“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.”

I have been preaching for almost three decades now, and in all those years I have never preached on this passage.

It shouldn’t be hard to understand why. I know of few, if any, priests in suburban middle-class parishes, like the three in which I have served, who are going to exhort their parishioners to sell all they have and share the proceeds with all in the community. 

To quote Shakespeare’s King Lear, “That way lies madness.”

Apparently I’m not the only one who feels this way. Commentary from Biblical scholars on this passage from Acts is notably thin. What is there focuses on teaching and fellowship, prayers and breaking bread, and conveniently ignores that line about selling all possessions.

The only comment I found was that this was a brief moment in history, which soon proved impractical.

That may be true. The Christians in this community were among the 3,000 who were converted on the day of Pentecost after hearing Peter preach about Jesus. They have that new convert zeal, excitedly jumping with both feet into the new faith, eagerly following every precept – including ridding themselves of all their possessions.

And indeed, just a couple of chapters later in Acts this all falls apart when two of the members sell property and then lie about how much they received for it, giving only a portion of the proceeds to the community. The story does not end well for them.

But this week as I thought about all of the scripture lessons for today, I surprisingly kept coming back to this reading from Acts, and specifically to that line:

“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.”

Don’t worry. I’m not suggesting that we all follow the example of these early Christians by divesting ourselves of everything we own. 

But I do think this passage has something to say to us today about the common good.

Normally we don’t hear much about the common good. Our culture more often celebrates the rugged individual, the right to do as one pleases.

In fact, Biblical scholar Walter Brueggemann writes, “The greatest crisis among us is the crisis of the common good, the sense of community solidarity that binds us all in a common destiny – haves and have nots, the rich and the poor.

“We face a crisis because there are powerful forces at work among us to resist the common good, to violate community solidarity, and to deny a common destiny.”

Brueggemann wrote those words a decade ago, but they still ring true today.

Do you remember the early days of the pandemic — March and April 2020? There was no vaccine, or even any treatment for Covid. Almost everything, except necessities like grocery stores, was shut down. Most people were staying at home, going out only when absolutely necessary.

Suddenly we were paying a lot more attention to those on the front lines – doctors and nurses, of course, but also all who work in hospitals – security, nursing assistants, janitors and housekeepers – all of whom were risking their own lives to care for and try to save the lives of others.

A Facebook memory from three years ago popped up on my feed this week. In New York at 7 every evening, people would go on their balconies and applaud health care workers. Broadway stars belted out tunes from their window. People cheered and shouted their thanks.

Health care workers were not the only ones for whom we suddenly had new appreciation. Grocery store clerks and shelf stockers, delivery people, garbage collectors, truck drivers, janitors – they and many others were now deemed “essential workers.”

Of course, they had always been that, but we all too often had taken them and their work for granted. In 2020 we were forced to stop and recognize and appreciate them.

And I remember thinking that in the midst of the fear and awfulness of that plague which would eventually take more than a million American lives, and continues to take them every day, that one bright spot was this new appreciation of the common good.

I had hope that we would learn from the pandemic that we are all connected, that what one does affects so many others, that we all need to contribute to and appreciate the common good.

And for a while that seemed to be the case. We wore masks and social distanced and stayed apart from one another not just to protect ourselves, but to protect those around us — those we loved and those we did not know.

It was our ethical duty to our fellow human beings, acts of compassion and solidarity, a recognition that if we failed we put not only ourselves, but others at risk. 

But like those zealous new Christians whose willingness to sell all they had to share with others, our willingness to care for the common good was short lived.

Before long people were rebelling against the constraints of the pandemic, willing to put others at risk so that they could live their lives as they pleased.

I specifically remember an interview with someone at a crowded bar. “If I get the coronavirus I get it,” he said. “At the end of the day, I’m not going to let it stop me from partying.”

Care for the common good was out the door, replaced by selfish self-interest.

Of course, caring for the common good is not limited to times of pandemic. It is also a commitment to social justice, to paying attention to the vulnerable and marginalized.

It means willingly paying taxes to pay for public schools, to willingly support programs like food stamps and Medicaid and other social safety nets, and advocating for policies that protect the most vulnerable among us.

It means realizing that the lives of children matter more than an individual’s right to own weapons of war, or to carry them wherever they please.

It means realizing that the way we care, or fail to care for the planet today will affect generations to come. 

I don’t pretend to have the answers, but I do know that the richest country in the world has the ability to care for its people, if our leaders have the moral imagination and ethical fortitude to do so. And the countries of the earth together have the ability to save the planet, if we are all willing to lay aside our greed and self interests.

Going back to those new and eager Christians 2,000 years ago – notice that in selling their possessions, they distributed the proceeds to all, as any had need. Not that everyone has the same amount, but that all have what they need.

Paul later puts it this way in Second Corinthians:

“I do not mean that there should be relief for others and pressure on you, but it is a question of a fair balance between your present abundance and their need. As it is written, ‘The one who had much did not have too much, and the one who had little did not have too little.’”

That is what it means to care for the common good.

Scripture has very little to say about the rights of the individual. The overarching moral imperative is to care for the common good, to look after one another, to know that God judges the health and strength of a nation by how its most vulnerable are treated.

Whatever the crisis may be — pandemic, violence, poverty, climate change — we will only get through it if we stand in solidarity, recognizing that we are all in this together.

One of my favorite prayers in our prayer book puts it this way:

O God, your unfailing providence sustains the world we live in and the life we live: Watch over those, both night and day, who work while others sleep, and grant that we may never forget that our common life depends upon each other’s toil. 


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