Tuesday, 13 November 2012

Guest post: Upside Down Charity

Upside Down Charity
By Robert Martin
All the believers were one in heart and mind. No one claimed that any of their possessions was their own, but they shared everything they had. – Acts 4:32
In my experience and my opinion, the above verse is one of the most misused verses in current conversations in the Christian church in the USA today. Perhaps it’s badly used elsewhere as well, but I can only speak from my context. It is used to support the general idea that Christian community is a socialist community of central finance and common ownership of material possessions. Whether the conversation involves discussions on social justice in the public sector or resourcing within the church community, there are those who want to turn this into a defense of “No one person owns anything.” I’d like to explain why I don’t think that is true.

Really, it’s pretty plain. Both this verse and the parallel in Acts 2:45 have a context. The Acts 2 passage is a little less clear but it is there. In Acts 2 we see phrases about “all the believers were together” and about being devoted to “fellowship” and the “breaking of bread”. This describes a people that are diverse (see earlier in Acts 2) but they have found something that draws them together. They are no longer separated by social divisions of class and economic stature but, because of this thing they have found, through Jesus, they are free to gather together and enjoy each other’s company and plenty.
The Acts 4 passage makes it a bit clearer, though. They were of “one heart and mind”. This is a rather amazing thing. It is obvious from other parts in the book of Acts that they didn’t agree on everything. And even Paul and his companions had disagreements about what is the best thing to do. But, somehow, they were still “one heart and mind”. How does this happen? The answer is pretty simple.
The love of Jesus permeates the people. This is the same love that had Jesus give up his own life in order to give us hope for the future and freedom from the fear of death. This is the love that had Jesus die, taking the sinful self of man to the grave and leaving it there so that, when he rose, we have a hope for a new life. This self-sacrificing, “you are more important than me” kind of love is the same love that these early believers felt for each other. And when you have this kind of love, amazing things happen.
Basically, it is not a matter of “well, there’s 3000 people and, all of us, collectively then, own 3000 houses”. Instead it’s “Hey, I have a house with an extra room and you need a place to sleep. That room is yours to use.” The possessions and having them and protecting them as “mine” are no longer important in light of someone who has need. If they had extra food, they brought it to the group and said, “Does anyone need a meal tonight?” If someone needed money to pay a debt or buy food, the money was given out of someone else’s surplus. It wasn’t a common pot that everyone took out of, it was a common mindset from which everyone operated where they were motivated to give.
I titled this post “Upside Down Charity” because this is so backwards from the way we think in this world. “Hey, there are people hungry over there and people rich over here. We need to make those rich folks give to the poor folks. Gotta pass a law.” This is a power position. With the power of authority behind you, enforced by law and the consequences of failure, you make people do these things. Yes, the outcome is good. But it is not the way of the People of God.
Flip it upside down. The charity of the People of God is a charity of sacrificial service, of coming in and saying that the receiver is more important than the giver. Not from a place of power do we give, but from a place of humble service.
Whether or not a common fund is created from which the needs are met is not necessarily indicated as the only way. It seems to be the case here in Acts (hence deacon funds and such in modern churches). But the supply into that fund was totally, completely, voluntary. Motivated out of a genuine love for each other and a desire to not see brothers and sisters in need, the people gave to the fund. Some gave more, some gave less. They all gave as they were able and saw fit. But it was an act of giving, completely out of grace and mercy, and not forced on them by some law code. If you love someone, you will give to them to meet their needs.
I would suggest that this should expand to folks outside the community of believers. We’re told to love our neighbor, even if that neighbor is a heretic Samaritan (or, in the eyes of the Samaritan, a heretic Jew). We should love them as we love our own selves. Give out of love into the need. Perhaps it is a direct gift, person to person. Perhaps it is to a common fund where wise folks can discern how best to meet the needs. But it should be a gift of love. Force, power, coercion, and the fear of consequences should not be the motivation. Only love.
And here’s the beauty of it. And I can attest to this personally. If a person is loved on so generously, so completely, and can see it is done out of genuine care and concern, not out of a matter of legal obligation, that person will overflow with love themselves. My wife and I, as we are journeying through her illness and the different trials that we face during it, have been lavished upon by so many people. It is simply overwhelming. All this love pouring over us, like standing under a waterfall, the only thing we can think of doing is trying to figure out how we can pass it along to others or return the love back to those who gave. And ultimately, because we know the source of that love is God, we feel, out of immense gratitude, the need to turn that love back to God. It is like a massive cyclone of love, spinning us around and inside-out and upside-down. God loves us so we love others and they love us and they love God and we’re all in this swirl of love and grace and mercy and so forth and we have no fear because love will take care of it all, somehow.
This charity of the Acts church is the rule of love. I don’t love my possessions more than I love God or love people. My possessions, if asked of me, are available to be given to those who have need. This is how we are to act in this world. It’s crazy, it doesn’t make sense, and it certainly leaves room for people who don’t know this love to act selfishly and greedily. Well, of course! They haven’t been shown how to love. How can we expect them to act out of love if no one gives them love? We love God because he first loved us. And we love others because we first loved God. And others learn this love of God by having it demonstrated to them. It makes me wonder…what would happen to millionaires and billionaires and greedy politicians and bank CEOs and corporate executives if, instead of feeling the sword of law, felt the freedom of love?
Just makes me wonder what if…

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