Acts 2:42-47 – A Changed Community

We Are All One in Jesus Christ by Soichi Watanabe, 2009

They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. Awe came upon everyone because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles. All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved. (NRSV)

You’ve likely heard the old saying, “If it’s not broken, don’t fix it.” It is a wise saying. Yet, what if we don’t know something is broken? What if we keep living our lives with something out of whack and don’t even realize it? Or, worse yet, what if we don’t care?

The ancient church after Christ’s resurrection and ascension was on a mission to live communal life together different from how they lived before Jesus came into their lives. Today’s New Testament lesson gives us a glimpse of what that life together consisted of.

“Yesterday I was clever, so I wanted to change the world. Today I am wise, so I am changing myself.”

Rumi (13th century Persian poet and scholar)

We know something needs to change when it doesn’t quite match up to the life depicted by our ancestors in the faith – a life of fellowship, of glad and sincere hearts, and of concern for the common good of all. We never just change or alter something for change’s sake or because we like or dislike something. No, instead, we adjust our lives according to whether it lines up with the relational dynamics of Holy Scripture.

I had just one grandparent when I was growing up. My Grandma was seventy-nine years old when I was born, and she lived to be ninety-seven. I always knew her as an old lady. Although quite aged, she had a lot of spunk to her, all ninety-five pounds of her. 

I remember Grandma had an old wooden cutting board in her kitchen. I don’t how old it was, but it was probably purchased from Methuselah’s Kitchen Outlet. It was cracked and nearly falling apart. The board had deep furrows in it from the thousands of cuts made on it. Grandma liked her cutting board.

For Mother’s Day one year my Dad bought her a nice brand-new cutting board. After thanking my Dad for the gift, Grandma proceeded to put the new board in the back of her cupboard and continued to use her nasty old cutting board. Whenever my Mom or sisters helped her in the kitchen, they were not about to touch that old board because it was like a bacteria trap with its deep grooves. 

Grandma didn’t care about anyone’s concerns about her cutting board. When my Dad finally asked her why she did not use her new cutting board, she simply answered, “Oh, it is much too nice to use.” We all knew that was Grandma’s way of saying that she liked her nasty old cutting board and nobody was going to tell her she can’t use it.

Sometimes folks, including Christians, can be like my Grandma, bless her stubborn old heart. They just like the way they do things, and really don’t see what others see who aren’t Christ followers. They fail to consider or realize that non-Christians have no emotional attachment to the cutting board. All they see is an antiquated old board they would never use and find it weird anyone would ever want to use it.

Christians may forget or lose sight of how overwhelming and even intimidating they can be with those outside the faith. Because Christianity is familiar to Christians, we don’t see what others see when they view us from the outside. 

I remember once walking into a beautiful new church building and sitting down and seeing a huge old pulpit that was literally falling apart. Since I’ve been around a lot of churches, I quickly discerned it was likely the old pulpit from the old church building. I asked someone, and it was. But as an outsider to that fellowship, I had zero emotional attachment to the pulpit, and it was a distraction because it just looked like a big old ratty collar on a new little puppy.

“Be the change that you wish to see in the world.”

Mahatma Gandhi

The point I am making is this: The decision to change our lives, or not to change, must come from a motivation of biblical and human values. The Christian’s mission and purpose are the Great Commission (make disciples) and the Great Commandment (love God and love neighbor). We express those values through our daily devotion to teaching, fellowship, the breaking of bread, and prayer. Such life together is attractive and winsome to a watching world.

If people matter, including those who don’t think or believe like us as Christians, then we will make decisions based upon that value. Nothing need be fixed or changed if the mission is going forward with biblical values driving it. However, if people stay away, or know nothing about our shared life together, then we have a prime reason to change. If this has gone on for years, even decades, I suggest that the fellowship of people is eating meat prepared from a cutting board full of bacteria and it is making everyone sick.

Whenever a faith community is focused on trying to keep people from leaving, instead of reaching people with an outward focus, then that community has lost its sense of spiritual values.

“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed, citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”

Margaret Mead

The main verb contained within the Scripture verses for today is the word “added.” Those who accepted the message of repentance and faith in Jesus were baptized and about three thousand were “added” to their number that day. We then get a string of participles, that is, words connected to the main verb of “added.” The result is this: The Lord “added” to their number daily those who were being saved.  Please understand the text makes it quite clear that the driving force of Christ’s church is to reach people.

It could be we take the old cutting board for granted and simply expect other people to use it if they are in our kitchen. If that is the case, there is to be a driving motivation and desire for outreach. There are people aplenty who need the kind of deliverance Jesus provides.

“Everyone thinks of changing the world, but no one thinks of changing himself.”

Leo Tolstoy

If something is off in our faith community, then the biblical solution is to change our lives, change our practices, change our speech, and change our daily behavior by reaching people for Jesus and adding them to the fellowship.

Whenever Christians break bread together at the Lord’s Table, the communion reminds us of our highest purpose and values. Jesus came to this earth for those estranged and far from God and others. Through Christ’s life, death, resurrection, and ascension we are saved by grace through faith. This reality is made tangible to us in the elements of bread and cup. They are a visible sign and seal of an invisible grace. We are to come to the Table forsaking all personal agendas and embracing God’s agenda of redeeming humanity.

And, by the way, after about a year of sitting in my Grandma’s cupboard, my Dad took out the new cutting board, put it on the kitchen counter and threw away the old board. It was about time.

Luke 5:1-11 – Generous

Miraculous Draught of Fishes by John Reilly

One day as Jesus was standing by the Lake of Gennesaret, the people were crowding around him and listening to the word of God. He saw at the water’s edge two boats, left there by the fishermen, who were washing their nets. He got into one of the boats, the one belonging to Simon, and asked him to put out a little from shore. Then he sat down and taught the people from the boat.

When he had finished speaking, he said to Simon, “Put out into deep water, and let down the nets for a catch.”

Simon answered, “Master, we’ve worked hard all night and haven’t caught anything. But because you say so, I will let down the nets.”

When they did, they caught so many fish that their nets began to break. So, they signaled their partners in the other boat to come and help them, and they came and filled both boats so full that they began to sink.

When Simon Peter saw this, he fell at Jesus’ knees and said, “Go away from me, Lord; I am a sinful man!” For he and all his companions were astonished at the catch of fish they had taken, and so were James and John, the sons of Zebedee, Simon’s partners.

Then Jesus said to Simon, “Don’t be afraid; from now on you will fish for people.” So, they pulled their boats up on shore, left everything, and followed him. (NIV)

One of the most fundamental characteristics of God is generosity. God’s benevolent nature defines the divine stance toward humanity. This may not seem overly remarkable with only cursory thoughts about God. Yet, when the infinite holiness of God intersects with the prideful arrogance of sinful people, gracious generosity is the unpredictable and amazing result.

Many people on planet earth have been raised with a god who is aloof and curmudgeonly. Such a god gets easily angry and zaps people with lightning or some natural disaster. It is no wonder so many persons have fled from belief in God. Can we, however, entertain the notion that the Creator God of the universe is quite the opposite? In Jesus, we have on display the basic disposition of the Divine.

The Miraculous Catch of Fish by Belgian artist Erik Tanghe

On one occasion, Peter (a guy who could raise the ire of most gods) was going about his business fishing in the Sea of Galilee. Having not yet encountered Jesus but stopping to listen to his words, Peter ended up having this stranger literally get in the boat with him, uninvited. There was something remarkably different and compelling about Jesus since Peter did not immediately toss him out. Such a calm, confident, and gracious nature – nothing like Peter had expected. So, here is this plan fisherman face-to-face with the Christ of God. 

Jesus told Peter to put the boat out and cast the nets. Peter, an experienced fisherman and knowledgeable about the water, knew for certain that he would not catch anything. But, out of deference to Jesus, he did so, anyway. The result was such a large catch of fish that the nets nearly broke from the weight.

Peter’s response is instructive. He fell at the feet of Jesus and said, “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord.”  Peter came up against his own small faith. He rightly discerned that he did not deserve such generosity from Jesus, an overflowing abundance given to him despite his unbelief. In the face of such grace, in the vortex of an incredible mercy, having seen the generosity of God directed squarely at him, Peter left it all behind to follow Jesus.

So, here we have the nature and character of God before us. No cranky deity. No exasperated God ready to raise a storm and toss the boat over with Peter in it. No, Jesus, the Son of God, does not operate that way. There is no strong-arming people into faith. God’s tactics steer clear of manipulation through guilt, or mind-twisting others through shaming them. 

Instead, God is beautifully and simply present with people – showing grace and generosity in places where one would least expect to find it. When confronted with such love, what would you do?

Early in my life, I viewed God as some eternally bored deity who would occasionally get out his divine BB gun and shoot people in the rear, just for something to do. God, in my understanding, cared nothing for the real lived experiences of people on earth. But much like Peter of old, Jesus showed up unannounced in my life. And what I found was like Peter – a kind, benevolent Being who showered such generous love on me that my heart was immediately captured. I have never looked back since.

We intuitively know down in our gut, in our bones, when genuine Love is among us because it immediately connects with the deepest needs of our lives. No evangelist must convince us with offering free gold crosses or promised blessings. None of that matters when love incarnate is present, when the great God of all is among us. Peace, hope, and faith are the results of divine presence. They cannot be conjured or ginned up through excessive asceticism or extreme discipline. Love is a gift. Love is a person. And it is given generously and graciously from the One whose very nature is charitable and hospitable.

Gracious God, you sent your Son to me even though I was neither looking for him nor expecting anything from him. Thank you for breaking-in to my life so that I could break-out for you with glory, honor, and praise.  Amen

The Parable of the Talents

The Parables of Jesus by Argentine artist Jorge Cocco Santiago, 2018

What would you do with a million dollars?…  Maybe you would pay off some debts, finish some work on your house, or quit your job and take a vacation. Perhaps you might invest a good portion of it. However, your investment is only as good as your level of trust.   

When I worked at a senior citizen healthcare facility, there was a resident with an apartment in independent living, but he still owned his house. During one conversation, the old man admitted to me that over the past sixty years he owned his house, he had secretly bored holes in every door jamb of the house and had stuffed away $100,000 dollars in cash!  This dear resident had personally experienced the run on banks which began the Great Depression in 1929. He had zero trust for investment banking. 

A “talent” in Christ’s day was a monetary denomination.  A talent was worth 6,000 denarii, and one denarius was worth a day’s wage.  So, in Christ’s parable of the talents, Jesus was talking about millions of dollars (in today’s money) with the master who gave his servants five talents, two talents, and one talent. (Matthew 25:14-30) 

As Jesus was telling his parable, one of his chief points was to communicate that God is gracious and generous.  The three servants responded their master’s generosity according to their view of him.  Two of the servants regarded the master as gracious and generous, and so, freely took their talents and confidently invested them to create even more money.   

The two faithful servants took risks and acted with the idea that they were secure in their relationship with their master.  However, the third servant’s perception of his master was different.  This servant discerned his master as stern, serious, and angry, so therefore, he did nothing with his talent – he was afraid. 

The man was fearful because his view of the master was off.  If we consider God as primarily an angry Being, then we will almost certainly not use the gifts he has given us, for fear of messing up and experiencing his wrath.   

However, the truth is, God is gracious and generous.  The Lord has mercifully gifted everyone and expects us to use those gifts and not hide them away in a door jamb!  God wants us to actively display grace and generosity – which will require addressing our fears. If we want to hear the Lord Jesus say, “Well done, good and faithful servant,” then taking initiative is necessary. 

Fear is perhaps the greatest block in preventing God’s people from being productive Christians in serving the church and the world.  Beneath our fears are powerful feelings of inferiority, inadequacy, and an inner conviction that we are not enough. Oftentimes, a low view of self can come from a low view of God. 

Fear paralyzes our potential to serve God’s kingdom.   

Being continually afraid, drains our energy and lessens whatever impact we could have for God in the world, diminishing our resolve to act and leaving us ineffective in service. 

Fear destroys our dreams and godly desires.   

We are meant to enjoy the gracious and generous God, and in our enjoyment of the Lord, godly dreams will be placed within us that God is pleased to fulfill: 

Take delight in the Lord, and he will give you the desires of your heart. (Psalm 37:4, NLT) 

Our enjoyment of God gives us the security and confidence to act upon godly desires and produces a generous harvest of righteousness and peace. We then can share the bounty with others, as a way of giving back to God.   

Yet, if fear gets thrown into the mix, it dilutes and destroys everything.  Fear paralyzes us, and we do nothing, like the third servant in the parable.  What is more, fear can force us into hiding, just like the servant hid and buried his talent.   

In the Old Testament book of Numbers, the Israelites were immobilized by fear.  God had a grand vision and a big dream for the people to enter the Promised Land.  But ten of the twelve spies who came back after checking out the land were paralyzed by fear.  “The land has giants, and we are like grasshoppers!” they nervously said.   

Caleb and Joshua, however, had a different view of taking the land because they had a different view of God.  They didn’t see giants – they saw a gracious and generous God who could easily take care of whoever might be in the land, and they wanted to act on the faith they had in a mighty and merciful God.  The God of the other spies wasn’t big enough to handle the giants.  Their low view of themselves as grasshoppers betrayed their low view of God. (Numbers 13:26-33) 

We might wrap a lot of our fears in morbidly sanctified self-belittling.  That is, we might feel good about feeling bad and wrap ourselves with a blanket of secret shame. As a result, those self-deprecating feelings stop us from exploring God’s dream and vision for us.   

We could use some bold God-sized dreams!  We can speak and act in the world with confidence because we serve a God who sees giants as gnats. 

Some of the greatest fears that hold back people from exploring their faith is: 

  • Fear of criticism – being afraid of what others may think or say.   
  • Fear of taking a risk – being afraid of going outside the comfort zone of how something has always been done.  
  • Fear of ourselves – being afraid to explore our vast inner world with its guilt, shame, insecurity, and mixed motives. 

Fear snatches away God’s dreams for us.  If you once had a dream and you think that dream is dead because of your sins and bad habits, you are misguided.  Dreams evaporate because of fear, by being duped into believing that we are not enough, and never will be. So, we end up doing nothing. 

Fear ruins our relationship with God and others. 

Living a spiritual life, meanwhile always looking over our shoulder to see if God is going to sneak up on us and rap our knuckles with a ruler, is no way to live.  I think the hardest people to get along with are those who have a low view themselves.  Because they do not like themselves, they do not like others. They continually wonder if God is upset with them about something.  The man in the parable blamed God for his own lack of investment.  Yet, blame shifting is really our own fear and insecurity seeping through onto others – it helps no one, especially ourselves.   

God wants us to bloom with the talents given us.  God wants us to shine and succeed. God is on our side, has our backs, and wants us to live a good life. 

Fear sabotages our service. 

“I can’t!” is the cry of the person locked in fear.  I cannot stand up in front of people, meet strangers, sing, serve like that other person can or love like Jesus did.  I cannot because I am afraid, and I only have one talent!   

Perhaps you have observed that God typically uses tongue-tied people, worriers, and those with a sordid past – and not superstars – as servants commissioned with a set of talents. The less a person has, the more God shows up and shows off with generous power and gracious ability through that person. 

Nothing sabotages serving more than being afraid, worried, and believing we have so little. Give God a chance!  Step out.  Take a risk.  Act on that dream. 

Conclusion 

Once in a small village in India, a farmer brought to the open-air market a whole covey of quail, with a string tied around a foot of each bird.  The other end of the string was tied to a ring on a central stick.  The quail were all walking in a circle because of the strings on their feet.  As the day went on no one seemed interested in buying the farmer’s quail.   

Finally, an old man came and bought every one of the quail.  After he bought the quail, the old man told the farmer to cut the strings and set all the quail free.  So, the farmer did.  But none of the quail flew away.  They kept marching around in a circle as if they were still tied to the string.  Finally, the farmer had to shoo them away to get them to move, and even then, the quail landed somewhere else and just started marching in a circle again. 

God has freed and forgiven us.  Yet, we can so easily remain tethered to imaginary strings and march around in vicious circles of fear, afraid to venture into the unexplored world God has for us, to spread our wings and be free. 

God loves you.  God has wonderful plans for you.  God created you with your unique personality, gave you unparalleled experiences, and gifted you with uncommon abilities. God wants you to tap into that passion and dream placed down deep in your heart to serve the world.   

What would you do with a million dollars?  You already have it.  Now, go and invest it. 

Philippians 4:10-15 – Generosity is Like a Warm Bowl of Grits

Jethro Bodine
Max Baer, Jr. playing the incomparable country as corn flakes Jethro Bodine on The Beverly Hillbillies

I rejoiced greatly in the Lord that at last you renewed your concern for me. Indeed, you were concerned, but you had no opportunity to show it. I am not saying this because I am in need, for I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances. I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. I can do all this through him who gives me strength. Yet it was good of you to share in my troubles. Moreover, as you Philippians know, in the early days of your acquaintance with the gospel, when I set out from Macedonia, not one church shared with me in the matter of giving and receiving, except you only. (NIV)

In the English language, the words “you” and “your” can be either singular or plural. Unless, of course, we go with the southern “y’all.” But for a northerner like me, I’ve got to determine which by looking at the context that it’s in.  In the language of the New Testament, Greek, we know which words are singular and which are plural because, well, they’re different words which aren’t spelled the same.  It’s important to know in the book of Philippians that all the “you” pronouns are plural.  That’s important because the theme of unity and solidarity runs affectionately throughout the Apostle Paul’s letter to the Church in Philippi. In fact, for Paul, the reason he gibbers on so much about joy in his letter is because it’s only realized when unity is around. Unity really dills Paul’s pickles.

The entire Philippian church and not just those two really caring parishioners like Uncle Bundlejoy and Cousin Cozysweet, shared in Paul’s troubles with him. The whole kit-and-caboodle partnered with him through financial resources, prayer, and ministry.  Paul had confidence that every need the Philippians had would be supplied just as sure as God put worms in sour apples.

They learned a valuable lesson from Paul: that unity through generosity brings contentment in all circumstances and eases anxieties. The Philippian believers got a glimpse of the paradox that through giving they become rich. When tightwad believers are around, a church frets so much they could worry the horns off a billy goat. But when generosity settles in, people are more content than a flea on a pup.

Folks who only care about their personal needs and independent wealth aren’t right in the head – their cornbread’s not done in the middle. God wants everyone to know the blessing of working together in a worthy common cause.  Generosity and contentment go together like bacon and eggs. A charitable spirit in a group of people leads to more joy and happiness than a gopher in soft dirt.

Hoarding makes a church more nervous than a long-tailed cat in a room full of rocking chairs. If we want to be free of backbiting and worry, then we need to be wild about generosity. Give like the sun and the whole world grows tall.

Be generous with your money, generous with your words of encouragement toward others, and generous with your gratitude to God. Besides, giving is more fun than a sack full of kittens. And if you do give till you laugh, maybe you’ll see good ol’ Paul standing there grinning like a possum eating a sweet potato.

Generous God, your storehouse of grace and mercy is infinite and unending.  Help me to partner with you in a way that makes my generosity flow in the same direction yours does so that Jesus Christ is glorified, and his church is edified through the power of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.