For the early Church, unity in love was the ultimate value; it was the supreme purpose of life that Christ Himself had revealed to men. …
This unity was demonstrated above all in the active love through which each Christian was conscious that he belonged to all the brethren, and conversely, that they all belonged to him. The unity of Christians with one another is now, alas, only symbolized by their communion in divine service; in the early Church the liturgy was the crowning point of a real unity, a continual communion in everyday life; moreover, the liturgy was then unthinkable apart from that communion. In early Christian writings no other word is so often repeated as “brother,” and Christians of that age filled the idea of brotherhood with vital meaning, which showed clearly in their unity of thought: “And the multitude of them that believed were of one heart and of one soul . . .” (Acts 4:32).
Brotherhood also meant active mutual support among Christians “of all for all” — a care which was both material and spiritual. “And all that believed were together, and had all things in common; and sold their possessions and goods, and parted them to all men, as every man had need” (Acts 2:44f.).
The very smallness of the Christian community in Jerusalem made it possible to put unity of life into practice in a radical way through sharing their property. This phenomenon, inaccurately described as “primitive Christian communism,” was not the product of any specifically Christian economic or social theory, but a manifestation of love. Its meaning lies not in community of property as such, but in the evidence it gives us of the new life that manifested itself among them, entirely transforming the old.
In the Pauline epistles we find the summons: “Every man according as he purposeth in his heart, so let him give” (II Cor. 9:7) — a remark which points to the survival of private property in other Christian communities. But the utter devotion of the Jerusalem community — the brotherhood of “beggars” as St. Paul called them — remains forever in the mind of Christendom as an ineffaceable example and legacy, the ideal of an authentic regeneration of all human relationships through love. …
Here, then, is the image of the Church bequeathed to us by the records of her earliest days. Does this mean that she had no failings or weaknesses then? Of course not. The author of Acts mentions many of them, and in the Pauline epistles whole chapters will be devoted to exposing and scoring these sins. But as we begin the history of the Church, in which such sins and weaknesses will too often be painfully obvious, we also need to keep in mind that “icon of the Church” — that image and realization of the first experience of true life in the Church — to which Christians will always have recourse when they seek to cure their spiritual ailments and overcome their sins.