Gods in Common

Sunday 23rd April 2006
Year B, The Second Sunday of Easter
St. George's, Hurstpierpoint
Acts 4:32-35

Karl Marx, the son of a Rabbi, made a considerable mistake when he said that religion was the "Opium of the People"; at one stroke he cut himself off from a strand of Christian egalitarianism that flourished, particularly in England, which reached its frenzied heights under Protector Cromwell with the Levellers.

But when Marx said this in one sense he was absolutely right; religion was being used, in his view, to keep people, particularly poor industrial workers, in their place. If they could be persuaded to suffer poverty now in exchange for a deservedly glorious after-life, then that suited the mill owners nicely. What Marx saw was not a religion of social justice but of social conservatism; it was a bar to progress. The bad relations between religion and socialism, however, were not inevitable; and in Britain the Leveller tradition reasserted itself, primarily through Methodism, in a brand of Christian Socialism.

Nonetheless, today's short passage from Acts has caused no end of embarrassment and trouble as it has been hurled by the 'Left' at the 'right' which has shuffled uneasily, trying to explain it away. But the passage is neither a Christian political manifesto, nor is it a precept on a par with those of the Sermon on the Mount. It is a straight piece of reporting; this is what the Disciples of Jesus did; they held their goods in common.

The first thing to remark about the arrangement is that it is highly unusual; the Old Testament is meticulous in its defence of and legislation about private property. Secondly, it appears to have been a temporary and local expedient which is perhaps why Luke, the reporter, thought it worth mentioning. There is no hint of its occurrence elsewhere in the early church and, indeed, the only other account of financial transfer is the collection Paul took up for the impoverished church at Jerusalem, a good old-fashioned, temporising whip-round.

The Gospel accounts of what happened after the Resurrection are somewhat confusing and in two cases, those of Mark and John, there is considerable evidence of tampering. It may be, although it seems unlikely, that the Eleven broke up after the Resurrection, went home and took up their occupations again. Personally, I find the account of the Apostles fishing in John's Gospel very hard to believe. Matters however, with only Luke on watch, are much clearer after the Ascension. The Apostles were stuck in Jerusalem without any visible means of support. And this is where holding goods in common becomes credible. Remember, these people did not have insurance, or savings accounts; and on a daily basis the only reliable form of food storage was living animals and birds; so they could not even have been relying on savings or even on what was left in the freezer after Passover.

On the other hand, they were making new converts all the time and some of these must have been grateful enough to want to help. Quite early on in Acts we have evidence of new recruits actually living in the extended family of the Apostles and it is not long before the loose collective is so big that Deacons have to be appointed. We have here a picture of rich people and poor people; and the only way that they could manage in this intensive period, under the strong driving of the Holy Spirit, was to hold their goods in common and help each other in charity as Jesus would have wanted.

This is just one more set of unpredictable factors that the poor Apostles had to deal with: We first meet them as fishermen and other traders; they then become what looks like part time disciples until after the Resurrection when they abandon any pretence at a secular career and become missionaries of Christ. Correspondingly, we first meet them as people of slender but independent means; then, as they go out to preach, they depend on the people they stay with; then, after the Resurrection, they are reliant on the goodwill of converts; and finally, it would seem, they rely on a mixture of the two although, of course, we have to remember that by the time of the Resurrection they were comparatively old and by the time of Paul's collection they were very old indeed. The sharing in common, then, was strictly temporary, highly voluntary and undertaken in the very special circumstances of the unprecedented requirements of the Holy Spirit.

Shrugs of disappointment from the socialists, then, and audible sighs of relief from the adherents of capitalism. By no means. What we are reminded of in today's reading from Acts is that we must adjust our ethical behaviour according to the times in which we live. It may not be appropriate for us to hold all our goods in common; after all, when this was tried in the 19th Century by various idealists opposed to the tyranny of the factory, it ended in sorry failure; and when it was tried on a national basis in countries from Russia to Tanzania, it created a much worse kind of tyranny.

But for Christians, the development of political freedom and our ability to save and store presents us with massive opportunities to love our neighbour. We may not literally hold our goods in common but all our goods come from God and we are to act as God's stewards; and because we can store and transport surplus wealth, whether we are thinking about money, grain, technology or know-how, then that is what we must do as faithful stewards, recognising that in today's world our neighbour is somebody we have never known and will never know.

It is no longer enough for us as a country to say that we are committed, over an extended period, to meeting the United Nations niggardly target of 0.7% of our GDP for overseas aid; it is, no longer enough for us as individuals to pay our taxes grudgingly and expect the Government to take care of poverty, inequality and need; and it is no longer acceptable for us as individuals to regard the tithe as a maximum rather than a minimum. In an age where the only form of wealth was animals, it was a considerable sacrifice for Abraham to give a tenth of his flocks to Melchisidek but for us it is not enough. We have grown rich by reducing our average family size from the iconic 2.4 children per family down to 1.3; we have grown rich by wrecking the earth that the children we say we love are going to inherit; and we are rich enough to complain about inheritance tax. That situation is surely different from that of Abraham and Melchisidek.

In the end, although they hardly imagined it while Jesus was alive, the Apostles did give up everything to follow Him. We are not being asked to do that but we cannot go on persuading ourselves that to follow Jesus does not involve some pain, some deprivation, some sacrifice. To a very great extent Mr. Dennis Healey's adage that "If it isn't hurting it isn't working" applies to Christian stewardship. The gap between us and starving families in Central Africa is almost unimaginably wide; it is wider than any wealth gap has ever been before: wider than the gap between Pharaoh and a labourer, wider than the gap between a Duke and a serf, wider than the gap between a merchant and a sailor, wider even than the gap between a banker and a bank clerk. The gap is not just a matter of Pounds or Dollars, it is the gap between a life that is planned and a life that is a lottery or, rather, a kind of roulette; there is red for precarious life and black for sudden death; for billions of our sisters and brothers there is nothing else.

Even the Proletariat of Karl Marx was paid just enough to live on so that it could continue to work for the mill owners; for billions in our world that would be regarded as progress. Marx himself may have got the analysis badly wrong but at least he cared, devoting his life to the overthrow of injustice. Christians in Chelsea Tractors should think twice before they condemn the author of the Communist Manifesto.