When it comes to financial giving in church, the Bible doesn’t say what we pastors want it to say: We want it to say, “Thou shalt give a tithe, or ten percent of your income, to support this church.” But notice in today’s scripture, the first church’s generosity is completely free and joyful. Why is our giving often so different? This sermon explores this question.
Sermon Text: Acts 4:32-5:11
[To listen on the go, right-click here to download an MP3.]
I don’t think you would consider me someone who is irrationally afraid of heights. But I certainly have what I believe is a healthy fear of them. So you can imagine how I felt last month when I read about a man named Luke Aikens. He became the first person to skydive without a parachute or wing suit and live to tell the tale. It was broadcast live on the Fox network. He jumped from 25,000 feet and landed in a 100-x-100-foot net—about a third of the size of a football field. It was suspended 200 feet off the ground.
Whether we’re afraid of heights or not, I think we can all agree that that seems crazy. But not so fast… The 42-year-old Aikens has been skydiving since he was 16. He’s made about 18,000 jumps in his life. He’s practiced this particular jump for a couple of years—using special parachutes that he opened at very low altitudes—landing on targets much smaller than the net he landed on last month. And a crew down below rigged some high powered lights on the ground that would indicate whether he was on-target or off-target—so he could make adjustments in the air.
The point is, from his perspective, why should he be afraid? Given his experience, given his knowledge, given his skill, it wasn’t crazy at all. From his perspective.
I bring this up because in today’s scripture, the apostles of Jesus, along with these first Christians at the first church in Jerusalem, were doing some things that would seem crazy to most people.
First, the apostles… Immediately prior to today’s scripture, Peter and John had healed a paralyzed beggar. Remember that classic VBS song? [Sing:] “Silver and gold have I none/ But such as I have give I thee/ In the name of Jesus Christ/ Of Nazareth, rise up and walk.” And suddenly this man who couldn’t walk was now praising God and leaping for joy. It attracted attention from the crowds who knew he had been paralyzed. Which gave Peter an opportunity to preach the gospel, which he did.
Which also attracted the unwelcome attention of the religious authorities and their police, who arrested Peter and John for preaching about Jesus and his resurrection. Remember: from the perspective of these leaders, Jesus was a hated enemy of the people of Israel. Jesus preached against many of the values that Jews held dear; he spoke about the imminent destruction of the Temple; and said that very patriotic Jewish citizens needed to change or else face God’s wrath.
By way of comparison, consider the least popular man in America right now: San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick. A couple of weeks ago, he refused to stand during the playing of the national anthem because of injustices against blacks in America. Think of the anger—the vitriol, the hatred—that has been directed toward him on social media, on the radio, in public since then. And you may say, “Good! He deserves it”—and that’s fine. But just think… These apostles of Jesus were, in the minds of many people living in Jerusalem, as bad as Colin Kaepernick—or worse! Because they didn’t just have a P.R. problem: their boldness in proclaiming the gospel threatened their freedom, their safety, their very lives. But they did it anyway. They had to, they said: after all, “Who were we going to listen to? These mere human beings? Or God?”
It seems crazy that these apostles had no fear, except they surely remembered Jesus’ own words: “I will warn you whom to fear: fear him who, after he has killed, has authority to cast into hell. Yes, I tell you, fear him!”
And then you have these first Christians who were doing seemingly crazy things like selling all their possessions—their real estate, their houses—and giving the money to the church, who would then use it to take care of the poor. Keep in mind: This was an age long before Social Security, before 401(k)s, before IRAs… Real estate was your social security in old age. And here they were, happily, joyfully getting rid of it for the sake of Jesus!
There was an article in the AJC last Wednesday about a janitor named Ronald Read who had secretly amassed a fortune of $8 million. No one knew he rich. He lived very modestly. And when he died recently, he split his fortune between a library and a hospital. Which is wonderful, of course—but not crazy at all. Because he had access to that money while he was still alive—just in case he needed it. These first Christians were getting rid of their “nest eggs” while they were still living!
It seems crazy that these first Christians had no fear, except they took seriously the words of our Lord:
Sell your possessions, and give to the needy. Provide yourselves with moneybags that do not grow old, with a treasure in the heavens that does not fail, where no thief approaches and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.
These were people who knew where their treasure was—and it wasn’t in material possessions or money. So it was nothing for them to give it away.
Not only did they know it up here [point to head], they knew it in here, because they were filled with the Holy Spirit. They experienced the power of the Holy Spirit in their lives. What does Paul say in Romans 8? “For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption. When we cry, ‘Abba! Father!’ it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God.” They knew they were beloved children of their Father, and they knew their Father would take care of them—just like we human parents take care of our children!
So of course they weren’t afraid to give away their money and possessions!
Speaking of NFL players, last season, a Seattle Seahawks wide receiver and special teams player named Ricardo Lockette got blindsided by a vicious hit in the Seahawks-Cowboys game that literally paralyzed him. He broke his neck. He was lying there on the field in front of 90,000 people, conscious but unable to move. Last month, he wrote about it. He said:
It’s crazy what matters to you when you’re in that situation. Cars, jewelry, big houses, Super Bowls? It all seems so meaningless… I used to want a black Lamborghini and a seven-room house. That’s what I dreamed about. Now, all of a sudden, I can’t move. And the only thing that mattered to me in the entire world was being able to see my family again, to hold my kids in my arms.
After surgery and weeks of rehab, he regained the ability to move around, but he decided to retire from football, at age 29. He said,
[My head coach Pete] Carroll used to preach to us all the time: “You live in a temporary fairy tale.” Your fans are temporary. Your coaches are temporary. Your teammates, as much as they love you, are temporary. The big houses you live in are temporary. You can enjoy all that stuff, but it’s not what will bring you happiness.
Lockette has now dedicated his life to serving the poor and homeless. He reminds me of those famous words of missionary Jim Elliot, who was martyred for his faith while bringing the gospel to the indigenous people of Ecuador in the 1950s. Elliot said, “He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain what he cannot lose.”
What does Lockette need to be truly happy? It’s not cars or money or fame or big houses.
What about us? What do we as Christians believe that we need to be happy? Is what we do with our money consistent with this belief?
When I think about these first Christians and their generosity, and compare it with my own, I can’t help but wonder if I have faith at all!
There’s something else that we need to notice in today’s scripture and elsewhere: There’s a direct correlation between a church’s generosity and its witness—its ability to evangelize, its ability to reach the lost with the gospel of Jesus. And as I’ve said a lot recently, this is our primary task!
It can’t be an accident that in last week’s scripture, in chapter 2, after Luke talks about the church’s generosity, he also talks about numbers being added to the church daily. And in verse 14 of chapter 5—just beyond today’s scripture—he says, “And more than ever believers were added to the Lord, multitudes of both men and women.”
Why is there a correlation between generosity and church growth? First, because a church’s generosity is directly related to how much they trust in the Lord. The more faith they have, the more generous they are. Good things tend to happen when we trust in the Lord more and trust in ourselves less. Also, when people see Christians being generous with money—when they see Christians putting their faith into practice in the most practical, tangible, down-to-earth way possible—it gives them credibility.
“These guys are willing to sell their houses and sell their land and give all the money to take care of the poor—because they love Jesus? I’ve never heard of such a thing! That’s like jumping out of an airplane at 25,000 feet without a parachute! Maybe there’s something to Christianity after all!”
If you remember your world history, the first Roman emperor to become a Christian was Constantine in the early fourth century. From then on, you had a succession of at least nominally Christian emperors—the exception was an emperor named Julian. Julian abandoned the Christian faith and tried to reestablish religion of Zeus, Apollo, and other Greek deities. But he had a big problem, as he described in a letter to a pagan priest: Those “impious Galileans”—his name for Christians—were putting his fellow pagans to shame with their generosity! These Christians “support our poor in addition to their own,” he wrote. We can’t let these Christians “outdo us in good deeds while we ourselves are disgraced by laziness.”
Even this powerful pagan leader could see that Christians were renowned for their generosity—and there was something deeply powerful and attractive about this. Julian’s religion stood no chance of acceptance without emulating the Church’s generosity.
When our church does things like feed thousands of people through “Stop Hunger Now” next week, guess what? That’s attractive to people outside of the church. That makes our faith credible to people.
Of course we could do so much more… We should do so much more. You know we could do more. If only we could emulate the generosity of the Christians in today’s scripture!
But here’s the problem: Today’s scripture makes clear that this kind of generosity can’t be forced. It can’t be coerced. It can’t be faked. As a pastor who draws his salary from your generosity to the church, I would love to tell you that you have to tithe. But I can’t. Jesus has set us free from the Law—he’s fulfilled the law for us—including the law of the tithe in the Old Testament.
Today’s scripture makes clear that Christians in Jerusalem were under no obligation whatsoever to give anything to the church. We see this in the next part of today’s scripture, chapter 5, verses 1 to 11: Like Barnabas, Ananias and his wife Sapphira have sold some property, and Ananias brings part of the proceeds from the sale to Peter. Unlike Barnabas, he and his wife have kept part of the proceeds from the sale for themselves. Who can blame them? Giving away all their money is like jumping out of a plane at 25,000 feet without a parachute, right?
The problem is, they tell Peter that the money they’re giving represents the full amount that they sold the land for. They lied, in other words, and God does something he doesn’t usually do: he judges them for it, swiftly and severely; God takes their lives.
I know that this is shocking, but the Lord has the right to do this. He gives us life at every moment as a completely unmerited gift, and he can take it away at any moment. In 1 Corinthians, Paul even says that some of the Christians in the church who’ve received the Lord’s Supper in an unworthy manner have gotten sick and died because of it. Just because God doesn’t usually judge us like this—he usually shows us mercy when we sin—doesn’t mean he always will, or that he isn’t entitled to judge us in this way.
In verse 11, it says, a “great fear came upon the whole church and upon all who heard of these things.” I’ll bet they were afraid! And what they were thinking was, “There, but for the grace of God, go I.” Because we think of our own sins—and how gracious and merciful God has been to us when we’ve sinned—and think, “That’s what I deserve for lying and being a hypocrite.”
Be that as it may, in chapter 5, verse 4, Peter makes clear to Ananias that he didn’t have to give anything: “While it remained unsold,” Peter said, referring to the land, “did it not remain your own? And after it was sold, was it not at your disposal?” In other words, this property, and the money you made from it, was yours to do with as you please.
If they had said to Peter, “We simply don’t trust Jesus enough to give you all the money, but we’ll give you this much,” they wouldn’t have been struck down. If they said, “We sold this land and we’re not going to give the church any money, because we’re too afraid,” they wouldn’t have been struck down.
But they lied instead. When Bible scholar N.T. Wright reflected on this passage, he wrote,
Lying is, ultimately, a way of declaring that we don’t like the world the way it is and we will pretend that it is somehow more the way we want it to be. At that level, it is a way of saying that we don’t trust God to look after his world and sort it out in his own time and way.
Lying is a way of saying that “we don’t trust God to look after his world and sort it out in his own time and way.”
I like that! Because trusting God to look after this world and sort it out in his own time and way is at the heart of what it means to be a Christian! After Peter and John have been released from prison in Acts 4:24, the church prays for them, and they begin that prayer with the words “Sovereign Lord.” We need to recover the word “sovereign” and “sovereignty” in our vocabulary. Because it means that God is in charge here, not us. It means that he’s in control, not us. It means that nothing happens in the world that isn’t beyond his ability to redeem and to use for his good purposes. It means that God has a plan for our lives, even when things are going bad, and we can trust that plan.
Later in chapter 5, the apostles are arrested and imprisoned again. This time, before they’re released, they’re beaten. But it says in verse 41, “Then they left the presence of the council rejoicing that they were counted worthy to suffer dishonor for the name.”
“Counted worthy to suffer” by whom? By God. They could rejoice, even in the midst of suffering, because they understood that no matter what they were going through, God was working his plan through them. They were going to be O.K. God’s got this under control.
Do we believe that? Do we trust God’s plans for us? Because it seems to me that unless or until we do, we’ll never be as generous as we know we ought to be. We give this money, not merely hoping against hope that somehow it’ll all work out, and we’ll have the money we need to make ends meet. No, we give this money, trusting that God himself will take care of us when we are faithful to him in our giving!
1. Luke 12:5 ESV
2. Luke 12:33-34 ESV
3. Romans 8:15-16 NRSV
4. David Bentley Hart, Atheist Delusions (New Haven, CT: Yale, 2009), 45.
5. N.T. Wright, Acts for Everyone, Part One (Louisville: WJK, 2008), 80.