Committed to Integrity
Acts 4:32 – 5:11
Unity when it’s needed
Early in 1964, in the East of Africa, a small British protectorate was taking its final steps towards independence and becoming the country we know today as Malawi.
As is so often the case in times of national upheaval, it wasn’t an entirely peaceful transition, and there were great fears that violence would break about, particularly between the indigenous population, and the Europeans who had settled there since the days of the famous Dr Livingstone.
In the early 60s there was virtually no method of communication with the furthest-flung parts of the country, so a British reconnaissance plane was dispatched from the capital to observe one particular remote area where an outbreak of violence was most feared.
As the plane approached, it seemed that the worst fears of violence were confirmed, there were no signs of life at all, and it was thought that the different ethnic groups had more or less wiped each other out.
But in the centre of the town, which was called Livingstonia, after Dr Livingstone, I presume, in the centre of town, the residents had collected some large stones, painted them white, and laid them out, to form 6 characters, E P H 2 1 4.
It looked like a Bible reference, but there was no Bible on the plane. When they got back to the capital the crew found a Bible and looked up, Ephesians 2:14
“For he, that is Jesus Christ, is our peace;, in his flesh he has made both groups one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us”
Imagine a unity that surpassed ethnic and cultural identity,
A unity that overcame long-held divisions and suspicions,
A unity that defied the expectations of society,
A unity that ensured peace, and care, and compassion in the midst of turmoil.
A unity that expresses itself in practical ways, in the first century AD, Malawi in 1964, and even today,
This is the unity that characterises the church of Jesus Christ.
The gospel of Jesus brings unity
Of course in his letter to the Christians in Ephesus, the Apostle Paul is speaking specifically of the unity that Jews and Gentiles enjoyed in Christ. Those who were historically members of the covenants that God made were brought together with those who had been outside and far off, but as he moves on in his argument he broadens his application.
In God’s household there is no place for the spiritual “haves” and “have nots”, there is no place for thinking some are “in”, and some are “out”
This is the unity that God’s people have,
The unity that God desires for his people,
The unity God himself has brought about,
This is the unity and fellowship we see right through the New Testament, people of diverse backgrounds and languages, being unified not in a political alliance, not even by common human experience, but by a shared relationship with Jesus Christ, and indwelling with his Spirit,
And what we find in Acts chapter 4 is that this fellowship and unity, were characteristic of the church in its very earliest days, and that this fellowship and unity extends to all areas of life, Acts chapter 4, the believers were one in heart and mind, they shared everything they had, there were no needy persons among them. From time to time those who owned lands or houses sold them, brought the money from the sales 35 and put it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to anyone as he had need.
What an amazing community!
We know from chapter 2 that the people who were hearing the good news of Jesus and responding were from all over the Roman Empire,
From different countries,
With different languages,
And different customs,
And yet, all the believers were, one, in heart and mind,
They have the same Father,
They share the same Saviour,
They enjoy the same Spirit dwelling within them
They have really, nothing else in common!
Their nations were basically all at war with each other at different times,
But what an amazing transformation the gospel brings, what an amazing work of the Spirit, that people with nothing else in common might go to these lengths in their care for one another.
The ancient Greeks had a, somewhat related idea. If people put all their property into collectives of common ownership, they thought it would it would lead people in, to, unity, lead them into, a common heart and mind.
But what happened in the life of the church as people heard the good news about Jesus, and trusted in him for forgiveness and reconciliation with God, was really the opposite of what the Greeks wanted.
Sharing their money and possessions didn’t lead the Christians into unity, Their genuine heartfelt unity led them to share their possessions, even their homes and land. It was an outward and visible expression of an invisible working of the Spirit of God in their lives, As they learned to hold loosely to the things of this world, and invest in eternal things.
What about us?
So is this, what we’re called upon to do?
Does Jesus say I need to sell my house and distribute the proceeds here on Sundays.
Is it wrong for me to own a car, and for Kathy to have a car of her own?
Is having an investment property a shortcut to an eternity separated from God?
I’ll let you think about those questions just for a moment before we work towards an answer, but about 20 kilometres east of Jerusalem, where these events are taking place, near the shores of the Dead Sea, was a place called Qumran, famous now for the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls in the 1940s, and in the era of the New Testament associated with a religious group called the Essenes, probably the people who hid the Dead Sea Scrolls there in the first place.
If you wanted to join this religious group, you were required to transfer ownership of all of your property to the community. Members didn’t even own their own food or clothes, everything was held in common.
Is that what Jesus had in mind for his followers? To follow this same kind of communal possession of everything?
Well, if you read through the rest of the book of Acts you’ll find about 40 references to different people’s houses, many of which are identified by the name of their owner – Lydia’s house, Mary’s house, Simon’s house, There seems to be plenty of Christians who still have houses,
And in the gospels, Jesus never made any general command for his followers to do away with everything they owned, he said to specific people that what was holding them back from the kingdom of God was their possessions, but there’s no blanket prohibition on owning property.
And take a look at Peter’s words to Ananias about his land, Didn’t it belong to you before it was sold? And after it was sold, wasn’t the money at your disposal?
There doesn’t seem to be any pressure on anyone to sell their possessions or homes or land, And even if they did sell them, there was no requirement to donate all the proceeds, it would have been perfectly acceptable to keep some for their own use.
So, Did we all just breathe a sigh of relief?! We don’t all have to march down to the real estate office tomorrow morning and put our homes on the market!
That’s good for me! We’re building a pergola at our place, and I want to try it out at least before I hand it over to Trinity!
But if you, like me, were a little anxious reading through that, wondering what this might mean for us, I don’t want us to necessarily get off the hook that easily. There’s a timely warning here about the power that our money and possessions can have over us.
A positive example
Luke records two examples, two specific instances of how people in the church wanted to express their unity and their concern for others in a practical sense, He gives us a positive example and a negative example.
The positive example is a man named Joseph, who the apostles nicknamed Barnabas, which as we’re told means Son of Encouragement, or just The Encourager. He, sold a field he owned and brought the money and put it at the apostles’ feet.
When I was involved in some youth ministry a few years ago, we got jackets made up, and all the leaders got a nickname printed on the back. We had quite some discussion about what nicknames people should get on their jackets, and fortunately, I was able to veto most of the suggestions for mine, but none of our nicknames were like this. Fancy being known to everyone as The Encourager!
Wouldn’t it be great to have that written on your back everywhere you went!
Barnabas is mentioned 34 times in the book of Acts, and just about every time we come across him, he’s doing something which encourages other Christians, so it’s no surprise really, that he’s the man who could be held up as the example of how this kind of generosity can work.
A negative example
The negative example though, is a lot less encouraging isn’t it!?
I won’t read the whole thin again, but it seems that Ananias and Sapphira want to be seen to be doing the same thing as Barnabas and the other Christians, Giving what God has provided to them, for the benefit of people who are in need.
But Ananias and Sapphira keep back part of the money from the sale, despite claiming to present the whole amount. The Greek word Luke uses to describe what they do is the word for “misappropriation”, They misappropriate part of the money by keeping it for themselves when they say they’ve handed it completely for the work that God is doing.
Yet despite their attempts to pass it off as the full amount, Peter knows it’s not.
He knows they’ve misappropriated some of the money, and in doing so lied, not just to the church, but to God. Whether he knows the truth because someone else found out about it, or from Ananias’ face, perhaps he was just a really bad liar, or maybe the Holy Spirit revealed it to Peter, we’re not told. It’s definitely true that in other parts of the Bible, God divinely intervenes and reveals people’s sin, so it’s quite possible that the Holy Spirit might have revealed this to Peter directly.
Barnabas’ gift, was motivated by the Spirit, motivated by his Christian care for those around him.
Ananias and Sapphira were motivated by pride, by apparently wanting to gain the same reputation as others, like Barnabas,
They wanted to be seen to be something that they weren’t,
They wanted to be seen to be doing the right thing, but still have the benefits they saw from not doing it.
And in it all, they didn’t trust God to provide for them practically,
They kept back some of the money for themselves, despite the fact that verse 34 tells us that because of the work of the Spirit of God in everyone’s lives, nobody was in need.
God is providing for his people through the generosity of his people, but Ananias and Sapphira don’t want to trust God to provide, they don’t trust that God will provide for them like he’s provided for everyone else in the church, so they keep some money for themselves,
So they can provide for themselves,
So they can meet their needs,
It’s been said that security is the ultimate idol, the thing most likely to divert our attention, our efforts and obedience away from God. Sounds about right for 21st Century life, doesn’t it? Except it was Martin Luther who said that, and he said it in the 16th Century.
Security is the ultimate idol. Ananias and Sapphira don’t trust God, but they cover their distrust with what looks like a generous act.
Another 16th Century Reformer John Calvin said “Satan entered this holy group under the guise of commendable behaviour. Satan attacks the church in this way when he cannot win by open warfare.”
The church was unified, of one heart and mind. Imagine the terror that must strike into the heart of Satan, and so to destroy this powerful community Satan enters in, under that which looks good and commendable, but is in fact sinful.
God is never pleased with giving,
God is never pleased with words,
God is never pleased with outward acts, if the giving, words and acts are only external, or if in fact they have some other goal, like public recognition, or status, or reputation.
Those things might look really good to the people around us, but on God’s measurement, they’re meaningless, in fact they’re worse than meaningless, they’re a deception. You have not lied to men, but to God, Peter says.
Sinful behaviour selfish behaviour, passed off as honourable, godly conduct is an insult to God.
That’s the sin of Ananias and Sapphira, not keeping some of the money, that’s not the issue, but the deception that cloaks selfish ambition and distrust of God, in the disguise of godly acts.
It’s sin that masquerades as holiness!
God judges sin
And, make no mistake, God judges sin, and God will most definitely judge sin among his people. Both Ananias and Sapphira die instantly when confronted with their sin, Judgment is swift.
When I read that, I want to know how., heart attack?, stroke? But that’s irrelevant isn’t it? It’s clear that their deaths are God’s judgment, again, not for retaining possession of their money, But because actions were a lie to God.
Their pretended concern was a lie to God. The unity they claimed to be expressing was a lie to God. If I asked you what’s the one take away message from this episode, I think we’d probably all agree, what stands out is God’s dramatic judgment of sin. It’s the standout feature of this episode.
If Acts was a TV show, this is what people would be talking about around the water cooler this week!
But is that as far as it goes for us?
Amazement? A little bit of shock?
Do we think that God would judge sin and hypocrisy in our own community and in our own lives?
The severity of God’s judgment in Acts should be a warning to us!
Sure, we’re unlikely to see people drop dead when the collection bag gets passed around a bit later on,
Has God suddenly changed that he no longer judges sin?
Has he had a change of heart such that lying and hypocrisy are no longer an insult to him?!
So let’s make sure we hear the warning of God’s judgment!
Are we tempted to try and deceive God?
Is there an area of your life where you’re being tempted to, try and, slip one past God.
Are there areas of life where we try to, deceive God? Maybe with money?, Like Ananias and Sapphira.
Right at the beginning of volume 1, Luke’s gospel, John the Baptist comes, preparing people for Jesus ministry, And he’s talking to the crowds of people who came to hear him about what it means to repent and believe in the salvation that God offers Christ, and some people in the crowd ask, what will living in this new community that is God’s kingdom look like for them,
And some tax collectors ask, what will it look like for them,
And some soldiers ask, what will it look like for them,
And every answer that John gives to prepare people for the Kingdom of God which Jesus is inaugurating, to equip them for the new community that Jesus is establishing, every answer that John gives, is about money and possessions
These things have always been a trap.
Not just the possession of them, but the love of them, the power they can exercise over us.
Maybe for some of us though, the problem lies with less tangible things, Do we pretend that we’re giving God our time, when we’re actually not? It’s easy to come along to church or turn up to Bible Study Group or wherever so we can be seen, so it looks like we’re doing the right thing, but actually our mind is somewhere else,
Mentally preparing a shopping list for lunch,
Planning the diary for the week,
Thinking about what’s on TV tonight
When I worked in Trinity’s university ministry, we were away on a camp one year, and one of the staff was telling a number of the young women that, if they were trying to work out what sort of guy they should marry, they should look at the guys who went to the camp prayer meetings at 7:30 each morning.
The next morning just about every guy on camp turned up to the prayer meeting! Were they honestly there because they wanted to pray with their fellow students? No! They wanted their fellow students to think that’s what they were there for, but they only got out of bed at 7:00 so they would look impressive to the women who were there.
Now, I wouldn’t have said to those young men, Satan has so filled your heart, like Peter says of Ananias, in fact I’d be tempted to tell them there’ll be more girls there the next day, just to get them to come back to the prayer meeting again!
But we can slide so easily into that trap don’t we?
Those uni students were trying to be something that they weren’t.
They wanted to be seen to be acting in a way, that didn’t actually reflect what was going on in their hearts.
And if you can pretend about being diligent in prayer, it’s only a short step to pretending about a whole bunch of other things, to the point where our faith is all about pretending and nothing at all to do with, being.
Doesn’t that just sound like such a tragedy! That our life before God could become all about pretending and nothing to do with being!
God will judge the sin of lying and hypocrisy in his church.
Sometimes we wish, at least for others, that it would be the sudden sort of judgment that we see here,
But just because we don’t see it instantaneously, doesn’t mean the judgment is not coming!
Hear the warning! The hypocrisy of putting up appearances is no trifling matter.
God is serious about the purity of the church.
This is a shocking event, God’s judgment is terrifying, Great fear seized the whole church, Luke tells us, and it’s shocking to us too, but you can be pretty sure there was a lot of soul searching going on in the early church in the following days, as people examined their own motives,
As they considered their own actions,
As they pondered the state of their hearts,
As they reflected on the transparency of their lives before God.
God uses his judgment to purify his church, and I’m sure even today, this episode gives us reason to pause, to consider our hearts, our minds, our motivations.
And on reflection there may be some area of our lives where we need to repent
Where the reality of God’s judgement against sin drives us to say “I have been living for appearances, or for personal gain, or for greed, but I’ve been covering it up by appearing like I’m living for God”
If we’re motivated by greed, we’re saying we don’t trust God to provide for us.
If we’re motivated by wanting to appear a certain way to others,
We’re saying we don’t trust God’s standard of measurement as much as the world’s standard of measurement,
If we’re living for personal gain we’re saying I don’t trust that God knows what’s best for me, and I’m going to make those decisions myself.
But boy, we can make that distrust look good, can’t we?
We can make it look like we’re doing the right thing?
What a terrible, terrible outcome, that sin should enter the unified fellowshipping community of God’s people in the disguise of honourable behaviour.
But it’s exactly what Satan has used, and will use, to disrupt the mission of the church. Buried in amongst all this sin and judgment, the apostles continued to testify to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus
A church that’s living this kind of unity, is a threat to Satan’s stronghold over people’s lives.
Those white painted stones in Malawi remain in the town square, to this day. They are among that nation’s most treasured monuments of the journey to independence.
Those simple white rocks speak of a unity, a care, and compassion that defied human logic and understanding. Nothing in common, yet one in heart and mind.
That’s the church that you and I are a part of,
That’s the church that Satan will try and destroy from the inside,
And that’s the church that God our Father will purify.
Thanks be to God.