May 7, 2017
One of my friends told me a story this week about a family that lost their Charleston home in a fire. Everyone made it safely out into the front yard, but to the shock of the entire family, the mom ran back in the burning house. She needed to grab one thing. Can you guess what it was? What would you run into a burning house to get? Would you just let everything go, or is there something in your house that you can’t think of losing.
You probably guessed it, but the lady that went back into her Charleston home to get the box of family photos. This might come as a shock to the Instagram/Shutterfly generation. Most of our photos are stored safely in the cloud – safely for the whole world to see. But before the age of digital photos, people went to great lengths to protect their memories. Because if you lost your family photos, you would be cut off from part of your history. Obviously, you can still have a history without the pictures, but the family album has a way of jogging your memories in a profound way. The photos recall our history and our history shapes our identity.
This is why – when you sign up for the Explore Alliance class – you’ll hear about the famous Bible study that started in the spring of 1978. About a dozen families gathered in the Home Ec. Building to study the Bible. They were hungry for God’s Word. This is a major story in the life of our church. We look drastically different 39 years later, but we’re still gathering to study the Bible because this is who we are. If we forget our history, we’re in danger of forgetting our identity.
Over the next two weeks, I want to pull out our family album and remember our heritage. No, I’m not going to talk about the 1978 Bible study for two Sundays, though I’m sure the Pilkingtons and Parkers and Dowells [Branchs] have some incredible stories for us. I’m going to go back a little further – back to the very beginning. You can find the first picture in our family photo album in Acts 2, so if you have your Bible, make your way there.
As you read through the book of Acts, you’ll notice that Luke has a particular style of writing. He’ll zoom in to tell a story, then step back and give a summary statement. So, for instance, the bulk of Acts chapter 2 is the story of the Spirit’s arrival at Pentecost. The Spirit came to the small group of disciples and immediately empowered them to proclaim the truth of the gospel. Peter stood and delivered a rousing sermon. 3,000 people were cut to the heart, and responded to the Spirit’s call by repenting and being baptized. In a moment, the church was born! Can you imagine the excitement in Jerusalem that day as the apostles scoured the city for every pool of water to baptize the new believers? 3,000 men and women were soaking wet by the end of the day. What did they do next? At this point, Luke zooms out a bit and gives us a powerful summary of the first few days of the church. It’s our first family photo. If you have your Bible open, follow along as I read verses 40-47.
 And with many other words he bore witness and continued to exhort them, saying, “Save yourselves from this crooked generation.”  So those who received his word were baptized, and there were added that day about three thousand souls.
 And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.  And awe came upon every soul, and many wonders and signs were being done through the apostles.  And all who believed were together and had all things in common.  And they were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need.  And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they received their food with glad and generous hearts,  praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved.
The summary officially begins in verse 42, but I began in verse 40 because this is an important bridge for understanding our text. Look at verse 40 again: And with many other words, Peter bore witness and continued to exhort them. Luke is essentially saying, “I couldn’t write down everything Peter said… the guy is long winded.” Luke only gave us the highlights of the Pentecost sermon. But verse 40 tips us off to an important theme of Peter’s teaching that day: save yourselves from this crooked generation. In other words, now that you have received the Spirit, your lives must change. You must look different from this crooked generation. Save yourselves from it.
This is strong language. I’ll be honest with you: five years ago, this language would have embarrassed me. Oh Peter. Way to bomb a powerful gospel presentation. You had them with the gospel. Did you really have to do the street-corner preacher routine and condemn the “crooked generation”? You should dial it back. Some of your hearers might be offended. Of course some of his listeners were offended. He was accused of being drunk at 9AM. And yet, a lot of people were hungry for that message. The very next verse tells us that 3,000 people were added to their number that day.
I think it’s time for the church to embrace these words: save yourselves from this crooked generation. Can we all agree that our world is crooked? There might have been a debate five years ago. There is no debate now. We live in a world of lies. Our culture is sick if not dead. Why would the church of Jesus seek to win the approval of a sick and dying culture? We have something better to offer. The world is hungry for it. This is exactly what the Jerusalem church gave the world. The Spirit guided them into a new community that radically shook up Jerusalem. We can see the dynamics of this community in Luke’s summary, beginning in verse 42. This is how they saved themselves from the world.
They devoted themselves to the apostles teaching and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. The Spirit brought them into a new community with new values and habits and rhythms. It was a community of humans living as God created them to live. We could spend weeks dissecting these four elements, but this morning I’d like to zoom in on their fellowship with one another – their koinonia. This is not an arbitrary selection. Luke zooms in on it as well. In verse 42 he tells us that they were devoted to the fellowship. In verses 44-45, he shows us how they fellowshipped with one another. Let’s read them again:
And all who believed were together and had all things in common. And they were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need.
This is a beautiful text. Luke shows us the values of the church before the church was formalized and structured. Before they had hammered out the doctrine of the church or even figured out a liturgy, they simply gathered together and met each other’s needs. They weren’t baptized into a Sunday morning commitment or a 10% tithe. They were baptized into a radically new community of people who were living out the teachings of Jesus through the power of the Spirit. And it touched every part of their life.
So, it’s a beautiful text. But it’s also unsettling. What should we do with this information? How should I preach this? This is an important question as we interpret the book of Acts. Is Luke simply describing the church as it was then or is he prescribing a way of life for all of us? Some people read the book of Acts and they get really passionate about doing things exactly like they did. Since we’ve described this scene as a family photo, this reminds me of the recent Internet fad of recreating family photos. Have you ever seen one of these? The two brothers, now bald in their 30s, pull out their Super Man pjs? It’s funny. But we should avoid this when we look at the early church. They met in homes because they hadn’t built any buildings yet. The church matured and we should be OK with that. The church will naturally look a bit different in 21st Century Boone than it did in 1st Century Jerusalem.
And yet, there are certain values that transcend time and place. I believe Acts chapter 2 outlines some of these essential values that every church must have. A gospel-shaped community might have a slightly different look and feel in every community, but it will always be gospel-shaped. I see three elements in these verses that speak into our modern context. First, the believers were together. Second, they lived a common life. And finally, they used their possessions to eliminate needs. This is what sustained the church in the very first days of its existence. (These are gospel issues).
Let’s explore the first item: the believers frequently met together. Luke added this detail for a reason. In order to love one another, we need to actually be together. I believe we are losing this truth in our digital age. Thanks to Facebook, we no longer have to be with one another to love one another. I believe that our fascination with technology is severely hindering our desire and ability to actually be together. This attitude has infected the church as much as the outside world. I understand why. Our phones have made life convenient and fun and efficient. It has made our lives great. But there is a payoff, and the church must wrestle with it. We need to wake up to what technology is doing to us.
One thing is already abundantly clear: technology is making us lonely. John Hanna lent me a book last year called Alone Together. The subtitle explains it all: Why we expect more from technology and less from each other. We simply don’t need people anymore. When I walk around campus, I’m surprised that I don’t see more people running into trees and posts. Everybody is looking down. We don’t see people anymore because we’re addicted to the glorious distractions that our phones provide. If I need something, I’ll just text you. But even the text message is in danger. Last week, I had a 3-day conversation with Pat & CJ exclusively using gifs. We think we have arrived, but we’re close to caveman status. We communicate through little pictures. Have you ever been in a room for an extended amount of time and not talked to anyone? We’re beginning to prefer our devices over flesh and blood relationships. This is not good. As smart as Siri thinks she is, she doesn’t know me. She doesn’t love me.
So, when I see this small statement that the church met together, I think this is a revolutionary statement in our context. We must never replace flesh and blood relationships. Tony Reinke, in his excellent book 12 Ways Your Phone Is Changing You, brought up this gem from 2 John 12. I’ve never quoted 2 John in a message, but it is quite appropriate. “Though I have much to write you, I would rather not use paper and ink. Instead I hope to come to you and talk face to face, so that our joy may be complete.”
We should remember that John was among the first believers in Acts 2. He knew the beauty and value of being together. So when he planted his own church in Ephesus, he wanted to see them face-to-face. He employed the technology of pen and ink (he wrote 3 letters, a gospel, and Revelation), but he knew technology was limited. He wanted to be with his people so that his joy might be complete. We should employ the technology that is available to us, but we should also remember that it is limited. I saw a well-known pastor tweet this weekend to his #eFam to join him online for worship this Sunday. If we call this church, we’ve been deceived. There is no #eBody of Christ.
So, let me summarize this first point. I’m not suggesting that we burn our phones at the end of the service (you wouldn’t be able to find your homes). But can we at least have the conversation? The entire world is caught up in this giant social experiment. How sad would it be if someone else led the charge out of our mess? I read this week that Steve Jobs didn’t even let his kids use an iPad. He knew what it would do to them. How sad would it be if we let our phones destroy our families and marriages and Christian witness because we forgot how to be together? Let’s fight for our joy & show the world how to be together.
Verse 44 continues. The church met together, but they also had all things in common. In other words, they didn’t just get together to watch a movie and go back home to their lonely lives. They actually began to knit their lives together. In chapter 4, Luke says that the full number of all who believed were of one heart and soul. Does our church share a single heartbeat? Do we share a soul? I realize this is difficult in a church of our size. I don’t even know everyone’s name in this room. But the Jerusalem church had 5,000 people at this point. I’m sure they didn’t know everyone’s name. And yet, Luke could still say that they shared a single heart and a single soul because they had all things in common. They were a genuine fellowship. They shared their stuff.
Again, we have a lot working against us in our modern world. In just the past few years, we have been trained to think that sharing is evil. Even in the early days of technology, we had to share. The family only had one television. You had to choose between the football game or The Wizard of Oz. These scenarios brought out our worst, but they also led to sanctification (hopefully). We used to have to share the phone line to get on the Internet. But we don’t have these dilemmas anymore. We all have what we need, and if you don’t, just buy it. Watch the advertisements closely. They are leading the charge on changing our values. They expect you to have what you need. The assumption is this: modern people don’t share anymore. You should have the freedom to watch what you want when you want it. Something is wrong if you have to share. Sharing only happens in third world countries. I believe this attitude has taken more from us than it has given us.
I want to be careful here because I don’t think it’s morally wrong to structure your life with a desire for independence. Support your family. Work hard. But if you have eliminated any need to share – even in your own home – there is a good chance you are practicing a life of selfishness and isolation. Pastor Roy Andrews told me a story this week about a group of Christians he knew that lived in a neighborhood in his previous town. They decided to go in together on a lawnmower. You might think: this is a great way to divide friendships. Put a single lawnmower on a single street and watch them fight. I’m sure they had their share of tension over the lawn mower. But I also imagine it caused them to resolve tension and work on their relationships. If nothing else, it caused them to be together. I think the better way to destroy a friendship is to take out any need for a friend. This is what we lose when we never share.
If we get to choose everything and share nothing, our church life will be very difficult. What steps can we take to begin sharing our lives together? And no, I’m not talking about sharing Netflix passwords. I don’t have many answers here, because it will look different fro everyone, but again: can we have the conversation? I’ll admit: on the surface, this virtue seems unimportant, but the more I think about it, I believe sharing is a gospel issue. The New Testament calls us the body of Christ. Every part of the body is dependent on the other part. The foot is not autonomous. The foot plays a critical role. The truth is, we are much more likely to share our burdens and Spiritual gifts with one another when our lives are wrapped up in each other’s lives.
The final feature of the church’s life together expands on this. They used their possessions to eliminate need. Listen to verse 45 again: “And they were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need.”
I’ve found that a lot of modern Christians want to distance themselves from this text. We’ll say that this smells a lot like Communism, and we all know how Communism turned out. The picture of the early church is nothing like communism. One commentator summarized it well. Communism says, “What is yours is everybody’s.” Communism requires you to give your possessions. It drains the life and resources out of you. The church says, “What’s mine is yours.” It is voluntary and life giving. The apostles didn’t mandate giving. No, the Spirit of God transformed the people into a generous community. When they saw a need, they willingly met it, even if it meant they had to sell a few acres of land.
We shouldn’t think that the Jerusalem real estate market was flooded with Christian homes on the evening of Pentecost. We’ll explore this next week, but they met in each other’s homes to eat! They didn’t all sell their homes. Sometimes we come to a text like this and all the homeowners are secretly ashamed, because we’re probably not going to sell our houses. I want you to know that that is OK. I’m not trying to get you to sell your house.
It seems like the selling of possessions was rare and voluntary whenever a need arose. And yet, let’s not miss the main point: they went to great lengths to meet needs. This principle is unpacked in chapter 4. Listen to the next summary statement in Acts 4:32-35
“Now the full number of those 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. And with great power the apostles were giving their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all. There 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 and laid it at the apostles feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need.”
I’m not sure if you noticed, but their proclamation of the resurrection is sandwiched between two mentions of their generosity. It’s like the way they used their possessions enhanced their gospel presentation. If we live a stingy life – just like our crooked, self-centered generation – will our message of the resurrection have any appeal? We must allow the gospel to shape the way we think about our possessions. It is a gospel issue. (Think of the Bishop in Les Miserables).
The key statement is found in verse 32. Though they had stuff, nobody said, “That’s mine!” They held their possessions with an open hand. If you have a need and I have something you could use, why would I withhold it from you? Luke wants us to see that the church was committed to eliminating needs. This was the goal of the Mosaic Law, but the hardened people of God couldn’t pull it off. Luke wants us to see that new covenant community was pulling it off. When they saw a need, they met it.
Once again, this will be extremely difficult for people conditioned in a consumer society. We have been trained to find our identity in our possessions. I shop, therefore I am. We must do better in the church. I know we are all over the place in this room, so let’s start small: do you have anybody in your life – other than your family – that can walk into your house and open your fridge? That would be a good place to start. I had some friends like this after college and they taught me how to hold on to my possessions loosely. They weren’t jerks: one guy gave me his North Face sweater. They just didn’t care about their stuff as much as I did. Surround yourself with people that will stretch you.
What about more practical needs? Have you ever been here for the Buc-a-Bag yard sale? We will have a thousand people here getting. It is an incredible ministry to our community. The text in Acts is talking about meeting the needs of the church, but I think the Buc-A-Bag yardsale is a nice way to show the community that we are filled with love. We take care of each other here. So, just a reminder: bring your nice stuff! Let’s keep thinking: Have you ever paid someone else’s light bill in our church? Would you even know if someone else needed a light bill paid? Have you ever given a car to someone? I was quite encouraged this week as I talked to Doug. Since he cranked up the “Better or Beater” program, he estimates that our church has donate 30-40 cars to people in need. Praise God. Let’s keep it coming. Perhaps we can think of ways of opening our homes and using our unused land. Let’s get creative with the resources God has given us.
We are a large church. We should be able to meet a variety of needs among our body. Now, before we start focusing on the money, and before we start patting our back by how much we do for each other, let’s quickly remember that God doesn’t care about how much you give. I’ve already mentioned the unfortunate couple, but Ananias and Sapphira tried to buy some favor from the community and lied about how much money they were giving. God was not impressed. The issue is not the money; it’s the heart. Are you looking for ways to meet needs?
The text began with Peter’s exhortation to be saved from the crooked generation. The people responded by meeting together, having all things in common, and using their possessions to meet needs. It should not be a coincidence that people were added to their number day by day. The early church was offering the crooked generation a better way to live. As we close, I’d like to consider this quote from Alistair Begg: The church has few things of greater immediate relevance to offer the world than the secret of genuine human relationships. (Say it again). Let’s show the world how we love. Instead of being glued to our devices, let’s show the world how much we love one another. Instead of being suspicious and distant, let’s trust the Spirit to bind us together in love and unity. Instead of building personal wealth, let’s use every resource God has given to us to meet each other’s needs. Let’s pray.