And there were no needy among them
I remember walking through the downtown of Vancouver once with a friend, talking about how God calls us to share what we have with one another. The conversation was very impassioned and perhaps a little over-pious, but the heart behind it was a desire to live out the teachings of Jesus and the example of the first disciples.
Then a man came up to us with no shirt on and asked if we had any money to share.
It was one of those divine interruptions that catch you out. I had no money with me, but I was wearing two shirts. Immediately my mind went to John’s statement in Luke 3:11, “Anyone who has two shirts should share with the one who has none,” and Dorothy Day’s slightly more aggressive gloss, “If you have two coats, you have stolen one from the poor.”
The man accepted my fumbling offer of a shirt and went on his way. My friend said, “Well, you can’t not give him one of your shirts after a conversation like that.” I don’t think God was so much testing us as giving us an opportunity to manifest the good thing we were talking about, to turn it from theory into practice, and thus cement it in our hearts. The chance to give was a blessing, not a burden.
I think we have been given a real opportunity in this time to turn some theory into practice, to cement some things in our hearts, to turn what we think of as burdens into blessings.
In the fourth chapter of Acts we hear of the revolutionary way the earliest community of Jesus-followers treated one another.
“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. With great power the apostles continued to testify to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus. And God’s grace was so powerfully at work in them all that there were no needy persons among them. For from time to time those who owned land or houses sold them, brought the money from the sales and put it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to anyone who had need.” (Acts 4:32-35)
This is the second time in Acts that the believers are shown selling property, sharing possessions, and giving to any in their fellowship who had need. It seems they believed this to be an essential outworking of their faith in Jesus.
This is something we are blessed to see often in the DTES of Vancouver, and especially among the Jacob’s Well community. I am not speaking here only of the Churches who regularly give to the ministry of Jacob’s Well and who have been especially generous during the pandemic, though that is certainly part of it. I am also speaking of the community members who have offered what they have - often from a place of vulnerability and poverty – for the provision of others. We have friends who have kept the building and surroundings clean and hygienic. We have local volunteers doing regular weekly outreach with groceries, goodies, donated sanitation packs and prayers. And we have members who have sacrificially opened their homes and lives to others for safety and comfort during the quarantine.
This has long since ceased to surprise me. Many of our friends, neighbours and community members love Jesus and love to manifest his love to others in very practical ways. I pray that this same spirit of love and unity would be seen and felt in the Church at large. I suspect we are going to need it in a very real way in the season to come.
As everyone knows, along with the quarantine has come a significant economic readjustment. This shut down has affected everyone, and it will not just be the DTES that feels the impact over the next months and years. When people ask me how they can help, I of course direct them towards the frontline ministries that are serving the most vulnerable, which includes Jacob’s Well. But I also advise them to consider how their Church is preparing to care for one another.
In Acts 4 the Church shared freely and joyfully with each other because they knew they were only stewards of their possessions. They understood that everything they had belonged to God and that their responsibility – and privilege – was to share it with their brothers and sisters. And because of this there were no needy among them. Anyone in that community who was familiar with the great promise from Deuteronomy 15 – that if the people of God obeyed His commands and redistributed wealth there would “be no poor among you” – must have thrilled at the possibility of participating in this new kingdom life. The great dream of the people of God was coming true!
Should we still not thrill to this possibility?
Yet today we view this story with some trepidation. It is hard to read this passage publicly without risking immediate suspicion, “pragmatic” qualifications, and the helpful reminder that it didn’t last, as the very next passage tells of liars and thieves in the community. But for a time there were no needy among them, and they shared whatever they had, each according to the others’ needs. Can we at least agree that is a great theory which has not been turned into practice very often?
There will be needy in your Church community in the next weeks, months and years, and it is your particular opportunity – your potential blessing – to share what you have to meet their needs. We talk about loving one another, now here comes a ready-made opportunity to turn that theory into practice, to cement it in our hearts, to manifest God’s goodness and love into the world. I urge Churches to get ready, now, to share your stewarded possessions, and so discover a blessing that many in the DTES of Vancouver already know.
About the Author:
Aaron White serves as the Resident Theologian at Jacob’s Well. He is the National Director of 24-7 Prayer Canada. He has been a pastor, missioner, justice worker and prayer instigator in the Downtown Eastside of Vancouver for the past 16 years, where he lives with his wife and four children in a community home. He is the co-author of “Revolution and The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Kingdom of God”; co-creator of The Creative Way Down discipleship resource; and author of the upcoming book “Recovering: From Brokenness and Addiction to Blessedness and Community.”