The end of the month is always a good time to reflect on the past. This time we are looking way back, to the culture of the second century Christian Church, as described in the Book of Acts. Fellowship can be spontaneous, but stewardship of community requires dedication. I trust we all seek to improve how to be together in one place, by God's grace.
“All Together in One Place”: Ancient Wisdom for our Contemporary Moment
The book of Acts offers us some ancient wisdom for rethinking stewardship. According to Acts 2, on the day of Pentecost, they were all together in one place. The writer emphasizes the unity of this group of believers. This togetherness, mentioned at least three additional times (2:43, 4:24, 5:12), is a defining characteristic of this community. They are not simply occupying the same space, they are sharing their lives with one another. Life among the believers is described in this way: “All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home (from house to house) and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved” (Acts 2:43-47).
No one in the community lacked for anything; people were happy and generous. They spent time together, seemingly a lot of time together, as friends. But this isn’t congeniality out of convenience; these friends were “of one heart and soul,” according to Acts 4:32-35. The strength of unity indicates that a harmonious existence is possible when one does not experience a sense of lack or wanting.
Implicit to this idea of friendship and unity is the notion that those in this community trusted one another, including their leaders. Money from donated property is placed at the apostles’ feet, indicating they have authority over the community. These leaders of the community were recipients of power and grace given to them by the Holy Spirit, and with such power comes great responsibility. Leaders had to distribute what resources according to needs, and the group had to hold them accountable to this task while taking the risks that come with trust. The significance of being trustworthy is underscored in the stories of Joseph (Acts 4:2-37) and Ananias and Sapphira (Acts 5:1-16); the former an example of what the community valued, the latter an example of what happens when such trust is violated.
Being in this community means sharing the same ethos and values, but this does not mean one enters into such a community without proper caution. Even in this idyllic portrayal, there was still fear. “And great fear seized the whole church and all who heard these things.” (Acts 5:11). Intriguingly, it is in this anxious moment that the word church is found for the first time. At the conclusion of the Ananias and Sapphira narrative, it becomes clear that the community had to learn to trust beyond their fear. When did the brothers and sisters, the believers, transform into the church, the ekkelesia? While ekkelesia can be translated as “assembly,” “a gathering of people,” its etymology ek - kaleo also points to another potential meaning; “called out.” What if a lesson here is about how believers are “called out” of normative practices to a different way of being together?
In their second century context, perhaps the thought of Jesus’ imminent return influenced the early church’s practice of togetherness. But I wonder how we, in this day and age, can create conditions that enable people to similarly feel so invested in community? Or is it only the possibility of freedom from this world that makes us free in this world, free to give so liberally of ourselves and our resources?
These narratives remind us that there is a way of being in community that can result in sharing our lives and livelihoods with gladness and a generous heart, being fulfilled in return. These stories remind us that how we form our community is important, the rules of engagement matter. How we care for each other and our ability to trust one other can be life-giving and life-changing -- indeed, death-defying. So, then, how can we be all together in one place?
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Dr. Kaalund has a Ph.D. in New Testament and Early Christianity, and serves as Assistant Professor for Religious Studies at Iona College. Dr. Jennifer Kaalund is the author of Reading Hebrews and 1 Peter with the African American Great Migration: Diaspora, Place, and Identity (Bloomsbury 2018). Dr. Kaalund has research interests in Christian scriptures, African American history and culture, the Bible in popular culture, and the study of early Christianity in its Roman imperial context with a focus on womanist hermeneutics and postcolonial and cultural studies.