In his book, The Invisible Caring Hand: American Congregations and the Provision of Welfare, published by the New York University Press in 2002, Ram A. Cnaan, wrote,
If the average North American congregation were to bill its community for the social services it provides, the tab would be about $184,000 per year.
I believe that statistic reveals just the tip of the iceberg of good that Christianity has offered to society over the past two thousand years. If you think about it, the Church has been responsible for beginning and continuing to operate the vast majority of hospitals and schools around the world, not to mention the positive influence that the Church has had on art, literature, and so much else. All of this started with the service mentality of the first group of Christians in Jerusalem 2000 years ago. Let us read once again Luke’s wonderful description of that group from Acts 2:42-47….
They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. Everyone was filled with awe at the many wonders and signs performed by the apostles. All the believers were together and had everything in common. They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need. Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.
Today, we are focusing on the fourth of the five purposes of the church described in this passage and that is SERVICE. We see at least four points about Christian service here.
First, all who believed were together and had all things in common.
Now, the first question this raises is: did the first Christians in Jerusalem eliminate private property? I believe the answer is: “No.” The reason I believe the answer is “no”, is because we read in this same passage that they sold their possessions and goods and distributed the proceeds as any had need. The tense of the verb that is used here is imperfect which means that the selling and the giving were occasional, in response to specific needs, it was not a “once for all” giving up of private property. After all, in this same passage we read that the first Christians in Jerusalem broke bread at home. So, they still had their individual homes.
What is described here is an attitude. It is the attitude that says: “What’s mine is yours.”What we see here is a willingness to share that goes beyond the norm.
The story is told of two little boys trying to ride the same tricycle at the same time. One boy finally said to the other, “You know, if one of us would get off I could have a lot more fun.”
That’s the way some of us go through life. We put ourselves first. If your wants and needs conflict with my wants and needs, it’s my wants and needs that are going to be met first. But that was not the attitude of the first Christians in Jerusalem.
Secondly, those first Christians had attitudes of service that were expressed in action. We read: “They would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need.” This was a voluntary sharing expressed in action. The first Christians in Jerusalem were apparently willing to do whatever was required to meet the needs of others.
This is emphasized again in Acts 4:34-35,
There was not a needy person among them, for as many as owned lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold. They laid it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need.
Thus, we see that the first Christians even sold properties and possessions to meet the needs of others with the proceeds. However, their sharing did not stop there.
Thirdly, we read that they shared food with one another in their homes in gladness and simplicity of heart. That word “simplicity”, sometimes translated as “generosity”, is key. The only way we will have anything to share with others is if we are willing to live more simply ourselves. Sometimes living more simply requires real sacrifice.
Do you remember Chuck Colson? He was Nixon’s lawyer and so-called “hatchet man” who spent time in prison because of his involvement in Watergate. Colson became a believer in Jesus Christ who devoted the rest of his life to a ministry he founded called Prison Fellowship. Colson used to say that the second most dramatic event in his life, after his conversion, happened while he was serving time in prison. His family was facing serious problems due to his absence. So, the 18th ranking member of the House of Representatives, a former political opponent but a member of Colson’s prayer group, came up with a way to solve the problem. The man asked permission from the President of the United States to serve out Colson’s term in prison for him. Colson later said that at that point he knew he belonged to a new kind of society. What an example of service and sacrifice!
Fourth, how does the world respond when they see that kind of service offered by Christians? Luke, the author of Acts, says that because of the service mentality of the first church in Jerusalem, “They had the goodwill of all the people.” Their attitudes and actions of service led to a positive reputation with those outside the church.
I remember many years ago flying on a plane and trying to share the good news of Jesus Christ with a businessman seated next to me. He did not want to hear anything good I had to say about Christianity until I told him my father’s story of leaving a self-centered life in organized crime and eventually winding up in New York City trying to help teenagers get out of the gang life. When I shared that story with that businessman he was suddenly impressed and he agreed that such a life, motivated by the example of Jesus Christ, is the way we all should live.
It’s like the old saying, “People don’t care how much we know, until they know how much we care.”
However, that raises the question: how are we to follow the example of the first church in Jerusalem regarding service?
One answer to that question is found in a memorable phrase coined by Ruth Stafford Peale, the wife of Norman Vincent Peale, pastor and author of the bestselling book, The Power of Positive Thinking. Ruth coined the phrase: “Find a need and fill it!”
We need to be asking ourselves and others: What are the needs in our church? What are the needs in our community? And how might we go about meeting those needs?
One way I know this church is involved in meeting needs in this community is through the food we collect every Sunday for the Hands of Hope food pantry. That is a great work of service.
Another need I have learned about since moving to the Cape is the need for affordable housing. The Missions Board of First Church has done a wonderful job over the years supporting the Housing Assistance Corporation, to the tune of thousands of dollars.
And you have also heard this morning about another service organization we support—Independence House. I hope you will take time after the service to join us downstairs for refreshments and take advantage of Chris’ presence with us to learn even more about Independence House.
These are just three of the many ministries of service that this church supports through the tireless efforts of our Missions Board. Finding needs and filling them, finding hurts and healing them is, I believe, one of the main things our church should be doing.
However, before we can find needs and fill them, before we can find hurts and heal them, we must each discover our own spiritual gifts and begin using them.
I believe it is part of my role as your pastor to help all of you discover your spiritual gifts and either start or continue using them. Our Christian lives and our Church life are so much more enjoyable when we stop simply filling job slots in the church with warm bodies and instead empower people to discover their gifts and pursue creative ways of using those gifts to meet needs in the church and community. There are few things more fulfilling in life than discovering one’s gifts and putting those gifts to use to meet real human need.
As I have mentioned, this Saturday from 9 to noon I am offering a class here at the church entitled “Discovering Spiritual Maturity”. We still have room for more people to attend if you would like to join us.
The following Saturday, April 1 (no fooling!) I will be offering another class entitled “Discovering My Ministry”. That one is all about discovering your SHAPE for ministry. As a pastor, my desire is that you discover the unique way God has created and designed you to function in his kingdom. Your SHAPE (Spiritual Gifts, Heart, Abilities, Personality, and Experience) should determine your ministry.
I do not believe that God designed church ministry for only a select few with seminary degrees. Here at First Church, every member is a minister. That is what C.L.A.S.S. 301 is all about. April 1 will be an exciting, fast-paced morning, designed to help you further discover your S.H.A.P.E. and how God might continue to use you for ministry at First Church and in our community.
In conclusion for today allow me to share a brief story…
In his book Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell tells the … story of Christopher Langan, a genius with a staggering IQ of 195. (For some perspective, Einstein’s IQ was 150). During high school, Langan could ace any foreign language test by skimming the textbook 2-3 minutes before the exam. He got a perfect score on his SAT, even though at one point he fell asleep. But Langan failed to use his exceptional gifts [to their full potential] and ended up working on a horse farm in rural Missouri. According to Gladwell, Langan never had a community to help him capitalize on his gifts.
Gladwell summarizes the story of Langan in one sentence: “[Langan] had to make his way alone, and no one—not rock stars, not professional athletes, not software billionaires, and not even geniuses—ever makes it alone.”
The Church is not simply a collection of disconnected individuals. The Church is not about helping people to make it alone. Rather, the Church is a place where we pool our God-given talents and gifts all together, and then offer those gifts in service to God, God’s kingdom, and our community.