Acts 2:42-47 remains an endlessly fascinating reminder of the call of Jesus, reiterated by Paul in his letters, that Christians are brothers and sisters in Christ, part of God’s family (see ‘My Beloved Brothers and Sisters!’ Christian Siblingship in Paul’ by Reidar Aasgard). As told by Luke, the Jerusalem Church put this call to be family into practice quite literally, holding all things in common and dividing their commonly held possessions amongst all according to need. Apart from Luke’s accounts in Acts (see also 4:32-35), however, we have no further confirmation that the early Church attempted such a communal lifestyle as an entire group. Paul speaks of his Churches gathering funds to support the Church in Jerusalem (eg. Rom. 15:22-29), but there is no indication that any other community lived together or held all things in common. Why? Was it simply the outgrowth of the initial fervor of the resurrection that lead the Jerusalem Church to a communal life? Was it the belief that the end was soon to come with Jesus’ return and so it was best to put aside economic concerns and live as one family, praising and worshiping God? Was it too idealistic and, so, impossible to maintain both at a human level - who gets what, after all, and what are the required needs? - and at an economic level - was it the economic failure of the communitarian model life that lead Paul to raise funds for the Jerusalem Church?
The Church was later to understand this passage as lived out in religious orders and monastic communities, models of the ideal Christian life, but the 16th century would see groups of European Christians, known collectively as Anabaptists, attempt to mold the entire life of their community on the model presented by Luke in Acts. These groups came to be known as Mennonites, Amish and others. It is probably no surprise that amongst the earliest leaders of these groups were Franciscans such as Michael Sattler and Menno Simons. Both sides of my family and my wife’s family are descended from the "Russian" Mennonites, those Mennonites who settled in Russia in the 18th century and created "colonies" in which they lived, worked, were educated and worshiped. The success of these colonies economically was pronounced, though those who lived in them vary regarding their assessment of the extent to which they preserved the model of Acts in holding "all things together." These colonies came to an end, ultimately, with the Russian Revolution, and a new form of "communal" living was introduced, which, at least in its nascent stages, also saw Acts 2:42-47 as inspirational. The results were to be woeful.
I could never make an argument for the Soviet model of communitarianism, having grown up with stories of my grandfather stolen away one day by agents of the state, never to be seen again, apart from the historical record which multiplies my grandfather’s sad death by the millions, but the Mennonite model of which I was a part, truly only in the memory of my parents and grandparents, also remains fraught with questions for me. One problem exists simply at the human level: I am a stubborn, curmudgeonly sort of person, who likes to do what I like without acceding to the wishes of the "group" (although I take it I am not unique): does the community necessarily take precedence over my personal wishes? Is this desire for autonomy simply a symptom of original sin or the human desire to be free? If there is freedom in Christ, should I be able to subsume my personal wishes to the needs of the Church? I raise these issues because one of the questions that comes up for me as a member of the Catholic Church is the extent to which I am truly a brother or sister to those in my congregation. I understand what it meant for my father or mother who knew everyone in the Church in which they grew up, since they all lived in community together, but what does it mean for a 21st century Catholic in the U.S.A.? I do not suspect that we will soon be pooling all of our resources for those in need, selling all we have and living together, but what is the meaning of this passage for us today? A historical curiosity? A failed experiment? Or are we all such distant relations that it is not now even worth considering what it means?
John W. Martens