"The Church You've Always Longed For - (5) Models Integrity"
May 29, 2011 50-Day Spiritual Adventure Wk.5
Acts 5:1-11; 20:32-38 (with material adapted from Rev.Jim Autrey, Hutchinson, Kansas)
INTEGRITY: BEYOND LIVING BY PERSONAL VALUES
Our theme this week is, "The Church You've Always Longed For - Models Integrity." People are watching you. Sometimes you know and sometimes you don't. They're watching you even more closely than people in general for a couple of reasons: they may know you come to church; perhaps they know you've given your life to Jesus Christ, so are watching you especially closely.
Whether we want it to happen or not, you and I are being examined. We are being scrutinized, analyzed, perhaps even criticized. What are people looking for? They are looking to see if the claims of Christ are real in our lives. They are watching whether our going to church makes a difference in the way we behave compared to the rest of society. They are looking to see if we are people of integrity. The church you've always longed for - a church that is following hard after Jesus Christ - should be composed of a people who model integrity.
Just what is integrity? Promise Keepers talk about the need to be "men of integrity" - what does that mean? Integrity isn't limited to men only; all believers in Jesus Christ are to be people of integrity.
The Concise Oxford Dictionary defines integrity as "moral uprightness; honesty; wholeness; soundness." The word integrity is derived from French and Latin roots meaning untouched, whole, complete-in-itself. If the joists of your house have integrity, they're holding together, not falling apart; they're sound, entire, not termite-riddled. Integrity in life means there's a consistency between what you give assent to, what you believe, what you say, and what you do; no clash or discordance between your actions and what you let on that you stand for.
One person who has helped our government be accountable and maintain integrity over the past 10 years is Sheila Fraser, Canada's Auditor General who's come to the end of her term and is retiring. She's famous for not balking at being critical of the government even when her findings had major repercussions politically, as in the sponsorship scandal. In a CBC radio interview on The Current the host asked her to unpack what it means to be courageous in 'speaking truth to power'; listen for what she says that relates to 'integrity'...[AUDIO CLIP]
..."Live up to your own personal values," she emphasized; "Work with integrity...You have to respect your own values - every day." That fits with the definition of integrity as 'wholeness', 'soundness', being consistent in life and lip; but does it go far enough? Does it actually touch on 'moral uprightness'? 'Upright' relative to WHAT? "Your own personal values" - is that the supreme arbiter, the court of judgment? This may be fine as a secular or humanistic definition as far as it goes, but it seems to fall short in a Christian sense.
Take an extreme case - a Serbian man, Ratko Mladic, who was arrested this week after so many years for massacring 8000 Muslim men and boys in a supposed 'safe zone' during the war in Bosnia. When he gave the orders, was he exhibiting integrity? When he's put on trial at The Hague, can he defend himself by arguing he was acting in line with his most deeply held personal convictions? His people, his tribe, were threatened; his duty was to protect them. Those massacred were the source of the threat; was he not doing his patriotic duty to eliminate them?
What about Stalin and the archipelago, or Hitler and the holocaust camps? Were they not acting with integrity, their actions congruent with their own personal values? What about a delinquent who refuses to work but instead chases after satisfying their chief personal desires - suppose their values are 'getting high and getting laid'? If they thus devote themselves, is that not integrity? Who's to define for me what values are 'upright' and what ones are debauchery?
Values are a religious matter; what we worship, what we hold most dear and sacrifice for, we value. Money or fame or reputation or intoxicating substances or pleasure can all be idols that rival God as the Supreme Arbiter of meaning and purpose in our lives. So, for the Christian, a definition of 'integrity' has to go beyond 'living by personal values' to involve consistency with God's revealed values - Scriptural precepts, truth that springs from the Bible not my subconscious or desires.
The Auditor General was summing up her career for the public. The Apostle Paul summed up his career towards the end in a trial before the Roman governor Felix this way, in Acts 24:14-16 (listen for words that suggest anchors for accountability and integrity): "However, I admit that I worship the God of our fathers as a follower of the Way, which they call a sect. I believe everything that agrees with the Law and that is written in the Prophets, and I have the same hope in God as these men, that there will be a resurrection of both the righteous and the wicked. So I strive always to keep my conscience clear before God and man."
What was Paul's yardstick? Not just his own personal values; but God's judgment - God's appraisal of him - and God's revealed principles as written in the Law and the Prophets. So Paul strives to keep his conscience clear before (in reference to) God and man.
For those who claim to follow Jesus, integrity must relate personal actions to God's revealed values, not just our own personal values. It must also 'stack up' in the context of our relationships to other humans.
One working definition of integrity could be: "Doing the right thing, even when no one else is around - even when you COULD 'get away with it', when you know you probably wouldn't get caught if you DID break the rules." The church you've always longed for models integrity, both in its leadership and in its membership.
If we are on the hot seat or in the spotlight, then we'd better have some guidelines, examples, or models of what a person of integrity looks like. Jesus, of course, is our perfect example of integrity. But unlike Jesus, we are not perfect. Are there any other examples, especially from Scripture, from whom we can learn? Let's look at both negative and positive examples.
ANANIAS: A NEGATIVE EXAMPLE
In Acts 5 we find a stunning example of a lack of integrity. In the early church a man named Joseph sold everything he had to help feed the members of the church. He was such an encourager, just by all that he was and did, that the disciples nicknamed him Barnabas, which means "Son of Encouragement." He didn't do that act of kindness for any recognition, but he received the recognition anyway.
Another man in the church, named Ananias, saw the applause that Barnabas was receiving, and he desired the same words of affirmation, the gestures of appreciation, and the recognition that Barnabas received. Ananias was jealous of Barnabas. He wanted the recognition but without having to earn it.
One way to slide towards becoming a person without integrity is to be dissatisfied with what we have been given, to desire what someone else has. What happened with Ananias? He conspired with his wife, Sapphira, to sell the parcel of ground they had and give the money to the church. But there was one difference in their plan from what Barnabas did. They didn't want to give away ALL the money; after all, some financial security is not necessarily a bad idea. But they didn't want to look any cheaper than Barnabas, so they determined to deceive people by keeping back part of the money for themselves. They told everyone in the church, however, that they too had sold property and were giving all of the proceeds to the church. Ananias and Sapphira wanted their cake and to eat it, too: they hoped their scheme would give them a financial cushion to fall back, and that they would also receive the applause Barnabas got.
Note at least 3 aspects of sin here, that lead from one to another. There would have been nothing at all wrong with them selling the property, keeping part of the proceeds as needed, and giving the rest. As Peter acknowledges, "Wasn't the money at your disposal?" (4) But their boastful pride of life yearned to APPEAR as sacrificial and altruistic as Barnabas. That led to the lie, the fib, the deception. Also there is the COLLUSION - the scheme or co-operation between the two of them (husband Ananias and wife Sapphira) to 'con' the congregation. It could have stopped at just the wrong desire and the lie if either had listened to their conscience and rebuked their partner: but instead they chose to reinforce the other's wicked plans.
When we follow the path to "un-integrity," a second step may be that of being deceitful and not entirely truthful. We may not always lie outright, but we may not tell the entire truth, or we may distort the facts to support our position. We can be experts at revealing only half the story, omitting some significant details, to present ourselves in the best light possible. So the A&S Fraudster Society told themselves, "Nobody needs to know it wasn't actually the WHOLE amount." Desiring what someone else has, coupled with deceit, takes us down the path to "un-integrity."
Ananias might have gotten away with his deceit if the fate of the early church had been left in the hands of people. But Ananias wasn't just deceiving people, he was lying against the Holy Spirit, and the Holy Spirit showed the apostle Peter what was going on. When presenting the money at the apostles' feet, Ananias had the chance to become a person of integrity by telling the truth. But he held to his lie. Peter confronted him with the truth, and Ananias fell over dead. Sapphira his wife had a chance to repent: Peter made a point of it, asking her if such-and-such was the price. She should have reconsidered the plan right then: but she stubbornly chose to persevere in their con game. Like her husband, she too was 'testing the Spirit of the Lord' (5:9). She too fell over dead - just in time for those who'd buried her husband to deal with her likewise.
A lack of integrity brings death. For Ananias, it was a physical death. For some, it's the death of a marriage, or the death of a friendship, or the death of a business, or the death of a ministry, or the death of being considered credible. Truth is essential for trust.
This week someone was telling me the sad tale of a pastor falsely accused of an affair. It only took one person to read into a statement what wasn't there, and instigate a false allegation. Unfortunately the church people and the superiors didn't investigate the facts, or even believe the man's own wife who maintained his innocence, but instead they believed the lie - without checking into actual events. The church had been growing but that stopped and a couple's career in ministry ended all due to one untruth trumpeted without foundation. Trust evaporates when untruths are manufactured.
PAUL: THE POSITIVE EXAMPLE
We have considered what an example of a lack of integrity looks like. Now let's consider a positive example. Paul displayed a good model of integrity. He had spent three years in Ephesus. He'd founded the church there and ministered painstakingly to the believers. He was God's instrument in performing many miracles. His ministry even affected the city's economy, because the believers stopped buying the manufactured idols that were being sold for home worship. He preached Jesus, and as a result of the message, people turned to Christ and gave up their idols and books on witchcraft and sorcery.
People noticed how Sheila Fraser as Auditor General used simple, direct language that would be accessible to an average Canadian, rather than technical accountant language. I like how directly and simply Paul sums up his message in Acts 20:21&32: "I have declared to both Jews and Greeks that they must turn to God in repentance and have faith in our Lord Jesus....Now I commit you to God and to the word of his grace, which can build you up and give you an inheritance among all those who are sanctified." See how simple? "Turn to God in repentance, have faith in Jesus"; and how positive - Good News: "the word of God's grace can build you up and give you an inheritance..." This is the message that motivated Paul, that moved him with discipline to 'keep his nose clean', to not covet anyone's goods (33), to meet his own and others' needs by 'hard work' (35), to serve God 'with great humility and tears' risking murderous plots from his opponents (19).
When you spend 3 years with someone, you learn who that person is. You learn whether or not he or she is real, or reliable, a person of integrity. Paul had been with the believers there in Ephesus for 3 years. But it was time for him to go and serve Christ elsewhere. He was led by the Holy Spirit to make a journey to Jerusalem, the home base of Christianity but also the hotbed of antagonism against the followers of Jesus. On the way, he called for the elders of the Ephesian church to come and spend some time with him. It was there that he told them they'd never see him again. But Paul also reminded them of the marks of his integrity and encouraged them to follow his model. "You know how I lived...Keep watch over yourselves...Be on your guard!" (17, 28, 31) Paul's very language invites them to be circumspect, look at themselves objectively not just subjectively, as if viewing oneself from outside - God's vantage point: 'Keep watch over yourselves!'
A first dimension of integrity that we see in Acts 20 is being faithful to God. Acts 20:18-19, "You know, from the first day that I came to Asia, in what manner I always lived among you, serving the Lord with all humility." Integrity means that what we do we are doing with humility as a service to the Lord. Not just self-focussed, but God-focussed. The desired result is that the attention and the emphasis will be on Jesus Christ, so people will want to follow Jesus NOT become a follower of the one who's bringing the message. The word 'serving' is from a Greek root meaning "a slave who has no rights of his own." Our desire must be to serve the Lord, and that is done by loving others.
Another aspect of integrity suggested here is to be complete in serving God. V24, "...If only I may finish the race and complete the task the Lord Jesus has given me..." Finish the job! Don't give up! And v27, "For I have not hesitated to proclaim to you the whole will of God." It can be tempting to only share the easy teachings of Christ, such as His love for us, His preparing a place for us in heaven, His presence with us as we go through this life. Those are important principles of the Christian faith that need to be communicated, but they are not the whole counsel of God. A benign 'Santa Claus' won't impact sinners. After Ananias and Sapphira dropped dead, "Great FEAR seized the whole church and all who heard about these events" (5:11). Do you proclaim a God who is to be feared / held in awe as well as loved? God is holy, God is pure, and God will judge sin. In view of those attributes, the only response open is to repent of our sins, surrender our will to His will, and deny ourselves, taking up our cross daily and following Jesus. When we are faithful to God in sharing the 'whole' message, we will include the harder demands of the gospel - yet we will be so full of God's grace in our lives that we will speak them in a tone of genuine love and caring for other individuals.
How do you recognize sin? Susanna Wesley, the mother of Methodism, taught her children this definition for sin: "Whatever weakens your reason, impairs the tenderness of your conscience, obscures your sense of God, or takes away the relish of spiritual things; in short, whatever increases the strength and authority of your body over your mind, that thing is sin to you."
So, if we are going to be people of integrity for Christ, we begin by being faithful to God by serving Him humbly, and by being complete in finishing our task and presenting the complete counsel of God - the whole package.
In addition to reliability before God, we learn from Paul that a person of integrity is also faithful to his or her friends. We are faithful to our friends when we seek to help them in whatever way we can. V20, "I kept back nothing that was helpful, but proclaimed it to you, and taught you publicly and from house to house." There are times when what's helpful is teaching and advice, as with Paul's spiritual teaching to the Ephesians. At other times the help that's needed may be encouraging our friends, either through prayers, words, or just 'being there'. Sometimes we provide help by being sensitive to their needs and apologizing when we may have been insensitive.
The third area of integrity is the area of being faithful in finances. That includes not coveting anyone else's money or belongings. This is partly where Ananias & Sapphira got off-track! But in Paul's case, he's very clear: v33, "I have not coveted anyone's silver or gold or clothing." Not coveting: in other words, we should be satisfied with what we have. It's been said that a rich man is not one who has accumulated much, but one who is satisfied with what he has. Paul demonstrated financial integrity by paying his own way and not relying on the goodness of the Ephesians, or any other gathering of Christians, to support him in his ministry. He did not want to be a burden. Paul understood that the purpose of being blessed by God in the financial realm was to give it away to help those who were weak, instead of seeking to accumulate more for himself. He concludes by quoting Jesus' own words: "It is more blessed to give than to receive." Now THERE'S a truly radical concept! Culture, through advertising, brainwashes us to believe that blessedness comes from getting, not giving. But Paul by working with his hands had demonstrated he could enjoy God's blessing better by giving away to supply others' needs.
Paul was a man of integrity, and he modeled his integrity by being faithful to God, to his friends, and in his finances. The church that people long for is the one in which its members are people of integrity. They don't just talk about it - they live it. Corrie TenBoom said: "Don't worry about what you do not understand of the Bible.Worry about what you do understand but do not live by." Let's pray.