Topical Scripture: Acts 4:32-37
It was his first day on the job. He was a new clerk in the produce department of a super market. A lady came up to him and said that she wanted to buy half a head of lettuce. He tried to talk her out of this, but she persisted. Finally he said, “I’ll have to go back and talk to the manager.”
He went to the rear of the store, not noticing that the woman was walking right behind him. He found the manager and said, “There’s some stupid old bag out there who wants to buy half a head of lettuce. What should I tell her?”
Seeing the horrified look on the face of the manager, he turned around and, seeing the woman, added, “And this nice lady wants to buy the other half of the head of lettuce. Will that be all right?” The relieved manager said, “That would be fine.”
Later in the day, he congratulated the boy on his quick thinking. Then he asked, “Where are you from, son?” The boy said, “I’m from Toronto, Canada, the home of beautiful hockey players and ugly women.” The manager looked at him and said, “My wife is from Toronto.” The boy said, “Oh, what team did she play for?”
Don’t you wish we could solve our relational problems that easily? Unfortunately, most of us cannot. Loneliness is an epidemic in our country today. We see it in the alcohol and drug abuse rates; the suicides; the fact that the number of unmarried couples living together has increased 800% in recent years; the popularity of New Age and alternative spiritual movements; the mushrooming number of chat rooms on the Internet. We are lonely people.
Remember the television show Cheers, about a bar in Boston? The opening lyrics had it right: You want to be where you can see, our troubles are all the same. You want to be where everybody knows your name. Where you can belong, no matter who you are or what you’ve done. Where everybody knows your name. Wouldn’t you like to be part of a group like that? Who wouldn’t?
Outside of television, there’s only one such place. Luke, the author of our text, would like to take us there. Let’s go with him and see if what we discover helps us today.
Where everybody knows your name and your need
As we go in, Luke makes an amazing claim for these people: “All the believers are one in heart and mind” (v. 32a). “All the believers,” he says. Now remember, there are more than 5,000 in this church. And they’ve come from everywhere—Jews and Gentiles, slaves and free, male and female, crossing every barrier of prejudice known to their world. If we were to walk in on a crowd of Jews and Arabs, blacks and KKK members, Yugoslavians and Albanians, we’d be in the same room.
Yet, he says they are “one in heart and mind.” United both in their emotions and their ideas, their feelings and their actions. Aristotle defined friendship as “a single soul dwelling in two bodies.” This is Luke’s claim for these people, here.
It sounds impossible, doesn’t it? But Luke proves it. “No one claimed that any of his possessions was his own” (v. 32b). “No one” is emphatic in Luke’s Greek: there are no exceptions to this rule. “They shared everything that they had” (v. 32c). Jews and Gentiles would not share the same food or even the same room; now they share everything.
The Greeks had a very common proverb: “Friends have all things in common.” These people fulfilled their ideal. And with this result: “There were no needy persons among them” (v. 34). None.
Here’s how this program of congregational ministry worked: People in the church were constantly on the lookout for others in need, so they might report this to the congregational leaders.
When such reports came in, the wealthier members of the church voluntarily responded. This was no Social Security tax or required contribution. On their own, they sold lands or houses and brought the entire amount of the sale to the church. This was an act of Christian charity and grace. The Roman Empire would certainly give them no tax advantages for their contributions.
They placed their money at the feet of the apostles, an act of legal transfer akin to signing over your title today. Then the church utilized a massive aid distribution system, to get the money to those in need. And this happened continually, not just occasionally or during times of special emphasis. This was a regular part of their congregational life.
Now, Luke knows we might be skeptical of such a description. So he invites us to meet someone whose credentials we can check: Joseph, named Barnabas. He’s taking part in this ministry, at enormous personal sacrifice. He is a Levite, thus a member of the priestly tribe of Israel, part of their aristocracy. This means that by law he can own no land in Palestine, for God had decreed that they were to live off the good will of the nation (Numbers 18:20; Deut. 10:9).
But he’s become a Christian, forfeiting all such support. He is something like a pastor living in a parsonage who leaves the church and has no home. His family has some property on the island of Cyprus, where he’s from. It is expensive land, rich and productive, and valuable for tourism as well—something like owning part of Honolulu. It is likely his only financial support and sustenance. But he sells it anyway, brings the money, and transfers it to the church for those in even greater need than himself.
As a result, he must work to support himself for the rest of his life and ministry (cf. 1 Cor. 9:6). He goes from personal wealth to poverty overnight. For this, the apostles nickname him “Barnabas,” which means “Son of Encouragement.” As indeed he is.
But he’s just one example of a church which cares about its people, and proves it by meeting their needs with sacrificial love. Is it any wonder that the community was impressed? That “the apostles continued to testify to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus” with “great power,” and that “much grace was upon them all” (v. 33)?
Here’s a place where everybody knows your name, and even more, your need. And cares about you anyway. Wouldn’t you like to be part of a group like this?
Such a place still exists
Is it still possible, today? Can the church still be a place where everybody knows your name, and your need, and loves you as you are?
Gordon MacDonald was the well-known pastor of Grace Chapel in Boston when he had an affair. It was a single, sinful act. He confessed it immediately to his wife and to his church, and resigned from the ministry. But neither his wife nor his church would give up on him. They put him through years of counseling, accountability, and restoration. At the end, in 1988, they held a “Service of Restoration,” encouraging his return to ministry.
Eventually another church asked him to be their pastor. He wouldn’t go, but they said, “We’re broken people, and you’re a broken person, and we need each other.” And then, years later, Grace Chapel asked him to return as their pastor. That’s where he serves today. At a place where people know his name, and his need, and love him anyway. Is it any wonder that Grace Chapel is one of the most effective congregations in America?
The Brooklyn Tabernacle Church is a Book of Acts kind of congregation, made up of rich and poor, blacks, white, Latinos, people from everywhere. They are truly a remarkable family of faith.
Our church in Atlanta asked its pastor and some of the choir to lead in worship on a Friday night. During the evening they showed a taped interview with a man named Calvin. He was a drug user and dealer, living in a doghouse in an abandoned lot. One Tuesday night his wife went to the church to pray for her husband. Word got to the pastor, Jim Cymbala, and he asked all 2,000 present to pray for Calvin.
As he told the story on tape, Calvin felt compelled to climb out of that doghouse and get on a bus. When he got off, he was at the church. He walked in and heard 2,000 calling his name to God. That night he was saved and delivered.
Then the taped interview ended, and Calvin walked out on our worship platform and sang a solo. I’ll never forget it. All because of a church which knew his name, and his need, and loved him anyway. Is it any wonder Brooklyn Tabernacle has grown from 25 members to 7,000, with 23 missions and ministries around the world?
Saturday night’s evening news carried the story of an elderly couple in Albania, living in a small flat on their monthly pension checks, who have taken in twenty-six refugees from Kosovo. The refugees are Muslim, the elderly couple is Christian. When asked why they did this, the man said through the interpreter, “These people are our brothers. How could we turn them away?” One of the Muslim refugees called the man and woman “Our angels from God.”
He was right. Because God knows your name, and your need, and loves you as you are.
My brothers and sisters, it is absolutely crucial that we be that kind of place, in every way possible. This is what people are looking for today: someone who will know them, and accept them, and care for them. While they may have no interest in our preaching or our programs, they care whether our people care about them.
When we are a family to each other, and to our city, we can take Jesus’ love to hurting people everywhere. We can continue to plant the seeds of God’s love and word in the hearts of people we know, across this community. If we are a family like Luke’s church was a family.
How can we be even more a family like this? Some of us can be Barnabas today. You have money, or time, or abilities someone else needs. Ask God to show you how to invest them, to show you who needs them. Don’t claim that your possessions are your own, but share everything you have (v. 32). Find someone who needs you. You won’t have to look far.
And some of us need a Barnabas today. It’s hard enough to give sacrificially; it’s even harder to accept sacrifice from someone else. To be honest and authentic enough to admit that we’re hurting, that we’re lonely, that we are in need. Take the risk this week. Call someone you think you can trust, and be vulnerable. Ask someone else to be your Barnabas for a while.
We are the body of Christ (1 Cor. 12:27). Therefore, God’s usual way of meeting our needs is through each other. And this is his usual way of meeting the needs of the people who live all around us, of proving his love to them.
Perhaps you need a spiritual Barnabas right now. Maybe you feel lost, or alone, or unwanted. You are wanted here. We are the family of God, the body of Christ. We will accept you, no matter where you’re from or what you’ve done—you have my word on it. We will love you, and help you. Just as God loves us, and helps us. Will you let us?
Milton Cunningham is the retiring chaplain at Baylor University, and a dear friend. Many years ago, when he was pastor of Westbury Baptist Church in Houston, he learned of a couple who wanted to join their church, but wished to speak with the pastor first. So he sat down with them.
The man began telling Dr. Cunningham the Sundays they’d be in attendance, the money they’d be giving, and the committees they’d serve on, and those they would not. Dr. Cunningham let him talk a while, then said, “I’m not sure you’d be happy at our church.” The man was shocked, as you might imagine, and asked, “Are you saying we can’t join your church?”
“No,” said Milton, “but we are a people who need each other. We get together on Sunday to find enough strength to make it to Wednesday, then we get together on Wednesday to find enough strength to make it to Sunday. We need each other. It doesn’t seem that you need us.”
The wife, who had been silent throughout, pushed her husband in the side and said, “Tell him.” Tears came to the man’s eyes as he said, “Pastor, you don’t know how wrong you are. Our daughter-in-law just left with our only grandchild, and we don’t know if we’ll ever see them again. Our family’s falling apart—everything’s gone wrong. You don’t know how wrong you are.”
Dr. Cunningham said, “On second thought, maybe you would be happy at our church.” I make you the same promise here, today.