“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 a little more than a quarter-century 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 have renewed resonance now as we live apart, yet together, in a global pandemic.

Suddenly we’re 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 are risking their own lives to care for and try to save the lives of others.

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

Of course, they have always been that, but we all too often have taken them and their work for granted. Now we are forced to stop and recognize and appreciate them.

All of these essential workers – from doctors to delivery people, from nursing home attendants to truck drivers – work for the common good, whether we notice them doing it or not.

One of the things I hope we learn from this pandemic, and remember long after it is over – is that we are all connected, that we all need to contribute to the common good.

The most obvious way for most of us now is to continue to practice social distancing, to limit our exposure to one another, to make only essential outings and even then to wear masks and gloves, and stay apart from one another.

This is an ethical duty to our fellow human beings. It is not an act of fear, it is an act of compassion and solidarity, a recognition that if we fail we put not only ourselves, but others at risk. 

It seems obvious, but in the last week, as states have begun lifting the stay at home orders, we’ve seen care for the common good come crashing down.

“If I get the corona virus, I get it,” one person interviewed on TV said at a crowded beach. “At the end of the day, I’m not going to let it stop me from partying.”

Even more disturbing were protestors with guns forcing their way into the Michigan state capitol, demanding that the governor reopen the state.

“Yea, there’s a virus, but there’s no reason for us to be locked down,” one gun-toting protestor said.

From partyers to protestors, these are people not concerned with the common good, who seemingly do not care that they put not only themselves at risk, but are potentially hurting family, friends, and strangers with whom they come in contact.

They act out of selfish self-interest, without the moral imagination to see or care that we are all connected. 

Of course, caring for the common good goes beyond social distancing. It is also a commitment to social justice, to paying attention to the vulnerable and marginalized.

It means caring for those whose livelihoods have been threatened or lost. It means paying those workers who we’ve suddenly realized are essential a salary that reflects the importance of the jobs they do.

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.

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 the most vulnerable are treated.

We have a long way to go before this crisis is over, but one thing I do know is this – we can only get through it if we stand in solidarity, recognizing that we are all in this together.

One of the prayers that we are saying each night during our live streamed Compline service puts it well:

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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