During my sabbatical this summer I met John (I've changed his name, but none of you will know him). John's life had fallen apart.
John and his girlfriend had lived a party lifestyle fuelled by alcohol. But his girlfriend increasingly became prone to violent fits of rage. So much so that John felt he had to report her to the police. By this stage, he had lost his job, and was then kicked out of the house. So, John had no home, no job, and pretty much no money. And actually where he was living wasn't his own country, he'd been working abroad. So his now ex-girlfriend's final act was to cut up his passport into jigsaw sized pieces. He couldn't even return home. John friends, for one reason or another, didn't want to know. He was wandering the city alone. Then he remembered an old friend. He hadn't spoken to him in years, but he knew was a Christian. So he got in touch. Long story short: the friend took him in, looked after him and gave him all that he needed. It was a few weeks later when I met John in church.
It's a remarkable story. But here's the thing that stuck out for me: In my conversation with John he kept repeating something like this, 'this church is so caring, and so loving, look! Everyone gives so much to each other'. What a description! That's brilliant, isn't it?
I'm sure a good number of people could describe JPC this way. And our passage shows us that, through the Holy Spirit's work in us, we can live in this caring and giving way. It is possible! But it's also a motivation to raise our game to be more like this.
So let's get stuck into unpacking it together. Do have Acts 4:32-37 open in front of you.
1. The Gospel Changes Our Attitude to Each Other (vv.32-33)
The first thing we see is that the gospel changes our attitude to each other. Verse 32:
"Now the full number of those who 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."
Picture the scene here… imagine it, it's pretty vivid – isn't it?
The church in Jerusalem was probably quite large by this point. Lots of people, lots of different people. And yet, they were "of one heart and soul".
Our "heart and soul" means the very centre of our beings - unity to the very core of who people are.
There's nothing, absolutely nothing, that can make us closer to one another than this shared love for Christ and what he has done.
Which raises the question: do we see each other this way?
There's a danger of looking at each other and thinking 'they've got nothing to do with me' or 'they're just so different to me'. It could be differences of age, or stage…
'Students… How can I talk to them? I'm not a student, I haven't been a student in years/I've never been… they seem so young, with their rolled-up jeans (and correspondingly cold ankles), and baggy fleeces and Michelin man puffer jackets'.
Well… so far, I've never been bitten by a student!
And if you're a student, or a CYFA-er, then remember, as many of you do very well: it's ok to talk to someone over the age of 25!
Age, stage, nationality, interests, personality, and the many more differences between us, must not be barriers. A gospel-changed attitude knows that, when compared to what we have in common as followers of Jesus, differences don't matter. I need much more of that attitude in myself. And don't we need more of that among us?
Gospel unity in this passage is a movement. It leads to action, verse 32… The church didn't hold tightly to their possessions. They shared them.
What a stark contrast to our me-centred, rights-based world. Western-individualism: private ownership is everything. Money and possessions are for us to enjoy on our own, or with a few select others.
But the gospel turns this attitude upside down. It's people > possessions. We share what God has given us.
This isn't a form of communism. Communism says 'what's mine is everyone's', but gospel unity is the attitude of, 'if you need it, what's mine is yours'. You need a bed? I've got a spare room/a floor! You need to store a few things for a while? Use my garage. You need a car? Borrow mine, let me put you on my insurance. Having a baby? Here's a cot and a pram we don't need anymore. Need some furniture? We've got a few spare bits; would you like them?
How can we grow in this attitude?
Well, the starting point of sharing is making ourselves available to people. We can't share what we have if we're not spending time with each other. A really good way of doing that is opening up our homes. That will help us get to know each other's needs, material or otherwise. Then we can begin to share what we have.
Another platform is our small groups. Because if we're going to care for one another we need to lay down our lives for those we're in close proximity with. So, we've got to be a committed small group member, and then there's the challenge of being consistent and intentional in our care.
I'm sure lots of this goes on among us. But if you're like me, then this is a challenge! So ask yourself: 'what does it look like for me to grow in this?'
In this passage the writer Luke wants to show that the gospel practically affects how we care for each other. So, what about verse 33?
"And with great power the apostles were giving their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all."
If we took verse 33 out, verses 32 and 34 would probably fit together neatly. Why is it there?
I think the simple reason is that Luke is reminding us, of the big thing he's trying to get across in Acts – that the gospel was going out and God's church was growing.
So in verse 33 we see that "great grace" was upon the church, i.e. God's goodness was really felt, and this over-spilt into sharing and giving to each other.
So, it's preaching the gospel that inspires us to be this kind of church. Because it reminds us that Jesus gave up everything for our greatest need, for everyone's greatest need – sin. Here's how Paul put it in our other reading: that the Lord Jesus Christ "…was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you by his poverty might become rich." (2 Cor 8:9).
There's a swap. Jesus gave up the riches of life as the Son of God, to hang on a cross with nothing, so that we might have the riches of eternity with God.
If Jesus gave up everything to give us life, then it changes our perspective, doesn't it? Because we see our possessions as they really are – nothing in comparison to eternal riches, and more easily shared, if Jesus gave up his life for us.
But being this kind of church also attracts others to the gospel.
The church is not just for those of us on 'the inside'. It's always for those of us who want to hear about Jesus. And there is no 'conflict' here. Because a church filled with "great grace" will always be attractive – if those who aren't Christians can see it, and, if like John did, they can say 'what a giving church that is'.
So, remember: it's the gospel that will change our attitude to each other.
2. Gospel Unity Means Giving Money to Christians in Need (vv.34-37)
The rest of our passage really focuses on the big aspect of that we've already begun to explore, so secondly: gospel unity means giving money to Christians in need.
Let's read verses 34 to 37:
"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. Thus Joseph, who was also called by the apostles Barnabas (which means son of encouragement), a Levite, a native of Cyprus, sold a field that belonged to him and brought the money and laid it at the apostles' feet."
So this particular giving was voluntary. As giving is for us. And this particular giving was also sporadic – giving was 'as any had need'.
But these verses show us a vision of giving, basically, for rich Christians. In Acts 4 those who had extra property could afford to sell it at a minute's notice to then give the proceeds away.
Not all of us are able to give such substantial amounts, I know that. But, frankly, some of us are able to. And lots of us (e.g. students) one day will be able to. In the world's terms, most of us are rich.
If we've got our money honestly, we don't need to feel bad about having it. But we need to ask ourselves, "what am I going to do with it?" Because God gives us more, not just so we have more, but so we can give more away to others.
So, there will be needs in our own church family here, and Biblically, we are called to start with those.
Yes, we have a welfare state, and however flawed and imperfect it may be, it provides care for the needy. But that doesn't excuse us from helping our brothers and sisters in Christ. So let's look and give for needs.
So, e.g. a number of you have paid for students to come on our student weekend away who otherwise couldn't afford it. Or you've paid for international brothers and sisters to have flights home to see family. Or you've taken people into your home cost free for considerable periods.
Or you've given to those of us who have been struggling. A while ago one of you who told me that, not long after you'd moved to Newcastle, and were very short of money. One day you found a substantial sum of cash in your letterbox. You didn't know who'd sent it. But you'd only told a few people of your l struggles - and they'd been people here at church.
This also means we will give sacrificially to our church's ministry, so that we can keep gospel ministry going and effective. As I said, we want as many people as possible to have their spiritual needs met in Jesus. Otherwise, any care we give would be in vain.
So, when we give to church, we're giving to ministries that, sometimes have almost nothing to do with us – but that serve our Christian brothers and sisters. Giving to church is a way of giving to them.
And the biggest examples of that have been when we've decided to do big things together. E.g. plant a church in Gateshead, and then another one in Benwell… Both resulted in a huge amount of giving among us. And we need to look at that both those churches and think 'God used us to do that'.
Whether we have lots, or not much, giving should hurt us. A growing church hurts. Because it costs. A dead church doesn't hurt. And it costs nothing.
But just because this passage is mainly addressing us in the local church doesn't mean we should ignore the needs in the Christian church which has now spread around the world.
In 2 Corinthians 8, Paul encourages the Corinthians to sacrificially give to the desperately poor church in Jerusalem. And he's saying "look their poverty ought to be a concern to you, just as if you were poor it would be a concern to them".
Friends, if we aren't prepared to give to poor Christians around the world, we're effectively saying 'we're not with you, and you are alone in your need'.
David Platt in his excellent book Counter Culture says this:
"Our brothers and sisters are suffering due to a variety of factors, many of which we are limited in our ability to address. But the logic that says 'I can't do everything, so I won't do anything' is straight from the pit of hell… What would happen if we let the sacrificial love of Christ for us in the gospel create in our lives, families and churches a sacrificial generosity toward Christian brothers and sisters who are in dire need around the world?"
Barnabas is highlighted as an example in verses 36 and 37 – he sold a field and gave the proceeds to the apostles. This, perhaps, implies there was a common fund for those in need. Certainly, Barnabas trusted church leaders to use his money wisely. So if we don't know how to help we can give our money to trustworthy Christian organizations to use as they see fit.
But, again, the context here is that Barnabas, and the others mentioned in verse 34, gave for known needs.
E.g. AID help relieve poverty through, and in the local church in sub-Saharan Africa. Part of AID's vision is to send diploma graduates of Bishop Gwynee College in South Sudan to George Whitfield College in South Africa to obtain a full theology degree – students will then return to South Sudan to help train others. At GWC one year's tuition, accommodation and food costs £4,500. Or, take, the staff and admin costs for AID's community health project for a month? £1,300. Or the same costs for the microfinance project for a month? £400.
So, friends, the question for us is: are we going to make things like that happen? Could we pay for a year's theological study? Or a month of ministry? We could do the same with our other mission partners.
We need to ask ourselves: 'What major financial needs in the worldwide church can I help meet?'
Now, especially if we don't have lots, to be able to give sacrificially, we have to live simply. But, frankly, however much we have, we all ought to live relatively simply as Christians.
Too often we fill our lives with more and more possessions, and they become things that, unlike Barnabas, we aren't prepared to give away. Don't we all need to fight against that constant desire to accumulate?
Simply put, there are things we will not be able to afford because of our giving. Maybe a certain house, or holiday, or car, or even regular trips to the cinema (especially seeing you could feed your pet elephant for a month for the cost of two cinema tickets in Newcastle!)
Now all of that may leave you thinking, 'well what about the needs outside of the church, as Christians shouldn't we go and meet some of those?'
And the answer is 'yes, we should'. But our passage is about giving within the Christian church. So, I've kept us focused on that.
But, it's a fair guess that this loving, giving, church in Acts would have been caring for needs all around them. Giving to other Christians is a Biblical priority. But we also know that Jesus commands "love your neighbour as yourself" (Luke 10:27).
Thinking about this is a whole other sermon! But there are ways we can help individuals, and there are organisations we can support – e.g. CAP, who help thousands of Christians get debt free.
Again, to think more, I'd really recommend reading Counter Culture. With the caution we will need to think through how it translates to life in Tyneside, or wherever we are! But it really helps us think about, and get going, in care for the poor – both inside and outside the church.
Friends, in many ways we are already like this beautiful picture of the early church. The same God then is powerfully among us now, working by his Spirit. We should be so thankful for that!
So, the example of this church in Acts will encourage us. But it will also really convict us. And it's meant to.
Tonight, this beautiful portrait should inspire us, and motivate us, to push forward and be more like this. So that everyone here, and those around us, might say: 'JPC, yep, that's a giving, caring church'.
Let's ask for God's help with that now.