by Rev. Dr. Mark D. Roberts January 16, 2005
Preached at Irvine Presbyterian Church
Copyright © 2005 by Mark D. Roberts
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41 So those who welcomed his message were baptized, and that day about three thousand persons were added. 42 They devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.
43 Awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles. 44 All who believed were together and had all things in common; 45 they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need.
I need to start this sermon with a confession. Nothing too shocking. Nothing that should lead you to fire me as your pastor, I hope. But a genuine confession, nonetheless.
So here it is: I'd rather not preach this sermon. I suppose if I were going to be even more truthful, I'd say that I'd rather not deal with Acts 2:45 at all. A lot of me would be glad to skip over this annoying verse and move on the next one.
There are two reasons for my hesitation. First, Acts 2:45 is all about material possessions. It's about our money and what we do with it. I'm well aware that this is not the most popular subject for a sermon. Some years ago I saw a survey of people who had left churches. When asked why they left, one major reason was, "That church talked too much about money." So I go into this sermon with the awareness that you might not especially like it. (Of course I have asked the ushers to bolt the doors at this point so you can't escape.)
The second reason for my hesitation is more personal: I'd rather not have to think about this subject myself. Like most of you, I have mixed feelings about how much stuff I have. Part of me really likes my stuff and wants more of it, and part of me feels guilty about having too much stuff. A big part of me would rather not have to think about it.
Moreover, as I have shared with you before, I'm a fairly stingy person by nature. Well, okay, very stingy. For example, when Linda and I were first married, we had an extra window air conditioner left over from my years in graduate school. One of our best friends, Nancy, asked if she might be able to borrow the air conditioner for her apartment because it was hotter than "you know where" in her apartment in the summer. My response was typical of my gut feelings. I thought about it, made a bunch of calculations, and finally said, "Look, I'll rent it to you for five dollars a month." Can you believe that? My friend is dying from heat stroke in a sweltering apartment and I'm thinking about the cost of wear and tear on my extra air conditioner!
So, if a part of you wishes you had skipped church today, I understand. But the truth is we really need to deal with the text God has placed before us today. The very fact of our resistance to this topic reveals our great need to confront it. My friends, here is a place of genuine unsettledness in our lives, a place where we truly need God's direction, even though part of us resists it.
I must also confess that I have gone from being reticent about this text to being excited about it's potential. I am convinced that Acts 2:45 has the power to change our lives immeasurably for the better. Here is a genuine treasure of discipleship that can help us to live with greater meaning, freedom, and even happiness. Furthermore, it's absolutely crucial to our life together as Irvine Presbyterian Church, as I'll show in a couple of minutes.
So I would invite you even now to pray quietly to the Lord, "Give me a truly open heart, Lord, to hear what you want to say to me. Take away my resistance by your Spirit. Teach me your ways."
With that prayer in mind, let's examine Acts 2:45 more closely.
Sacrificial Generosity in Acts 2:45
Verse 45 is a continuation of the previous verse, which we examined last week. The whole thought beginning with verse 44 reads, "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" (2:44-45). This does not mean that on the Day of Pentecost all the new believers ran home and immediately sold all of their possessions. Rather, what we have here is a snapshot of a process that no doubt unfolded over the course of many years.
From chapters 4 and 5 of Acts we know that the generosity of the early Christians wasn't demanded by church leaders, nor was it required of all the people. Rather, it was a free response to the movement of the Holy Spirit in people's hearts. By a miracle of grace they practiced, not just generosity, but sacrificial generosity.
Examples of Sacrificial Generosity Today
I have seen examples of this kind of generosity throughout my years in this church, and I'm sure I've only seen the tip of the iceberg.
Take cars, for example. Several years ago a man in this church was trying to figure out how he could make a sacrificial gift to our building fund. His solution was to sell his very nice and expensive car and get a much less valuable one, and then to give the difference to the church. Now you must understand that this particular man loves cars. So this was not only a financial sacrifice, but also an emotional one as well.
On another occasion a family in this church purchased a new car and gave their former car to the church. It was a relatively late model Volvo in outstanding condition -- a very sweet car. We ended up selling it so we could have enough money to purchase a van for our youth ministry.
On still another occasion a couple in our church decided to give a wonderful car to another family, a family that needed a newer vehicle but had limited financial means. The receiving family was thrilled. But they didn't just receive. They also took some of the money that they had been saving for a car and gave it away, some to an underpaid leader in another church who desperately needed a new car, and some to a couple that faced overwhelming medical bills.
Although none of these examples followed the exact pattern of Acts 2, all of these stories illustrate sacrificial generosity. Members of this church family willingly gave up something valuable for the sake of others.
Why Sacrificial Generosity is So Important to Our Church
I believe that sacrificial generosity is crucial, both to the health of this church and to your own emotional and spiritual health. Today I'll have time to address only the first part of this conviction, the "health of this church" part. Next week I'll focus on why sacrificial generosity is so vital for your own emotional and spiritual health. (Yes, ironically, the sermon I didn't want to preach has become two sermons!)
Sacrificial Generosity is Essential to Our Daily Operation as a Church
First of all, sacrificial giving is essential to our corporate life as a church because, without it, we won't be able to do what God is calling us to do as a church. If we who are members of this church family only give what's extra - as if you and I have extra money! - then this church might as well shut its doors.
To put it positively, sacrificial giving keeps us going as a church. We are able to do our ministry we do here, we are able to maintain our church facility, we are able to help people in financial need, we are able to share with our mission partners because many of us in this church family regularly and sacrificially give to what we call our "operating budget."
For quite a few of us in this church, sacrificial generosity takes the form of tithing. We tithe - that is, give ten percent of our income to the church - as a way of honoring God with our money. Others of you haven't yet reached the ten-percent line, but you're moving in this direction. In fact there are many in our church whose giving actually exceeds the tithe, especially when you add the building fund. Ten percent serves as a base, upon which extra gifts are made.
Is regular tithing a sacrifice? Of course it is! Now it isn't as obvious a sacrifice as selling something and laying the proceeds at the feet of the elders. Regular giving to the church becomes a built-in lifestyle sacrifice.
Sacrificial Generosity is Essential to our Health as the Body of Christ
In addition to paying the bills, sacrificial generosity is essential to our health as the living body of Christ. We are called to "rejoice with those who rejoice and to weep with those who weep" (Romans 12:15). Yet emotional empathy by itself is not enough. We also need to invest our lives and our finances in one another. Remember what John wrote in his first letter:
We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us-and we ought to lay down our lives for one another. How does God's love abide in anyone who has the world's goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help? Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action. (1 John 3:16-18)
Now that's pretty clear, isn't it?
Last week after my sermon in which I talked about how we need to use our possessions for the sake of this body, a man I'll call Bill shared a touching story with me. Several years ago he was in deep despair over a financial crisis. He was in a hole and he just didn't know how he would get out. A man in this church learned about Bill's struggle and gave him $10,000. No strings attached. No tax deduction. Just one brother helping another in a time of need. That $10,000 did its work, and in time Bill was able to climb out of his hole. He tried to pay back the man who had given him the money, but nothing doing.
This is one compelling example of how sacrificial generosity helps us to live truly as the body of Christ, loving, not just in word or speech, but in truth and action.
Sacrificial Generosity is Essential to Our Participation in the Worldwide Body of Christ
I want to offer one final reason why our sacrificial generosity is essential, and this has to do with our participation in the worldwide body of Christ. My friends, when you look at the church throughout the world, you realize how fabulously wealthy we are as a church. Now I know we're not as wealthy as St. Andrews or Mariners or Saddleback. But we're still in the upper 1% of churches when it comes to financial resources.
Sometimes people use this fact to beat up on churches, as if it's wrong for us to have resources. I would argue, on the contrary, that this is fantastic. The kingdom of God needs lots of financial resources, and these will come primarily from wealthy churches in United States.
But, our having such abundance of resources is only fantastic if we are committed to sharing them with sacrificial generosity. There are churches even in our own Presbytery that have significant financial needs, not to mention churches throughout the world. God has blessed us with much so we can channel these blessings to churches and ministries that don't have as much.
As I'm sure you know, this is already happening in many ways. Each year we give a minimum of 10% of our annual budget to our mission partners. In reality our official IPC giving to missions ends up being more like 20% of our church budget when you include special offerings, and that doesn't count the vast amount we give as individuals. I wouldn't be surprised if, in the end, more than 50% of what we give as a church family goes to our mission partners, many of whom are in the developing world. This is great. But, my friends, it is just the start.
Sacrificial Generosity is Essential to Our Growth in Ministry and Outreach
There is another reason why sacrificial generosity is essential to our church in addition to keeping the doors open and promoting our health as the body of Christ. It is also required if we are going to grow in our ministry and outreach. Right now it takes about $1.5 million each year to do what we did as a church in 2005 (not counting our building program or the Jenny Hart preschool, which is a key ministry of this church but runs with a separate budget).
I feel great about what God did among us last year. But I am also convinced - as is our Session - that God has bigger and better things in store for us in 2005. Most obvious among these blessings is the new Veritas service, our vital outreach to young people in our church and community. (By the way, we had the first "spring training" meeting of Veritas last week, and it was incredible. There were 118 people there, most of them under 35, and many of them under 20. The worship was fantastic, as was the excitement for this new ministry. I'm thrilled with our beginning.)
But Veritas isn't free. When you figure in the cost of Dale's salary and the additional childcare and program costs, we need something like $50,000 in 2005 to do Veritas. (This doesn't count, by the way, the acoustical improvement of the Fellowship Hall, which an anonymous member of IPC has generously offered to pay for.)
I could speak of so many other examples of ministry growth in 2005. Great things are happening in our youth ministry, in our missions outreach, in our ministries with singles and seniors. These last two are primarily led by lay people in this church, with helpful oversight from Barbara Buck. In 2004 the special gift that helped us to bring Barb on staff ran out, so we need to come up with an additional $12,000 in 2005 for her salary.
Now here's the challenge we face together as of this moment. So far, pledging to the 2005 ministry and operating fund is almost exactly the same as pledging to the 2004 ministry and operating fund. In other words, as of this moment we can afford to do what we did last year, but we don't have the means to grow our ministry. If we had to balance the 2005 budget right now, we'd have to lay off staff and back away from the ministry advances we're making.
I'm not trying to threaten you, but just to tell you the straight truth. I hasten to add that I'm not worried about this, and I'll tell you why. I believe with all of my heart that God has led us to begin Veritas, to have Barb on our staff, to grow our ministries with youth, missions, singles, seniors, and so on. So I believe that God will supply what we need. Right now, as of January 16th 2005, how I think God is going to do this.
Once Session has worked out the specifics of our needs for 2005, then we'll come back to you folks and let you know exactly where we stand. With this information will come a simple request: Will you please think and pray a bit more about your pledge for 2005? If God nudges you, and if you haven't made a pledge, will you please make one. And if you've made a pledge, will you see if you can increase it? Because I am convinced of God's guidance for our church, and because I'm convinced that you folks are committed to what God is doing among us in 2005, I believe that the numbers will work out, somehow.
Let's suppose for the moment that we need $150,000 for everything we should be doing in 2005. This means that if each and every member of IPC were to increase his or her giving by fifty cents a day, we'd have what we need. So let me ask you, is there something you could give up, some sacrifice you could make, that would help here. Fifty cents a day, that's . . .
• one latté a week;
• or one CD a month;
• or one nice dinner out every four months;
• or one pair of Seven jeans every six months;
• or . . . . You name it.
Which of these things, or something else, might God want you to sacrifice for the sake of his kingdom?
After I finished preaching last night, a person said to me: "But, wait, those sacrifices are hardly sacrifices at all." That's true. And that's part of my point. If all of us together made even tiny sacrifices for the kingdom of God, the overall impact would be significant. What would happen for the kingdom of God if we all decided to make larger ones?
Sisters and brothers, sacrifice of whatever kind is sacrifice. It's giving up something we value, something that gives us pleasure or security or pride. There is a cost here, that's true. When we live in a culture that's so inundated with self-centeredness and consumerism, any kind of sacrifice will require the grace of the Holy Spirit. But this is precisely the grace we need, so that our we might be the church God is calling us to be, and so that we might have the richest and fullest lives as individuals.
There's a strange irony in our church, something I'm still trying to figure out. As I get to know you, I have found that many of you have truly tender, generous hearts. Yet your compassion doesn't often translate into tangible giving. You explain this by saying that you're tapped out already with the expenses of life. You truly don't know where you'd find the money to be generous with others.
Well, if you're in this camp, I have good news. Really. The good news is that as you learn to sacrifice, then you'll have the means to be generous. If by God's grace you decide to have fewer things, then you'll be able to enjoy the freedom and delight of generosity. It will be, as we see in Acts 2:45, sacrificial generosity. And then, my friends, your own hearts will be at peace, even as you rejoice.
As your pastor I believe that this is an important enough topic to merit another sermon. Next week I'll focus on how practicing sacrificial generosity can transform your life, giving you more meaning, more freedom, and even more happiness. So please avoid the temptation to come up with a convenient reason to miss church next week. The more you're tempted to do this, the more you need what I'm going to talk about!
In the meanwhile, please join me in a simple prayer, both today and in the days ahead:
Lord, what would you have us do?
What would you have me do?