(Go back to part 3 of 4)
Our last observation, at least for now, is this:
The Early Church was established in, and built upon, sacrifice and loss.
It’s often not explicitly spelled out, but it is inescapably and palpably there nonetheless. In an era where church is often designed to be as comfortable and convenient as possible, I don’t see either of those qualities in the early pages of the Book of Acts. Comfort and convenience were not only not priorities to the apostles, they weren’t even on the radar. It’s as if the assumption was this will cost you everything. Sounds a lot like the person they were following.
In chapter 2, Jews have come from all over the civilized world to Jerusalem to celebrate the Pentecost. When the totally unexpected happens and their travel plans are interrupted by the Holy Spirit, and they come to the realization that they completely missed who Jesus was, they don’t just thank Peter for a good message and go home. They stay. For a long time. In fact, they uproot their lives from wherever they were from and make their new home with their new spiritual family. They gave up literally everything, except whatever they brought with them before they knew they wouldn’t be going home.
It doesn’t end there. Because there were so many without jobs or many possessions, and because money to shelter and feed everyone was running out, the early believers start selling stuff – lots of stuff – and giving it to whoever had need. That’s just chapter 2. Just in case we don’t believe it, or somehow think it was a one time thing, or that just a few people were “that radical”, we find the same language in chapter 4. “What’s mine is yours” wasn’t just a trite expression; it’s how they lived – all of them. They weren’t so concerned about what they possessed as what they could give up for the sake of those around them. We’re not talking garage sales, or yard sales with unwanted trinkets that are polluting our homes. They were selling their actual yards, and garages, and homes. Why? So that their new brothers and sisters wouldn’t have to go home, but so that they could be together. The amazing thing is none of this comes across as a burden. Rather it is portrayed as a joy, something they embraced with gladness and sincerity, so that no need would go unmet.
Then in the middle of all this happy selling we find this interesting story about Ananias and Sapphira, a married couple who sell a piece of real estate and give most of the proceeds to the church. Their story in chapter 5 tells us that they wanted to look sacrificial. Keeping up with the Joneses wasn’t about having a bigger house, better job, or nicer car — it was about giving more. In today’s church they would be held up as an example of “radical sacrifice” (can you imagine someone in your church selling their $250,000 home and giving $200,000 to the church?). The culture of Early Church was so steeped in sacrifice that Ananias and Sapphira were just trying to keep the appearance of keeping up. Giving that way was normal and common.
And it doesn’t stop there.
It’s one thing when I voluntarily give something up. It’s another entirely when something is taken away from me. Yet that is exactly what happens. It doesn’t take much time at all before the persecutions that Jesus forewarned them about take place. By the beginning of chapter 4, Peter and John are already spending the night in jail. Followed by threats. Followed by more jail, now for all the apostles, in Acts 5. An angel lets them out (not for their own comfort, but so that they could keep speaking about Jesus – see observations 1 and 2 in prior posts), and they get dragged in again. This time the result is not more jail, but being flogged and beaten. Whipped – just like Jesus. Their reputation is already shot (people were accusing them of drunkenness in Acts 2), and now their health and physical well-being is being taken away. They will literally have scars for the rest of their lives.
How would I have felt? “Have I gone too far? Have I made people too uncomfortable?” These men rejoiced that they were counted worthy of suffering for the name of Jesus. To them, the suffering wasn’t reason to question God, but rather to thank Him. It was for them an emblem of faithfulness, that what Jesus had said of them was true, and that they were not only loyal to Him, but were becoming like Him even in their suffering. At the threat of more bodily harm if they keep speaking about Jesus, what do they do? They keep speaking about Jesus. Every day. Without stopping.
Ok, now I’m overwhelmed. This doesn’t describe my experience of church at all. Never mind leaving behind friends, family, jobs, and home for church. Never mind selling my home for needs in the church. I don’t have a clue what suffering for Jesus is. Persecution has become wondering what people will think of me if I invite them to church. It’s something that largely happens in my mind, and becomes an excuse to not talk to people about things eternal. It is almost never something that really happens in my life. In fact, I can’t think of a time since I was a missionary (almost twenty years ago) that I have experienced any real persecution in my life, at least not the kind Jesus spoke about. I get discouraged enough when people don’t want to sit up front, or don’t want to do more than maybe attend church regularly. I can’t imagine what I would feel if I actually got persecuted like the early Church.
Church isn’t about what I give up anymore, except maybe some sleep on Sunday mornings. It’s not about loss. It’s not about sacrifice. It’s about the bare minimum I have to do so I can move on to the rest of my week and not think about it until next Sunday. Church has become about what I think of the service, not what service I think I can give. It’s about what I get out of the lesson, instead of what I give so that people won’t have less.
Not surprisingly, the Early Church grew. Three thousand on the first day. Over five thousand men two chapters later (not counting women and children). Multitudes of both men and women by chapter five.
Any parent knows that the only way a family grows is through sacrifice. Children don’t understand what their parents gave up until they become parents themselves (unless of course you’re talking about our current generation where parents have largely abdicated their role to schools, churches, and daycares, so that they don’t have to give up anything, except their kids – but that’s a topic for another blog.) So it was with the Church. It grew through loss and sacrifice. Pain and suffering didn’t thwart the Church, but only emboldened and enriched it, and made its members that more much dependent on the Holy Spirit.
Suffering and loss weren’t things to be avoided. They were embraced with joy, and with a deep sense of purpose.
Wow. Again. And we’ve only just gotten to chapter five.
Before Jesus died, in John chapters 14-16, Jesus prepared His apostles for what would take place after He had returned to the Father. He told them that they must abide in Him. He said that they would bear abundant, lasting fruit. He said that they would be greatly opposed, that they would be hated, and that they would suffer. He told them that He would send the Holy Spirit to help them, guide them, give them words, and give them courage. He told them that they could ask the Father anything in His name and He would do it for them, and encouraged them to ask. And then in John 17 He prayed for their unity, so that the world would know that the Father had sent Him.
This is exactly what happened. From the very beginning.
To say that our family feels challenged would be an understatement. God is giving us a wholly new perspective on what it means to be “the church,” the one Jesus died for. Now that we are learning these things, the real question is what are we going to do about them. What will we do to make them true of us?
Please pray for us, our family and our little country church, as we embrace the faithfulness we are seeing in the Book of Acts.