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Oct 08, 2017

Acts 4:32-5:11

Acts 4:32-5:11

Passage: Acts 4:32-5:11

Speaker: Rev. Jerry Deck

Series: Acts | Reflecting Jesus in our world

Category: Weekend Message

Now I know I just got done reading the whole passage, but I’d like to do a quick experiment by reading the first four verses again. We won’t have time to do this, but if we did I’d have you huddle up in small groups and I’d ask you what stood out to you about these four verses. I have talked to people about these verses before and I can tell you that, not surprisingly this passage elicits a lot of conversation. How could they share everything? Did they really share everything or was Luke exaggerating a bit? Is God calling us to sell what we have and give it to others? Would this work in our kind of economic system? It’s a really fun passage because it does garner a lot of conversation and excitement. I don’t bring that up because I think that we shouldn’t be amazed or flabbergasted by the generosity that was so prevalent in the early church. If we’re not somewhat shocked by it then we’re probably not paying attention.

I do, however, bring it up because there is something incredibly intriguing about the types of conversations that typically occur about this passage which is that, by and large, they completely exclude the 33rd verse that says in part, “With great power the apostles gave their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus…” Isn’t it just a bit fascinating that we’re dumbstruck and wrestle with what the passage says about what to do with our goods our properties, etc., but then just kind of gloss over the part where they were witnessing about how Jesus had been raised from the dead, how he was resurrected? Do you see what I’m saying?

Ok, think about it. If you were eating lunch and someone was telling you a story about a place where they had just visited and they said to you that it was remarkable because people were selling what they had and sharing everything and giving it to the poor, you would say, “Wow, remarkable, that’s really cool,” and then you’d keep on munching on your salad (because you’re healthy and salads are what you eat!). But then, let’s just say this person went on to say, yeah, and apparently there was this guy who was killed, then was buried for THREE days and then, sure enough, all of a sudden he was alive again. You would spit that salad out in disbelief or in thinking that that your buddy was full of it. What?! I mean which of these two things would you talk about more, the selling of what they had and giving it to the poor or the claim that someone who was dead was now alive? What part of that story (and what part of our passage) should we be talking about and what does it say about us that we seem to be more interested in talking about what they’re doing with their possessions and their money than someone dying and rising?

As I’ve thought about that a bit more it has made me wonder whether a part of the problem is that we’ve either grown too comfortable talking about something as radical as the resurrection or we’ve grown too uncomfortable with looking at how the early church dealt with money. Let me say it again. Have we either grown too comfortable talking about something as radical as the claim of the resurrection or have we grown too uncomfortable with the generosity of the early church? Because, well, shouldn’t we be at least as thunderstruck by the claim that he who was once dead has now been raised as we are about how they handled their finances? I realize this may sound strange coming from a pastor, but I kinda’ think we should struggle a bit more or be more in awe of the resurrection. That maybe we believe it too quickly and easily. And the reason I think that is because I think there is a direct correlation between our appreciation of the radical nature of believing Jesus was raised from the dead and how radical we actually live our lives. In other words, if we don’t really take seriously the radical claim of Jesus being raised from the dead then it will be impossible for us to take seriously the radical way in which Jesus calls us to live.

So that, I really think the reason why we get held up by passages like this ones and others in the Bible that call us to live counter-cultural lives is not because we don’t know our calling or we aren’t trying hard enough, but is because we haven’t yet fully grasped that Jesus really did come to this earth for us, that he died on this earth and that he was then resurrected. Because the more we get that, the more we live into that, the more that living radically will begin to make more sense, in fact, it may not even seem all that radical, at least in comparison to the claim that we follow Jesus, the one who we say was raised from the dead. In other words, I think we may start at the wrong place all too often.

Radical generosity begins, not by getting out your checkbook, but with understanding the radical claim of a risen savior that we have been set free by grace through the death and resurrection of Jesus. It bears repeating that our ethics, our actions, are born out of what Jesus has done for us. In this passage we see that again in the 33rd verse that says “…great grace was upon them all.” In other words, it is because of grace that we then can freely live in radical ways. And this is important to see because it means that the ways in which we live radically, or as we put it a few weeks ago, the ways in which it may appear to others that we are drunk, is done so in great freedom, not out of obligation or compulsion. When it’s done in response to grace it is incredibly freeing and life-giving, but when it’s done in an attempt to impress God or others, it is not freeing in fact, well, it’ll kill. Which brings us, of course, the next part of our passage.

If you were Theophilus, the initial audience of this letter, and had begun to grow sleepy with the stories of how wonderful everything was going in the early church, this next scene would certainly have roused you from your slumber. Everything seems to be going splendidly—people are living generously, the poor are not lacking, the lame are walking and thousands are becoming followers of Jesus. The first few chapters of Acts are chapters that skeptics of Christianity (and even Christians themselves) like to point to. Well, if the church was like that then I’d be more than happy to be a part of a church, but all too often the current church does not look like that. Well, all of a sudden in verse five it becomes clear that the church really is made up of humans. Ananias and Sapphira decide to sell a piece of property and to give the proceeds to the poor.

That’s all wonderful, of course, and sounds much like what Barnabas had done just one paragraph previously. Except for the fact that Ananias and Sapphira decided to hold some back without telling the church leaders. Peter, not one to mince words, asked why Satan had grabbed a hold of his heart and immediately, after hearing these words, Ananias died. Then, three hours later, when Sapphira entered the scene and when she decided to not be completely honest about the situation by lying about how much they had gotten for the property, she also was killed and then buried next to her husband.

This is the kind of story that when I heard it as a kid I went at least a week without lying for fear that I would be struck dead! On the one hand this seems incredibly harsh and is a bit hard to wrap our head around. Yet, the older I get, I have to admit this image of Ananias and Sapphira dying because of their words, their lies, their deceit, their unwillingness to be honest seems to ring more and more true and become more and more powerful. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not suggesting that I wish these things would happen more often, but I am saying that there is remarkable power in words, in lies, in deceit, in secrets, and that we are fools if we don’t understand how they can bring life or death, as individuals and as a community for Christ.

As many of you know intramural sports in college can get pretty heated. I myself have been known to get a bit passionate about playing sports (there’s a chance I received a technical playing basketball in a league in the last year or two). But my freshman year there was a guy named Chris (whose last name I won’t use, but I remember it well) who was just a remarkable jerk on the field. I mean even for me I couldn’t believe his behavior. I can remember feeling literally astonished at how he was acting. That’s fine, I suppose, but the thing that particularly stands out to me is the fact that the next day I decided to go to a chapel service at my college where, lo and behold, the aforementioned Chris was the preacher. And man, did he wax on and on about Jesus and in a way, quite frankly, that it almost felt like Chris thought you could easily add at “t” to his name and not skip a beat. And I sat there in awe, I wondered how someone could act like he had the day before and yet seem to convey that he had this Christian thing down pat. And the truth is that every single word that he spoke, each letter came off of his lips and dropped to the ground. They meant nothing and, for me at least, they were each dead on arrival.

I have a feeling that most of us have had some sort of experience like this and know exactly what I’m talking about. This was more than a decade before I became a pastor, but rest assured that the lesson I learned on that day is one that continues to haunt me. That’s why I try and tell you, in as healthy a way as possible, about my own shortfalls. A propensity for driving aggressively, a struggle to forgive, a tendency towards impatience, a desire to hold on to what I have rather than giving generously, just to name a few. I know that there is a sense that folks want a pastor who seems to have it all together and whom they can put up on a pedestal just a bit. I do get that and there are times when I wish I had this whole Christian thing down pat or at least could hide it when I don’t. But here’s the thing, I know that ultimately my doing that would lead to my death and bring you no life. Because what I have discovered is that when pastors (or Christians as a whole) try and hide things, try and act like things are so much better than they are, they end up dying, at least on the inside. As one commentator says when it comes to Ananias and Sapphira, “The dropping dead part of it was simply making real and outwardly evident their cancerous inner spiritual condition.”

And the truth is that this death can also easily begin to lead to the death of the community and to the death of our witness. This is what we’ve been talking about over the last few weeks when it comes to being a witness and reflecting Jesus in our world. That one of the best ways we can do that is by being honest in our area where honesty, transparency and vulnerability are often hard to come by. I was struck by how Barnabas as well as Ananias and Sapphira both had property to sell which means, of course, that they were at least middle class (if not upper class). It’s a reminder that most of us have the opportunity to either give great life or to hold back and bring death. This past Monday I came across a blog written by a church planter in Fishers who was talking about what it means to do mission in a more affluent suburb. I won’t go into the whole blog (which I shared with the staff), but in it he talked about how hard it is to be honest and that in areas like ours the church needs to be one in which people are safe to be brutally, perhaps radically, honest.

  • A place where shame is dethroned through regular confession and proclamation of good news
  • A place where the worst thing about me can be brought into light in community because the grace and truth of Jesus Christ is trusted and celebrated
  • A place where people can share pain without others dismissing, denying, or fixing them.
  • A place where we learn how to be present to others pain: suffering solidarity with each other
  • A place where hope and healing are held together with despair and pain.

There’s no fool-proof way to go about this. There will always be pressure, internally and externally, to hide what we are going through, what we are feeling. There is always pressure to either do more than what we are doing or look like we’re doing more than we are. It’s why we as a church are convinced that we must intentionally create spaces for people that cultivate this kind of counter-cultural, radical honesty. I don’t want to sound like a broken record, but our home groups are opportunities to create space for intimacy, honesty and transparency. That doesn’t mean that as soon as you start in a home group you will immediately begin to share everything you struggle with, but it is in the hopes that over time as you share life together you will be able to be more honest. It’s also why Great Banquet can be so impactful because it is a weekend where space is created to slow down, to reflect and if folks choose to, to be honest and transparent. It’s not magic, honestly, it’s just creating space to be radically transparent, space that we don’t often make.

But I also want to be clear that living honestly and transparently doesn’t just mean that we are open about our struggles and shortfalls, but it also means that we are honest with other people about the things that we love about them. That may seem like a jump, but I do also think that there are times when our own pride or whatever else it may be keeps us from being honest about how we feel about those close to us. Not long ago I wrote a letter to my wife, Megan, expressing to her how much she means to me and as I’m writing I was thinking, “Why in the world do I not do this more often and not just with her, but with other families and friends?!” If we’re going to be a community that is honest about our struggles then let us also be a community that is honest about how much others mean to us, about how incredible they are, about their significance in our lives. It seems to me that being a radical community means that we are a place that creates space for honesty and confession, but also that we create space for encouragement and gratitude. 

But make no mistake, our ability to be live radically, to be radically honest is directly correlated to our understanding the radical claim that Jesus has been raised from the dead. If he hasn’t then this is the one life we have and so we might as well keep all we earn and hide everything that might not make us look good. But if we believe that Jesus has been raised from the dead and we will be raised with him then our goal in life is not to fool everyone into thinking that we have it all together so that we can win some kind of popularity contest, but instead is to be shaped more and more like the Christ with whom we will spend eternity. And when we find ourselves holding on too tightly to what we have or caring too much about whether others are impressed with us or our lives, the answer is not to feel guilty or berate ourselves, but to remember that we serve a Savior who was raised from the dead for us.

But I continue to be convinced that as we as a community grow deeper in our ability to live radical lives, of all sorts, that we will be the witness to Jesus that he so desires us to be. As Will Willimon puts it, “The most eloquent testimony to the reality of the resurrection is not an empty tomb or a well-orchestrated pageant on Easter Sunday but rather a group of people whose life together is so radically different, so completely changed from the way the world builds a community, that there can be no explanation other than that something decisive has happened in history.” And as followers of Jesus we believe that that decisive event that has happened in history is the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. May the way we live our lives reflect that radical claim, that we might bring life in a world that seems so hell-bent on death. May it be so. Amen.