From the Acts of the Apostles:
Now the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common. With great power the apostles gave their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all. There was not a needy person among them, for as many as owned lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold. They laid it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need.
(From the Daily Office Lectionary – Acts 4:32-35 – August 10, 2012)
This short passage from the Book of Acts describes the sort of world Jesus intended. Not just the sort of church . . . . the sort of world, the sort of human society, a complete community in which no one claims private ownership (it’s all God’s remember) and where there are no needy persons because what is needed is distributed equitably.
Dream world, right? Never gonna happen, you say? Then what do we mean when we say (some of us everyday, but a lot of at least once a week), “Our Father in heaven . . . your kingdom come”? If we don’t mean it, if we don’t want God’s kingdom to come, why do we keep asking for it? (Jesus taught this petition to his disciples when they asked him to teach them to pray. See Matthew 6:9–13 and Luke 11:2–4.)
I got into a beef in an on-line recently because another person attributed Massachusetts Senator Scott Brown’s criticism of his state’s Department of Transitional Assistance to his Christianity. Brown was upset because the department had mailed voter registration materials to some 400,000 welfare recipients; he interpreted this as a pro-Democratic-Party action by the department. (In fact, it was in compliance with a court order regarding the state’s failure to comply with “motor voter” regulations.) Nowhere in the article to which my correspondent referred was there any mention of Brown’s Christian faith (he is reportedly a member of the conservative Christian Reformed Church) by either Brown or the reporter. I objected to this person’s statement as a gratuitous and groundless comment, and a lengthy conversation ensued. (It was eventually and abruptly terminated by my correspondent.)
It got me thinking, though, about how we characterize the actions (political or otherwise) of other people and how in modern America we seldom hear positive actions (other than those expressly undertaken by the church) characterized as Christian! Programs which aid the poor, the elderly, the very young, or others in need are criticized as “socialist” even though that is precisely what the apostles set up in their first century community (long before, it should be noted, any western European economics theorist coined the term “socialist”). They are referred to as “entitlements”, a word often said with a sneer. If they are defended, it is on the grounds not of Christian practice but of some theory of economics or general ethics. The Constitutional separation of church and state, I suppose, is at work here. But for those who do support them and are Christians, if we really mean what we pray in the Lord’s Prayer (or any prayer of intercession for the poor and the needy for that matter), shouldn’t we applaud such programs as consonant with our faith? Shouldn’t we be giving and working toward their success because they are, in fact, elements of that world Jesus intended?
My staunchly Methodist grandfather taught me a number of things. A couple of them come to mind today. He taught me to never approach the altar of God without a gift of thanksgiving. Even if you’ve already made your weekly tithe (and he insisted that one give a tithe, a tenth of income), if you attend another prayer service give another offering. Those offerings, he said, are means by which God’s church carries out God’s work and answers at least some of our prayers. He taught me the same thing about taxes. I don’t know if he was familiar with Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes’s famous statement, “Taxes are the price we pay for a civilized society,” but that was certainly his attitude. He taught me that paying one’s taxes is the way the citizen enables the government to do the work it is created to do: the Preamble to our Constitution says that that is, among other things, to “establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity.” Providing for the poor, the elderly, the very young, and other needy persons sure seems to me to fit in there.
Another thing he taught me was never to pray for something I was not willing to work for. If you pray for someone to be healed, be willing (and available when called upon) to care for that person. If you pray for war to be ended, be willing (and available when called upon) to do the work of creating peace.
That’s what prayer was to my grandfather: giving and working. I think that’s what citizenship was to him, as well. If everyone who prays “your kingdom come” actually gave and worked toward the kingdom’s appearance, if everyone also looked at their citizenship that way, I suspect that we’d hear a lot less criticism of “entitlements” and that the world would look a lot like what is described in that short bit from the Book of Acts.
Father Funston is the rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio.