Generosity, trust, and Eternal Life

There are two readings at Mass today that might seem unconnected, but I think are connected nicely by their both being present at liturgy. In the first reading from Acts (4:32-37), the Christian community is described as sharing all their material goods in common so that no one went without; goods were distributed according to need. A man named Joseph sells some of his property and puts the proceeds at the feet of the apostles.

The Gospel reading continues with Nicodemus from yesterday and ends with the idea that all who believe in Christ will have eternal life: “so must the Son of Man be lifted up,
so that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life” (Jn 3:15). Jesus connects Nicodemus’s rebirth to his own death on a cross, and resurrection.

The two readings initially seem different in that the one from Acts is concrete: it’s about what the Christian community does with its material goods to support others in need, and the conversion of a man whose willingness to let go of his property signifies his belonging to Christian community. The second reading is, like much of the Gospel according to John, abstract, connecting belief to salvation. Many people read this passage as central to the idea of justification by faith, i.e., that we don’t earn our salvation by what we do, but rather by belief in a God who rectifies any wrongs between us.

However, I also see connection between the two passages. Joseph sells his property as an act of generosity and trust in the Lord and in Christian community. He gives away his own property so that others who are in need may flourish. This requires an act of trust that when he is in need, others in that community will provide for him; his security no longer is in his own property to keep him safe and protected from economic misfortune, but in the community as a whole. This is a great act of faith and trust on his part (the word pistis is the same in Greek, both faith and trust). Jesus in his words to Nicodemus is not simply saying that belief grants us salvation; he is saying that the way to eternal life is through death, that death and sacrifice precede rebirth, life, and human flourishing.

Joseph’s giving up his property is one instance; he becomes a freer man by giving up his land and relying on the community and on the Lord. But there are other instances, too: any time we give up our own egocentric concerns and let them die, and let God transform that death into new life, we become freer people as well. Eternal life is not only something we know after our bodies die and in the Resurrection, but also something that we taste here and now on earth when we allow parts of our egos and selfish desires to die, so that something greater can be reborn within us. Nicodemus is also promised a new life even while he is still on earth. So are we.