The Self-Giving of the Community is Rooted in the Self-Giving of the Creator. – Dennis Ormseth reflects on what it means to “own” property.
Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary
Readings for the Second Sunday of Easter, Year B (2015, 2018, 2021, 2024)
1 John 1:1 – 2:2
Psalm 133 “speaks of brothers dwelling together in unity,” Ben Witherington III notes. And he likens the condition to the pleasure of a priestly anointment of oil upon the head and beard of Aaron, and to dew falling upon the “mountains of Zion” –-“a major blessing—like the dew that refreshes the plants in and around Jerusalem even in some of the dry times” (“The Season of Easter,” New Proclamation Year B, 2003: Easter Through Pentecost, p. 17-18). In reading this psalm on the Second Sunday of Easter, the Christian community thus lays claim for its gathering around our resurrected Lord to a sense of well-being associated in the Hebrew psalmist tradition with the temple in Jerusalem. That this is consistent with the view we have been developing in these comments, namely that in the narrative of Jesus’ passion and resurrection, particularly as presented in the Gospel of Mark, Jesus displaces the temple as the center of life in God’s presence, with significant consequences for the Christian orientation towards creation. This Sunday, other Scriptures from John and Luke’s Acts of the Apostles provide vignettes of life in the post-resurrection community which illumine the nature of this orientation and some of its implications.
In the Gospel reading for this Sunday, “dwelling together in unity” is envisioned as a gathering in the presence of the resurrected Jesus. In the first section of the Gospel, Jesus appears to the disciples, addresses the fear that keeps them behind locked doors with his word of peace, and then commissions them by the power of the Holy Spirit for the mission of forgiveness of sins. In the second section of the reading, Jesus’ appearance a week later to Thomas serves to reaffirm that the bodily reality of the resurrected Jesus exists in continuity with the body that was crucified. The community of the resurrected Lord, reconciled by the power of the Holy Spirit and empowered similarly to reconcile others, will be gathered in the presence of this crucified body and no other.
An important consequence of this gathering in the presence of the crucified and resurrected Jesus for the community’s orientation to creation is exhibited in the lesson from Acts 4:32-35. This reading provides for contemporary Christians living in such strongly capitalistic societies as ours a strongly counter-cultural illustration of the expectations early Christians had for their communities: they “were of one heart and soul, and no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common.” Their unity of spirit, in other words, was embodied in the economic practices that secured their well-being, in spite of their minority status within the larger society. Helpfully for preachers who have strongly anti-socialist members (or not, given the suspicion directed towards all mildly “socialist” alternatives these days), Witherington takes care to point out that this was not a “communism,” in which everybody turns in “all their assets to the church and then those assets being doled out equally to everyone.” The point was rather that,
“No one claimed owner’s rights. No one exhibited selfishness or possessiveness. The issue was to make sure no believer fell into a state of malnourishment or homelessness or sickness. . . Notice the sharing was done without thought of return. The ancient reciprocity conventions were no part of this practice” (Witherington, pp. 16-17).
It is important to note that while participants in this community did not absent themselves from worship in the temple (Acts 2:46), they nevertheless now found the center of their life in “the testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus” (4:33) and an associated awareness of “God’s grace,” which was fostered by the meal they shared when “they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people” (2:46). Their new life in Christ, home bound as it was, maintained in some measure the sense of living in God’s presence previously experienced in the temple.
Readers of our comment on the readings for Passion Sunday will recall our comments there connecting the meal instituted by Jesus on the night of his betrayal with the fundamental experience of the “restoration of human solidarity in membership with both other people and with the non-human creation that continually gives and sustains life.” Participation in the meal, we suggested, provides a “re-orientation to creation” in “that with his sacrifice he restores to those he feeds the sense of their bodies as created gifts from God.” Quoting Norman Wirzba: “Jesus’ life and death are finally about the transformation of all life and the reparation of creation’s many memberships. Where life is broken, degraded, or hungry, Jesus repairs life, showing it to us as reconciled, protected, and fed.” In the reading from Acts, we see that these expectations have become in some sense normative for the post-resurrection community.
Of particular importance with respect to the orientation of the community to creation is the distinctive attitude toward ownership of property, as we noted above. M. Douglas Meeks provides the following summary of its meaning in his book God the Economist:
“The secret of property in the basileia economy has to do with the relationship of those within the household. Household relationships come first, then the definition of property. In our society property is defined as the premise; then household relations must conform to requirements of property abstractly defined. Human relationships are subservient to property. The communal relationship with the Jesus movement and the primitive community of Acts 4 lead to different forms of property. . . . For the household of God the tendency of property to create domination is to be overcome in oikic relationships of mutual self-giving, in which possessions are used for the realization of God’s will in the community” (Meeks, p. 113).
Key to this understanding, Meeks argues, is “the self-giving life of the trinitarian community of God,” which provides a grounding in the theology of creation for a critique of the self as private property, which is reflected in our approach to ownership of property.
God has a claim on the creation and all creatures not as maker (labor theory of property) or owner (first occupancy), but rather as creator and liberator. At the heart of God’s act of liberating/creating is God’s suffering and self-giving. God’s work of suffering is the source of God’s claim in, that is, God’s property in creation. God brings the world into being through God’s costly struggle against the power of the nihil. God has suffered for the creation and will not allow it to fall into vanity or be alienated. The creation is properly God’s because God’s power of righteousness makes its life fundamentally a gift of God’s grace.
God’s owning, Meeks, concludes, “is not grounded in self-possession but rather in self-giving. The mode of God’s possessing is giving, not the hoarding by which human beings claim dominion” (Meeks, p. 114).
It is striking to note that a scriptural basis for the trinitarian foundation of this understanding of property and its relationship to the doctrine of creation is given in the texts assigned for this Sunday, focused as they are “on dwelling together in unity.” The Gospel reading, we noted, concerns the gift of the Spirit to the disciple. And in the second lesson of 1 John 1, we encounter the notion that Christian community is fellowship “with the Father and his Son Jesus Christ,” who is the “atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world” (1:3, 2:2). Congregations who confess their Trinitarian faith in worship this Sunday might easily move to lay hold of the many opportunities for showing their deep gratitude for God’s suffering love in the practices of their community’s “ownership” of property.
Originally written by Dennis Ormseth in 2015.