Easter 4: 7 May Acts 2:42-47
Luke paints us a picture of people who have received the Spirit and responded to Peter's preaching. It is an ideal scene. Yet we can believe that Luke was intent on depicting what he was convinced were the kind of things that happened at the movement's beginning. So in one sense it is historical reconstruction. In another sense it asserts values which Luke sees as needing to inform church community life.
Devotion to the apostles' teaching is certainly a core element. Luke, after all, seeks to serve such teaching by writing his gospel. The "fellowship" includes both being together and learning together. "Fellowship" without learning together falls short of being Christian community. To it also belongs breaking bread and prayers. Breaking bread probably alludes to eucharistic celebration - at least as it would be heard by people of Luke's time. In other words, Luke gives us an image of Christian community centred on worship, learning, and celebration of Holy Communion. Luke then adds something about people having a sense of awe. Coming immediately before mention of the apostles' signs and wonders may indicate that they are reason for the sense of awe, though this need not be, despite the way translators take it. On the other hand, Luke emphasises the miraculous, making this almost a "golden age", which would not then repeat itself forever but be seen as authenticating origins - as it does for Jesus in 2:22.
Luke's image of unity in 2:44 is probably both belief and ideal, because Luke will have to recognise later that such unity could not be sustained. It is, however, ideal. The shared property could simply be an ideal. Some Greek and Roman philosophers mused about such ideal communities and perhaps Luke is citing Christian beginnings as the true realisation of such hopes to appeal to their followers. On the other hand, there were historical precedents for shared property. Some Essenes shared property, officially bound up with rigorous provisions about entry, to which surrender of property belonged. The closer analogy and probable background is the practice of the disciples who journeyed with Jesus, where allegedly Judas was responsible for managing the accounts. It is thus very probable that at least some Christians in Jerusalem did as Luke suggests. It may have been an unrealistic ideal and after a few years left some badly exposed without resources. Perhaps these were among the poor for whom Paul agreed to make collections.
However vulnerable or impractical the strategy, there is little mistaking that the underlying values reflect both Luke's emphases and those of Jesus. Resurces are to be shared. There can be no room for greed. A community that wants to preach good news for the poor needs to be good news for the poor - and that remains true. One then needs to engage intelligent observation about how most effectively to be so.
Luke's focus here is help among believers - somewhat contracted from the vision of Jesus which extended beyond his own group. 1 John bemoans lack of love towards fellow believers, even suggesting that failure to love was tantamount to murder after the model of Cain (3:11-18) - which must have made some sense in the light of the fact that many could barely survive without such help. The love God inspires knows no boundaries and need to be allowed to fruit where Christian communities hail Jesus - with gates wide open for all to share that fruit.
In 2:46 Luke adds what many might see as a surprising detail. These first believers made the temple a centre. Luke will later refute allegations that Christians (including Stephen as spokesperson) were against the temple. His gospel began with the faithful in the temple and Acts thus begins the same way. Luke will later show the pain of rejection where the hoped for continuity with the old would be strained. Their breaking bread at home may simply refer to ordinary meals, but more likely it refers to eucharistic celebration in homes - in the context of meals, so that the image in 2:46-47 echoes the way the scene began in 2:42.
Luke's note that the wider population looked favourably on the movement may be history, but it could be part of the golden age view of Christian origins. Elsewhere Luke seems strongly intent on conveying the impression that Christian groups were no trouble and should be found acceptable by ordinary people, including Romans. He knows, however, that this would not remain so, especially among fellow Jews - matching the way the positive response to Jesus in his first sermon would turn sour in Luke 4. At the beginning - and in the ideal world - Luke sees God at work in the numbers joining the movement, who are described as "being saved" - which surely included forgiveness, but also the kind of ongoing transformation that enabled them to become part of a community that was marked by learning, worshipping, celebrating, and sharing.
Both the historical image and the ideal which Luke projects is not to be discarded as just golden age mythology, something from "bible times" of no relevance today. For beneath its surface shine, one can see a solid structure of what it means to be Christian community, or at least some of its key building blocks.
Easter 4: 7 May John 10:1-10
Epistle: Easter 4: 7 May 1 Peter 2:19-25