did not consider private property to be an absolute right, but a bonum utile—a useful good. It is useful for the common good that property be held privately. The usefulness is not related to selfish individualism and the greedy accumulation of material things, but to stewardship. The whole creation is given to all and is meant to be a blessing for all. In owning pieces of the earth, we hold them in trust for one another, especially for those most in need. This is very different from a Communist perspective, and it also seems to align with Luke’s description a bit better than our winner-take-all, individualist, capitalist, competitive mentality.
“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.” This behavior of the first Christians, if it is not an idealized version of the reality, is surely related to the sense that Christ’s return was imminent. We have seen the same behavior in cults in our own day. When the Second Coming (or something similar in the various cults) is believed to be imminent, quotidian life becomes relativized. Nothing matters as much as being prepared for Christ’s immediate return. This behavior continues to be prophetically present in our midst in the monks and nuns, and religious brothers and sisters who take a vow of poverty, rejecting private property and being ready anytime, as those virgins in the parable, for Christ’s return. For those who do not take such a vow, selling one’s house and leaving one’s family homeless would be an especially imprudent act! Still, the challenge remains: how can we make our private property a blessing for others, especially those most in need? For many of us, “love travels best through well-worn paths.” Most of us don’t need to blaze new trails because we have “well-worn paths” such as Catholic Charities, Catholic Relief Services, and the Catholic Near East Welfare Association, among many others, which are, no doubt, ways that we continue to “bring the proceeds…and put them at the feet of the apostles.”
“With great power the apostles bore witness to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great favor was accorded them all.” Who can doubt that this remains the raison d’être of the Church? Under the leadership of Peter, we continue to proclaim to all the world the Good News that sin and death have been conquered in Christ, who rose from the dead! We continue to proclaim the Gospel of God’s mercy in Christ Jesus. We continue to relativize the value of our possessions here, knowing that Christ will come again and that our treasure will be in Heaven. Of course, the Church is not perfect in its members and in its human constitution, but “great favor was accorded them all” back then no less than now.
On this Divine Mercy Sunday, the Church doesn’t look so much different from the early Church after all. We remain blessed and committed to blessing. We continue to be recipients of the overwhelming grace of God! And so, in unbroken tradition, we gather for the breaking of the bread, that is, for the Mass—a word that means means mission—to celebrate the Eucharist—a word that means Thanksgiving!
Photo credit for the gilded church: https://stocksnap.io/author/306