May 11, 2014
We live in a time often characterized by loud chatter about "family values." This locution is of course fraught with all manner of political, sociological, and religious implications. Organizations like "Focus on the Family" and "Family Research Council" attempt to describe what a "real" Christian family should look like. According to these organizations, and a host of similar groups, Christian families should be places of harmony and joy, where children are dutiful and parents are firm but loving. There must be no abortion, nor may the parents be of the same sex. Such realities are abominations to these groups, and they are adamant in their rejection of such behaviors. In short, Christian families, according to groups with "family" in their names, are best evaluated by the ways they adhere to particular individual, ethical activities that are supposedly demanded by the Bible.
It is extraordinary to me that so few of these organizations refer over much to Acts 2:42-47. In those verses, as far as I am able to tell, we read Luke's prescriptions for real Christian community, koinonia in the very richest sense. It turns out that according to Luke, Christian family has little to do with abortion or the choice of marriage partner; nor does it particularly involve dutiful children. What it does require is radical commitment to one another and to the wider Christian community.
In fact, if it were not some sort of "heresy" to say so, it sounds like the earliest communities of Christians were a lot more concerned with how they used their resources for others than how they stored up treasures for themselves after a series of capitalistic successes in order to ensure the comfort and safety of their own little religiously based nuclear family. Is it not interesting that the aforementioned organizations often couple their demands for a very narrow attention to specific moral concerns with a robust enjoyment of the pleasures of individual lives made comfortable by the rapacious power of a capitalist system that rewards the few and leaves the many behind? I read recently that the four hundred hundred richest persons in our 21st century world control more capital, have more actual buying power, than the 2,000,000,000 poorest people on the planet! You read that right. Four hundred people have more wealth than two billion of their fellow human beings have!
How far we have travelled from the ideal notions of the early communities of first-century Christians according to Luke! After Peter's sermon had convinced three thousand Jews to join the emerging Christian band, they immediately grouped together to do four specific tasks. In these four tasks Luke summarizes what a genuine Christian community, a real Christian family, should attend to.
They first "devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching" (Acts 2:42a). One might also translate "they persevered in" or "they were constant in their attention to." The clear implication is that this first activity was an ongoing and continuous pattern of behavior. This was so because in the Gospel of Luke Jesus was regularly seen as teacher, an activity mirrored by the apostles later in the book of the Acts as well. The teaching is of course the gospel of Jesus the Messiah, most especially found summarized in his first sermon at Nazareth in Luke 4:18-19, quoting Isaiah 61: "good news to the poor, release to the captives, sight to the blind, freedom for the oppressed, and a proclamation of the Jubilee year of God" (see especially Lev 25 for details). Please note there is nothing in this summary about abortion or the choice of whom to love, but there is much about the need to challenge a society's lack of concern for the poor, the oppressed, the prisoner, the disabled, and to call into the most serious question the ordering of a community that would make many poor and a few very rich.
The second concern for the early Christian community was for "fellowship" (Acts 2:42b), koinonia in Greek. This word can surely mean a kind of spiritual fellowship; Paul regularly uses the term in this way (see e.g. 1 Cor. 1:9 and 2 Cor. 6:14 among many others). But here it must mean a sharing of material possessions as verse 45 makes very clear. True Christian community cannot be found where there is poverty in their midst; when many are poor and few are rich, that is not a Christian community, as Luke understands the term. The American capitalistic economic system has worked for some, but it has for too many been a failure. Today in our local paper there was a story of families in Florida, cheek by jowl with Disney World, who, though both parents are employed at the park, cannot earn enough money to rent an apartment for themselves and their children. Instead, they are forced to rent ragged motel rooms and move from one hotel room to another, disrupting their lives and the lives of their children over and over. Here is a sign that the "system" so often lauded as the world's best, is not working for some of those caught in its net. Should not "Focus on the Family" be outraged that any family has to live like that?