And all that believed were together, and had all things common;…
Under the shadow of a great calamity, or the strain of a great excitement, the lines that divide classes or limit possessions vanish like snow-wreaths in the noonday sun. "All ye are brethren" is the word of the great occasions that stir and shake society to its depths. It is an easy step to the conclusion that that which associates men lies deeper in their nature and in the nature of society than that which divides them. It is a tempting step, though a false one, from this position to the principle that that which creates and maintains the differences cometh of evil, and is to be fought against as evil. This is the conviction out of which the nobler idea and form of communism spring; that which is rooted in love of humanity, in the desire for human progress, and the realisation of a condition in which society will not have to weep tears over the miseries of the poor. Whether the communistic conviction and plan of working out the regeneration of society have any root in the nature of things, or the Word of God, is one of the most profoundly important social questions of our times. Let us consider —
I. THE REMARKABLE APPEARANCE OF A COMMUNISTIC ORGANISATION IN THE CHURCH. Nothing can look more like communism on the outside. Make this arrangement universal, a communist would say, and the social millennium will come in. It will help us to estimate the countenance which Christianity lends to communistic ideas to consider —
1. How far was this universal in the Church? It seems to have been born and to have died at Jerusalem. There appears to have been no attempt even to extend it in the Church. It was a beautiful outburst of heavenly charity and zeal; but it bloomed, flourished, and faded, so to speak, in an hour. Churches were planted everywhere, but there is not the faintest attempt to repeat the experiment. Further, it was not universal even in Jerusalem. In chap. Acts 5:1-4 St. Peter recognises that Ananias was free to adopt the plan or to decline it; and it appears from Acts 12:12 that some members retained their property, and had their households, children and servants, round them as before. It would appear that it was but a partial and temporary arrangement even in the Church which adopted it, growing out of a moment of pressure, and quietly dying away. But —
2. How far are we justified in regarding it as an arrangement or organisation of the infant society at all? Both terms are misapplied. Organisation implies a definite principle of action for a definite purpose, adopted by competent authority, and binding upon all over whom the authority extends. We find nothing of this kind in the action of the apostles and of the Church. It was a spontaneous outburst of feeling — nothing like a plan. The man who had the best right to speak for the community expressly disclaims any plan or arrangement binding on the members of the community; he recognises their entire freedom. Far from making this a primary law of the Church of Jerusalem, it was in no sense a law at all, but simply a voluntary action on the part of individuals; beautiful, heavenly in its inspiration, but valid only while the inspiration lasted, and having no beauty, no virtue apart from the spirit which gave it birth.
3. The light cast upon the institution by the legislation of the apostolic age. Remember that the Church had before it the very problems with which communism professes to be able to deal — the wrongs of oppressed classes and the miseries of the poor. No literature of communism is so charged with passionate sympathy for the oppressed and the wretched, such burning indignation against strong-handed wrong, such tender, cherishing compassion for the poor and helpless, as those Old Testament prophecies to which Christ appealed to explain His mission (Luke 4:18-21). "The poor have the gospel preached unto them" was the very crown of miracles in the Saviour's judgment; and the words — "Only they would that we should remember the poor" — tells us how sacredly the mission was cherished in the Apostolic Church. It was through no oversight of this its great function, to save the poor and so to begin at the right end the salvation of society, that the apostles suffered this institution to drop out of the habit of the Church. They were as intensely eager to enfranchise the enslaved, to deliver the oppressed, to comfort and to elevate the poor, as the most passionate of social reformers; and yet, having to deal with three great classes whose woes and wrongs were rending society in pieces — the slaves, the women and the poor — instead of proclaiming universal emancipation and community of possessions, they deliberately left the slave to the Christian brotherhood of his master, the woman to the Christian fellowship of her husband, and the poor to the Christian justice and charity of mankind. There was no attempt at a rearrangement of society, save as it might grow naturally and healthfully out of better and holier spiritual relations between class and class, and man and man. Thus they addressed themselves to the terrible social problems of their times: on this basis they sought to work out their solution. They showed themselves, like Christ, studious to maintain the existing order against violent disturbance or readjustment from without. When hardy Galileans would take Christ by force, and make Him a king, giving Him, as they dreamed, the grand opportunity to work out His glorious plans, He withdrew Himself to a desert place and prayed. The only power which could regenerate the world must come from that fountain. The Church sought to redress the wrongs, to adjust the inequalities, to heal the maladies and the miseries of society, by proclaiming the brotherhood of man under the Fatherhood of God, revealed in Him who is the Elder Brother of the poorest, the most crushed of the human race. You may say in answer, "Look round and see what it has wrought! Look round in Lambeth, in Bethnal Green, on burning Paris, on luxurious, dissolute New York. Is this salvation?" I feel the full pressure of the question. "How long, O Lord, how long?" is the cry that is ever rising from watching, breaking hearts. But I see also this, that the selfish lust and passion which make the day of the Lord so long, and the progress of the kingdom so slow, would bury in wreck or drown in blood every poorer and weaker attempt to work out more swiftly and vehemently the salvation of society.
II. BUT, WHAT THEN WAS THIS, "THEY HAD ALL THINGS COMMON"? WAS IT A MISTAKE?
1. On the contrary it was an inspiration; an outlet of love and joy when man's heart was bursting with them; and a holy and beautiful prophecy of what Christianity will one day accomplish for the salvation of the poor. There is many a beautiful, elevating, purifying action of the spirit in its intercourse with spirits, which if it were organised into an institution would be fatal to society. This action of the Church belongs to the same sphere as the holy waste of Mary. The money might have been saved and given to the poor, and the Master none the worse. But the prompting of the spirit which found that expression held within its glow more benediction to the poor in the long run, than the pence that might have been saved a thousand times told.
2. This action was an irrepressible outburst of joy and thankfulness. Travellers meeting in the heart of a great desert are ready to make "all things common" under the human sympathy which the new and glad experience kindles within. A shipwrecked company gathered on the shore of a desert island is ready to make "all things common," through the joy of deliverance, and shame that any of the saved should want. There are crises when all that leads a man to say that anything is his own vanishes; when the sense that one great human heart is beating everywhere, and that we are but limbs of one great body, whose private use and pleasure is nothing, whose ministry to the whole is all, possesses us. These are our moments of inspiration, of rapture. They come to us laden with the breath of a purer, brighter region, which, organised as we are, it would waste us to live in, but the breath of which, mingled with our grosser air, lends a more vivid glow to the vital flame in our hearts, and in the heart of society.
3. And it was beautiful as a prophecy. The miracles of Christ were prophecies. And this shone out as a sign, that forces were there at work, whose fountain is the heart of Christ, which will one day, after a Divine fashion, establish —
(1) Liberty, the liberty of a soul and a society under the law to Christ.
(2) Equality, not of lot or of function, but of use and of honour.
(3) Fraternity, not of rights and of claims, but of ministries and loves.
(J. B. Brown, B. A.)
Parallel VersesKJV: And all that believed were together, and had all things common;