A Generous Church

I’m not very good at laser tag. Perhaps for this reason, given the option I’d choose a team game over a free-for-all every time (with apologies to the people on my team). When you play on a team, half the people in the arena have your back and aren’t trying to shoot you. If you run into someone, there’s a fifty percent chance they’re a friend and not a foe. In a single player game, there are no such assurances. It’s every man for himself, with no expectation of mercy. Given the choice, I choose the less exciting, more community-focused version of laser tag.

Some times in life feel like group games of laser tag, and some times feel like a free for all. We have an ideal of communities that look after the needs of others and make sure that everyone is cared for, but the realities and pressures of life mean we almost always fall short. In times of prosperity it’s easy to give out of our abundance. When funds are shorter we’re tempted to cut our team and make every person fend for themselves. Economic uncertainty can cause us to look inward, focusing on our own welfare and losing sight of the needs of others. In times of need, how can we look outside of ourselves and give to others without fear? What does it mean to be generous people?

In Acts 4:32-5:16, the church is growing rapidly and sets a model for generous living. The backdrop of this snapshot of the early church is not economic prosperity, but bleak and worsening hardship. In this setting, the church provides a model of generosity that can be useful and encouraging for us in today’s climate and circumstances. This passage illustrates a model of generosity in action, warns against using generosity to deceive, and points to the Christian’s source and motivation for a life of generosity.

Sons of Generosity

32 Now the full number of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one said that any of the things that belonged to him was his own, but they had everything in common. 33 And with great power the apostles were giving their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all. 34 There was not a needy person among them, for as many as were owners of lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold 35 and laid it at the apostles' feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need. 36 Thus Joseph, who was also called by the apostles Barnabas (which means son of encouragement), a Levite, a native of Cyprus, 37 sold a field that belonged to him and brought the money and laid it at the apostles' feet. Acts 4:32-37

It can be easy to think that our lives are different from the early church. The book of Acts has miraculous accounts of healings, encounters with angels, and supernatural provision in times of need. We do not see these things in our lives, and find it easy to dismiss the “great grace” that Luke describes in Acts 4:33 as something far removed from our experience. However, Thomas Constable contends that this is not a description of the miraculous, but the “the divine enablement that God granted them to speak and to live as they did.” Their speech was a testimony about the resurrection of Jesus, and their actions were abundant generosity that covered every kind of need. Christian generosity is rooted in our trust in Christ’s provision for our sin, our desire to share this news with the world, and our unity of heart and soul to care for one another as we care for ourselves.

Extravagant generosity is not reckless with the resources that God has entrusted to your stewardship. It does not mean that you put yourself or your family in peril to demonstrate your devotion to God. Rather, it is a willingness to make costly sacrifices both large and small to look out for those around you in need. There is generosity in time and service. There is generosity in a willingness to forgo extras because someone else is in need. There is a generosity in hospitality and opening your home to those who have nowhere else to go. There is generosity in looking for ways to encourage others. This is so evident in the life of Joseph the Levite that his nickname was Barnabas, the ‘son of encouragement.’ Generosity is an attitude of the heart, not merely an opening of your wallet.

Two practical examples of generosity have spurred me on recently. Both come from Christians in areas of the world characterised by need and not prosperity. In North Korea, Christians show generosity through a practice called ‘holy rice.’ These believers take their small quantities of food and share with those who have none. Their generosity is costly, and they glorify their Saviour by their care for those around them.

Like North Korean believers, Christians in an impoverished community in Peru are working to care for people around them. In the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, many people who were already vulnerable now face extreme need. The temptation to step back and turn away from need is real, but with Christ’s help they have been faithful to step forward instead. Bethany Baxter de Noriega describes her struggle to keep her house open to nineteen young people who have taken refuge in her family’s home:

Our city ran the risk of food shortages, and I am embarrassed to confess that my first thought was to disband our household and send everyone back to their homes. Seconds later, I remembered that some of our guests don’t even have that option. But more, this was a time where faith required action. Active trust believes—and lives like—God is faithful, will provide, and will keep his promises, just as he said. We decided that everyone would be welcome to stay, and we experienced firsthand the miraculous provision of our loving Father.

We will not be able to meet every need on our own. We may not have the resources to give material goods to others. But we can do the work that God has called us to do in the place that God has given us to serve, and we can do this work with an attitude of costly generosity. Look around and consider what God has given to you that you can use to serve and sacrifice for the good of others. When hard times come, do not close your hand to others but give from the abundance that you have received from Christ.

Stolen Generosity

1 But a man named Ananias, with his wife Sapphira, sold a piece of property, 2 and with his wife's knowledge he kept back for himself some of the proceeds and brought only a part of it and laid it at the apostles' feet. 3 But Peter said, “Ananias, why has Satan filled your heart to lie to the Holy Spirit and to keep back for yourself part of the proceeds of the land? 4 While it remained unsold, did it not remain your own? And after it was sold, was it not at your disposal? Why is it that you have contrived this deed in your heart? You have not lied to men but to God.” 5 When Ananias heard these words, he fell down and breathed his last. And great fear came upon all who heard of it. 6 The young men rose and wrapped him up and carried him out and buried him.

7 After an interval of about three hours his wife came in, not knowing what had happened. 8 And Peter said to her, “Tell me whether you[a] sold the land for so much.” And she said, “Yes, for so much.” 9 But Peter said to her, “How is it that you have agreed together to test the Spirit of the Lord? Behold, the feet of those who have buried your husband are at the door, and they will carry you out.” 10 Immediately she fell down at his feet and breathed her last. When the young men came in they found her dead, and they carried her out and buried her beside her husband. 11 And great fear came upon the whole church and upon all who heard of these things. Acts 5:1-11

In the military, there is a serious offence known as ‘stolen valour.’ This occurs when a soldier wears a medal that they have not earned, or a civilian dresses in military clothing for the honour and prestige that does not rightfully belong to them. Ananias and Sapphira wanted people to believe they were more generous than they were. After selling a piece of property, they kept back some of the profit but made it appear as though they were giving everything away. They tried to steal the prestige of generosity without the sacrifice that true generosity requires.

These church members were not under compulsion to give. Peter points this out, and also says that they would have been free to keep any percentage of the profits from their land. The choice was entirely up to them. Paul Mumo Kisau says Ananias’ sin “was not that that he kept some of the money for himself, but that he tried to deceive God.” Of course, this is impossible.

God judges Ananias and Sapphira and strikes them dead for their sin. This understandably causes great fear in the church, and it is not hard to imagine that many believers examined their own hearts as a result. It can be easy to reassure ourselves that God does not act in this manner in our time, but we too should learn from the example of what Luke records here. God is not pleased with deceit. God takes our sin seriously, and we should take sin seriously as well. Examine your heart and repent of false generosity. God has made provision for our forgiveness and will not turn away when we approach him in our need.

Where generosity does not yet exist in your heart, do not make an effort to make yourself look better before others. Take time in self-examination and bring your deficiencies before God and before other people. Instead of puffing yourself up with feigned virtue, humble yourself and admit your need. God is not pleased with the proud but gives grace to the humble. Do not be spurred on to acts of charity that exist for you to look good before others. Generosity requires costly sacrifice; there is no shortcut. When you are tempted to use generosity for your own gain, remember who God is and give from the abundance you have received in Christ.

The Source of All Generosity

12 Now many signs and wonders were regularly done among the people by the hands of the apostles. And they were all together in Solomon's Portico. 13 None of the rest dared join them, but the people held them in high esteem. 14 And more than ever believers were added to the Lord, multitudes of both men and women, 15 so that they even carried out the sick into the streets and laid them on cots and mats, that as Peter came by at least his shadow might fall on some of them. 16 The people also gathered from the towns round Jerusalem, bringing the sick and those afflicted with unclean spirits, and they were all healed. Acts 5:12-16

God’s grace on the early church is clearly evident to those within and without the congregation of believers. The apostles perform signs and wonders as they testify about Jesus, indicating that their witness is indeed from God. The people hold the Christians in honour, even if they are fearful of joining their gatherings in the temple. God is also at work adding more people to the church, graciously saving both men and women from their sin and welcoming them into the community of faith.

Christian generosity does not begin with people, it begins with God. Any generosity that we muster is a pale shadow of God’s full and abundant generosity to the world that he has made and the people that he has saved. By God’s power in this passage, signs are performed and sick people are healed. Even more remarkably, sinners are redeemed and welcomed into God’s kingdom. When Christians give to others, we give out of the abundance that God has given to us. We give in ways that are costly because Jesus paid a costly sacrifice for our salvation. We do not give to impress God; there is nothing that we can give to outdo what he has done for us. Our generosity is a reflection of what God has given to us and an extension of God’s generosity into a world that has not met Jesus.

There are times when it feels like the weight of the world’s needs are on your shoulders, and it’s up to you to muster the strength to meet the need. This feeling can be accompanied by frustration, self-pity, and anger at how unfair it is that you have been asked to sacrifice when others have not. When these moments come, turn to the God who has given his Son so that you might have life. Remember the generosity that he has shown you, not for the sake of shame, but so that you can place yourself in the care of our generous God. Generosity is a costly sacrifice, but God has provided abundantly and invites you to extend his generosity to a world in desperate need. When your heart feels bitter and cost feels too high, give from the abundance you have received from Christ.

The magnitude of a person’s generosity cannot be measured by the amount of money or material care they provide to others. It is not a means to curry favour with God or impress the people around us. Generosity is an openness of heart that sees the needs of others and gives to meet the need. Christians act with generosity to those within and outside the church because of the generosity that God has shown to us. When our own need makes it difficult to care for others, when desire for glory tempts us to deceive, when we feel that too much is asked of us, let us turn again to Jesus and remember what he has done for us. May we rejoice in what we have been given and give from the abundance that we have received from Christ.

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