Thanksgiving Sunday - To give or not to give? That is not the question - Acts 4:32 - 5:11
An audio recording of this sermon is available.
Let me tell you about the latest Bang and Olufsen TV. Here is how they are selling it! This is the line they use…
Watch TV for ages…. Then turn it on!
If you were going to argue for the need to have a TV you’d normally focus on what it does wouldn’t you… but when it is the look of the thing rather than the function of the thing that is it’s primary selling point … you just know that things have moved on well into the ‘luxury’ column. Ironically it’s probably far better for you than watching what’s on the TV any way… but that is a whole different issue.
There was a time when the concept of need started from food, water and shelter and progressed from there through other things that we need to exist as humans… but nowadays everything is shoved at us under the heading of ‘need’ – can you do without it? If you want a stress free life then you need this… and so we end up with so much stuff.
But it isn’t just how much stuff we have that is an issue… but how hard we hold onto it. It’s almost as if we have swallowed the sales pitch hook line and sinker… convinced as we only too readily are that these things we were told we need, we really do need!
The same applies to money and wealth today. If only I won the lottery… all my problems could be solved and I’d be happy… I’d never need for anything again. So when money and wealth come the received wisdom is to hold onto it… unless of course you can make it grow… which is all the better.
With that view of things… the whole concept of giving comes as a shock to the system. But that is what Christian’s are up against.
The scene is set then for some serious counter cultural behaviour… because it turns out that giving is the second most commonly urged way for Christian’s to promote the gospel of Jesus Christ in the New Testament after prayer.
And yet giving is an awkward subject for Christian’s. People get very defensive. It seems as though it is a minefield of guilt trips… but I want to refer you back to what we read earlier in Acts 4… and I want you to see if you can find any hint of guilt trips, manipulation, coercion or defensiveness.
On the contrary what we see is the opposite. These people were giving, they were living and they were growing, and it looked amazing… And who were they? They were a group of Christians just like us, meeting together to learn from the Bible just like us… they were the Church of Jesus Christ, just like us and they gave because they could. And that is the first thing to learn from their example…
Give because you can - 4v32-33
32 All the believers were one in heart and mind. No one claimed that any of his possessions was his own, but they shared everything they had. 33 With great power the apostles continued to testify to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and much grace was upon them all.
When I say they gave because they could I don’t primarily mean that they gave because they had lots of things to give… that may have been the case with some but not necessarily with others. Just as it may be the case with some of us but not so much with others. What we should be impressed and challenged by most is not so much the behaviour of giving, but the attitude and convictions that were driving it!
And to get to the heart of that attitude we need to be utterly convinced about the answer to this question: Who owns what?
I don’t know if you’ve ever come across the phrase ‘possession is nine tenths of the law’? It’s the sort of thing kid’s used to taunt each other with when one had snatched another’s new Christmas pressie! Meaning because I’ve got it… it is mine, when actually that couldn’t be further from the truth – you may have it, you may think its yours, you may desperately want it to be yours …but it isn’t.
Now, at the ‘possessing possessions’ level I reckon there’s plenty of that ‘white knuckled clinging on’ around today… but when you crank up the stakes to the spiritual level you have a working definition of sin… of what is offensive to God about people. Namely that people are convinced of this: ‘I’ve got my life in my hands – it’s mine! Decisions are made by me, for me.’
The antidote is found in the Bible - in fact these people we read about in Acts 4 show it… they were all one in heart and mind. And their actions display that they were utterly convinced along with Kind David a thousand years earlier who began a song that he wrote…
The earth is the LORD's, and everything in it, the world, and all who live in it;
And that there is the start point of becoming a Christian; Recognising the claims of the God who created everything on your life and mine. Admitting that I have lived as if I am mine alone when in actual fact I was made by God for God… coming to see that every single breath I take depends solely on His good pleasure.
And once we practically – not just intellectually – but practically get to grips with that concept… we’ll wait with bated breath for what God will ask of us through his word the Bible… and straightaway we know we have something to give… our selves – who we are and what we can do. That is the Christian life: Someone who will follow Jesus, obeying his command in denying themselves and giving themselves in happy obedience to God and to other people.
But if that is the right perspective to have on our own life and being, it also sets the tone for specific areas of our life. Here’s what one Christian discovered ‘Once you realize it really is God’s money, it’s much easier to put it to work in His kingdom than if you think you’re having to part with something you own.’ …and you could say the same for possessions, time, food or whatever else.
You see Christians don’t give because they have lots of things to give… They give because everything they have is only something they have received from God… even their own selves.
But what does that look like in practice? It’s v32. Here were people taking God’s word seriously, ‘They shared everything they had, and how could they hold onto things so loosely? They didn’t claim that their possessions were their own v32. …And to the eyes of 21st century, western, materialistic, middle-class-value-ridden society it looks absolutely ridiculous. I wonder what you think? I wonder if it looks ridiculous to you? Or perhaps a bit too hard? Too radical?
It always will if you look at the behaviour without the right attitude in place. So why don’t we resolve at the start of this year, on this Thanksgiving Sunday, to get really practical with Psalm 24v1
The earth is the LORD's, and everything in it, the world, and all who live in it;
And with that in mind let’s just consider a couple of things…
We’ve received lots of possessions
I will never forget seeing some friends of mine on video, in a school in rural Chad giving out 7p ‘Bic’ biro’s to the kids there… it made me want to cry – they could get so excited about a Bic biro… they had so little!
These people in Acts 4 had possessions… but I bet it was nothing to what we have today!
How long a document would it be if you were to write an inventory listing every single possession you had? Just think about it for a moment?
When people move house the most common comments you hear are things like ‘I just didn’t realise I had so much stuff’, ‘You should see how much we’ve had to get rid of!’ Its actually quite shocking isn’t it. We’ve got so much… and that is not including the wealth we may possess… But who owns it all? Are we going to allow ourselves to be reminded that God has given and we have received or are we going to follow the Alys and Rosie school of thought… they’re my 2 little girls and if Rosie takes something, whether its hers or not, from Alys or vice-versa… I’m pretty certain that the resulting trauma could be measured on the Richter scale… you certainly couldn’t call it sharing… but as responsible adults are we any different with the things we have? As Christian responsible adults we should be. We have after all received lots of possessions… But also…
We receive much grace
Grace – God’s love lavished on those who deserve nothing but his wrath – had already produced unity – these Christian’s were one in heart and mind – Grace was the common foundation of this church… that was the result of its central activity of the apostles testifying to the resurrection of Jesus v33 – He is the Lord over everything and everyone and as such he alone can save helpless sinners – but notice that grace was still being received – much grace was upon them all. Being received and given out again, not according to merit but in love. As Christian’s receiving God’s grace spiritually and materially, we are to be channels of that grace to others too… so can I give? Of course I can! Can you give? Of course you can! The possibility of giving is there because God has put it there in everything he has given to us.
So we really can talk about ‘the grace of giving’ can’t we? And if we start calling it the grind of giving… or the pain of giving …then a little alarm should sound, shouldn’t it, alerting us that we’ve probably lost sight of the right attitude. What we need to see is that we have received and continue to receive much grace.
Now, we could stop there but if we did the temptation might be for us to actually be giving prolifically, fully convinced that our stuff is God’s stuff, appearing to be Godly whilst all the time remaining focused on ourselves – selfish!
Giving for ourselves instead of giving for others… and that is why giving for these Christian’s was far more than a possibility wasn’t it? It was a necessity. Don’t just give because you can…
Give because you must - 4v34-37
34 There were no needy persons among them. For 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.
36 Joseph, a Levite from Cyprus, whom the apostles called Barnabas (which means Son of Encouragement), 37s old a field he owned and brought the money and put it at the apostles' feet.
Why? Why give because we must? Will we miss out on heaven if we don’t? If we do give are we OK? To speak in that way is to have fallen into a trap and to therefore miss the whole point of giving altogether… which is primarily nothing to do with ourselves, but everything to do with other people!
Isn’t it frightening how we can make even the privilege of giving into a self serving insurance policy for our own peace of life and mind. And a step or two further lurks that terrible enemy of good deeds – pride. Flattering the person who gives just because they are giving.
But that was less of a danger for these Christian’s here in Acts 4. The giving that characterised them was related to need. The reason they gave was because people had needs…Look:
V34 there were no needy persons among them, v35 it was distributed to anyone as he had need.
Why must we give? - Because of need. This church understood that people had needs but more than that, it knew that…
Needs need to be met
It has to be said that a great deal of the needs which we can confidently describe as needs today are eased by our extensive social welfare systems, which, although not perfect, will cover most cases. And we shouldn’t forget that these systems, as well as the charity movement and emergency relief agencies have their roots in Christian conscience.
I think it is fair to say that in the first century things were probably a lot different. There was no welfare state. There was no National Health Service and so on. But none of that means that the church community today need not actively alleviate need… it simply means that the way need is met today may well be through resources other than church resources. And in any case there are plenty of emergency measures, hospitality, sharing of skills and resources and more that could and should happen outside of this… testifying to our obedience to Jesus command to love one another, because by that all men will know that we are his disciples!
But there is another category of need that should be mentioned here… and that is spiritual need, whose antidote is gospel ministry.
And in societies where social welfare systems are advanced, resources including finance are more readily available for other uses. And probably more needed. Certainly in this country at this time there is considerable need for gospel workers and the resources to support them in gospel ministry… And finding such resources is very hard indeed.
We are currently looking at securing future funding for the Newland Avenue Church planting project. Considering what has happened over the 3 ½ years thus far the leadership team are treating it as a need that needs to be met… for the spiritual good of that area.
But let me briefly tell you about the ‘Faith Communities Capacity building Fund’, initiated by the Home Office which aims to allow such groups to develop their activities in the local community.
‘Although the fund is specifically for faith groups, this fund cannot be drawn upon to support, whether directly or indirectly activities such as services or events where the key purpose is to promote a religious doctrine; mission or proselytism; promotion of the beliefs of a particular faith (beyond basic religious or cultural awareness raising) and on it goes…
What a load of rubbish! You have to wonder what any faith group worthy of the name would have to do in compromising its beliefs and activities to benefit from such a fund at all…or what any activities might be that they could actually do! And that is where things are at. No one is going to fund gospel work today except gospel people - the onus for financially supporting gospel ministry like our parish here will be more and more from places like our parish right here. Needs need to be met.
Needs need to be known
How do our needs become known? Answer. When we share them, or when we know each other so well that it is obvious when things are very hard. Both of those answers are really tests of quality relationships of which it seems that there was no shortage of in Acts 4. And we shouldn’t miss the force of that - living as we do in a privatised culture where more and more people are more and more isolated.
In contrast, these people shared each others lives… and we can either dismiss their experience as unrealistic in our busy world today or we can resolve to work hard at our own busy lives in order to benefit from the sort of quality, mutually encouraging and caring relationships enjoyed by the early church.
So needs were known and needs were met… and that is how it should be… at all levels… that is why we had a presentation from Graham… so that we know as a body what is needed… and that is why we have home groups… so that we can nurture personal relationships not least where sharing of need happens…
Because when needs are known, needs can be met… and when that is happening… at the risk of sounding trite… everybody’s happy!
Interestingly there is this little cameo appearance about Barnabas who is on the record as making a very significant donation. So much for giving in secret and being rewarded by God…we might say – but the reason for the inclusion of this information by Luke seems to rest on what Barnabas name meant - ‘son of encouragement’ - linking the giving of the gift with the bonus effect of encouragement!
We don’t know how wealthy Barnabas was… but we can’t miss the big hint that his gift was a real encouragement to the church. And that is what happens… there’s a ripple effect.
I know of a wealthy church that is almost single handedly funding numerous church planting initiatives as part of a big vision to establish 100 such plants in their area. The minister of that church decided last year to build a house from scratch as he and his family had been renting for some years… he costed it up, bought all the materials and then got people from his congregation – of whom many were builders it has to be said – to build this house… and then they gave the money they saved on labour to fund church planting… the architect also donated his fee. It was a very hard graft. It wasn’t particularly enjoyable, for the minister and his wife anyway! It took up a mass of what otherwise would have been time off. But it was radical! And they raised tens of thousands of pounds. And when God’s people get radical about giving it isn’t a surprise to find them getting excited about radical gospel ministry. That is encouraging… and it is also contagious! So let me ask you tonight, in 2006 will you be a son or daughter of encouragement in this grace of giving?
Give because you can…
Give because you must…
Give because you really want to - 5v1-11
1Now a man named Ananias, together with his wife Sapphira, also sold a piece of property. 2With his wife's full knowledge he kept back part of the money for himself, but brought the rest and put it at the apostles' feet.
3Then Peter said, "Ananias, how is it that Satan has so filled your heart that you have lied to the Holy Spirit and have kept for yourself some of the money you received for the land? 4Didn't it belong to you before it was sold? And after it was sold, wasn't the money at your disposal? What made you think of doing such a thing? You have not lied to men but to God."
5When Ananias heard this, he fell down and died. And great fear seized all who heard what had happened. 6Then the young men came forward, wrapped up his body, and carried him out and buried him.
7About three hours later his wife came
in, not knowing what had happened. 8Peter asked her, "Tell me, is this the
price you and Ananias got for the land?"
"Yes," she said, "that is the price."
9Peter said to her, "How could you agree to test the Spirit of the Lord? Look! The feet of the men who buried your husband are at the door, and they will carry you out also."
10At that moment she fell down at his feet and died. Then the young men came in and, finding her dead, carried her out and buried her beside her husband. 11Great fear seized the whole church and all who heard about these events.
I wonder what you think is coming here? With this chilling episode.
We’ve just seen Barnabas. Here we have another man, selling another piece of property, and putting money also at the apostles feet. But this is no ‘son of encouragement’ - in fact the bonus effect of this episode was ‘great fear seizing the whole church and all who heard about these events’ v11. It couldn’t be more different. Ananias and Sapphira - And the problem? - Pride and reputation with more than a hint of greed. It wasn’t that he didn’t give all of the money to the apostles… Peter after all makes the point in v4 that the money was his to give. No. It was the lie of wanting to be seen to give everything, but privately holding some back. The trouble is that the real owner of the money cannot be deceived in that way… God cannot be lied to. Both Ananias and Sapphira end up having to part with far more than their money, letting go of everything. Dead. Shocking. Serious warning.
How sobering for the church… and how sobering for us to be confronted with such a sanction from God. And what are we to take from it? Simply this…Give because you really want to. Elsewhere we are told that ‘God loves a cheerful giver!’
At an ideal level, it shouldn’t even need to be said. There is nothing more natural than that those who have received so much from God will want to give for God, following and obeying Jesus, showing love and compassion to all people, and wanting the church to be built up – a la Barnabas!
But in the real life of this early church we don’t just have the encouragement of Barnabas do we… we also have the untimely deaths of Ananias and Sapphira… Why? To keep us focused. To keep us mindful of our motivation. To confront us with the questions we need to be confronted with - Are you giving for yourself? For your reputation? It’s so easy to fall into the snare of pride. Elsewhere Jesus says that such people receive their reward now… and forgo their reward in heaven. I guess none of us would like to be in the shoes of Ananias and Sapphira as they stood before God.
These were devastating events… but they are recorded for the good of the church… for our good.
So…To give or not to give? That is not the question. The question for us on this Thanksgiving Sunday 2006 is this: will you be sons and daughters of encouragement in the grace of giving? Because you can… because you must… and most importantly because you really want to.
And if you happen to have a very expensive TV that you just sit and watch, without turning it on… why not sell it, shove the money in a gift aid envelope and hand it to Graham Barnett!
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