Is the Appeal to a Golden Age a Recipe for Disaster?
by Rev. Mark Stenberg, Ph.D.
New Testament Reading: Acts 4:32-35
For Sunday, April 15, 2012: Year B—Easter 2
“There was not any needy person among them, for as many as owned lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold.” There it is. This Golden Age that pops up here and there in Acts. I call it Luke’s Little Utopia. It’s bold and beautiful and provocative. But it’s also a head-scratcher.
What makes things even murkier is the anecdotal evidence of some guy who sold a field and gave his money to the church. In lieu of a statistically significant empirical sample group we are told (in Acts 4.36-37) one single heart-warming tale of Joseph of Cyrus selling a field and laying the money at the apostles feet. Awwwwwww.
“No one claimed private ownership of anything?” C’mon. Really? “Everything they owned was held in common?” Everything? Really Luke? “Now the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul.” No fights or splits or disagreements over politics or language? Now knock-down drag-out church council battles over Balloon Sunday or whether or not to serve beef stew at the Valentine’s Day Sweetheart Banquet?
Golden-Age-ism is that belief that we’ve lost it, but we can get it back. We can go back to the garden. We can restore the church or the empire or our souls or our dirty bathroom to it’s original state of glory, or innocence, or purity. We can get back the innocence we lost. We can create a New Eden.
We just need to try a little harder, to purify, to cleanse, to get rid of all that filth that’s piled up over time. We see this nostalgiabation again and again in Christian reform movements that beckon us to return to the purity, simplicity, and truth of the early church.
Very High Fences
What’s so bad about Golden-age-ism? First of all, you gotta ask yourself whether it’s the impulse behind myriad utopian visions of the church that have ended in disaster. Is there a straight line from these texts in Acts to the separatist enclaves of history, in which believers conclude that the world has gone to hell in a handbag and that the only response is to withdraw, build some very high fences, and keep themselves pure until the apocalypse sets things right?
Furthermore, longing for the return of the Golden Age messes with our understanding of history. By always trying to measure up to something that happened in the past are we taking ourselves out of the present? Out of time, history, the flesh? Out of this messy, broken world? Up and out of this creation?
Such an impulse runs completely counter to the mind of Paul, who in his magnificent Letter to the Romans, calls us to hope for the great tikkun, the mending of creation. Not an other world, up or out, or back in time, but a healing of this broken world.
The Hardest Question
Our hardest question? The Golden Age of Christian Community—Churchtopia—did that really happen? Was the church ever that innocent and pure? Or is this a bit of Golden-Age-ism that Luke (consciously or not) employs for the sake of saying something else?
Mark Stenberg is a trained academic theologian who got side-tracked planting churches. He started House of Mercy House of Mercy, with co-pastors Debbie Blue and Russell Rathbun in 1996 and ten years later he left that call to launch Mercy Seat Lutheran Church along with his current colleague, Kae Evensen. Mark holds a Ph.D. from Northwestern University where he studied philosophy with the likes of Jürgen Habermas. He is also an adjunct professor at Luther Seminary, teaching in homiletics and in the D.Min. program. Mark lost his spouse to cancer in March of 2007 but is profoundly grateful for every moment he gets to spend with his amazing children, Angela and Mateo.