Today’s first reading at Mass describes the early Christian community in glowing terms: “The community of believers was of one heart and mind, and no one claimed that any of his possessions was his own but they had everything in common. With great power the Apostles bore witness to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great favor was accorded them all. 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. (Acts 4, 32-37)
The community described here and in Acts 2, 33-47 is an important model for the church. It has influenced Catholic social teaching over the centuries. What would our world be like if the world community, individual nations, the church, the parish, the family could be like this? In a society like ours where excessive individualism is so strong, where so much wealth and power are concentrated in the hands of so few, this ideal is surely appealing.
A note in the New American Bible, however, cautions that Luke is painting a “somewhat idyllic” picture of the early Christian community. Idyllic means idealized, even unsustainable. In other words, given human nature, the early Christian community never measured up altogether to the picture Luke paints.
The commentator Luke Timothy Johnson suggests Luke’s glowing picture might be influenced by the Hellenistic writers of his time– like Plato–who describes the early days of Athens as a time when “none of its members possessed any private property but they regarded all they had as the common possession of all.” Early writers also put great stock in friendship; people of “one heart and mind become builders of community. ” (The Acts of the Apostles. Sacra Pagina, Collegeville, Min 1992 p. 62)
Reading Luke’s description of the Christian community, then, we need to avoid the temptation to look for utopias. We can’t expect perfect communities anywhere. They don’t exist here on earth. Nor should we think they existed in the past and all has gone downhill since. That’s “Golden Age” thinking. Our readings from Acts of the Apostles in the Easter season describe an enthusiastic, dedicated group of Jesus’ followers. The gospels describe more skeptical followers, like Thomas and Nicodemus. We have to keep both groups in mind; they make up our church too.
At the same time, though, we can’t give up on the ideal Luke presents and think it unreal. It’s an ideal to be aimed at, a norm to measure ourselves and the communities we belong to. Not to strive for Luke’s ideal is to lose faith in the mystery of the resurrection. Jesus taught us to pray, “Your kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven.” We have to pray for and work for God’s kingdom to come now, here and now.