In the New Testament we are given a picture of what the Church looked like when she was very young and very close to Christ and his teachings. We are told that the Church was characterized as being poor but making many rich. Along with this, and I'd say deeply connected, is the picture of a people who gave up what they had and put it in a giant pot with others so they could provide for those who lacked in their area.
Acts 2:44-45, "And all who believed were together and had all things in common. And they were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need"
This, of course, is an imitation of Christ Jesus who left heaven and emptied himself for the sake of all others. He did this to heal, functioning as a physician who came to heal the sick. He gave up literally everything he had as God and man for all those in need.
Philippians 2:5-8, "Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross."
The Church is the body of Christ (1 Corinthians 12:17). Each individual is to live as Jesus in this world and the whole of the Church is Christ and has his ministry. Thus, she functions the same as Christ does, using the same means to achieve the same goals (even though the Church will not pay the debt of humanities sin). This is why the Church in Acts functions the way she does. Everything is given up for others. I becoming poor the Church made many rich.
This has played itself out in many ways through history. The Church has at many times been the being that creates life-giving organizations, programs, and behaviors among a group. We've seen it in the medical and education fields in the United States. But we don't always live this way as individuals or a group. In fact, I've rarely ever seen it. Why?
Maybe we're afraid. Maybe we just don't know how. Maybe we didn't know that's the way we were meant to live/give. Maybe we've been blinded by the prosperity gospel. Or maybe, just maybe, we've been told that such a way of life isn't practical and we've believed the lie.
Recently there was a woman who came to a congregation I am a part of and she had a daughter who needed 11 cavities to be taken care of. She found this out through a free clinic. She learned she had to pay for the fillings and it was going to be a doozy of a bill. She came to the pastoral team with this story. A man in the congregation was a dentist who specialized in pediatrics. He did the dental work completely free. It took up much of his time and he could have made a good profit off the work even by cutting the price but he sacrificed those things to meet the needs of people in the community.
I often wonder what it would look like if the Church was continually doing this in every corner and space it occupied. What if we did this in masses, together? If we lived together and pooled our finances so we could help others in need. If we used our skills and talents to give without charge as often as we were allowed the opportunity. If we gave everything, more than seemed practical, fasting just to afford to feed others. What if we did this?
It sounds nice. It's idealistic. Why don't we believe in such a way though? Well, we know that if we give everything we will end up with nothing. But the Gospel seems to say that if we give everything and end up with nothing then others will have everything they need and as a result so shall we. Isn't that part of what it means to seek first the kingdom of heaven; to live in kingdom ways of generosity and self sacrifice like Christ? If we're willing to lose it all, to be poor for the sake of others, then they'll win and be made rich. That's how it works.
But, we love ourselves and our money too much now don't we? I know I do. I'm not free from this. I know that if I give up everything it means I don't get to live a life of self pleasure and entertainment, that I will rely on my community and we'll all have to work hard to love our neighbors. My life won't be as cozy. I'll probably need 7 roommates (or more) to make it work, and that's annoying. Community life is annoying. A life of simplicity without riches and luxuries is annoying to those of us who have riches and luxuries. But if I do that then others will have enough. I'll still have enough. Why wouldn't I? Won't my Father who loves me give me enoguh? Won't I have my daily bread? Won't we all?
The Gospel says "yes."
In his book The Early Christians, Eberhard Anrold provides portions of an apology written by Aristides. In it he writes of the Christians, "Kindliness is their nature. There is no falsehood among them. They love one another. They do not neglect widows. Orphans they rescue from those who are cruel to them. Every one of them who has anything gives ungrudgingly to the one who has nothing. If they see a traveling stranger they bring him under their roof. They rejoice over him as over a real brother, for they do not call one another brothers after the flesh, but they know they are brothers in the Spirit and in God. If one of them sees that one of their poor must leave this world, he provides for his burial as well as he can. And if they hear that one of them is imprisoned or oppressed by their opponents for the sake of their Christ’s name, all of them take care of all his needs. If possible they set him free. If anyone among them is poor or comes into want while they themselves have nothing to spare, they fast two or three days for him. In this way they can supply any poor man with the food he needs. They are ready to give up their lives for Christ, for they observe the words of their Christ with much care. Their life is one of consecration and justice, as the Lord their God commanded them."
As people living in the United States we tend to be the richest people on earth. With that, I'd argue, we're also often the most selfish and entitled. What is Jesus asking of us who have much? What is he asking of our belongings, our finances, our comforts? Whether we have much or little is he not asking us to share it? Is he not still asking us to give to all and rely on Him as our Provider, remembering how he provided for our forefathers when he brought them out of Egypt? Is Christ still not reminding us that worry does not need to be within us because God cares for us and will give to us more than he does the birds and the flowers?
I believe this sacrificial emptying looks different for all of us, but I don't mean that in any way that says it's easy or escapable. I mean that we all have unique neighbors with unique needs and we have to give everything for them. Like Paul, I pray that we can be like a drink offering, poured out. Let's begin to challenge one another to take the impossible and unthinkable steps into generosity and self sacrifice. Let us challenge our own comforts and what we know as practical and begin to live in a way that baffles the world. Let's give freely and give unceasingly.
Let's empty ourselves and find both our neighbors and ourselves filled. Let us be Christ on earth, let us be the Church. We've been given everything freely, let us give everything freely. Let us imitate our Gracious Giver.