Deadly Serious

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The story is told of a little boy in church whose attention wandered, and he became fascinated by a list of names on the wall – ‘Captain J. Harvey’, ‘Corporal S. Jones’ and so on. And he whispered to his Dad, ‘What are those names up there?’ And Dad said, ‘They’re the people who died in the services.’ And wide-eyed, the little boy whispered back, ‘What? The morning or evening services?’ Well tonight in our series in Acts we come to the account of how two people in church drop dead under God’s judgement. Which seems an odd thing for Luke to include in his book about the spread of the gospel and the growth of the church – because it sounds the kind of thing that’ll do anything but encourage the spread of the gospel and the growth of the church. After all, if we had two people miraculously healed here tonight, a lot of our friends would be open to an invitation next Sunday. But it’s hard to imagine yourself saying, ‘Hey, we had two people struck dead at church last Sunday – do you fancy coming along and giving it a try?’ That seems about as off-putting as it gets.

Now we haven’t seen judgements fall in our church as fell on Ananias and Sapphira. But a lot of people would say that we’re off-putting in another way – namely, that we’re judgemental. E.g., someone wrote this to me a while ago: ‘JPC is very strong at spelling out the lines God has drawn in the Bible on the place of sex and the permanence of marriage, etc – which I have no problem with. It’s the way it is said, and the apparent lack of compassion in practice for those who’ve already got on the wrong side of the lines, that leaves all but the near-perfect feeling so judged.’

And the first thing to do is to admit that, because we’re far from a perfect church, there will be some truth in that – and that we need to keep working at the way we say things and the way we look after one another. But even if we did get the way we spoke about these things perfect, and backed it up with perfect compassion in practice, our culture would still see us as judgemental simply because we call right and wrong what God calls right and wrong in the Bible. Which is why, at the other end of the spectrum, liberal churches have reacted to the culture by saying that any form of lifestyle is compatible with relationship with God. E.g., I know someone who joined a church like that precisely because he didn’t want to belong to one that was off-putting to people who were, e.g., co-habiting, or struggling with homosexual feelings, or divorced, or single parents. But then the married minister of this liberal church had an affair with a married woman in the congregation. Which brought it home to many of them that abandoning God’s lines is itself off-putting because the church ends up looking just like the world and has nothing different to say or to offer.

So what should a church be like – what should our church be like – if it’s going both to hold on to the gospel and to hold it out to people whose beliefs and lifestyles are miles from it? That’s one of the questions that the book of Acts answers. So would you turn in the Bibles to Acts 5. Last week, we looked at chapter 4 verses 32 to 37, where from time to time, well-off members of the fledgling church are selling property to give to their poorer Christian brothers and sisters. And you’d have thought that nothing could be more attractive to the watching world: it’s a cameo of what the church should be. By contrast, in chapter 5 you find two professing Christians selling a property, keeping a whole load of the money for themselves, and then trying to pretend to the church that they were giving away the lot. And God confronts them and judges them. And you’d have thought that nothing could be more off-putting to the watching world. But you’d be wrong, as we’ll see. And you’d also be wrong to think that the message of these verses is wholly negative, that this is a cameo of what the church shouldn’t be. Ananias and Sapphira are certainly a cameo of what Christians shouldn’t be. But the whole account is actually still a cameo of what the church should be – because as well as wanting us to be a loving community, God’s plan for the church is that it should also be a holy community – a community of people who, although still imperfect, are being changed by the work of God’s Spirit within them.

So I’ve got three lessons from chapter 5:

Firstly, DON’T TREAT THE CHURCH AS A MERELY HUMAN ORGANISATION

- which is what this couple in Acts 5 basically did. Look down to verses 1 and 2:

1 “Now a man named Ananias, together with his wife Sapphira, also sold a piece of property. 2With his wife's full knowledge he kept back part of the money for himself, but brought the rest and put it at the apostles' feet.”

I.e., they pretend to the church that they’re giving away all the money when in fact they’re only giving away part of it. Why? Presumably, because they want the others to think well of them; they want a reputation for holiness. So their ultimate goal is to win the good judgement of other human beings, and their method is simply to cover up their sin – in this case, to cover up their reluctance to give with a pretense of generosity.

Whereas the ultimate goal of relating rightly to God doesn’t even feature. It’s as if they’ve completely missed the point – because the ultimate point of church is to bring us into contact with the gospel and, through that, for God to bring us into relationship with himself. Now of course, when God brings us into that ‘vertical relationship’ with himself (if I can put it that way), it automatically puts us into ‘horizontal relationships’ with other believers. And that was always God’s plan: his plan for the church wasn’t just to create a bunch of individuals who’ve been put right with him but aren’t relating to one another. It was to create a people relating properly to him and one another – at least approximating to that, this side of heaven.

But you can only join God’s people, God’s church, by coming into that ‘vertical relationship’ with him through his Son, the Lord Jesus. You can’t join the church by coming on Sundays. You can’t join the church by joining Christianity Explored or Discipleship Explored or Home Group or Focus or any other group. You can’t join the church by filling your details in on a form and being added to a membership list. You can’t even join the church by going through the outward motions of being baptised – Ananias and Sapphira doubtless had been. And that’s because the church isn’t a merely human organisation. So no human being or group or membership list or ritual can let you in. Only the Lord Jesus can let you in, if you turn to him, and ask his forgiveness for not letting him be Lord of your life, and start over again with him in his rightful place, and his Spirit to help you live for him from now on.

And if you’ve not yet done that, can I recommend as we often do, this little booklet Why Jesus? which explains how Jesus is the key to finding relationship with God. It’s on the Welcome Desk and also through in student supper.

But if you have done that, can I say: please don’t treat the church as a merely human organisation. Don’t be concerned to have other Christians think well of you. Don’t be concerned to have a reputation for holiness. Instead be concerned to live your life transparently before God, trying to please him, aiming for integrity as far as that’s possible for sinners like us. Because we can fool one another, can’t we? I can get you thinking how spiritual I am and you can get me thinking how spiritual you are, while underneath we’re both covering up sin instead of letting God deal with it. But what’s the point of that? Because we can’t fool God.

And can I say as gently as I can: if you are a professing Christian, but like Ananias and Sapphira, you’re caught up in a wilful deception, a double-life that maybe no-one else knows about but you and God, then tonight is the time to come clean with God and to come clean with someone else here who can start helping you out of that double life. Because what’s the point of it? After all, if you are a genuine believer, it’s going to make you miserable until you sort it out (not to mention, dishonour God). And the longer you go without sorting it out, the more it calls into question whether you’re a genuine believer at all.

So that’s the first lesson of this passage: Don’t treat the church as a merely human organisation. The next lesson is:

Second, REALISE THAT THE CHURCH IS THE HOLY SPIRIT’S BUILDING SITE (vv3-11)

Let’s re-read from verses 3 to 11:

3 “Then Peter said, "Ananias, how is it that Satan has so filled your heart that you have lied to the Holy Spirit and have kept for yourself some of the money you received for the land? [Notice there the assumption that in lying to the church, they’ve actually lied to God’s Holy Spirit – who is present and at work in the church.] 4Didn't it belong to you before it was sold? And after it was sold, wasn't the money at your disposal? What made you think of doing such a thing? You have not lied to men but to God."
5When Ananias heard this, he fell down and died. And great fear seized all who heard what had happened. 6Then the young men came forward, wrapped up his body, and carried him out and buried him.
7About three hours later his wife came in, not knowing what had happened. 8Peter asked her, "Tell me, is this the price you and Ananias got for the land?"
"Yes," she said, "that is the price."
9Peter said to her, "How could you agree to test the Spirit of the Lord? Look! The feet of the men who buried your husband are at the door, and they will carry you out also."
10At that moment she fell down at his feet and died. Then the young men came in and, finding her dead, carried her out and buried her beside her husband. 11Great fear seized the whole church and all who heard about these events.”

I.e., basically, God confronts their sin (by revealing it supernaturally to Peter) and then he judges their sin. So what are we to learn about the church? Is this saying, as that letter I read out earlier put it, that church is a place only for the near-perfect? No, absolutely not. What we’re meant to learn is that the church is the Holy Spirit’s building site, in which God’s aim is to uncover our sinfulness and change us more and more into his likeness.

And Luke had introduced the work of the Spirit right at the beginning of his ‘volume 1’, his Gospel, where John the Baptist announces what the Lord Jesus is about to do. And John says:

“I baptise you with water [i.e., all I can do is get you wet as a visual aid of the deeper cleansing from sin that you need]. But one more powerful than I will come [i.e., Jesus]... He will baptise you with the Holy Spirit and fire.” (Luke 3.16)

And that promise of the sin-cleansing, character-changing work of the Spirit goes back to the Old Testament (OT) – e.g., the prophet Isaiah, looking forward to what Jesus would do, says:

“In that day... those who are left... will be called holy... The Lord will wash away [their sin]... he will cleanse the stains... by a Spirit of judgement and a Spirit of fire.” (Isaiah 4.2-4)

Now we need both our sins forgiving and our sinful natures changing. And Luke’s ‘volume 1’, his Gospel, tells us how Jesus died and rose again to pay for the forgiveness of all our sins, past and future. But then Luke’s ‘volume 2’, the book of Acts, begins with how Jesus ascended back to heaven, from where he gives the Holy Spirit to change us. And those of us who’ve received his forgiveness, and received his Spirit to help us live for him as Lord, are now a work-in-progress. So it’s true that, at every moment, we’re completely forgiven. But it’s far from true that we’re completely changed (in fact we’ll always be incompletely changed this side of heaven). We’ve gone through that decisive point of turning to Jesus as Lord; but that starts a daily process of letting Jesus be Lord, of letting him uncover our sinfulness and change us. Which is why I’ve called the church the Holy Spirit’s building site. And that’s the idea behind that third Bible verse under the picture, where the apostle Paul writes this about the local church:

“Don’t you know [e.g., Jesmond Parish Church, don’t you know...] that you yourselves are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit lives in you? If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy him; for God’s temple is sacred, and you are that temple.” (1 Corinthians 3.16-17)

And what Ananias and Sapphira did comes into that category of what ‘destroys’ God’s purpose for his church. Because God’s goal for his church is that we become his holy people now (albeit imperfect, still), and that we pass safely through God’s final judgement to serve him forever – and free of sin, at last. And his method is to forgive us our sins (through Jesus’ death on the cross) and then to work in us by his Spirit to make us more holy (ie, like him) and to get more sin out of us (although, as I’ve said, it’ll only be got completely out of us beyond this life). And what Ananias and Sapphira did goes completely against God’s purpose because they wilfully covered up their sin instead of asking forgiveness and being willing to be changed. And they did that even when they were confronted – and Sapphira, at least, was given yet another chance to repent.

So this incident in Acts 5 is not saying that the church is a place for the sinless and that God will throw us out if he finds sin in us. It’s saying that the church is God’s building site and that his aim is not to get us sinners out of his church, but to get sin out of us sinners (partially in this life and completely beyond this life). Which is why, far from being judgemental towards unbelievers, we should remember that the only difference between us and them is the work of forgiveness and change-by-his-Spirit that God has done on us so far. And it’s why, far from being judgemental towards one another within church, we should be patient towards one another – because you know that I’m just a work-in-progress with a whole lot of sin in me still to be tackled, and I know the same about you. And we need to remember that we each started in a different place when we first came to Christ, and that he works in each of us on different things in a different order and at a different pace. So, e.g., a while ago a student here came to faith having, by his own admission, nearly drunk and drugged himself to death. And, gradually, by the work of the Spirit, he changed. But even a year or more after his conversion he still had to race out of the evening service for a cigarette as soon as it was over. And I’d go out and chat with him and some people coming out looked slightly askance at the thought of a Christian having a smoke. And I remember wanting to say to them, ‘If only you knew what he was on a year ago, you wouldn’t judge him for not yet having kicked cigarettes; you’d praise God for the work of the Holy Spirit so far on the building site of his life.’

So that’s the main lesson of verses 3-11: to realise that the church is the Holy Spirit’s building site. But it’s important to ask, as well, ‘What, if anything, is normative for today’s church from this passage?’ I.e., when there is wilful, unrepented sin by professing Christians, are we ever to expect God to do something like this? Or are we to do something – and if so what?

Well, God does still sometimes do something like this. I read the account of a Baptist pastor in Australia. He took up a new post in a church only to discover that three of the most influential office-holders in the congregation were having affairs. And he confronted them, as others had done previously, but they were unrepentant and, because of the set-up, couldn’t be removed. So he considered moving on, since his situation looked pretty untenable. But then he set himself to stay for a year and to pray for God to purify the church. Within the year, the three people concerned were dead: one of cancer, one of a heart attack and one in a car crash. A cynic would say, ‘Coincidence’; a believer would see that as something very like what we’re looking at in Acts 5.

But God only did this kind of thing sometimes back then – it’s not as if Luke tells us it happened regularly. And he only sometimes does such things today to remind us of his holiness. So when he doesn’t, are we – or at least, the leaders of a church – to do something? Well, the answer is: yes. In the New Testament (NT), the leadership of a church is given the responsibility of what Christians have called ‘church discipline’ – i.e., not just teaching the church from the Bible what lines God has drawn for us to live within, but leading and disciplining the church in actually living within those lines. And where there is wilful, unrepented sin, the NT says that the leadership of the church should confront it – first privately; then, if there’s no change of heart, more publicly; and ultimately, if there is a settled refusal to change, there is to be a withdrawal of fellowship from the person concerned (see the Lord Jesus’ own teaching on this in Matthew 18-15-18, and the way Paul exemplified it in 1 Corinthians 5.1-11 and 2 Thessalonians 3.6-15). To say more on that would be another sermon, so I won’t.

So, what should our response to verses 3 to 11 be? Well, look at the second half of verse 5:

“And great fear seized all who heard what had happened.
[And then skip to verse 11:]
11Great fear seized the whole church and all who heard about these events.”

By implication, Luke is saying that the appropraite response is a healthy fear before God. For people trusting in Jesus’ death for their forgiveness, that can’t mean fear of his rejection, fear of punishment. But it certainly means fear of taking God lightly. Fear of treating him as anything less than the holy God that he is. Fear of hypocrisy. Fear of professing to want my sins forgiven while not wanting my sinfulness changed. Fear of coming anywhere near even the beginning of an attitude like Ananias’ and Sapphira’s. Fear that leads to more repentance – which, as Jim Packer puts it in his book Keep in Step With the Spirit, means, ‘turning from as much as you know of your sin to give as much as you know of yourself to as much as you know of your God.’

Now just look again at the end of verse 11:

11 “Great fear seized the whole church and all who heard about these events.”

And as I said at the start, you might think that this would have been pretty off-putting to the watching world. And you might think that, today, a church that speaks about sin and repentance and God’s holiness and God’s judgement would put people off – especially a church which took holy living and church discipline seriously. But it seems to me that, in the last verses of tonight’s passage, Luke implies that if we’re thinking like that, we’re wrong. So my final, brief heading is:

Third, TRUST THAT BEING THE CHURCH GOD WANTS US TO BE IS THE KEY TO FRUITFULNESS (vv12-16)

Look on to verse 12. Following on from the Ananias and Sapphira incident, it says:

12 “The apostles performed many miraculous signs and wonders among the people. And all the believers used to meet together in Solomon's Colonnade. 13No one else dared join them [so that suggests that they have been put off, but read on:], even though they were highly regarded by the people [which suggests that they haven’t been put off – there’s respect, but distance]. 14Nevertheless, more and more men and women believed in the Lord and were added [by implication, added by God] to their number. 15As a result, people brought the sick into the streets and laid them on beds and mats so that at least Peter's shadow might fall on some of them as he passed by. 16Crowds gathered also from the towns around Jerusalem, bringing their sick and those tormented by evil spirits, and all of them were healed.”

Now it would be another sermon to raise the question of healing in the church today, so I won’t go there. All I’ve got time to say on these last verses is that Luke seems to have included them at least to make the point that the events of verses 1 to 11 didn’t put people off. Or, to be more accurate, they didn’t stop God from continuing to use his church to draw more people to faith in the Lord Jesus. So, here is a church in which sin is clearly spoken of and confronted. Here is a church in which God’s holiness and standards are respected. Here is a church in which God himself takes the discipline into his hands. And yet none of that hinders the spread of the gospel and the growth of the church – because holiness is never a hindrance. It is true that speaking about the lines God has drawn for us in a way that’s harsh or unsympathetic does put people off. It is true that being judgemental towards fellow-sinners or sounding as if we ourselves are superior or highlighting only certain sins does put people off. And it is true that being practically uncompassionate and unsupportive to one another does put people off. But holiness doesn’t. And we need to trust that. Because it’s easy to start asking the question, ‘How can we attract people to Christ?’ and come up with all sorts of answers that the Bible wouldn’t recognise. Whereas the question we should be asking is, ‘What kind of church does God want us to be, and how can we become more like that?’ And we need to trust that being the church God wants us to be is the key to fruitfulness.

And our first three looks at the book of Acts in this series tell us that God wants us to be: a church that is telling all people everywhere about Jesus (Acts 1-2); a church that is loving (Acts 4.32-37) and a church that is holy (Acts 5.1-11). And if we set ourselves to be a church like that, we can trust that fruit will follow.

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