Sunday, April 12, 2015
Pastors who imagine themselves innovators attempt to plant new churches and they do so with a fantasy of a church that is in the mold of the New Testament church. An idea exists that Christianity began immediately after the resurrection and then the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost as this perfectly harmonious community. This dream is usually paired with severe criticism of today’s churches.
Today’s churches are too self-serving. Today’s churches are inward focused and refuse to reach out to the community. Today’s churches are bound by tradition instead of being committed to the Bible. Today’s churches fail to be praying communities and instead rely too much on human wisdom and human abilities and resources. The complaints and critiques mount and the rallying cry sounds. We need to get back to the New Testament church!
The passage we just read, Acts 4:32-35, is cited as an example of the ideal faith community. See, it says right there. “Now the whole group of those who believed was of one heart and soul, and no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common.” Their faith was so strong they enjoyed perfect harmony.
Really? Acts 4 describes events which happened a couple of months or so after the resurrection. Just before the resurrection, this perfectly harmonious community accomplished the following: the leading voice, Peter, denied knowing Jesus. The treasurer of the group, Judas, turned Jesus into those who handed him over to death. The entire group abandoned him.
OK, but after they met the risen Lord, then they got it right! Oh? The critical thinker in the group, Thomas refused to exercise faith and said he would only accept things if he was granted empirical evidence. Several of the disciples, all people who had heard Jesus say resurrection was coming, could not recognize him when he was raised.
But it is not fair to lay that on them. Once the Holy Spirit came upon them all at Pentecost, then their hearts were ready to form the ideal church. What we read in Acts 4 as well as Acts 2 show how wonderful the New Testament church. No, actually it does not show that.
Listen again verses 32 and 34.
“The whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common.
34 “There was not a needy person among them, for as many as owned lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold.” That gives the impression of a perfectly selfless, welcoming, and shalom-filled community. How long did they sustain this?
We only need to keep reading. This picture ends Acts chapter 4. In the next chapter, we read of a couple, Ananias and Sapphira, who do not share the proceeds of what was sold. They promise that they will give the entire amount of what they get from the sale of their field. So, they sell the field and receive the amount, and then pocket some of it.
That is not a sin, by the way. Making a prophet by a sale or in business, or earning a high salary; these are not bad things. However, making a promise to God is. Allowing greed and desire for material things to compromise our spiritual commitments is very much a sin. In this ideal community, the second and third financial contributors specifically named actually deceive the church. And God kills them for it. So in the perfect first century church idolized by trendy pastors of today, there is deceit and death almost immediately.
Who the first named contributor? A guy named Joe. He was such an encourager; the apostles changed his name to Barnabas which means “Son of Encouragement.” He is one of the great heroes of the faith. However, even Barnabas experienced conflict in a church that was never free from it.
He was the Apostle Paul’s first ministry partner. But, they got into a sharp dispute about whether to bring a young man named Mark on their next missionary voyage. This is all in the closing verse of Acts 15. Mark had previously quit midway through on a journey with them. Barnabas wanted to show the young man mercy and give him another chance. Paul had no time for deserters. These two leaders in the nascent church could not agree and experienced what Christians have struggled with ever since – a split; a parting of ways. By the way, Paul eventually came around and Mark became one of his most trusted friends.
Read through all of Paul’s letters. Read 1st, 2nd, and 3rd John. Read Jude or 2nd Peter. The New Testament was full of conflict for the same reason churches struggle today. Churches are comprised of human beings. Even though we have the Holy Spirit in us, we have been forgiven and freed from sin’s grip, we still get tempted. One is tempted to gluttony, another to a sharp, critical tongue, and another to cursing and foul language. One is tempted by greed, another by sex, and another by laziness. The church then was not perfect, nor is the church now perfect.
So what are we? We are a community of people who give witness to the kingdom of God as we understand it and have received it from Jesus. The key moments in our testimony are the crucifixion and the resurrection and the moment we came to know Jesus. This is who we are.
We are sinful people, but sinners whose sins have been nailed to a cross. We are dead people – those who have died in sin. But we have been raised from death to eternal life. We know this is all true because the Holy Spirit is in us. We are called to tell this story in a way that is genuine, filled with love and compassion for those we tell, and persuasive. We want the people with whom we share the good news of Jesus to make the decision to receive him into their lives.
From Acts 4, I think the verse we do well to highlight is verse 33. “With great power the apostles gave their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all.” What was so powerful about their testimony? First, they believed it. I mentioned last week on Easter Sunday that I believe our hearts and our minds have trouble reconciling over resurrection because we want it to be true, but we are conditioned to accept death as final. The early Christians did see and touch the risen Lord. We need to be attentive to the Holy Spirit. When we are then we have confirmation that is as real and believable as the physical presence of the resurrected Jesus. But this demands that we focus spiritually and listen spiritually. The Holy Spirit will assure us and we need to receive what the Spirit gives to bolster our belief.
Second, the first believers lived out the love of Jesus. As Acts 4 reports, they fed the hungry. We may not do it in the same way they did, but when we participate in ministries that meet peoples’ needs that gives legitimacy to our words about Jesus’ love. One simple example is next Crop Walk. Come out and walk and help us raise money to fight hunger. The connection to faith is indirect but there nonetheless. We walk to fight hunger, because we are Christ followers.
The first believers performed miracle healings. We visit people in the hospital as they are treated by today’s healers, doctors. You may remember some of our members were Ethiopia last month and helped a man gain access to 21st century healing – medicine he could not afford to buy. Peter healed a lame man and he did it in Jesus’ name. Today we come alongside the sick, the hungry, the broken, and the hurting, and we do it in Jesus’ name.
Third, the first Christ-following communities strove to overcome ethnic and racial tensions. The biggest issue in New Testament writings was Jew-Gentile. It was not the only one. Greeks called non-Greeks “Barbarians.” Romans looked down upon people who were not Roman citizens. Most groups have terms of derision for outsiders. When I preached in a Gypsy church, I was what Gypsies called non-Gypsies, a “Gazhol.” In Bolivia, a 3-year-old child looked me and with scorn said, “Gringo.” In Ethiopia, we are what they call foreigners, “Ferengi.
Through the book of Acts and Paul’s letters, we see the early church learning how to overcome these differences so that outsiders are transformed into insiders. Words like “them” and concepts like “those people” lose meaning as Christ-followers include everyone in “us.”
We could probably comb through the New Testament and find more categories of love and compassion but the three we mentioned make the point. The testimony of the disciples in Acts 4 is a powerful testimony because the believers were transformed by their belief. And it was powerful because the words they said about Jesus gained traction in good works like feeding and healing. Finally the testimony was powerful in a radical way as the disciples shattered old divisions that separated people. Greeks and non-Greeks, Jews and Gentiles, men and women, slaves and masters all embraced as brothers and sisters in Christ.
At the beginning of worship, I asked, do we understand that we are surrounded by a cloud of witnesses? Do we realize that as we grow in Christ and add our voice to the story of Him saving the world through death and resurrection, we become a part of the cloud of witness?
Before the sermon began, before the reading of Acts 4:32, we heard Acts 1:8 where Jesus says, “You will be my witnesses.”
I dream of us – each individual – believing the reality of resurrection in such a profound way it alters our view of everything else we know and understand. I dream of us going through an earth-shattering paradigm shift as the full truth of resurrection settles on each of us.
I dream that when we do a home repair for someone who needs it or go on a mission trip or participate in the crop walk or visit a hospital to pray with those who are sick or do other works of compassion – I dream it will be abundantly clear that we do these things in Jesus’ name as an expression of Jesus’ love. And I pray those helped by our efforts will feel themselves drawn to him.
I dream that we will be the voice of grace and welcome in a world of violence and hatred. Just this week, another unarmed black man was killed by a white officer in South Carolina. It has happened again! Once again, we humans find a most dramatic expression of injustice. I dream that in our church our witness will be seen in the way blacks and white, Hispanics and Asian, straights and gays and lesbians all embrace as beloved brothers and sisters in Christ.
I guess I do want us to be like the New Testament Church. I guess I am one of those pastors. I don’t have any fantasies that those first century Christians were perfect or even any better than us. They were selfish, they fought, and they sometimes excluded people. But in their witness, they worked through these mistakes and at their best, their actions and their words pointed people to Christ. That’s my dream and my prayer for us as a body of believers.