Love, Macedonian style
Life in the Body of Christ as God intends it, and as practiced by the first apostles and their brethren, is night-and-day different from what it’s evolved into today. One of the hallmarks of Body life back then was that “all who believed were together, and had all things in common, and sold their possessions and goods, and divided them among all, as anyone had need.” (Acts 2:44-45)
Literally going all-in for Body life was so central and vital to what they knew as Church that the Bible records an incident in which a husband and wife were struck dead by the Spirit for holding back from the fellowship a portion of the proceeds from sale of their property. (Acts 5:1-11)* They understood back then that following Christ required more than lip service or half-way commitment; it was an all-or-nothing deal.
One crystal-clear Bible reference is enough for most Christians to accept a principle. God must really want us to get this particular point because He re-iterates it numerous times in the New Testament, in detailed, no-interpretation-required passages.
Here’s another one: “… nor was there anyone among them who lacked; for all who were possessors of lands or houses sold them, and brought the proceeds of the things that were sold, and laid them at the apostles’ feet; and they distributed to each as anyone had need.” (Acts 4:34-35)
This tangible foundation of Body life was not unique to the faith epicenter in Jerusalem; rather, it was a key component of The Way they spread across the known world. Paul wrote about it extensively in his letters to the fellowships he founded.
To the brethren in Corinth, Paul explained the purpose of this key tenet of The Way was “that there may be equality. As it is written, ‘He who gathered much had nothing left over, and he who gathered little had no lack.’” (2 Corinthians 8:14-15) Stop and think about that a moment. It’s a breathtaking contrast to our generally-accepted way of thinking today.
In fact, Paul made the point that this Way of living is not just at the center of Body life, it is at the center of true love. In his second letter to the followers of The Way in Corinth, Paul told them how the fellowship in Macedonia was not only sharing with their local brethren, but these impoverished people, in spite of their lack, were still sharing generously with their brothers and sisters in other communities.
As Corinth was a more affluent community, Paul mentioned this to them to illustrate the true meaning of The Way, and to challenge them to do likewise. “I speak not by commandment,” he wrote, “but I am testing the sincerity of your love by the diligence of others.” (2 Corinthians 8:8, emphasis added)
In other words, Paul was saying this wasn’t a law – because in the New Covenant we’re no longer under the law – but instead, the diligent giving of the Macedonians, who shared fully even when they had little, was the benchmark of the sincere love that is supposed to be the defining characteristic of our lives.
In light of Macedonian love, how are we passing Paul’s test today? My friends, if we’re honest with ourselves, we must admit we’re not even enrolled in the same class, much less ready to take that test. We’ve got a long way to go.
It’s certainly understandable how we’ve let this one get swept under the rug. We want to believe we deserve and own the things we have, and if others have less than us, it’s because they’re not as smart, hard-working or “blessed” as we are. Sucks for them. The patterns of this world, and our human nature, tell us that this level of trust, love and sharing is crazy.
But crazy love is the point, isn’t it? What good thing has the Father held back from us? What did Jesus fail to give? This is The Way God loves us, and how He wants us to love each other.
It’s also supposed to be how those outside the Body know we are Christians. Not because we “go to ‘church,’ or put a fish sticker on our car, or act holier-than thou, or even because we claim to really, really, believe in Jesus. But rather, because we don’t claim to deserve or own anything, and we freely share with our brethren as they have need, to the point that there is literal, full, complete equality of all things within the Body.
As Paul continued to the Corinthians, “… you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though He was rich, yet for your sakes He became poor, that you through His poverty might become rich.” (2 Corinthians 8:9, emphasis added) This was not an abstract, poetic, feel-good statement. In context, and in light of the tangible acts of the Macedonians’ love, the brothers and sisters in Corinth knew it was quite literal. This is the love we’re called to reflect; this is what Church means, and how God eagerly desires for us to live, even today.
Paul went so far as to say that this Way of life is a sign of true conversion. “Let him who stole steal no longer,” he wrote to the brothers and sisters in Ephesus. “But rather let him labor, working with his hands what is good, that he may have something to give him who has need.” (Ephesians 4:28, emphasis added)
In all the Bible references to the Body or Church and our roles in it, and in all the stories of the miraculous manifestation of the Kingdom come in those days, it is impossible to understand them if we don’t view them from this frame of reference.
More importantly, it is impossible for us to truly follow Christ or duplicate these same results if we don’t get it, and live it like they did. The Way really is a hard and narrow path. We really are called to be strangers here, separate from the world. All Christians really are supposed to be fully knit together, members of one another, like the cells in an indivisible, unified Body. Absolute, selfless loving-kindness really is supposed to be the most obvious characteristic of a Christian. God really does expect us to go all-in. This is The Way.
I must say, studying The Way our long-past brothers and sisters practiced their faith really convicts me, because it just seems so dang foreign. I mean, from our I-me-mine mindset – and I don’t care how “generous” I am, if “own” even one thing I consider my own, or if I know a brother or sister has less than me and I don’t do anything about it, then I’m guilty of it – the early Christians seem like a bunch of freaks from outer space. I mean really, if a community of believers today were to step out on faith and seek to embrace our true calling, most folks – even other “Christians” – would call them all sorts of things: fanatic, cult, hippy, or much worse. And that breaks my heart, because it shows me how far we’re missing the mark – and the mountain of work we have cut out for us.
God didn’t include all those stories and instructions so we would write them off as “quaint” or “foreign” or “irrelevant” to us. He included them to be a model for us; a blueprint for how we are supposed to be living.
Do we really believe what we claim to believe? Do we really trust the Bible, and the God who inspired it? If we do, then who among us is willing to put up or shut up?
Imagine what it would look like if all we did.
– You are the salt of the world. Stay salty, my friends!
*Yes, this story is traditionally explained in such a way as to suggest their only crime was lying to the Spirit. In light of the centrality of all-in sharing in the early Church, I think this traditional interpretation waters down the bigger point. We must look at it in context. This couple wanted to be considered part of the brotherhood, and said they would live up to the obligations, but they were unwilling to do what was required.