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May 03, 2020

"Commonism"

"Commonism"

Speaker: Rob McClellan

Series: May 2020

Category: Faith

Acts 2:44-45: 1. Were you ever taught this passage in Acts in church as a child? 2. Was this passage ever “explained away” to you in a way that now seems suspicious? 3. How do we square our economic and social systems with the vision laid out in Acts? 4. How does the practice of communion stand as resistance to our dominant culture? 5. How do we get to a more equitable way of ordering life?
Today's Scripture

Acts 2:42-47

42They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. 43Awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles. 44All who believed were together and had all things in common; 45they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. 46Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, 47praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.  THIS IS HOLY WISDOM, HOLY WORD.  THANKS BE TO GOD. 

“Commonism”

            The paradox of this moment is that we are being asked to stay away from each other for the reason of protecting the other.  Stay separated for the common good.  People have experienced this reality differently based on a whole host of factors, but it raises for all of us the question of what it means to live as part of a larger whole.  We are being reminded in more tangible ways now than usual what has always been so, that our wellbeing, while not evenly shared, is inextricably connected.

            Different societies across time and place have answered the question about how best to think about collective life differently.  Our various systems have garnered some of the strongest allegiances among people.  I’ll always remember my New Testament professor Stan Saunders saying that at the evangelical church he grew up in in the South they always conspicuously skipped over one piece of today’s reading from Acts:  “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” (Acts 2:44-45).  The objection?  It sounded too much like communism. 

            Just what societal system is most in line with the gospel has long been the subject of debate.  Of course, some want to keep religion out of it altogether, but I find that to be a dereliction of our religious duty, a denial of God’s sovereignty over all of life.  Others who do think let their faith inform the way they think about common life disagree widely.  I had saved in notes for today two columns from the same newspaper, one decrying the so-called “prosperity gospel” that trumpets the accumulation of wealth as not only acceptable for a Christian, but a sign that God has rewarded she or he for faithfulness.[1]  It was a critique not only of that brand of Christianity, but the capitalism the values of capitalism that run through it.  The other column acknowledges capitalism’s imperfections, but argues without from a specifically Christian perspective that it is clearly the best system we’ve yet to come up with.[2]

            There are groups of Christians who have gone above and beyond what the wider society says to order their lives more strictly in line with the example of the early church we see in Acts.  These intentional Christian communities are filled with those who are sometimes described as “new monastics.”  They really do pool their goods as well as their incomes, live frugally, and try to be a tangible benefit to the neighborhood around them.  Christians have even created their own health insurance coop through such sharing.  Sometimes these communities flourish, sometimes they fade over time, and sometimes they morph into things that don’t feel like the loving community they set out to establish.  Scholars are unsure if the early description of shared life in Acts was ever realized or if it was more aspirational or short-lived.

            Whatever the approach one takes, whatever the philosophy one espouses as the best way to achieve the best form of life, it’s pretty clear that that the early Christian witness says to us we are to live with concern for our way enables or disables the lives of others.  Now, in ways never before in my lifetime, we are given this opportunity to consider how are choices affect others.  I should say that I’m cautious of attempts to silver-line the pandemic.  It doesn’t properly recognize the suffering that is being felt on a number of levels and disproportionately among groups.  It also risks sending the dangerous message that God gives us these moments so that we learn.  But, given that this moment is here, it is best that we do try and learn. 

            I realized the other day that I haven’t driven in weeks.  It’s made me think of driving differently.  I know the purpose of not driving is not to limit pollution, but I’ve been thinking about the pollution caused by driving lately as I largely watch cars go by.  When the shelter in place is lifted, it’s not that I can just decide not to drive—our communities are just not organized that way yet.  I will, however, return to driving with the fresher realization that every time I decide to get into my car I am deciding to put toxins in the air that affect my neighbors, human and otherwise, the neighbors Jesus reminds me I am here to love.  For many of us, we don’t even have to think outside the home right now to be reminded of how our actions enable or limit others.  Sheltering in place, it’s become painfully clear how actions affect others.  If one is rolling around on the floor crying and refusing to do his assignments, it inhibits the ability of everyone to get anything done.  How can my son get his schoolwork done in those conditions?

            As those examples demonstrate, though, it’s easy to reduce the whole conversation to personal choices, but that is misleading, a distraction.  I’ve read now in multiple places that all of the shutting down across the globe will only reduce emissions by about 5.5% this year.  Why such a small drop? Because individuals not driving makes very little difference when compared to the polluting bound up in the way society is organized.  An article I read this week reminded us that all of transportation only accounts for 20% of our emissions.  That means if our transportation became carbon neutral, we would still have another 80% to address to get to the needed zero.  Now, I recognize industries overlap and one change can and will lead to another, but the point is we don’t only have small questions to ask—how we will live in the same house.  We have enormous questions to ask and answer—how we will live in this shared home we call earth and every size question in between.

           So, be you an advocate of free-market capitalism, democratic socialism, or something else altogether, the gospel calls us how to be more committed to what we might playfully call “commonism," for we hold this world in sacred trust in common.  The Bible is quite clear we belong to something bigger.  Nature is a living testimony to interrelationship.  Even human-made creations are models of interconnection.  We’re in the middle of our renovation, and what is every architectural drawing but a representation of interwoven parts that come together to make, almost magically, a place that sustains life.  It’s miraculous. 

            This is why when we ritualize communion with God, we gather around a common table.  When we come together for communion, the mystical table which is now your table wherever you are, we are not only remembering how one person died.  We are remembering at his request the vision promised to us, of all gathered around the table with enough to eat, of it being not a line waiting for rations enough to keep us going but keep us hungry, but rather a feast of good food, good drink, and good company forevermore.  This type of commonism lifted up in the eucharistic feast is not only a solemn observance, but a celebration, a promise and an aspiration. 

           In this time of physical separation, then, let us celebrate not only our personal triumphs or mourn over our personal losses, but let us remember what it is we’re looking forward to the most…a reunion and a more perfect union.  Even as we dine in isolation, let us hunger for the day when all the world is a communion feast.  Amen.

[1] https://www.nytimes.com/roomfordebate/2014/06/25/has-capitalism-become-incompatible-with-christianity/too-many-black-churches-preach-the-gospel-of-greed

[2] https://www.nytimes.com/roomfordebate/2014/06/25/has-capitalism-become-incompatible-with-christianity/capitalism-is-the-most-moral-of-a-bad-lot-of-economic-systems