“Mission Accountable” – a Sermon from Mike Walters
I once heard Stuart Briscoe say that this story by itself was enough to keep him from ever claiming to have a “New Testament” church! What pastor is prepared to answer the question, “How many people died during the offering Sunday?” Passing the offering plates and asking, “Where’s the rest?” That’s not exactly seeker sensitive.
Along with politics, music, and flavors of ice cream, “church” is one of those topics about which everyone has an opinion. Some have mostly contempt for the church. Their attitude mirrors that of the. British poet Robert Southey, who said, “I could believe in Christ if He did not insist on dragging behind Him His leprous bride.” Others, ironically some of whom are in the church, separate the church from Christ, seeing the church as a dispensable “add on” to the faith, an optional, even unnecessary aspect of the Christ event.
There was a troubling heresy in the early church known as docetism. It comes from a Greek word meaning to “seem.” What docetism argued was that anything material was evil, so that when Christ walked upon this earth, he only seemed to have a body. A sinless Jesus couldn’t have really been a human being. These days, when I hear people talking about the faith apart from the church, about Christ apart from His body, then I know that docetism is still among us.
The book of Acts aggressively challenges any thinking that would disembody Christ by separating Jesus and His church. No, they are inseparably and eternally linked. John Calvin rightly said, “If God is our father, then the church is our mother.” Contrary to what many people imagine, the primary concern of scripture is NOT the spiritual state of individuals, their holiness, or even their salvation. The focus is God’s people, His “ekklesia,” God’s new community. A community that is visible and tangible, which provides a new way of living and thinking for all those who enter into it. It is Christ’s body, and it is that community that serves as the critical link between Jesus and the mission He began in this world and which He asked us, His people, to continue.
Back in Acts 1, Jesus clearly commissions the church to be his evangelists, to bear witness to the truth of His resurrection and of His kingdom come among us. What we see in the book of Acts then, is not just a bunch of stories of heroic apostles facing all sorts of dangers only to be delivered at the last moment by some intervention of the Holy Spirit. What we see mostly is a community of believers faithfully living out the missional witness to which they have been called. Even in Paul’s journeys, the primary concern there is always with the establishment and nurturing of churches.
This opening snapshot of the church in 4:32-35, demonstrates that God intends for the mission to be performed and sustained by His people who gather together into the covenant community bearing His name. Will Willimon observed that when we read that the company of believers were “one in heart and mind” we’re not surprised.. We are used to hearing such pious, even unrealistic claims made about Christian congregations. Drive around and read church signs: “One big happy family.” No one is going to put on their church signs: “We fight like cats and dogs!” Does anyone take those signs seriously? But then he wondered what are we to do with, “no one claimed that any of their possessions was their own, but they shared everything they had.” You read that and you recognize that we’re not talking about church business as usual.
In Acts, Luke carefully shows us that the church’s witness in the world is twofold. Yes, it involves the external witness of the proclamation of the gospel, but it also involves the internal witness of the Christian community. Both of these are concrete expressions of God’s grace and both are critically important in minding the mission in the book of Acts. Obviously, the proclamation of the good news is strategically important in the church’s mission. And Luke chronicles the lengths to which God is prepared to go in the Book of Acts to protect the proclamation of the word. Apostles will be sprung from prison, there will be earthquakes and shipwrecks, and all sorts of interventions so that the word may be proclaimed. Just prior to this text, the apostles have been threatened and essentially told to “shut up” and knock off the preaching. But, God is granting the church courage and steadfastness in the proclamation of the good news. The authorities can’t shut them up. The external witness is vital.
But what I want us to see is that in the very same way, Acts also shows us how seriously God takes this business of the internal witness of the community. God wants His people to live in such a way that it attracts the attention of people outside the church. In Acts, salvation begins with a conversion experience, and it may even be accompanied with signs and wonders, but sustaining that conversion experience, enabling that conversion to become salt and light in the world requires the formation of a people. A people who are decidedly different from any other people in the culture. More than any other church activity in Acts, what marks that early church off from the rest of the culture is the way it cares for its poorest members. That practice bears an unmistakable witness to the claim that these are truly God’s people.. Luke says that Gods’ grace was powerfully at work in these people. The KJV says simply that “Great grace was upon them all.” The reality and power of God’s grace upon this church enables it to live out its public life in such a way that captures the attention of outsiders. This sharing of goods is not the result of any command, or obligation laid upon them. No, it is a response to the great grace that was upon them all. You know that in order for people to let go of anything, but especially money and possessions—-they must have taken hold of something else. That’s the case here. The sharing of goods occurs as an outgrowth of the “great grace upon them all” and the result is a brand new kind of community that gets the attention of the culture.
It’s the Spirit at work! In Acts 2, the Spirit enabled the same Peter who had denied knowing Jesus, to bear powerful witness to Jesus in front of the whole city of Jerusalem. In Acts 3 that same wonder working power of the Spirit makes a lame man walk. And now here, this gracious Spirit has inspired a man named Barnabas to sell his field and to give the proceeds to the Apostles. In the power of the Spirit, this church takes care of its own, and in so doing, it bears an unmistakable likeness to the Jesus they claim to represent.
I was interested to note that this text from Acts is the lectionary text for the Sunday after Easter. What has this to do with Easter? It’s all about money! Well, in Luke’s mind, everything in this text is connected to this church’s belief in the resurrection of the Lord Jesus. It is the resurrection that makes true generosity and counter-cultural living possible. Because Jesus is alive, everything is different, including our values and our attitudes about money. Karl Marx claimed that nearly every human attitude and action could be traced to economic sources. Luke isn’t a Marxist, but he is a realist. He knows that there’s a real good chance that where our possessions are, our hearts will be there also. In fact, a surprisingly large amount of Acts deals with economic issues within the Christian community.
I think Luke is on to something. Nowhere is the authenticity of the Christian community more evidenced than in how its members view possessions. Nowhere is the witness of the church more vulnerable than at the point of the church’s willingness to provide for its weakest members. It’s a powerful witness to the reality of the gospel. In Australia, where the church is not generally well thought of, one group there is nevertheless constantly affirmed by the unbelieving culture and that is the Salvation Army–the Salvos as they are called there. The internal witness of the church gets the world’s attention! Why do you think that the work of World Hope International has captured the imagination and affirmation of so many? Because it’s easy to see that there is an authenticity in the care of world’s little ones that cannot be assigned to anything other than the reality of the Kingdom of God. When I read of local churches caring for their people in tangible ways, then I know that Acts 1:8 is being incarnated among us. It’s more than proclamation, it’s also incarnation. It’s living out the kingdom of God in front of our neighbors. Bill Hybels is famous for saying, “Church is a beautiful thing when it works right.” It is, and, it is a powerful witness. “No needy persons among them.” What would that look like in your church? What kind of witness would that be?
And I’m not implying that this is simple to do. All of you already know that the church isn’t some idyllic gathering where everyone sits around sipping tea, eating finger sandwiches and talking about the latest trends on religious televison. No, the church is real, with real people. And that means that the church can be “messy.” It’s not perfect, but I’ll tell you what it is—it is God’s chosen instrument in the world to accomplish His purposes. And, first and foremost is God’s intention for the church to bear witness to the reality of a living Jesus, simply by living as Jesus lived. Treating others the way Jesus treated them. As they say, “it’s not rocket science.” That’s what this early church did. It wasn’t heroic, or spectacular, but it clearly lived in a way that showed that they were different. It’s the Spirit! We see the same power which raised Jesus on Easter, and which thrust multi-lingual apostles into the streets at Pentecost, and empowered one who was lame, now empower a community of believers to release the tight grip of their personal possessions.
But, not completely. Acts 5:1-11 is surely one of the most unsettling stories we have in scripture. It probably shouldn’t surprise us that the first crisis to hit the young Christian community involves money. If anyone thinks that the material question is a small issue, this incident proves otherwise. It is literally a matter of life and death. What’s this about? Ananias and Sapphira probably saw the selfless act of Barnabas, noted the admiration it evoked from the people, perhaps saw his standing the community begin to rise, and they thought, “we’d like that too.” So, they sell off a field and instead of giving all of the money from the proceeds to the apostles, they secretly agree to keep back part of the money for themselves. Nothing particularly wrong with that, except that Peter knows the truth. And he confronts Ananias about it. Peter’s rebuke of Ananias centers around, not that he kept back part of the money, but that he did so in such a way that the community was deceived, and even worse, that he attempted to deceive the Holy Spirit. And upon hearing the charge of lying to God, Ananias drops dead, as does Sapphira a few hours later when the same deceitful scenario unfolds. Listen carefully to what is being said here: in lying to the church, Ananias and Sapphira have lied to God. Let that sink in for a moment. This man and woman weren’t simply lying to the church, they were lying to God. You still think Church isn’t serious business? In Acts 9, on the road to Damascus, Saul of Tarsus and his murderous persecution of the church is stopped literally in his tracks by the words of Jesus saying, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” Apparently, God’s just a bit touchy about this business of His church. He takes it real personal.
Ananias and Sapphira were possessed by a ‘divided heart,’ their decision making process was caught between dual loyalties. James would say they were “doubleminded.” They wanted to be part of the community, but they also wanted the security of their own hands. They wanted to have their cake and eat it too. This is in stark contrast to the ways of the church who are described as being of one heart and one mind. What this story shows us is that there is an ongoing battle between Satan and the Holy Spirit for the heart of the community. We see Barnabas demonstrate the possession of the Spirit, while Ananias and Sapphira demonstrate a heart dominated by evil. Maybe more than all the other evangelists, Luke seems to be acutely aware of how money gets between people and God. Only Luke tells the story of the Rich Fool, the man who put all of his hope in his possessions. Luke is convinced that Jesus’ words about the inability to serve both God and money are true.
Let me “meddle” here a bit and suggest some ways in which we might apply this passage. First off, this text is hard on Americans. We have such a strong sense of individualism. That can be a strength in some cases, but it’s tough on community. The idea of putting the group, the community, ahead of the individual is hard on us. But without community, its just so easy to revert back to the pre-conversion attitudes and values. And it seems to me that the failure of authentic community is what accounts for so many American “Christians” living lives that do not bear witness to much of anything other than the fact that they claim to know that they are going to heaven when they die. Other than that, there is absolutely no difference between them and their unbelieving neighbors. It is within the parameters of the community of faith that we can be possessed by the Spirit of generosity allowing us to turn loose of those things which otherwise would bind and control us in ways that are counter to the Kingdom of our Lord Jesus Christ.
This is part and parcel part of the church’s commission to be witnesses for Jesus. Robert Wall said, “The most eloquent testimony to the reality of the resurrection is not an empty tomb or a well-orchestrated Easter pageant, 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 Jesus is alive!”
The question for today’s church is this: Why don’t we look more resurrected? Why don’t people look at us and our corporate lives and exclaim, “Wow, Jesus must really be alive?” Perhaps it’s because we have neglected this internal witness of the community. Maybe it’s because so many of us are trying to serve both God and money. The paradoxical insight of the gospel about money is that we will never have enough, no matter how much we have; the only way to have “enough” is to give it away. That’s what Barnabas discovered.
The death of Ananias and Sapphira may seem surreal to us, but in a true sense their death sentence was already contained in their own decision to cut themselves off from the community by means of greed and deception. The dropping dead part was simply making real and outwardly evident the cancerous spiritual condition of their hearts.
I suspect that some may be thinking: “I didn’t come to hear another sermon about money. Why can’t we talk about spiritual things? Things that are really important?” Luke would insist that we are. Luke would say that in getting to the matter of money, we are revealing our hearts, and we are determining, with some degree of certainty, how well the mission might progress. Some years ago now, I met the Romanian dissident Josef Tson. Josef was a Baptist pastor who had been arrested, imprisoned, even tortured by the Communists government of Romania until they finally exiled him from the country. He was a visionary Christian leader and upon the fall of the Communist government in 1990 immediately returned to Romania to continue his ministry. I met with him and a group of pastors one day in Rochester, NY and Josef was responding to questions by the different clergy who were present. One asked this: “If you wanted to start a vital spiritual renewal in America what would you preach?” We all anticipated his answer but were shocked when he said it. “I’d preaching tithing.” When asked why, Josef Tson said, “Because if you can’t get them to turn loose of 10% of their money, you’ll never get them to let go of the really important things.”
Beyond the way that money and possession tend to reveal the true intentions of our hearts, I’m also fascinated with Peter’s approach here as the spiritual leader of this community. I wonder how many churches would actually confront Ananias and Sapphira the way Peter did here? More likely, “Look, they are our biggest givers, go along!” But, Peter knows that there is no price tag that can be put upon the integrity and the witness of God’s people. Being the church isn’t easy. It’s serious business.
There’s one more thing about this text that sobers me, mostly because it reminds me of me. What Ananias and Sapphira were doing here was essentially “playing church.” They were making a good show of being devoted, of being supportive when, in fact, they were outwardly imitating Barnabas for all the wrong reasons. Ananias and Sapphira wanted people to THINK they were fully committed when they weren’t. How easily we do that! We talk the talk. We do all the right things, say all the right things, in such a way that anyone around us would say, “that Walters guy is all in, all his chips are in the center of the table.” But then, I know how often I have hedged my bet. This text says that those actions may fool the people around us, but they don’t fool God, and God takes that very seriously because He knows that our deception will invariably take a toll on the health and vitality of this community that He loves.. I never think about this without recalling M.Scott Peck. In his haunting book, People of the Lie, he wrote that the “est place to find really evil people is at church. It’s a good place to hide out.” Ananias and Sapphira were hiding out. Karl Barth observed that “church is where people go to make their last stand against God” And, Eugene Peterson reminds us that “religion is one of the best covers for sin of almost all kinds. Pride, anger, lust, and greed are vermin that flourish under the floorboards of religion. Those of us, who are identified with institutions or vocations in religion can’t be too vigilant. The devil does some of his best work behind stained glass.”
So, what we have here in this odd narrative is a cautionary tale. A reminder that church is exceedingly risky business. I think its significant that in the ending of this story, Luke uses the word “church” for the very first time. Here, in struggling with money, the community first experiences itself as a the disciplined community of truthfulness. I wonder if there could be a “Barnabas” here, someone with a huge future for God, but who might need to let go of something precious? I also wonder if there may be some who have been playing the game— who have outwardly done and said all the right things, but inwardly your still trying to control it all. Such an approach to Christian faith is walk on the edge of an abyss.
The ancient Didache, one of the earliest teaching texts of the church, begins with these words, “two ways there are, one of life and one of death, and there is a great difference between the two ways.’ Barnabas and Ananias and Sapphira personify this. One is totally committed to the church and goes on to be a powerful instrument of God. introduces the converted Saul to the church. salvages John Mark, who wrote the second gospel, and so on. Ananias and Sapphira are primal examples of church discipline and accountability, poignant testimonies as to the dangers of “playing church.” We are called to mission, and that mission is accountable.