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Sunday, July 27, 2014

Generosity and Community (Acts 4.32-37)

Sermon by: Robert Austell - July 20, 201
Text: Acts 4:23-31

:: Sermon Audio (link) - scroll down for written draft  
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:: Some Music Used
Gathering Music: "Ode to Joy" (John Palmer Smith)
Hymn of Praise: "Joyful, Joyful, We Adore Thee" (ODE TO JOY)
Hymn of Praise: "Blest Be the Tie that Binds" (DENNIS)
Offering of Music: "How Firm a Foundation" (arr. Dan Forrest)
Hymn of Sending: "The Church's One Foundation" (AURELIA)
Postlude: "Choral Song in C" (Samuel F. Wesley)

:: Sermon Manuscript (pdf)  
This "manuscript" represents an early draft of the sermon. Nevertheless, if you'd prefer to read than to listen, this is provided for that purpose.
32 And the congregation of those who believed were of one heart and soul; and not one of them claimed that anything belonging to him was his own, but all things were common property to them. 33 And with great power the apostles were giving testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and abundant grace was upon them all. 34 For there was not a needy person among them, for all who were owners of land or houses would sell them and bring the proceeds of the sales 35 and lay them at the apostles’ feet, and they would be distributed to each as any had need. 36 Now Joseph, a Levite of Cyprian birth, who was also called Barnabas by the apostles (which translated means Son of Encouragement), 37 and who owned a tract of land, sold it and brought the money and laid it at the apostles’ feet. (Acts 4:32-37)
Last week we wrapped up the extended story in Acts 3-4 that started with the healing of the lame man. Today we are finishing out Acts 4, which moves on from there. It is still connected in the sense that it describes the believing community that had gathered around Peter and John – the one that prayed that very intentional and attentive prayer of praise and petition we looked at last week. Now it is as if Luke, the story-teller here in Acts, wants to say, “Let me tell you a little bit more about that group of attentive pray-ers!”

Today we are looking at a short passage that describes that community, and particularly the GENEROSITY of that community. We’ve had a preview in Acts 2:42, which Kathy Larson preached on a number of weeks ago. There we had a one-sentence description of the early believers: “They were continually devoting themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer.”

Now at the end of chapter four, Luke gives us a little more detail – some names and some narrative to describe what that community was like. We’ll look at that as instruction and inspiration for our own life together as a community of believers.

One Heart and Soul (v. 32)

Verse 32 tells us that “the congregation of those who believed were of one heart and soul.” That’s pretty intimate language. It calls to mind that language about loving God with all our heart and soul and mind and strength, and our neighbor as ourselves. That’s the one I like to sum up by saying “with all you are, all you have, and with everything you’ve got!” In fact, that “Great Commandment” is the only other place in the New Testament that uses that kind of language. Clearly, these early believers understood what it meant to love God and to do it together in community. This was church at its best!

What comes next in the rest of verse 32 is an example of how that love of God and neighbor manifested itself in that early community: “not one of them claimed that anything belonging to him was his own, but all things were common property to them.” Now this sounds more than a little strange to our ears… maybe even like socialism or communism. But we’ll see in a moment that this unusual behavior was something completely different.

First, let’s notice the context for this community and their unusual behavior.

Apostles’ Teaching (v. 33)

Verse 33 gives that context, underscoring the short summary we noted earlier in Acts 2:42. Here we read, “…with great power the apostles were giving testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus.” In 2:42 we read that the first believers gathered around fellowship, prayer, the breaking of bread, and the apostles’ teaching. Here it is again – the message, the testimony, the news about Jesus and his resurrection are at the center of this community. They weren’t “of one heart and soul” because they had the warm fuzzies; they were of one heart and soul because they were united around the Word. They were united around – AND stirred by – testimony about God’s Son, the Messiah, Jesus. And the testimony was of what God had done through Jesus, including especially his resurrection. Remember our emphasis in past weeks? Our talking about Jesus – underscored by the truth of God’s Word – is so important!

But that’s not all! We also read in verse 33 that “abundant grace was upon them all.” What does that mean exactly? In the context of the apostles talking about the resurrection of Jesus, I’ve got to think that they were overwhelmed with the goodness of God in the person of Jesus – his teaching, his sacrificial death, and the hope-filled news of his resurrection. It was an overwhelming, personal, and community sense that God is good to me… God is good to us! It also can and probably did refer to the power and presence of God’s Spirit, experienced so recently at Pentecost and in the healing of the lame man, and perhaps alluded to in this verse in the description of the apostles’ teaching “with great power.” There was a sense that God is here! Together with God’s goodness, the sense of this abundant grace was that GOD IS GOOD TO US AND GOD IS HERE WITH US!

Generosity is Voluntary and a Witness to Grace (v. 34-37)

That should definitely give context to the sharing of resources Luke describes. There are different kinds of giving.

OBLIGATORY GIVING: There is the kind that is compulsory, like that mandated by socialist or communist governments. There is no more joy to be found in that kind of sharing or giving than there is in paying taxes. That there are versions of Christianity that oblige giving through legalism, guilt, or scare tactics, is just another kind of mandated or obligatory giving.

CONDITIONAL GIVING: There is the kind of giving that expects something in return: “I’ll help you out, but you’ll owe me one.” This is really more of an exchange or ‘loan’ of resources than actual kindness, though there can be some kindness if the timing is right, helps someone out, and doesn’t make an unequal exchange like an exorbitant interest rate.

In verses 34-37, we get some more detail about the giving and sharing going on in this early community of believers. Though everyone was sharing, it does not sound compulsory. For one, Joseph (aka Barnabas) would not have been singled out for his extra gift if everyone was expected to give everything. It sounds like even in an extraordinary setting of sharing, he went above and beyond. And then in the next chapter, an interesting one to be sure, Peter speaks of land remaining under the ownership and control of the original donor, leaving them free to decide what to do with it. (The unusual fate of Ananias and Sapphira in chapter 5 did not have to do with not giving their land, but in lying to Peter’s face.)

VOLUNTARY GENEROSITY: No, what I think is going on – certainly in extraordinary measure – is voluntary generosity. The community was responding to need, so that no one was not taken care of. And isn’t this the most enjoyable kind of giving, expecting nothing in return? It reminds me of… GRACE. And think about it; that’s exactly what this community was basking in. Remember verse 33? They were hearing the apostles’ talk about Jesus’ resurrection, experiencing the power and presence of God, and themselves being reminded of and experiencing abundant grace: God is good to us and God is here with us! It makes sense that their own generosity would be marked by a similar grace.

Heart and Soul

It makes sense, if a community is convinced that God is good to us and God is here with us, for that community to respond to God with that all I have and all I am kind of love – united in heart and soul. And it makes sense for that community’s giving and sharing to be marked by a gracious generosity, a “love your neighbor as yourself” kind of perspective.

This is a message I hope is familiar to you here in this place, but I declare it to you again this morning: God is good to us and God is here with us. May we be found to believe with one heart and soul. Amen.

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