The Book of Acts, written by Luke as a companion volume to his gospel, is the first book of the Bible I read back when I was a twenty-two year old new Christian.
I read Acts because I thought, “By reading about the experiences of the first Christians, maybe I can learn how to be a Christian today.”
Acts does help us with our lives as individual believers in Christ. But even more, it tells all of us who are part of Christ’s Church, how to be the Church, how to be Christ’s body and presence in the world today.
That will be our focus over the next seven weeks. From the life of the early Church, we can derive bedrock principles for Christian life and for the life of the only institution by which people can come to life and salvation through Jesus Christ.
The Church is also the world’s only eternal institution. It deserves to be taken seriously by all of us who are part of it.
How then, are you and I supposed to be the Church?
Our first lesson for today is Acts 4:32-35. But we’re going to also look at what comes next in Acts, through Acts 5:11.
These verses take place not only after Jesus’ resurrection from the dead, but also some time after Pentecost.
At one level, the topic of today’s lesson is money, a subject about which Jesus talked more than He did heaven and hell combined. And for good reason: If we repose our hope in money or in anything other than Jesus, we separate ourselves from the risen Jesus and from life with God. But these verses are about a lot more than money!
So, please go to Acts 4:32: “All the believers were one in heart and mind. No one claimed that any of their possessions was their own, but they shared everything they had.” Now, slip down to verses 34 and 35: “...there were no needy persons among them. For from time to time those who owned land or houses sold them, brought the money from the sales and put it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to anyone who had need.”
Nobody told the first Christians that they had to share so sacrificially with each other. But out of simple gratitude to Christ for dying and rising to give them new and everlasting life with God, many decided to pursue a radical course of mutual care.
Taking care of our fellow believers is an essential element of the Christian life and is part of what we call “reaching in” at Living Water. But the believers mentioned in these verses of Acts gave sacrificially to do that.
Now look at Acts 4:36-37, please: “Joseph, a Levite from Cyprus, whom the apostles called Barnabas (which means ‘son of encouragement’), sold a field he owned and brought the money and put it at the apostles’ feet.”
In those days, land equaled wealth, which equaled prosperity. Land meant financial security. Yet Barnabas sold off his financial security because he believed in Jesus more than he believed in financial security. He believed that eternal life outlasts money, and does so a lot more joyfully too. The story of Barnabas is a positive, expression of faith in Jesus to be emulated in our own ways by Christians of every generation.
Yet, even in a first century church in which there was so much faith and there were Barnbases, there was also unbelief.
That’s what we see in what Luke writes next. Look at Acts 5:1-2, please: “Now a man named Ananias, together with his wife Sapphira, also sold a piece of property. With 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.”
People like Barnabas gave voluntarily. They did so to honor God, no other motive.
Ananias and Sapphira didn’t care about honoring God. They wanted to be complimented and revered like Barnabas. But they wanted to do it on the cheap. They wanted to be called sacrificial, giving Christians without making sacrifices or truly trusting that Jesus would take care of them.
They were like people who want Easter without Good Friday, forgiveness without repentance, the Lord’s Prayer without “Thy will be done,” the power of Jesus at work in their lives without surrendering to Jesus, Christianity without the things in God’s Word, the Bible, they don’t like.
Read what happened next, though. “‘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? Didn’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 just to human beings but to God.’” "You didn't have to give sacrificially, Ananias," Peter was saying, "But you claimed that you had, lying to God and to the Church."
In 1 Peter 5:8, the apostle writes: “Be alert and of sober mind. Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour.” Satan had devoured Ananias.
In verse 5, we’re told that Ananias heard Peter’s words and fell down dead. Then it says, “And great fear seized all who heard what had happened.” You think?
Hebrews 10:31 says: “It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.” The first Christians saw just how fearful when Ananias fell dead.
Through the years, some members of the churches I’ve served as pastor have used this passage as a reason for not estimating their giving for the coming year. “I don’t want to lie to God if my financial situation changes,” they tell me. What I've tried to tell them is this: God will never hold us accountable for promises we can’t keep, only those we refuse to keep.
Ananias made a promise not commanded of him by God or the Church. But having made that promise, he deliberately broke it.
Could he have been forgiven? Of course he could have been, had he been repentant. But there’s no evidence of that.
Nor was his wife Sapphira repentant. When confronted by Peter, she stuck with the same lie and met the same fate.
What are we to make of these events? Look at Acts 5:11, please. We’re told that following the deaths of Ananias and Sapphira: “Great fear seized the whole church and all who heard about these events.”
This is the first time in the book of Acts that Luke refers to the first Christians as “the church.”
The word translated as church from the Greek language in which the New Testament was written is ekklesia, which literally means “called out ones.”
The church is the fellowship of believers in Jesus who have been called out of the world to stand under Jesus’ lordship, who claim Jesus as the center and the only hope of their lives.
When we submit to Jesus’ lordship, we also become part of a fellowship in which we are accountable to our fellow Christians.
And the Church is also that group of people who, in response to Christ’s promise of forgiveness and new life for all who repent and believe in Him, make promises of our own. When we Christians are confirmed, affirming our Baptism...when we recite the Apostles’ Creed or say the Lord’s Prayer, we are making promises.
We promise that in response to what God has done for us in Jesus, we will reach up to God in worship and praise and surrender and prayer and attentiveness to His Word; we will reach in to grow in our faith and to support, encourage, help, and pray for our fellow believers here and around the world; we will reach out to share Christ, make disciples, serve in Christ’s name, and fight for justice for the world’s despised and marginalized.
When we make promises to God, the Church is there...
- to remind us of those promises,
- to help us to keep them,
- to show us when we have failed to keep them,
- to proclaim God’s forgiveness when we repent for failing to keep them, and
- to encourage and cheer us when we have kept them or when we resolve, by the Holy Spirit's power, to keep them.
All of these elements of the Church's life are encompassed in what Jesus calls, “the keys of the kingdom,” the power and responsibility to declare forgiveness to the repentant and condemnation to the unrepentant, as well as reminding Christians of the option to repent in order to come back to life with Christ and with His Church.
Peter confronted Ananias and Sapphira not because he was self-righteous, but because he knew Satan was at work in their lives and wanted to give them a chance to repent and get back on track with God.
Peter confronted also because he knew that when we Christians fail to challenge Satan’s attacks on our sisters and brothers in Christ, the witness of the Church for Christ is compromised.
Here, I think, we come to the deepest point of what Luke wants to show us in this part of Acts. It’s very easy to look like a Christian. And, unlike Ananias and Sapphira, we may get away with it until we die less dramatic deaths than they died.
But why settle for looking like Christians when we can actually be Christians?
Why be Ananias and Sapphira when we can be Barnabas?
Authentic belief in Jesus entails greater sacrifice and greater truthfulness before God than does the fake Christianity it’s so easy to adopt.
But fake Christian faith always ends in death. True faith always ends in resurrected life with Jesus Christ!
Which do we prefer? That’s a question we need to answer with our lives every day.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a Lutheran pastor in Germany who opposed Hitler and his Nazi regime, not because he thought the Church or pastors should be involved in politics, but because the Nazis demanded that Hitler be worshiped alongside or even above God. A film about him, Bonhoeffer: Agent of Grace, was released a decade-and-a-half ago. In the movie’s closing scene, Bonhoeffer is about to be executed and someone says to him, “So now it ends?” Bonhoeffer replies quietly, “No.” Then, he stepped onto the scaffold to his death.
When you belong to the crucified and risen Jesus, when you’re repentant for your sins and believe that Jesus is your only hope, you know that the end of this life is not the end of your life.
Following Jesus frees us to make and keep outrageous promises, to hold Him first, last, and foremost in our lives even when Satan and things like materialism or the praise of others falsely gained, try to lure us away from Christ.
Jesus frees us to be outrageously giving, believing, encouraging believers like Barnabas--to be part of Christ’s true and eternal church.
Being the Church begins then with just this: Letting Christ be Lord and King of our lives and of the life of our church, being utterly outrageous believers in Christ every moment we draw breath on this earth.
Are you in? Amen