Now is not a good time to be a Tesco’s shareholder! You may have seen in the news this week that Tesco’s supermarket has just reported a record loss of over six billion pounds. Those are the worst financial figures in Tesco’s 96-year history. A slump in the supermarket’s sales means its shareholders can’t expect a dividend this year. This year they aren’t going to see any Tesco profits swell their bank accounts.
In our affluent, materialistic society, getting more money in our wallets, raising our income and accumulating more assets is something of a national obsession. Certainly, if you are following the election campaign, you will hear the different politicians competing to promise us the most tax cuts or biggest spending increases if we vote for them.
But in our Bible reading this morning we meet a very different kind of society. We meet a Christian community - the first Christian community – who were committed to giving away what they had. We even see church members liquidating their assets so they can give more money to their Christian brothers and sisters.
As we look at this remarkable passage in Acts this morning, I want us to examine the generous attitude found in the first Church. I want us to understand what motivated them to be so generous with their wealth. And I want us to consider whether we should be doing likewise.
But before I go any further, let’s pray: Heavenly Father, thank you that the life of the fitrst church has been recorded for us in Acts. As we look at this passage today, please help us to be inspired and challenged by their example. In Jesus’ name. Amen.
- A Generous Church!
As we join our passage this morning we join a Church that was experiencing explosive growth. The first church’s numbers were multiplying rapidly, God was working miracles among them, and the Gospel was being boldly preached. As verse 34 puts it: they were “testifying to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus and God’s grace was powerfully at work in them all.”
All very impressive. But it doesn’t end there. Because in our passage today Luke (the author of Acts), wants to draw our attention to another impressive characteristic of the early Church – their remarkable generosity.
As Luke tells us in verse 32:“All the believers were one in heart and mind, and no one claimed that any of their possessions was their own, but they shared everything they had”. And as a consequence, we are told in verse 34 that “there was no needy person among them.” In a world without a Welfare State, the members of the church made sure that none of their number went without. Rather than keeping their income for themselves, the earliest Christians were investing heavily in God’s work. They were obeying Jesus’ command to store up treasure in Heaven, rather than on Earth.
What is remarkable about the generosity of the first church is that it was entirely voluntary, and it was so sacrificial. Their generosity was free and it was abundant.
Firstly, it was free, because no one forced them to do it. They gave willingly and voluntarily. It was their choice. You see, the first church was a Christian family, not a Communist state. Their generosity was not forced upon them by a government agency or at gunpoint. They gave willingly and freely because they wanted to. They gave freely and willingly to their fellow Christians because they viewed them as fellow family members - as brothers and sisters in Christ. It was their heart’s desire to support one another financially.
In fact, the New Testament is clear that all Christians should give freely and wholeheartedly. For example, listen to these words by the apostle Paul, in 2 Corinthians 9:7 “Each of you should give what you have decided in your heart to give, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver.” You see, our giving to the Church and to fellow Christians should be a joy not a duty. A cheerful delight, not a chore.
As well as being entirely voluntary, the generosity of the first church was also amazingly sacrificial. Our passage in Acts tells us that not only did they give away some of their income, they even sold some of their assets and laid them at their church leaders’ feet. Listen again to verses 34 and 35: “from time to time those who owned land or houses sold them, brought the money from the sales and put it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to anyone who had need.”
Those first Christians didn’t cling on to the assets they had. They were willing to let them go if they saw a need that had to be met. They were even willing to sacrifice their personal assets, their accumulated wealth - their ‘family nest-egg’ you might say - for the sake of the wider church.
In verse 36 one man’s sacrificial giving is singled out for special mention: “Joseph, a Levite from Cyprus, whom the apostles called Barnabas … sold a field he owned and brought the money and put it at the apostles’ feet.”
There is no doubt that the Lord Jesus would have approved of Barnabas’ sacrificial giving. I’m sure we all know the story of the generous Widow. A woman who was commended by Christ because she gave all she had to the Temple treasury. Her coins weren’t worth much, but they were all she had. The widow’s small but sacrificial giving was pleasing to Jesus, and the sacrificial giving of generosity of Barnabas would have pleased him too.
- A Generous God!
I enjoy reading biographies. I love reading books that describe the lives of famous people, people who have made an impact in one way or another. So over recent years I’ve read biographies of all sorts people – people like William Wilberforce, Thomas Cranmer, Bear Grylls, Billy Graham and CS Lewis. I love to discover what drove these people. I love to learn about the values and motives of people who achieved great things.
Having read about the great generosity of the first Christians, its worth remembering what caused them to be so generous. Its worth reminding ourselves why they were motivated to give so freely and sacrificially. The answer is that the first Christians knew they were children of a generous God. Their generosity was a grateful response the generosity and grace that he had shown to them.
For a start, those early Christians knew that God had given them his Son. They knew that God had been willing to sacrifice his Son Jesus for their salvation. They knew that their heavenly Father had handed over his Son, his most precious possession, to be crucified for us. Faced with such generosity by God, we should give generously to his people and to his work as an expression of our gratitude to him
As well as giving his Son, God had also given those first Christians his Holy Spirit. The climax of our passage last week was when God filled that first church with his Spirit. And one of the greatest things that God’s Spirit does in Christians is to change our hearts. He changes our hearts to help us love God, and he changes our hearts to help us love God’s people. As we grow in our Christian faith we should not be surprised if our love for our Christian brothers and sisters increases – it’s a sign that the Holy Spirit is at work in us.
The Holy Spirit was certainly at work in the early church. Nothing else can explain the unity of heart and mind that they enjoyed together. Nothing else can explain why they were motivated to give so generously to one another and towards God’s work.
Most of you will know that before I became a church minister I was a civil servant. One of the reasons for my change of career was a growing realization that government policies can’t change hearts. Subsidies, spending programmes, new laws and tax cuts can’t make people kinder or more generous – only God’s Spirit can do that.
People need to become Christians to change on the inside. People need to believe the Christian Gospel so that God can get to work on their hearts and minds. That’s why I wanted to spend the rest of my career preaching that Gospel, and that’s why the first Christians became such a loving and generous community.
Conclusion: Are we generous enough?
I hope we are impressed by the generosity of the early church in Acts. I hope we are inspired by the example of Barnabas and others in the first Christian fellowship. Above all, I hope we are moved by the generosity of God. A God who gave his Son for our salvation. A God who pours his Spirit into our hearts - a Holy Spirit who helps us love him and love one another.
Over the past year, I have been very impressed by acts of generosity here at St Michael’s. I know many of you give regularly to the church week by week, as well as generously at our annual Gift Day. And I have also been impressed by the amount St Michael’s has given to good causes such as Operation Christmas Child, the Children’s Society and our local food banks. Several of you have also signed up to give by Standing Order over recent weeks, for which we are very grateful.
But (you knew there was a ‘but’ coming, didn’t you?!) can I challenge us all to consider giving more. Did you know that it costs £90,000 a year to run St. Michaels? That amount includes around £25,000 in day-to-day expenditure, plus a £65,000 ‘parish share’ that we contribute to our diocese.
This parish share mostly covers the cost of training, paying and housing clergy, including of course myself here at St Michael’s. But it also helps to support poorer churches in low-income areas. The parish share is a mechanism to support Christian congregations in need, and something we should support.
You may or may not know that for a number of years our church’s costs have been heavily subsidized by our halls rental income. Hall fees have heavily funded our church. But I’m afraid this cannot - and should not - continue.
- It cannot continue because our hall income is increasingly needed to manage, maintain and repair the halls themselves.
- And it should not continue, because as a congregation we should be covering the costs of our own church’s ministry. Our Christian ministry and mission at St. Michael’s should not be dependent on income from the secular sports and social clubs that make use of our halls.
I’m grateful that our new Church Treasurer, Martin Bennett, has agreed to speak to us later, and he has some facts and figures that spell out our financial needs for the coming year.
But please don’t be discouraged or depressed! Because, as I mentioned last week, these are exciting times at St Michael’s. A time of new life and growth. A time when I dare to believe that God is at work among us. A time when we can be salt and light in our community, sharing our Christian faith with family, friends and colleagues.
But to fulfill our potential we need two things. To succeed as a church we have to be doing two things.
- Firstly, as we learnt last week, we need to be praying hard. Praying hard for the opportunities, wisdom and resources we need to do God’s work in Gidea Park.
- But secondly, we need to follow the inspiring example of our passage today. We need to be a church that gives generously, joyfully and sacrificially. A church that is investing in God’s work in Gidea Park. A church that is as generous and gracious as the wonderful God we worship.