The People who belong - Community - Acts 4:32 - 5:11

This is a sermon by Viv Whitton from the evening service on 19th July 2009.

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Her we are - 21st Century - We live in a peaceful, prosperous democracy.

Why on earth should I join the church?

Congregations generally are dwindling, services are often boring and irrelevant

            As the rhyme says:

                        Some go to church to see and be seen,

                        Some go there to say they have been,

                        Some go there to sleep and nod,

                        And a few go there to worship God

More seriously Church going people are increasingly being lampooned as intolerant hypocrites - why would anyone want to join them?

The answer is clearly seen in our passage.

We read in the first few chapters of Acts that from just a few disciples meeting in fear behind locked doors in Jerusalem after the crucifixion of Jesus Christ, numbers had quickly grown to several thousand who were boldly declaring their faith and meeting regularly in public, despite ongoing opposition from the Jewish establishment.

And people kept on joining - why??

We can identify three key reasons:

1. There was a great sense of community life, a real sense of belonging, of mutual worth and respect - these people were the scripture tells us (v32) 'of one heart and soul'. This is clearly demonstrated by their holding material possessions in common for the mutual good  - they didn't actually regard their possessions any more as 'mine'. Now most folk don't mind lending the occasional item to someone they know, but this was different, the attitude was that things belonged to everyone - and more important that status was not counted by what you owned. So just think how that might affect your attitude to car ownership or that other prized possession! Fine if you've got an old banger, but what about that first really new car?

These sort of values are very foreign to our materialistic individualistic society and yet paradoxically even though we have so much, many today find life empty and do underneath want to find a better sort of life -  so let's not underestimate the attraction of a caring community, a community where people are valued and wanted, whatever their background, and where the interests of others are the priority.

Jesus taught his disciples the principles of this sort of fellowship by personal example: remember in John 13 how He washed the disciples feet to show that they must serve each other, how He sent them out with very few possessions,  how He taught them to value children, outcasts, foreigners and (counter culturally) even women! He expected that His followers would then adopt those same values too. 

However this wasn't just a commune enjoying fellowship for fellowships sake - that can be found elsewhere in other common interest groups, there was much more to the early church than community per se.

2. They also had a great message which was preached with great power:

We read in v33 that the apostles teaching centred on their testimony to the truth of the resurrection, to their Lord not just crucified but risen from the dead. This is just as mind blowing today as it was then - after all dead people normally stay dead! - but the evidence clearly adds up that dead Jesus was actually alive - and remember that most of these apostles were in due course imprisoned and killed for sharing this message, and that they could have easily saved their own skins by telling a different story. People don't die for a principle they know is untrue - then or now.

We can also infer that their teaching and leadership was inspirational - the text says that they spoke with great power. This meant that the early church had a clear message which gave their followers hope for the future and a purpose to live for. Sadly today the wider church has got so hung up with a host of other issues that this core message has been diluted and obscured.

Again don't underestimate the influence of Godly leaders and a clear message presented well, underneath the veneer of activity folk today are still looking for direction, and for answers to life's big questions. Friends we have those answers! We mustn't keep them to ourselves.

3. Great Grace

Lives in this community were radically changed.  We read (v34) that there weren't any needy people amongst them because many of the better off members had sold property and given the proceeds to the Apostles for distribution  - Jesus himself taught how difficult it was for a rich man to become a disciple, yet here we have a grace in operation which changed society. The testimony of such changed lives is huge, when a self made man or woman in business or politics turns to Christ the ripples are immense - and very attractive to the outsider because it shows that the reality of conversion and affirms the church community.

The best example I can think of is Charles Colson, one of disgraced President Nixon's closest aides who orchestrated the Watergate hotel break in which became Nixon's downfall. Colson became a Christian in prison, had his character turned inside out - and has influenced many for Christ since.

b) Is this sort of church around today?

Was this sort of church life just for New Testament times then?

Emphatically no.

Do we then need to live together like in a monastery to experience it?

No, because the church community is built on relationship rather than location, it's our lifestyle and attitudes that may well need radical transformation.

When many of us became Christians we did find for the first time a community that accepted us as we were, we heard great truths which changed our world view, we followed inspiring leaders, and our lives were refined by the grace of God - there was very much the sense of 'God at work'. And it was good.

Of course as the years go by we have had to learn to trust God through the hard times of life too, and yes many of us have from time to time been let down by other Christians, nevertheless I for one can testify that the relationships and community of those early years are still precious.

I guess it's much the same here at St John's - I hear folk enthusing about the church family, the teaching and leadership. and there is certainly a buzz about the place which is attractive to outsiders - indeed I was talking to a mature student of philosophy the other week who basically was so impressed, indeed fascinated by the atmosphere and people here in contrast to the formality of other churches he had known.

 Of course we're not perfect - there are plenty of issues that need attention, the early church leaders too had lots of people problems to sort out, but like then let's be thankful for the taste of Glory we can and do experience in the now.

If your sense of that glory has faded can I urge you to work at it? Do share any issues, and bring it to the Lord - He hasn't changed and He doesn't want any of us to live in mediocrity. The way we are reflects on Him.

If on the other hand you have never really joined the community of Gods people but want to know more, then we'll be happy to talk things through with you - do have a word on the way out or over coffee afterwards.

c) The Great Commission  Matthew 28 19 - 20

So what went wrong with this exemplar of Christian fellowship, this church 'on a roll' where everything seemed to be going so well? Why did God allow this dreadful event recorded at the beginning of Acts chapter 5?

Let's take a step back and try and understand what were God's basic intentions for the church in the period before His return:

Firstly we need to remember whose church it is! Jesus said 'I will build my church and the gates of Hell will not prevail against it'. So it belongs to Jesus, it's His church not ours.

Secondly He made His priorities for His church abundantly clear just before He ascended to heaven in what is known as the 'Great Commission'. In Matthew 28 He commanded us to take the Gospel message to the ends of the earth, to make disciples, and to teach them to observe all the standards He had taught.

Basically that means He is concerned not just by what we do but also by what we are.

d) Great issues and Divine Intervention

 The early church was very familiar with these commands but still needed some encouragement to put them into action. In the midst of apparent success, maybe it was too inward looking, maybe too busy discipling all those new converts, maybe overwhelmed by the scale of social action necessary just to maintain the status quo, whatever the reason, God intervened - in fact He stepped in twice in dramatic and serious ways which revolutionised the church and changed the course of history:

We read in Acts 8:1 that after the stoning of Stephen He allowed a persecution to arise which dispersed the entire Jerusalem church across the then known world. The church family became refugees or asylum seekers, and as they settled in safer places and rebuilt their lives, new churches were founded - and the platform set for expansion of the church into the gentile population! And then followed mushroom growth - it was the most amazing missionary thrust ever.

But first God had to deal with the purity of the church. People were joining, really attracted not by the core message of the gospel, but by all the secondary blessings we have been talking about. In one sense it was the natural thing to do - the believers were an attractive group. But God makes it abundantly clear at the beginning of Acts 5 that holiness of character is of prime importance to Him.

e) Great generosity? 4:36 - 5:2

 Annanias & Saphira were desperate for acceptance by the church and they made the classic mistake of presuming that they could buy their way in using their own resources, so they copied Barnabas by making a substantial gift to church funds. Barnabas had sold a field and donated the proceeds, they assumed that a similar gesture would be equally well received, but I guess that Ananias was too well attached to a luxury lifestyle so they kept back part of the proceeds! Perhaps there was also a bit of jealousy too, for Barnabas was no doubt a popular guy. But whatever it was, the thing that mattered most to them was public recognition and of being well thought of.

Let's be clear (and Peter spells it out with devastating clarity) They did not have to give any money, they did not need to give all the money, they did not have to lie for each other, they made a clear premeditated choice to appear more self sacrificing than they actually were.

To paraphrase Peter  'how could you do such a stupid thing'  Their actions showed utter disregard for the character of God and His expectations of the church. There is something in our human nature that tempts us to push at boundaries to see how much we can get away with. How stupid to think that way, we can't get away with anything! - our God is omniscient - He sees everything.

So God made an example of them for the rest of time to show us and the church down the centuries just how serious He is about integrity, about honesty and our inner thoughts and motives.

f) Great fear 5:5,11,13

Now for us the issue may not be financial - there are many ways in which we can go along with the crowd for the wrong motive, many ways that we can give a false appearance of spirituality. With some it's using the right language or even using the right version of the Bible. Others go through the motions making liturgy or music their priority, or get so involved with the administration and organisation of God's work that they lose touch with the source.

Friends the only thing that really matters is pleasing Him. And the one thing that Annanias & Saphira teach us is that in everything we must maintain a healthy respect for God and His ways, a sense of respect and awe that sadly we see all too little of -  The passage tells us three times that great fear came upon the disciples, they were obviously shaken to the core by these events and it's hardly surprising - in many ways this was God's wake up call to the church about the nature of their relationship with Him. Yes He is our  loving caring heavenly Father but yes at the same time He is still Lord God Almighty and we, like them need to live in the light of that.

g) Would you join this church?  v13

The crunch question is 'would you join a church like this?'  We read in v13 and 14 that many believed, but following this incident folk became reluctant to make a public stand with them. Yes I have to say that even today there is a risk involved in moving from believing to joining the church as a disciple. But it is a risk more than well worth taking for what St Paul calls 'the surpassing worth of knowing Christ'

I for one want to be part of a living, active, God honouring church that is serious about the things that are important to Him. Serious about the great commission, which means in turn being serious about missionary activity and serious about holiness. I know many others here are too - let's make it our priority for St John's to become that sort of church.

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