Sunday, July 13, 2008

Megas Phobos

What follows are the notes for the sermon this weekend. We've been in a series on the book of Acts, and last week experimented with a time of discussion after the message, before communion. This week we ran out of time (a euphemism for "I rambled on too long"), so I'm posting my speaking notes for any who want to comment, discuss, share perspectives, etc. I think the last few weeks are available for listening online, too, for anyone interested... Here goes:

(Oh, and by the way, if anyone knows how to truncate a post in blogger, and extend it on another page with a "more" link, please let me know)

Acts 4&5 – Holy Fear
Vineyard Church of Milan

Once in a while, you’re traveling through an exciting and invigorating book like the book of Acts, and then boom, you hit a speed bump and your beverage of choice spills all over the steering wheel and the windshield and your freshly pressed Dockers. Making it hard to concentrate on driving for one, and putting a damper on your good mood for two.

That's what the start of chapter 5 is like, at least for me, and probably the rest of us, unless you’re Phil Jackson and you’ve achieved some kind of inner Zen state that takes everything in stride. It's about this couple who sell some land to give some money to the church, but keep some to themselves while making themselves out be giving the whole kit and caboodle to the church. And then they keel over, dead as doornails. One after the other. That'll teach 'em, eh?

As a generally “up with people” type of person who is enamored with the grace and mercy of God, the tendency is to gloss right over a story like this, maybe skip it altogether. Unless you happen to be ticked off about something, of course, in which case you use it like a bludgeon and hit unsuspecting congregants over the head with it. See, if you don't stop _______ (fill in the blank), this might be the fate that awaits you, too!

But I so enjoy Luke's way of telling stories, and his expert authorship, that I can't help but think he included the beginning of chapter 5 on purpose. And I can't imagine his purpose was to scare the living daylights out of us - at least not first and foremost. But it sure as shootin' is perplexing. Perplexing as all get out. Not the kind of passage you tape to your refrigerator, that's for sure. Or embroider on a quilt or whatever.

Which brings me to N.T. Wright. He's a bishop and historical theologian in the Church of England who has a way of understanding the Scriptures that helps apprehend its vitality and makes way for its clear and compelling voice to resonate. His commentary on the book of Acts, called Acts for Everyone - which has been the well from which I've drawn most of my insight for this series - suggests a way of coming at this story that made me go, oh, right. Yeah, that makes some sense. I'm not any more comfortable with the idea that God has set this particular precedent, mind you, and I don't plan on naming any of my kids Ananias. But I do think the Spirit has life giving words this morning for us from Jesus as we proceed through this section of Acts.

Are you ready? We'll ease into it, picking up where we left off last week, after Peter and John healed the cripple outside the temple, got thrown in jail by the Temple authorities, and then were finally released due to popular demand.

Acts 4:23 On their release, Peter and John went back to their own people and reported all that the chief priests and the elders had said to them...Now, Lord, consider their threats and enable your servants to speak your word with great boldness. Stretch out your hand to heal and perform signs and wonders through the name of your holy servant Jesus.

Notice how their prayer isn't against those who are acting like enemies. They say very simply, essentially, Lord, you know what's happening. Help us to persevere in sharing your good news in spite of it all. Keep healing. Keep demonstrating the arrival of your kingdom and the freedom and hope that comes with it. Let the empty threats pale in comparison to the powerful name of Jesus.

This is a whole new way of responding, isn't it? It's exactly the opposite of what the Temple authorities are doing in the face of threat. It's a sign that Jesus really is their Lord. Their King. There is something for us to learn here, when we face adversity in our lives. Not to fix our eyes on the adversity or the enemy, but on what God wants to do in us and through us. Lord, you know what I face. Help me to keep my eyes fixed on your kingdom, and to act with faith and clarity as your servant. Keep up the good work, God, and let me be a part of it!

Acts 4:31 After they prayed, the place where they were meeting was shaken. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke the word of God boldly.

All the believers were one in heart and mind... And God's grace was so powerfully at work in them all that there were no needy persons among them.

Luke is reiterating here what he's said before at the end of chapter 2, and which we've spoken about at some length. But he's doing it in a very particular way to call to mind Exodus 15, where God speaks to his people about the covenant community he intends to set up. It has to do with Jubilee and the cancellation of debts and such (which Don Bromley from Ann Arbor spoke about last month). When Luke writes that God's grace was so powerfully among this new community of Jesus that there were no needy persons among them, he's saying this is it! It's really happening! What God has long promised with regard to establishing a people who love him and obey his commandments and whom he dwells with and through whom the whole world will be blessed - here it is!

Acts 4:36 Joseph, a Levite from Cyprus, whom the apostles called Barnabas (which means "son of encouragement"), sold a field he owned and brought the money and put it at the apostle's feet.

This isn't the last we'll hear about Barnabas, a man noteworthy for the courage he imparts to others. What he's doing here is significant in the story Luke is telling us about what this new community is becoming. Barnabas is a Levite - the priestly tribe. The tribe that was charged with responsibility for the temple, and who were provided for in God's law by the tithes of the other tribes, which would be brought to the Temple. Here the normal pattern is flipped on it's head, and Luke is shining a spotlight on it for us. The Levite isn't receiving the gift; he's giving it. May those who have eyes to see, see. The Temple and the temple system have given way to the new dwelling place of God on earth - this learning, sharing, praying, bread-breaking community we call the church.

And now the music changes keys.

Acts 5:1 Now a man named Ananias, together with his wife, Sapphira, also sold a piece of property...Great fear seized the whole church and all who heard about these events.

As my 15 year old sister would say, Oh, snap! Harsh, huh? Anybody else squirming a little bit? Not that we shouldn't be. After all, great fear seized not only the whole church, but all who heard about these events. I like the way Eugene Peterson paraphrases this last sentence in the Message translation: "They knew God was not to be trifled with." Even that may be understating it a bit.

Caveat - we're not given any information about the state of Ananias and Sapphira’s souls. The Lord surely knew their hearts, and had all the information he needed to make the right call here. Ananias and Sapphira are not ultimately Luke’s concern, nor should they be ours. They are in the Lord’s hands. Luke’s concern, and our concern, is we - you and me. The concerns we have for Ananias and his wife are usually, if we’re honest, just roundabout ways of getting at our real question, the one bouncing around in our souls like a hyperactive ping pong ball with the mass of a bowling ball: oh, no, could I be next?

A common misconception is that this sort of thing is common in the Bible. Not so. We don't see it again in the whole of the New Testament, in fact. Most of the time, people and nations get away with being bad for longer than most of us are comfortable with. That's why so many psalmists and prophets are regularly crying out for justice. Injustice tends to linger, and God's timing for sorting it all out seems inscrutable to us in our longing. Through the example and ministry of Jesus, we've come to know God as a God who goes to great pains to bring us to a place of repentance. So much so that later the apostle Paul writes that God uses kindness to lead us to repentance.

Which is why most of us don’t see this coming, especially when it comes to something as run of the mill as lying. I mean, hey, they actually sold some land - that they didn't have to sell, mind you - in order to give a good chunk of the profits to the church. We're shocked that they don't seem to have a chance to turn away from their lie, make it up, be forgiven. [Charles Spurgeon story...]

No, no heartwarming hallmark ending here. Justice is stunningly swift and horribly final. Which we love in our summer blockbusters when it’s the bad guys to whom it is served. Real life is another story. When it happens to people who could be we. Could be me. We can’t get it out of our heads; it makes an indelible impression. And that's part of the clue to what's going on. Something like this has happened before. And if you've heard of the stories, they probably made an indelible impression as well. Leviticus 10, Nadab and Abinhu in the Tabernacle, the precursor of the Temple.

Aaron's sons Nadab and Abihu took their censers, put fire in them and added incense; and they offered unauthorized fire before the Lord, contrary to his command. So fire came out from the presence of the Lord and consumed them, and they died before the Lord. Moses then said to Aaron, "This is what the Lord spoke of when he said: 'Among those who approach me I will be proved holy; in the sight of all the people I will be honored." Aaron remained silent.

There are two other similar stories, and they also involve the holy dwelling place of God - one, the Ark of the Covenant, and the other, the Temple.

It's no coincidence. Luke wants us to see, through this awful example, that God has chosen to dwell with his Holy presence in the church. The same Holy presence that dwelled in the Tabernacle, that dwelt in the ark of the covenant, in the Holy of Holies in the temple in Jerusalem. The Holy fire that was poured out on the church on Pentecost is the same fire that came out from the presence of the Lord shortly after the giving of the law. There is no mistaking it now. The Holy One of Israel is present among these rag tag but beautifully sharing followers of Jesus in the same way, and with the same potency and power, that he was previously present in the Temple.

That kind of holiness is the most concentrated form of truth and goodness and reality in the universe, and the Holy God isn’t pleased by petty selfish lies that parade around pretending to be nobility and generosity and godliness. Because the lie is a distortion of truth and an absence of goodness and fundamentally separated from reality. The end result in this particular case is the account we have here.

I don’t know that we’ll ever get our minds and hearts around the theology of it all; I know I certainly haven’t. Luke isn’t giving us much theology. He’s just telling us what happened, one human being to another human being. So that we can wrestle with it together with him and with the church and with all who heard about it.

Here are the fruits of my wrestling so far, for your consideration. Not that you shouldn’t do your own. But maybe to encourage you do to your own.

The kind of holy fear this produces is the healthiest kind of fear. It’s the fear of the Lord. Not the kind of fear that cripples you, like the fears we so often experience in life. Where we freeze up, panic, run, hide. Not the kind of fear that gnaws at you, gives birth to worry, anxiety, ulcers. Where we slowly shrink and waste and become less fully human. No, that’s the fear of everything and anything but the Lord. Fear of the Lord is, as the book of proverbs says, the beginning of wisdom. It sets us on the path to life, not death.

The fear of the Lord is fear that wakes you up, stands your whole self at attention – body, soul, mind and heart – and makes you ready to respond with clarity and decisiveness. [like driving too fast in bad conditions…]

The fear of the Lord is fear that reorders your priorities, reveals where things have gotten, or are going, out of whack and quickly shuffles them back into place. [again, back to driving: when you’re jamming to the tunes, lost in a conversation on your cell phone, and someone gets pulled over right next to you…]

In a counterintuitive way, the fear of the Lord is like a love calibrator. When we start to let anyone or anything other than the living God (career, money, achievement, success, popularity, even spouses and children) occupy the no. 1 position in our heart, we are susceptible to fears that can destroy us. Fears of losing our career, not having enough money, failure, disappointing people, a variety of expressions of fear of losing people that we love.

But fear of the Lord can reverse all of that, and quickly. Because it fixes our eyes on him. Initially in fear – but that quickly gives way to love. And we recognize in seeing him that he is the one who we can love above all things, without destructive fears. Without fear of losing him, or not having enough of him, or failing him, or disappointing him, or getting jealous or nervous or worried about him. And then those other destructive fears lose their power. Sure, any of those things may happen. But I have put my love and trust in the LORD. And he will one day set all things right.

The church needed to be fully awake in the midst of the persecution that was coming her way. She needed to be fully awake to join with the Lord in the healing and the harvest that was coming. The church needed to be afraid only of the Lord, so that she would not be afraid of the Temple authorities, or the Romans, or the hardships that were coming her way. So that she would have the Lord in the first position in her heart, so that she could love and be nourished by and trust wholeheartedly the Lord even if everything else were taken away from her.

Don’t we need the same thing? Isn’t it easy today to get caught up in fears that ultimately cripple us, gnaw at us, destroy us? Fears of job losses or housing losses or lifestyle losses or relationship losses. Fears of what others think of us or say about us? Fears that cause us to let go of the priorities the Lord would have for us and hold tight to things that can never, at the end of the day, be under our control anyway? And so we come away empty handed?

Don’t we need our whole selves to come awake instead to the presence of the Lord among us? To his Holy power that rules over even the most fearful things in our lives. So that our priorities get rearranged, set back in order. So that we fix our eyes on him, and discover in loving him the satisfaction for our real and deepest thirsts. So that every other love in our lives flows from that love, and stays pure as a mountain stream, unpolluted by the fear factories in our world. So that we can join with him as he unleashes his healing and readies a kingdom harvest.