"Witness & Wealth"
April 23, 2006 Acts 4:32-37
Ron Blue is a Christian financial counsellor and founder of one of the 50 largest CPA firms in the United States. He begins his book, Sneakers from Heaven: A Biblical Guide to Personal Finances, by asking what kind of financial shape you'll be in when you retire. Most readers suppose their situation will be somewhat better than 'pretty good'. He then offers the following 5-question true/false test:
(T/F) Only 2% of Americans are financially independent when they reach 65.
(T/F) The incomes of most professional people hit a high around age 47 and plunge rapidly after age 54.
(T/F) More than half of all women, 7 out of 12, will become widows.
(T/F) An estimated 80% of Americans OWE more than they OWN.
(T/F) A hefty 25% of the typical person's income is used to repay debts, not including a home mortgage.
Mr Blue contends that, since all these statements are true, the odds of the reader's retirement finances being "pretty good" can't be too high. He adds, "The more likely prospect would be that since you're saving little or nothing now (while shelling out so much to repay your debts), and since your income will likely dip sharply in a few years (if it hasn't already), you'll be luck if you have enough cash to buy a good pair of sneakers when you retire."
That's not really an encouraging thought, is it? But then the macro-economic picture can be rather gloomy too. In the news this week, President Bush was meeting with Chinese leaders to discuss the growing trade gap between the countries. Ron Blue explains that compounding interest makes getting out of debt very difficult. He says, "This is precisely what has happened on a national scale with our country's deficit. Our government must stop over-spending at the rate of trillions of dollars each year, and start paying it back. But the reason the country is in this situation is because we want things now, and we've allowed our elected representatives to spend money that doesn't exist in order to achieve certain programs. The national situation is just an overblown version of what most Americans do with their personal finances, so it's really no surprise that the national deficit is at such a high level."
Overall, Canada has done more than the States to get its financial house in order. But there are still pools of pecuniary pain to be found around the countryside. As we're aware, many farmers are hurting. Now it's not just farmERS but pharmACISTS: this week our local pharmacist was explaining to me how new provincial legislation is going to make it difficult for smaller independent pharmacies to stay open. Maybe you yourself or a relative or someone you know is short on funds for some reason. This is an important topic in people's lives. People in society today may or may not be interested in a conversation about spiritual matters, but most are keen to find out about ways to better their financial position. They would love to feel more secure, take that cruise, or look forward to 'Freedom 55'. Jesus had much to teach concerning money. Today we consider the example of the early church: handling wealth in a way that honours God mysteriously is linked to power unleashed in witnessing.
At first glance, v32 in chapter 4 sounds like a made-up story, or something out of a fairy tale: "All the believers were one in heart and mind. No one claimed that any of his possessions was his own, but they shared everything they had." That seems unnatural; even 2-year-olds can be very possessive and are acquainted with the significance of words like "gimme" and "mine". Since birth, our human nature tends toward greed and getting rather than giving. One of the design engineers for the F-117 fighter airplane was giving an introductory presentation. During a question-and-answer session, a young Air Force officer asked, "Is that an F-117 tie tack you're wearing?" "Yes, and only two hundred of these limited-edition tie tacks were made," the engineer replied. "Here, you can have this one." The young officer gratefully accepted the gift. After a pause, another young man stood up and asked, "Isn't that an F-117 wristwatch you're wearing?"
We're never satisfied, are we? It's so hard to be content. Advertising of all kinds fuels our desires for this life's pleasures and products. Unlike the sign at Sparling's this past week - "Happiness is wanting what you have." The experience of the early church - not claiming possessions as their own, sharing everything, being one when it comes to ownership - seems like some alien planet.
What was it that transformed their outlook to share rather than grab; to be generous and giving rather than possessive and self-protective? Look at v33 for a clue: "With great power the apostles continued to testify to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and much grace was upon them all." God was making His awesome power known through the resurrection of Jesus and miracles of healing through the apostles; this changed believers' entire outlook so that what mattered most to them now wasn't the material, but the eternal. As fragile mortals, we can't relax from earthly striving until we have it settled in our soul that God is in control. Once that's established - once we are convinced that God is sovereign and we can trust Him to look after us and arrange what's best for us - then we are freed to loosen our grip and share.
Study the context of chapter 4 and you'll see that God's supreme authority is a dominant theme running right through the early part of the book of Acts. In Peter's first sermon at Pentecost in chapter 2, he emphasizes that God raised Jesus to life, placed Him on the throne, exalted Him to God's right hand (2:30ff). Next in chapter 3 Peter heals a beggar crippled from birth saying, "In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, walk." He then explains to onlookers, "By faith in the name of Jesus, this man whom you see and know was made strong. It is Jesus' name and the faith that comes through him that has given this complete healing to him, as you can all see." (Ac 3:16) Hear the emphasis on Jesus' name - symbol of His divine authority?
Hauled before the religious authorities in chapter 4 to give an explanation for their actions, Peter points out that the stone rejected by the builders has become the capstone; that "there is no other name under heaven given to men by which we must be saved." (4:11f) Although the leaders command them not to speak or teach at all in Jesus' name, Peter insists that he must obey God rather than them (4:18f). Note then the prayer of the church right before the passage about sharing possessions: the believers acknowledge God made all the rulers do what His power and will had decided beforehand should happen. They acknowledge that God was working behind the scenes even at the crucifixion, bringing redemptive good out of atrocity. They ask God to enable them, "to heal and perform miraculous signs and wonders through the name of your holy servant Jesus." They're asking Him to pour out His power, and that's just what He's keen to do! In response to their prayer, we read in v31 that they were filled with the Holy Spirit and "the place where they were meeting was shaken." So, right through from Pentecost up to the end of chapter 4 and on through the rest of Acts, believers are cluing in to the fact of God's awesome and powerful sovereignty. God is the ultimate truth, the supreme fact, the One who is there, He's 'really real' in a way unmatched by any created thing.
Not only is He the greatest; He is gracious. He loves us and wants to provide for us as a heavenly Father provides even for tiny sparrows. He's not a fearsome ogre but awesomely good, with unfailing love. As we entrust ourselves to Him, move over to let Him be on the throne of our lives, we can finally relax and allow His goodness to be channelled out through us. Paul writes to the Corinthians explaining that the Macedonians "gave themselves first to the Lord and then to us in keeping with God's will...For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that you through his poverty might become rich." (2Co 8:5,9) God is great and gracious, loving and enriching us.
David sang in Psalm 62, "Find rest, O my soul, in God alone; my hope comes from him.He alone is my rock and my salvation; he is my fortress, I will not be shaken.[That's acknowledging God's greatness. He continues] Do not trust in extortion...though your riches increase, do not set your heart on them. [he cautions about making money a competing god] One thing God has spoken, two things have I heard: that you, O God, are strong, and that you, O Lord, are loving. Surely you will reward each person according to what he has done." (Ps 62:5f,10ff)
Strong and loving. Great and gracious. He's got it all under control; He will reward justly, so there is meaning and purpose in sharing His goodness. So, a right attitude to wealth begins with enthroning God at the control centre of our life, trusting Him, resting in Jesus' Lordship.
Ron Blue was talking with a congressman about the nation's economy and suggested the Bible offers five keys that can guarantee financial success for people, regardless of which alternative controls the economy. Those 5 keys? 1- Understand that God owns it all; 2- Avoid a consumptive lifestyle; 3- Avoid the use of debt; 4- Maintain a savings program; 5- Set long-term goals. Remember that first one especially: "Understand that God owns it all." We belong to Him; He can bring prosperity or withdraw His favour. That matters so much more than our minuscule efforts.
Ron warns that debt may deny God an opportunity to work; many times we can't seem to wait for God to provide for us, so we go into debt. But God may want to provide for our needs in a way that's entirely different from how we want to do it.
Ron shares a remarkable story of the start-up of his own company. "When I was first organizing my company, God seemed to say to me that He didn't want me to go into debt to get started. I argued with Him! Obviously, He didn't understand everything that would be needed to start a business and a ministry. I knew all about it, because I'd started businesses before - you simply go out and arrange lines of credit. In fact, I'd already arranged for a $50,000 line of credit. But this time God was saying no. So, finally, I called the bank and cancelled my credit line. Then I said, 'OK, God, now what do we do? I have no money, no income.' And He impressed on my heart the idea of a seminar. Of course, it would take two or three months to organize one, and how would I provide for my family during that time? But He kept saying, 'That's what I want you to do.' So, 3 months in advance, I rented a meeting room in a hotel without knowing how many people would come to a seminar I hadn't yet put together!
"Then, incredibly, I was contracted by a company to teach a seminar on financial planning. They even paid me in advance to develop the seminar and teach it to their people. God provided for those first few months! And I'm convinced that if I had kept that line of credit, I would have simply gone to it for help and God would never have provided that money. He was saying to me, 'Ron, I can provide for you. Just trust me.' Every time I think about it, I marvel at His faithfulness. Too often many of us put a banker in God's place, which keeps Him from working things out His way."
At the very beginning of the early church in Acts 2:43, "everyone was filled with awe" at the wonders and signs God was doing. Then follow vv44-45, "All the believers were together and had everything in common.Selling their possessions and goods, they gave to anyone as he had need." When you trust God, when you're impressed by His ability to do anything at all, that faith frees you open up and supply others' need. Revering God as great and gracious inspires people to become a caring community. Luke the writer of Acts echoes that in chapter 4:32,34f (NLT): "All the believers were of one heart and mind, and they felt that what they owned was not their own; they shared everything they had...There was no poverty among them, because people who owned land or houses sold them and brought the money to the apostles to give to others in need."
This is not to be taken prescriptively, as if Christians are supposed to lump all their bank accounts and become a commune. This was a special emergency around the birth of the church, before its strategic explosion. At Pentecost, thousands of Jews were gathered for the festival; when upwards of 5000 became Christians in just a few days, they lingered around as baby Christians needing teaching. There were no New Testaments in those days - the apostles were "it"! So emergency funding was needed to support non-Jerusalemites for this very intense "boot camp" period. Then, after the stoning of Stephen and start of persecution, these thousands of new believers returned home and spread on mission to surrounding countries. Moved by the Spirit, those who had extra rose to the challenge of meeting the need for their out-of-country visitors.
That the donating was completely voluntary, not compulsory, can be seen from Peter's words to Ananias in 5:4: "Didn't it belong to you before it was sold? And after it was sold, wasn't the money at your disposal?" That's not communism; giving is meant to be free and voluntary, a joyful and glad response to grace.
As an example, Luke notes Barnabas sold a field he owned and donated the proceeds. He was nicknamed for his encouragement / helping / 'paracleting'. As a Levite from Cyprus, he may have had access to lands in Judea that he didn't need for himself.
It is in this environment of a God-inspired caring community, sacrificially showing kindness to the poor, that v33 says "with great power the apostles continued to testify..." The concrete, practical love that was expressed was a witness that couldn't be ignored. Actions speak louder than words. When people sell possessions to help others, that makes people sit up and take notice. 'There must be something real behind all this!'
Ron Blue observes, "stewardship cannot be faked. Prayer, Bible study, witnessing, fellowship - all can be faked by any Christian.But stewardship is revealed in your checkbook. That little register preserves your use of God's resources in black and white.I often ask people to take out their checkbook and picture their life story being written from its pages.For many, that's quite a convicting concept."
For a contrast to Barnabas, read on into chapter 5 to meet Ananias and Sapphira. They sell a piece of property too, but Ananias "kept back part of the money for himself" and gave the rest to the apostles - while pretending it was the full amount (5:2). But Peter is not fooled. He confronts Ananias, asking how he could have allowed Satan to fill his heart so much as to lie to the Holy Spirit. Ananias dies on the spot, and is soon joined in the grave by his accomplice, his wife.
Such a person is what John Eldredge would call a "poser": a hypocrite, someone with a false self; they have yielded to devilish deception in the name of religiosity. That is absolutely deadly: God will see through the scam every time. Yet how much can we relate to Ananias more than Barnabas? Is our giving motivated by wanting to look good, while really inside we're holding back on what we know the Lord wants us to give? James (2:15f) writes, "Suppose a brother or sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to him, "Go, I wish you well; keep warm and well fed," but does nothing about his physical needs, what good is it?" No good at all; that's what James would call "dead faith". 1Jn 3(16ff) frames stinginess more in terms of lack of love: "This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us.[There's our great and gracious God again.]And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers. If anyone has material possessions and sees his brother in need but has no pity on him, how can the love of God be in him? Dear children, let us not love with words or tongue but with actions and in truth." Selfishness, greed, hypocrisy stopper up the caring that God wants to pour into and through our lives so others may be helped, and Him glorified, through us His people.
The reality and awesomeness of God impresses us to show His caring and share our wealth with those in need. But then we have to have eyes and ears to notice who's in need.
Two very different mailings arrived in my mailbox Thursday. Which of the two will capture people's notice, I wonder? One was the "Dream Lifestyles Lottery", fundraising for the London hospitals (which we've been seeing quite a bit lately ourselves - one time the nurses joked about Yvonne rating 'frequent flyer status' - a worthy cause, though what is it about our system that makes a hospital have to run lotteries to have enough money?). Here in glossy colour are listed luxuries designed to capture people's attention and buy one or more $50 tickets: first prize is a half-million dollar fully furnished home in London with the latest gizmos and playthings; a Mercedes-Benz car worth $115,000; a $95,000 cruise around the world; plus pocket money - $100,000 in cash. Second prize includes a luxurious condo and similar accessories. Inside are other prizes galore: pickups, sports cars, motorcycles, trips, electronics...a smorgasbord of consumer collectibles.
The other item that came the same day in the mail? An "Emergency Report" from Christian Blind Mission International about crop failure after 6 years of drought in East Africa, resulting in famine affecting a couple of hundred million people. 37 million (that's more people than we have in Canada) are critically hungry. Sadly, the photos of starving children no longer grab my attention the way they used to; what caught my attention this time was a picture of a farmer standing in front of a field of decaying livestock carcasses. I remember how sad it was sometimes on the farm growing up when one favourite cow had to go to market; what would it be like to have the whole herd starve? THIS is the mailing about people in need; but how many people would just discard it, preferring to feast their eyes on the dream lottery brochure instead?
Then there are the local needs of people in our own area who face some obstacle and just need a little help to get over a hump - health-wise, rent-wise, grief-wise. A church should have an ongoing cycling benevolent fund so people can donate to it and know the treasurer or mission committee is distributing it to address real needs brought to their attention by elders, Women's Ministry leaders, the pastor, etc. I can think of 3 families right now that could benefit from some help; I'm sure there are others. Through such wordless witness, God's grace outpoured can still work wonders.
Every morning on her way to work in downtown Chicago, Pam would see a heavyset, middle-aged woman in a shabby coat soliciting spare change in front of an old brick church. The lady always greeted people with a smile and a pleasant "Good morning." Each day, as she passed her, Pam would put some money in her bag. This went on for about a year. And then, she was gone. Pam didn't see her for several weeks. She wondered what had happened and hoped that she was alright. Then, she was back again, standing in front of the old brick church. As Pam approached her, she reached into her purse for the usual donation, but the woman stopped her. She said, "Thank you for helping me all those days. I just want you to know that you won't see me again. I've got a job, I came here today to say 'Thank you' to everyone who had helped me along the way." She then reached into her bag. She had been standing at her old spot waiting, not for a handout, but for the people she recognized so that she could give each of them a doughnut - a doughnut of gratitude.
Our giving is out of gratitude for all God has done for us. Because He is great and gracious, we can share His goodness with others, caring for their need. Let's pray.