Sunday, June 19, 2011

Make it Count (Acts 4:32-35)

Now 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. With great power the apostles gave their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all. 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. They laid it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need.

On Father’s Day, I am thinking of my own father and how I am the person I am today, in large part, because of his influence on me. I am also thinking of my grandfathers and how they shaped my life.

My grandfather was an accountant his entire adult life. He served as his local church treasurer and even served as Conference treasurer for a number of years. To say that my grandfather watched money carefully would be a huge understatement. He and Grandma sold their home to the Metro system in DC, as the train lines serving our nation’s capital continued to expand into suburban Virginia. The block on which their home was located was claimed in the name of Imminent Domain to make way for a new train station and parking lot, and all the neighbors negotiated with Metro for the sale of their homes and moving expenses.

After Papa and Grandma moved into their new home, he sent Metro an itemized bill for two new clothesline poles, the cement to set the poles, and several hundred feet of new clothesline. Metro initially refused, but Papa was firm; he simply said, “I had clothesline at my old house.” Metro paid him for his expenses.

My grandfather watched money carefully, he was extremely careful with money, and you may get the impression that he was cheap, but friends, my grandfather was anything but cheap. My grandfather wasn’t cheap for one very simple reason: he was a Christian. He taught us all from an early age, both by precept and example, that to be a Christian is to be generous. You see, what we have is not our own. Everything we have is a gift from God, and God is the greatest giver we could ever know. Giving and sharing is inherently part of God’s character; for Christians who are growing more into God’s image every day, generosity is part of who we are, as well. Just take a look at our Scripture reading from the 4th Chapter of Acts, and that much should be abundantly clear. May we pray.

Who here is going to go out for lunch following worship today? If you go to a non fast-food restaurant, more than likely, your food will be brought to you – as will your beverage and all refills and everything else your table needs – by a waiter or a waitress. Who here has ever worked waiting tables – that is a thankless job!

Steve Dublanica writes for the blog Waiter Rant, and he asked his readers – table servers, wait staff, people who make most of their income from tips – he asked them “Who are the worst tippers?” and two responses emerged: people who come from countries where tipping is not practiced, and the Sunday after-church crowd.

Folks, we are known as bad tippers. Christians are known to those who wait tables as stingy and cheap. Think about that. Christians, those who claim to be following Jesus and becoming more like him, someone who freely gave himself for the world, are known as cheap. Christians, those who have embraced an identity as having been created in the image of a giving and generous God, are, at least in the eyes of wait staff, extremely ungenerous.

What does it say about Christians that we think so little of the people who serve us that we, as a people group, are known as cheap?

I have a friend who waits tables, and anecdotally, she confirmed that Christians are lousy tippers. Sunday lunch is her least favorite time to work. She says that church people are some of the most demanding and cheap customers she gets. They often stay twice as long as other customers, keeping the restaurant from turning the table and robbing the server of yet another tip. When she sees someone come in on Sunday afternoon dressed in a nice suit, talking about how great church was, offering a long, loud, public prayer at the start of the meal, she expects a 5% tip and a Christian pamphlet on how to get saved or steps to peace with God or something else.

She hates working Sundays, and she resents Christians. Like it or not, that’s our witness. If I am out to eat with someone and they leave a bad tip, I will intentionally leave something behind at the table – my keys, my sunglasses, or something – so I can go back to the table and not be embarrassed by the tip left behind.

Christ came to bless the world and lead all of us in lives of love toward God and neighbor. Christians who are blessed are to be a blessing, we are to show love toward God and neighbor that Christ modeled and taught. Everywhere we go, we are witnesses of Christ, and our lives are to be a constant manifestation of God’s grace.

So, any time you go out to eat, tip generously, because how you treat your server is a witness of what God is – or is not – doing in your life. Everything we have is a gift from God, and what we do with what God has given us indicates the priority God has in our lives.

And perhaps you’re wondering what this has to do with anything and why I’m telling you this, and I’m glad you asked, because it is impossible to bear witness to a God who is gracious and generous if we are stingy and cheap.

While the temptation toward stinginess is always there, for Christians who take the Bible seriously, we soon see that being cheap is not an option for the people of God. In the fourth chapter of the book of Acts, Luke presents us with a picture of the early church that is far from cheap and stingy:

“Now 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. With great power the apostles gave their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all. 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. They laid it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need” (Acts 4:32-35).

Luke's depiction of the Jerusalem believers identifies a signature characteristic of their movement — in a word, generosity. Their social generosity expressed itself in community, and their financial generosity expressed itself in compassion.

A popular axiom of our day is often quoted, and many people swear it comes out of Scripture. You all know this one – finish it for me. God helps those . . . . who help themselves. It’s a cynical expression of our get-ahead, look-out-for number-one society. But today’s text is a witness against this sort of rampant individualistic thinking. In the young church and among new Christians there was no one who owned something and kept it to him or herself. Things were distributed to anyone who had need, and no one was ashamed to accept something. Their slogan was not, “God helps those who help themselves.” Rather, because God helps everyone, they were there to help each other.

Of one heart and soul

There are a couple of things we need to point out in this text about how this community is described. The first is that they were of one heart and soul. This unity is expressed elsewhere throughout Scripture. In John 17, Jesus prays that his followers will be one. In 1 Corinthians and elsewhere, Paul describes the Church as one body with many members. We recognize our connection with one another, and realize that when one member of the body suffers, we all suffer. When one rejoices, we all rejoice. Unity is our trademark. Unity is what we are meant for.

Following the example of Jesus, the first Christians broke down social barriers and disregarded religious taboos that distinguished between the ritually clean and the unclean, the worthy and the unworthy, the respectable and the unrespectable. They were "one in heart and mind, or soul," writes Luke. They subverted normal social hierarchies of wealth, ethnicity, religion, and gender in favor of a radical egalitarianism before God and with each other: "There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus" (Galatians 3:28).

About a century after Luke wrote, the early Christians had a well-known and well-deserved reputation for social generosity that built bridges of community rather than walls of separation. Tertullian (AD 155–220), for example, wrote, "Our care for the derelict and our active love have become our distinctive sign before the enemy. . . See, they say, how they love one another and how ready they are to die for each other."

Christianity is not a faith that can be practiced in isolation or apart from other people. It is a community religion, the goal of which is to stretch and grow us in our relationships with God and with one another. A solitary Christian, a Christian standing outside community is an oxymoron; you can’t live and grow as a Christian apart from others. Our relationships with God and others are mutually interdependent.

And so, when one member of the body withholds their gifts from the body, the whole body suffers. When one member of the church withholds their financial gifts, the whole church suffers. When one member withholds grace, the whole church suffers. When one member withholds their time, the whole church suffers. When one member withholds their expertise, the whole church suffers. Anytime God has given us something – whether that is time, talent, or treasure – and we withhold it from all God’s children, the ministry of Christ through the church is weakened.

Thankfully, as I look around the room at those who are present today, I don’t see withholders. I don’t see anyone here who would hold back of their own and refuse to share. You know that part of what it means to be a Christian – to follow Jesus, to be filled with the Holy Spirit – part of what that means is to be generous.

When you follow Jesus, your heart is filled with the Holy Spirit, and as such, it is turned outward. You can’t help but share the love of God and neighbor, you can’t help but to be generous. Generous with your resources, your time, your spirit, your attitude, your disposition. Christians are, by very definition, generous people.

It’s simple really – the goal of the Christian life is to grow ever more into the image and likeness of God, the God in whose image we are already created. We call that growth by a number of names – sanctification, going on to perfection – but to be very plain, it means that as we grow in our faith, we grow in God’s grace, and God’s grace makes us just a little more like God – a little better reflection of God’s divine image – each day. And God is the most generous, the greatest giver any of us could ever know; and since we are created in God’s image, we are fundamentally hard-wired to be generous. Further, since we are growing into that image, part of maturing in our faith and growing in God’s grace is that we become more and more generous.

Really, it’s quite simple – if you’re maturing and growing in your faith, then you’re also maturing and growing in your generosity.

Holding all things in common

Generosity is key to holding a community together. Generosity leads each of us to lay our own preferences, our own agendas, our own interests down for the sake of what is best for everyone. Generosity leads us to a place we share freely with everyone around us, to the point that we said to hold things in common with them.

Generosity leads to holding things in common, and holding things in common is foundational to community, which is why generosity is key to holding a community together.

We all want to find things in common with other people. There is something down within us that years for connection, for common ground, with other people. Sometimes you can find that in a sport or an activity or a club, a fraternity or sorority, a civic or community organization, or the alumni association of whatever school you went to.

Common ground is the heart of community, and communities are all about relationships that tie people together. Communities are about a sense of belonging. Our text describes the early church as holding all things in common; in other words, there were strong and tight relationships, bonds of belonging, holding the church together.

The very first part of our mission statement is that we exist to be a Christian community – that means that we are a place of relationships, a place of belonging. But we are not just any community; we are a Christian community. That means some things, folks. That means that our values and shaped and molded by Christ’s values. The things that were important to Christ drive everything we do. Christ gave himself in love for all people, which means we give ourselves for all people in his name. Christ welcomed all people, even and particularly “sinners and outcasts,” which means we welcome all people in his name. While the Pharisees were offering judgment and withholding grace, Christ offered grace and reserved the harshest judgment for religious people who were trying to exclude others from God’s favor; so let the modern-day Pharisees cling to judgment – we are a Christian community, and we’ll cling to grace.

The early church, as described in today’s text, were all of one heart and soul, they held all things in common, and with great power, great grace was upon them all. I don’t know about you, but that sounds like the picture of a Christian community I’d like to see myself in.

A generation or two after the early Church described by Luke, the theologian Justin Martyr (c. 100–165) summarized the appeal of Christian community: “We who once took most pleasure in accumulating wealth and property now share with everyone in need; we who hated and killed one another and would not associate with men of different tribes because of their different customs now, since the coming of Christ, live familiarly with them and pray for our enemies.”

Anyone who claims the name Christian has neither the time nor the right to be stingy and cheap, because God’s abundant grace fills us up to overflowing and there is still plenty more to go around, and whether we like it or not, those whose hearts are filled with God’s Holy Spirit find themselves growing in generosity – generosity of our time, our finances, our resources, our disposition, and our attitudes. Christian people are givers.

What you have is a gift from God. Who you are, everything you possess, the skills and expertise and time and everything else – everything you have is a gift from God. I learned that first from my grandfather. The early church also understood this, and as they shared freely, great grace was upon them all.

Ron Sider, in his book Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger: Moving from Affluence to Generosity, says that most of us in the American church are caught in “an absurd, materialistic spiral. The more we make, the more we think we need in order to live decently and respectably. Somehow we have to break this cycle because it makes us sin against our needy brothers and sisters and, therefore, against our Lord. And it also destroys us. Sharing with others is the way to real joy.”

The early church was of one heart and soul, and they shared freely, abundantly, and generously, and great grace was upon them all.

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