"Beauty and Excellency"
July 4, 1999
Text: Acts 4:32-37
Before the church can proceed with its work in the world, it needs some preparation. It needs some becoming one in heart and mind—mind being the best rendering of soul in this passage. And that process of becoming one results in "beauty and excellency" being attributed to the body by observers. So, another facet of our purpose appears to be that of developing a sense of loyalty to Christ and to each other that is remarkable in this day! It is remarkable because our culture trains us to be consumers, and to approach all things with an eye to customer satisfaction. How different this is compared to the glue which held the Christians together in Jerusalem—namely, allegiance to the Lord Jesus Christ and, by extension, to all who call upon that name. The critical thing seems to have been the valuing of personal relationships and these relationships have to do with folks who were relative strangers in many cases.
So, how much we love one another reflects on the integrity of our faith community and that love is spelled out in concrete, practical terms. That is to say, it is more than fine sounding words. If we were to compare the times of the Jerusalem church to a time in recent American history, the Great Depression would suit us best. There was famine in the land. Social and political unrest and a tremendous press of unemployment—fueled in part by the exodus of farm workers and fishing families from rural to urban centers—made for difficult times. The early church, however, did not seek to insulate itself from this social distress and the church did not retreat either into a monastic order, or a ghetto mentality. A closed society, like that of the Essenes in Qumran, looked very different from the church with its married couples, separate households and family held properties. The church was a personal place, where people were valued, known and helped individually as well as collectively. It was a religious society marked by permeability and a bold, uncompromising emphasis on faith and truth. Truth in general, yes, and yet also particular truth: the truth of the resurrection of Jesus Christ. This definitive article of faith in the life-changing significance of Jesus’ victory over death and the grave lead to passionate worship. It birthed a way of life so revolutionary that early Christians came to be known as "The Way," even before they came to be known as Christians! The Jerusalem church was primarily a preaching/teaching church—for the resurrection properly expounded, explained and illustrated summarizes all the duties, privileges and comforts of the believer. This preaching, done with vigor, spirit and confidence, pleases the Lord and He rewards those who do it. So we read that "great grace" was upon them—their "beauty and excellencies" shown! (v.33)
Outreach wasn’t a mission of the church, much less the project of a certain committee. Outreach was the church! (v. 34) And believers were so committed to the project of bringing in the lost sheep of Israel along with the growing number of Gentile believers that generous, spontaneous giving resulted! The generosity of Barnabas is a case in point. (v. 36) His name actually means "bar Nubas," son of prophecy; not encouragement as a sermon I once heard had persuaded me. Barnabas was an encourager, but more to the point is his gifting of exhortation, of healing persuasion. He was not as "son of thunder," but was rather one who heals the wounds searched out by his confrontational brothers. Barnabas was likely one of the seventy who grew to prominence under the leadership of the twelve; he was certainly the friend and advocate for the Apostle Paul.
We read in verse 35 that those who made these extraordinary gifts would come and lay them at the apostles’ feet in what appears to be a show of contempt for the allure of wealth. Why? Because they held in view all the things of heaven, their "great inheritance" with all the saints! Their blessed indifference protected them from vainglory and from trusting in those things which are passing away. For as it has been pointed out, nothing is really ours excepting our sin! The things of this world pass away, but we must deal with sin, for our treatment of it carries eternal consequence. Furthermore, it takes great wisdom to manage charity properly, to see that the equally needy and equally deserving are equally helped. The flesh is perpetually rising up, tempting us to hold on to our own, even while grasping for more, causing wars and fightings amongst us! Only the Holy Spirit working through us can accomplish it. But those who cannot help themselves and those who have suffered persecution for well-doing are particularly in view here. The church has a particular interest in seeing that those who suffer because of their service are tended to with kindness and generosity. Christians were "liberal," that is to say, generous in caring for others with their personal property—seeing their property as a means to an end of service, and not merely as a means to please, or serve one’s private ends. They did not insist on using other people’s money to achieve the charity deemed necessary. By the spirit, they had attained a certain disentanglement from the world. And that, too, caused their beauty and excellency to shine!
So our purpose must include becoming one in heart and mind through the elevation of relationships to a plane of spiritual priority, while we boldly proclaim the resurrection of Jesus Christ. If we are able through the cultivation of love of Christ and each other to disentangle ourselves from the pull of the flesh, and of worldliness, our beauty and excellence will shine.