United (Acts 4:32-35)

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Can you imagine being part of a community of faith like the one described in Acts 4:32-35?

Here we have a picture of a group of people living in the reality of Jesus’ victory over death. They had been following Jesus and witnessed his resurrection They were so convinced of God’s goodness and life-giving love in Jesus by the power of the Holy Spirit that they were totally focused on the needs of the people around them. They were willing to do whatever it took to take care of others, even if it meant that they sold their homes or property to do it. All of this resulted from the unity the believers had in heart and mind. Their faith in the resurrection of Jesus brought their community together to the point where they were able to prioritise the needs of others because they trusted that God would provide for their own needs.

We can be so amazed at the disciples’ willingness to sell their homes and property that we miss the reason why they were willing and able to be so generous. What is crucial to this story is that they were united in heart and mind. During the years I spent growing up in the church as well as my years of ministry as a pastor, I have seen too many communities of faith divided over a range of issues. Particular aspects of the congregational activity were important to some and not to others. Some had very strong opinions about what the congregation was doing or how it should have been done. The result was divisions in the church as factions developed and relationships broke down.

I’m not saying this to be critical of the church. Instead, I believe we need to be honest about the realities in our churches before God if things are going to get better. When we compare the dis-unity and fractures that exist in our church with this community of believers in Acts 4:32ff, it is easy to see that we are not what we could be. As a result, just as the community in Acts was able to testify powerfully to the resurrection of Jesus and ‘God’s grace was … powerfully at work in them all’ through their unity, so our witness to Jesus’ resurrection and the flow of God’s grace is often impeded by our arguing, infighting and disputes.

Acts 4:32-35 gives us a glimpse of God’s vision for his church. Instead of adopting a consumer, individualistic attitude to the faith where our prime concern is what’s good for me, the vision that God gives us in this text is a community of people who are so convinced of the reality of Jesus’ resurrection that they are all willing to do whatever is necessary to look after each other, no matter what the cost to themselves.

This is what Paul describes in Philippians 2:2-5 when he writes:

… make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and of one mind. Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.
In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus… (NIV)

Paul was imploring the Christians in Philippi to be ‘like-minded’ with each other and with Jesus, just as the believers were in Acts 4:32-35. As members of the body of Christ, he wants them to give a faithful witness to the love of Jesus by ‘not looking to (their) own interests but each of (them) to the interests of the others.’ This is what was happening in Acts 4. This is the vision God has for our communities of faith. We give the most powerful witness to the resurrection of Jesus when we are able to put aside our own priorities, preferences or agendas, and come together as one by the power of the Holy Spirit to provide for the needs of others.

This is what faith is about: trusting in the giving nature of God so that we become giving communities. Faith in God is about trusting that our heavenly Father loved us enough to give us his one and only Son, that Jesus loved us enough to give his life for us on the cross, and that the Holy Spirit loves us enough to breathe the life of the risen Christ into us so we share in his life now and forever. Through this faith, we share in the nature of God so we become giving people. Faith in the giving nature of God will always shape us to become giving people, both as individuals and as a congregation, just like it did in Acts 4:32-35.

As I prepared this message for our congregation on Sunday, I kept asking myself, do we believe this is possible? It’s easy to read this story from Acts 4 and think it’s wonderful that they were so united in heart and mind that they were able to provide for the needs people had in their community, but is this just a nice story from a time long-gone? Or do we believe that the Spirit of the risen Christ can bring us together in heart and mind, to give us the heart and mind of Jesus, so we can live in unity with each other and live for the needs of those around us?

I’d like to believe it is. I’d like to believe that Jesus, who has overcome sin, death and the power of the devil, can also overcome our selfishness, our pettiness and our disunity to bring us together as one. Every person in a congregation or faith community has needs of one kind or another. The way God wants to provide for those needs is through the living, breathing body of the risen Christ – through you and me and the grace he gives us. The needs may be different from the needs in Acts 4, but the needs people in our communities have are still real. The way God wants to meet those needs is through us, people who believe in the resurrection of Jesus.

In Growing Young, one of the essential strategies for a congregation to be effective in its ministry with young people is fuelling a warm community. When I listen to this story about the early church being one in heart and mind and their willingness to share whatever they had with each other, I can see a community of believers that is warm with the love and grace of Jesus. Sure, they ran into problems, as the story of Ananias and Sapphira explains (Acts 5:1-11), but there was still unity among them which lead to God’s grace being powerfully at work among them.

How would you like to be part of a community like this? Do you believe that such a community is possible here and now? If the Spirit of the living God can raise Jesus to life, then I believe that he can also unite the hearts and minds of followers of Jesus in his grace and love. Like Jesus said, for people this might be impossible, but with God all things are possible (Matthew 19:26).

Which leaves me with one final question: what are we willing to give for this kind of community to exist in our communities of faith?

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An Out-Going Church (Acts 1:1-11)

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We all know what happens when you throw a stone into a body of water like a pond, lake or dam. When the stone enters the water (or when the water embraces the stone, depending on how Zen you want to be) it causes ripples to go out, starting from the point where the stone went into the water, and moving out towards the edges.

Ripples naturally move outwards, starting from the stone and moving out to the edges of the pond or lake.

When Jesus was talking to his disciples at the start of the book of Acts, he described what would happen after he had ascended into heaven. In the power of the Spirit, his followers were going to be his witnesses, beginning in Jerusalem, and then moving outwards to the surrounding countryside of Judea, then to the neighbouring country of Samaria, and continuing outwards to the ends of the earth (v8b). What Jesus was describing can be understood as a ripple effect of the gospel as people took the good news of Jesus outward from where they were, and into the whole world.

Grace naturally moves outwards, starting from Jesus and moving out to the lives of people of all nations.

Grace always causes a ripple effect because the gospel is an outward-moving event. From the birth of Jesus, God was moving from where he was in heaven to be one with us in this world and the realities of human existence. In the earthly ministry of Jesus, this outward flow continued as Jesus gave healing, hope, life and forgiveness to the people he met. Jesus’s death was an outward flowing event as his blood literally flowed from his veins on the cross, and he gave all of himself to us and for us in his death. Jesus’ resurrection was an outward-moving event as he defeated darkness and death and brought new life and light into the world by walking out of the tomb. The life, death and resurrection of Jesus caused a big splash in human history, but the gift of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost then put this outward movement into effect in the lives of the disciples. They were able to witness to what they had seen and heard as the Spirit of God led them out from Jerusalem in ever-widening ripples that extended to the entire world.

We are caught up in these outward-flowing ripples when we also become witnesses to the grace and goodness of God in the gospel. As Jesus leads us to the cross, we witness God’s perfect and infinite love for us. As Jesus leads us to the cross, we witness the new life he gives us, a life that is stronger than death. The outward movement of God’s grace begins in us as the Holy Spirit gives us faith in Jesus’ work of salvation for us. We get caught up in the outward movement of the ripples of God’s grace as we witness to the grace we have encountered in all we say and do. We don’t need to travel overseas to do this. Just as the disciples began by witnessing to their own city of Jerusalem, so our witness begins in our homes, our work places, our schools and universities, our sporting teams, or wherever God leads us in life.

At this point, I could tell you to get out there and witness. However, I get concerned that at times we know we should be better witnesses, but we aren’t sure what we should be witnessing to. Being a witness involves two key elements: first, witnesses need to encounter an event, and then they are able to give a witness to what we have encountered. Before we can give a witness to Jesus, we first need to witness his grace for ourselves.

That becomes a vital element in being disciples. We need to follow Jesus to the cross and the empty tomb so we can witness for ourselves the life-changing love of God in the gospel. Once we have encountered God’s grace for ourselves, then are we able to ride the outward-moving ripples of God’s grace in the power of the Holy Spirit into our homes, our work, our schools and universities, or wherever God might lead us.

When was the last time you stood on the banks of a pond, lake or dam, threw rocks into the water, and watched the ripples move out to the edges? Find some time this week to do it. Throw some rocks into water and watch the ripples move out. As you do that, think about how God has dropped the stone of his grace and love into your life by connecting you with Jesus through the power of his Spirit. And then think about how he is carrying you along, in the power of his Spirit, in the outward-moving ripples of his grace, so you can witness to his grace and love in all your words and actions.

More to think about:

  • In your experience of ‘church’ (however you understand that), do you think we tend to be more inward-looking or outward-flowing? Why do you think that way?
  • Compare your experience of church with Jesus’ words about his disciples being his witnesses ‘in Jerusalem, throughout Judea, in Samaria, and to the ends of the earth’ (Acts 1:8 NLT). Would you rather be part of a church that looks inwards, or is caught up in the outward flow of God’s grace? Give a few reasons for your preference…
  • Do you agree that people need to witness something for themselves before they can witness about it to others? Explain why you think that…
  • Where have you witnessed God’s grace for yourself? In what ways would you like to witness more of God’s grace?
  • We don’t have to go on overseas mission trips to be part of God’s outward flow of grace; it starts right where we are. How might you be able to give witness to God’s grace in your life today?