Sunday, September 30, 2018

Giving, Lying, and Dying

I’ve been in church all my life. Literally. I’ve heard many sermons on giving. Too many! I remember when my best friend’s family stopped going to church when I was in middle school. When I asked him why, he said “The last Sunday we went, my dad said, ‘If that pastor talks about giving again, it’ll be the last time we go.’ He did.” 

You may have grown up in a church that pressured or guilted people to give. Or perhaps one that equated giving with being spiritual or promised blessings in return from God. Maybe they passed the plate or had everyone come forward to give publicly. I know some of you who have seen pastors give special preference or access to people because they had money. That's sad. I wonder what they do with James 2?! 

Money has become a big deal in American churches because money is the American Idol. It seems that we’re more about money than the Holy Spirit...or disciple-making...or helping others. In the 1200s, Thomas Aquinas and Pope Innocent II, walked through the beautiful streets of the Vatican to the opulent study of the Pope where a large sum of money was spread out. The Pope boasted, “You see, the Church no longer has to say, as Peter did, ‘Silver and gold have I none.’” Aquinas replied, “True, but neither can she say to the lame, ‘Rise up and walk.’” Certainly that would apply to the church in America. We are the wealthiest nation in the world and big, beautiful churches are on every other corner it seems. With all the focus on wealth, giving, buildings, conferences, and highly paid pastors (some with multiple homes and private jets), it also seems the American church is powerless. Our priorities seem wrong. And the focus on money just feels icky to me. Idolatrous, even.

There was a time in church history when money was something to be shared freely with those who had needs. It was at the very beginning. But it didn’t take long for that to be corrupted. Of course the Bible says “Money is the root of all of evil.” Right? Actually it doesn't. Because money in and of itself is not evil. Actually here’s what it says: “For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evils. It is through this craving that some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pangs” (1Tim. 6:10). Unfortunately, I have witnessed this! It’s a very real danger, and this “love” can affect both rich and poor. What’s amazing, however, is when love of God and others eclipses our natural tendency to love money. It’s miraculous, really, especially here in the US! And it’s a freedom! Money CAN be a tool. A tool for loving God and others. A means to a much better end. See, it takes money to do ministry and missions. It always has—and it did in Acts.

We’ve been reading about the amazing first days and weeks of the church. After Jesus went up into heaven, the Holy Spirit came down to live in Jesus’ followers, giving them power (we who have received Christ have the Holy Spirit who lives in us, too!). We’ve seen the amazing life and growth of Christ’s church—which is simply the “called out” community forgiven sinners who have been made righteous through belief in Christ. Something happens when you are saved. God is your Father. That means other saved people are now your brothers and sisters, and you share a love that transcends all other human designations. That sense of family results in giving!  Look at Acts 4: 

32Now the full number of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one said that any of the things that belonged to him was his own, but they had everything in common.  

As we’ve seen before, this isn’t communism or socialism—there’s no gov’t forcing people to give up their money—no mandated redistribution. No, you see, something happens when we surrender to God: we recognize that he owns everything. We find our greatest joy in bringing him glory. We want to be used by him. It’s not my stuff anymore, it’s his. So when I see a need and the Holy Spirit urges me to give toward that need, it’s my joy to do so. Extrapolate that to a whole community of surrendered, transformed people, and it’s remarkable what happens!

33And with great power the apostles were giving their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all. 34There was not a needy person among them, for as many as were owners of lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold 35and laid it at the apostles' feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need. 

This is what happens when a large group of people are regenerated. Notice several things: 1.) Poverty is eradicated. Why? Because Holy Spirit-filled people offer loving hands up to those who are down and offer instruction in wisdom and accountability.  2.) Those who have been blessed with extra give with joy. They realize they can’t take it with them, and others’ good becomes more important than selfish gain. 3.) There was trust in the leadership. The phrase, “laid it at the apostles’ feet,” is an idiom that simply means they humbly gave up control to the leaders whom they trusted would be good stewards. Notice the leaders were a plurality. Notice the leaders distributed it according to need. These are all good things. 

Next, Luke shows us two examples of people who gave. The first is a good example. The second...not so good. I think this is going to really help us (21st century Americans) as we grow in this whole understanding of spiritual growth and generosity.  

36Thus Joseph, who was also called by the apostles Barnabas (which means son of encouragement), a Levite, a native of Cyprus, 37sold a field that belonged to him and brought the money and laid it at the apostles' feet. 

Several observations here: Luke wants us to see some things about Joseph. He has a nickname: Barnabas. He was one of those guys who was always positive and encouraging. Have you ever known anyone like that? I have. Barnabas was a Levite. That’s the priestly tribe, which means he was born to be a priest. It doesn’t take much imagination to compare him to a preacher’s kid today. An interesting thing about Levites, according to the Old Testament they weren’t supposed to own property! But Barnabas apparently did. Hmm. Could it be that he was the rebellious priest’s kid who lived in Cyprus, an island in the Mediterranean, who had perhaps fled his duty in order to seek wealth? And is it possible that meeting Jesus was the turning point—when he saw the vanity of pursuing worldly gain and the glory of being on mission with Jesus? I think it’s plausible! 

That’s the good example. 

But the LOVE of money is A root of all KINDS of evil, isn’t it? And we’re going to see that in the next example. And with it we will witness the death of feel-good Christianity, and the end of innocence in this Jesus-movement we call the church.

Acts 5: 1But a man named Ananias, with his wife Sapphira, sold a piece of property, 2and with his wife's knowledge he kept back for himself some of the proceeds and brought only a part of it and laid it at the apostles' feet [as if he was bringing the whole amount—as we will see]. 3But Peter said, “Ananias, why has Satan filled your heart to lie to the Holy Spirit and to keep back for yourself part of the proceeds of the land? 4While it remained unsold, did it not remain your own? And after it was sold, was it not at your disposal? Why is it that you have contrived this deed in your heart? You have not lied to man but to God.” 

It’s obvious here that Ananias was dishonest about his gift. He had heard about guys like Barnabas and wanted to be seen as spiritual (and wealthy)! He went to some lengths to raise his reputation in this popular new movement. For the sake of illustration, let's say he sold the property for $50k and pretended to only have sold it for $20k, keeping $30k for himself! Peter said he didn’t have to sell it in the first place, and when he did he could have kept the money! See, it was the hypocrisy that angered God, just as it greatly angered Jesus (see Luke 11:37–54, 20:45-47, Matthew 23:1–39, and Mark 12:35–40). And God made an example of him.

5When Ananias heard these words, he fell down and breathed his last. [Whoa!] And great fear came upon all who heard of it. [I bet!] 6The young men rose and wrapped him up and carried him out and buried him. 

What if that happened today?! What if every time a church-goer pretended to be spiritual they fell down dead? It might wipe some churches out! Meanwhile, Sapphira, has been at the mall spending some of that $30k.

7After an interval of about three hours his wife came in, not knowing what had happened. 8And Peter said to her, “Tell me whether you sold the land for so much.” And she said, “Yes, for so much.” 9But Peter said to her, “How is it that you have agreed together to test the Spirit of the Lord? Behold, the feet of those who have buried your husband are at the door, and they will carry you out.” 10Immediately she fell down at his feet and breathed her last. When the young men came in they found her dead, and they carried her out and buried her beside her husband. 

What we have here is the first-ever scandal in the church! It’s really disappointing isn’t it? Scandal always is. I’ve been watching the Brett Kavanaugh hearings. It is such a disappointment to see the politicization and corruption of the senate judiciary committee and the media covering it. The whole thing has been a travesty. It makes me lose faith in our government. The effect is the same when scandal and corruption happen in the church. That's why God makes an example of these dishonest actors and first hypocrites in the church.  

11And great fear came upon the whole church and upon all who heard of these things. I bet! 
What’s the big take away? 

If you don’t sell your property and give it ALL to the church, you’ll die. 


Let me put it more accurately like this: 

If you love your image or your money more than God 
you will spend eternity in hell.  

It’s true. Jesus taught this. A lot. Like in Mark 8:36 when he said, "For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world and forfeit his soul?"

So what?

1. Respond well to scandal

People are thrown by scandal, and that’s exactly why Satan loves it so much. Don’t let scandal cause you to lose faith in the church. There are churches in town that have been rocked by scandal, and I pray that God will preserve us from it. 
But I’m not na├»ve. We, too, are susceptible. Because we human beings are sinful. Sometimes God allows scandal to purify his church. I pray that’s what’s happening in the Catholic church, and that God will reform the culture of abuse—perhaps even show them the root problem: adding to the Bible things like requiring priests to be celibate and elevating clergy authority. Prov. 30:6 “Do not add to his words, lest he rebuke you and you be found a liar.” But we protestants can’t cast stones. We have our share of scandals. Acts is proof that scandal will come—the big question is how we handle it? How about we do it like Peter: with truth and humility. He simply and publicly told the truth. There was no cover-up. Then humility gripped everyone as “great fear came upon the whole church.” Fear can be good! God sometimes makes examples of people and I don’t want to be one. I want to be wise and learn from the lessons of others with fear in my heart!

2. See money as a tool with which to worship and serve God.

Money is to be a means to and end, not an end in itself. Some people think God is a means to money. No. That just indicates that money is your God! But God sees money as a means —a tool to worship and serve God. You know what’s crazy? That’s actually how you can find real blessing! I’m not talking about more money (although that happens too, sometimes). I’m talking about satisfaction money can’t buy. I’m talking about real joy! But when you worship money and possessions, you find emptiness. Money is a terrible god. It will destroy your family, your friendships, and your heart...before sending you to hell. I’ve seen it! Some of you have some money. Do you think God gave it to you for you to enrich yourself? Or so that you can be a part of his mission? You will find joy when you see (and experience) the latter! Specifically? Once you find a church led by a plurality of honest and godly leaders, release control of that money to be used for ministry and missions. “But," you might be thinking, "I won’t get credit for helping people myself, through my own goodness.” Yep. And that gives God credit. And that's the point. 

And by the way, God doesn’t want your money. He wants what it represents. He wants you. 

3. Have a sincere, unpretentious, honest faith

I regret that I have to say this, but that doesn’t excuse unchristlike behavior. I’ve heard people say, “I’m just going to be real” and then take license to cuss, or to be crude, or justify gossip, or a certain view on sex. Not cool. It's not what Christ wants. Absolutely not. What this does mean is being transparent. When you mess up, own it. When a blind spot is revealed to you, ask the Holy Spirit to fill you and help you overcome. When you commit sin, repent. When you struggle with discouragement, tell someone. More importantly, tell God. In the south we fear sincerity because we don’t really want to change what’s wrong about our lives. We want to pretend it doesn’t exist. In our social media culture we present this image of perfection because we worship ourselves, not God, who alone is perfect. Aren’t you tired of playing games? I’ve got news…you can’t play games with God. So why try? Don’t you appreciate it when someone confesses sin and shows honesty about their mistakes? Why don’t you do this—whether others appreciate it or not. 
Know that God does. And he’s the one who really matters.

Sunday, September 23, 2018

Persecution is Confirmation

I remember the first time I experienced persecution. It was nothing like what people in other parts of the world face. It was really nothing much at all. I was 17. I didn’t do anything like take a stand for Jesus publicly (that happened later). I just stopped doing the things my friends were doing. God had convicted me of sin and I was tired of compromise. You know, going to the parties, using the language, making fun of others, laughing at the jokes, and basically going along with all the things I knew weren’t right. It didn’t take long for my "friends" to notice. I remember a girl telling me I wasn’t fun any more. I realized I was no longer in on the jokes, I was the brunt of them. One morning I opened my locker to get my books when I noticed everyone laughing. Then I saw that someone had taped a porn magazine centerfold inside my locker door. Yeah, that hurt. It got worse. My “friends” would sometimes dedicate songs on WOKI (Knoxville's popular top-40 radio station back then) to me like, “Goody two-shoes” and “Only the good die young.” I was hurt and mad. I remember telling my father about it wanting him to share my anger. He smiled and congratulated me! "I'm so proud of you, son! Persecution is Confirmation!" he said.

When was the first time you experienced persecution? What was it like? Let's remember what persecution is. Persecution is not just anything negative that happens to you. It's not (on the other extreme) only getting your head cut off by Isis, either. Persecution is taking a personal hit because of Jesus. And that's normative for the Christian experience. Paul wrote (2 Tim. 3:12), “Indeed, all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted.” Jesus said (John 15:20), “If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you.”

Acts 4 begins with the pandemonium that ensued after Peter and John healed a man that everyone knew had been born with a severe disability. This miracle resulted in 5000 men believing and confessing Christ. As you might imagine, this got the attention of the elite Jewish establishment.
“The priests and the captain of the temple and the Sadducees came upon them, greatly annoyed because they were teaching the people and proclaiming in Jesus the resurrection from the dead” (Acts 4:1-2). John and Peter were arrested and spent the night in jail. It was the first example of persecution in the church era. And it wasn't over. The next day the Sanhedrin—the same establishment power players that schemed to put Jesus to death a little over a month earlier—came together in court to determine what to do with these upstart interlopers. Think of how intimidating this must have been! “And when they had set them in the midst, they inquired, 'By what power or by what name did you do this?'” (Acts 4:7) They're wanting to know who gave them the right to do what they were doing. This was a bit of a trick question, because the only ones (they thought) who could give them the right were in that room! These guys were the establishment! Generations had worked to secure their power! Listen to the answer in Acts 4:8-11: "Then Peter, filled with the Holy Spirit, said to them, “Rulers of the people and elders, if we are being examined today concerning a good deed done to a crippled man, by what means this man has been healed, let it be known to all of you and to all the people of Israel that by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified, whom God raised from the dead—by him this man is standing before you well. This Jesus is the stone that was rejected by you, the builders, which has become the cornerstone" (quoting Psalm 118:2). Now listen to his big ending in verse 12: “And there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved.” Did you read what he said? There is no other name. No other way. He got what Jesus had taught. Like in John 14:6 "Jesus said, I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me." There is no other way to get to God than through Jesus.

Well, the elitists were impressed (at least with their courage):

"Now when they saw the boldness of Peter and John, and perceived that they were uneducated, common men, they were astonished. And they recognized that they had been with Jesus" (Acts 4:13). Wow. I want that to be said of me. Having been with Jesus overcomes any lack of intelligence, eloquence, or education. That's pretty great.

The Jewish leaders were stuck. They couldn't deny the great miracle that had taken place, but they had to somehow stem the growth of this movement. After deliberating, Acts 4:18-21 says they “charged them not to speak or teach at all in the name of Jesus. But Peter and John answered them,

“Whether it is right in the sight of God to listen to you rather than to God, you must judge, for we cannot but speak of what we have seen and heard.' And when they had further threatened them, they let them go, finding no way to punish them, because of the people, for all were praising God for what had happened.”

So, after a night in jail, a chance to proclaim Jesus to the most powerful Jews in the world, and having been threatened to stop talking about Jesus. How do you think they responded? How would you have responded?

Well, they went back to their friends—the other believers—the church, and told them what had happened. Then they all prayed together. They realized that this persecution is exactly what the Bible predicted would happen to the Messiah...and thus, to his followers. But they professed their trust in God who is in control of all things, and they asked God to "grant to your servants to continue to speak your word with all boldness" (Acts 4:29). What a prayer! There was no hint of growing faint. No possibility of retreat. “And when they had prayed, the place in which they were gathered together was shaken, and they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and continued to speak the word of God with boldness” (4:30). Wow!

So what?
• Show you’ve been with Jesus. By your boldness & courage, or because of your faith that all will turn out ok. Or perhaps because of your integrity when everyone else is doing what’s wrong...or your uncommon love for people who are hard to like, or your kindness, or peace, or other fruits of the Spirit. Maybe you show Jesus in the way you work & give your all with honesty & excellence. Can people tell you’ve been with Jesus? They can if you’re filled with the Spirit. Ask him to fill you each day! Of course it helps if you actually spend time with him.

• Rejoice when you are persecuted! Jesus said (Mt.5:10-12) “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you.” Rejoice with others. Persecution is confirmation...confirmation you really are a follower of Jesus.

• Pray for those who persecute you. They’re not rejecting you, they’re rejecting the Cornerstone. Less than two months earlier Jesus quoted the following to the same leaders who persecuted Peter and John: (Matthew 21:44) “The one who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces; and when it falls on anyone, it will crush him.” There are consequences to rejecting Jesus. So pray for them!

• Be bold. Don't be a jerk or offensive. Don’t bait people. Those are different—and sinful. In 1 Peter 3:15, the same Peter wrote, "Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness & respect."  God will give you opportunities. Be prepared. He'll give you the words to say, and the courage to say it.