The early church was just different from the people around them. This didn’t make life easy for them, but it did keep them in line with what God had designed them to be. As we continue in our series, Telling Our Story, this past Sunday we talked about the fact that as a church today, we are called to stand out still. What are some ways you can stand out as a follower of Jesus?
As an extra note here, we are getting some much needed time off this week, so this will be the only post this week. I look forward to being back with you starting next Monday. See you then!
Have you ever known someone who was comfortable in his or her own skin? There are some people who have the gift of being content with who they are. That’s not the case for most of us. Most of us have little doubts or insecurities that keep us constantly trying to hide one thing or another that we don’t like about ourselves. But those people who are just comfortable and positively confident because of it stand out.
For one of our family movie nights a few weeks ago, we watched the Disney+ film, Stargirl. It stars Graham Verchere as Leo Borlock, and Grace VanderWaal as Stargirl Caraway. Both are high school students at a suburban New Mexico high school. The film tells the story of their budding friendship and then romance. Leo is a typical teenager, unremarkable in every respect. Then he meets this new girl named Stargirl. That’s not her real name of course—not the name on her birth certificate anyway—but it’s who she really is all the same; the name just fits. Stargirl is one of those unique individuals who are comfortable in their own skin. She’s not trying to make up for some lack of attention by being intentionally different, she just is and she’s okay with that. VanderWaal, famous for winning America’s Got Talent a few years ago and now a popular singer/songwriter in her own right, plays the role beautifully in part because it really doesn’t seem like she has to act much. She’s just like that herself.
Still, as eminently likeable as Stargirl is, her reception by the broader population at the school itself is not a smooth or easy process. Being around someone so committed to her identity has a tendency to reveal the insecurities of those folks who aren’t. Folks don’t like having their insecurities laid bare. As a result, Stargirl is forced to endure one attempt after another to force her to be “normal” in the eyes of everyone else, including an attempt or two by Leo himself.
What becomes clear over the course of the movie is that standing out is hard. Well, as we continue today in our series, Telling Our Story, walking through the story of the early church in Acts, we are going to see something similar going on in the life of that first church. Almost from the moment of their founding, the church stood out as different from rest of the Jewish world gathered there in Jerusalem. The followers of Jesus stood out as different. From the task they were given to the power that drove them forward to their relentlessly bold commitment to their mission, everything about them marked them as strange. Like we see in Stargirl—and perhaps know all too well in our own life—standing out makes life difficult and it certainly did so for the early believers. Yet these difficulties did not always come in the ways we might have expected.
Find your way to Acts 5 with me this morning and I’ll show you what I mean. Backing up just a little bit from there, at the end of chapter 4, we see that the believers’ commitment to boldness in their witness led to their thriving. They were united in heart and mind and that spirit of generosity we talked about a couple of weeks ago was flowing in abundance. People were committing radical acts of generosity to great acclaim among the believers. It was an amazing time to be a part of the movement.
But, when there is recognition to be gained, some people are going to go after that attention because they want the notoriety. They’ll do whatever it takes to achieve it with the status as their only goal. Well, after a man named Barnabas who would go on to play an outsized role in the church in the years ahead sold some land and gave all the money to the church—an enormous sacrifice—there was another couple named Ananias and Sapphira in the church who decided they wanted in on some of the action. So, they sold some of their own land and made a show of bringing the proceeds to the church just like Barnabas had done. Copycat generosity is always a good thing to see break out in a church community. Just think about what the Spirit would be able to accomplish with all these resources. If their origin is a bit dubious…well…we can just overlook that, right?
There was just one problem. Ananias and his wife were not doing this merely out of the goodness of their hearts. They wanted the recognition their gift would bring. Just like the culture around them did, they were buying status with this gift. They wanted that recognition and the appearance of radical generosity was the vehicle to their achieving it. Notice, I said “the appearance of radical generosity.” They weren’t really generous, they just wanted to look like it because of the status they no doubt correctly understood their apparent gift would bring them. So, while they claimed to be following Barnabas’ example, they didn’t really. But nobody would know they hadn’t brought all the proceeds from the sale as they claimed in their pseudo-mimicry of Barnabas. The fact that they only brought a portion of the sale was a secret shared between the husband and wife. No one would be the wiser.
Except Peter, under the power of the Holy Spirit, was. And what follows here is as shocking as it is tragic. When Ananias brought the money to the apostles, Peter called him out on the duplicity in v. 3: “‘Ananias,’ Peter asked, ‘why has Satan filled your heart to lie to the Holy Spirit and keep back part of the proceeds of the land? Wasn’t it yours while you possessed it? And after it was sold, wasn’t it at your disposal? Why is it that you planned this thing in your heart? You have not lied to people but to God.’ When he heard these words, Ananias dropped dead…”
Now, sudden judgment from God like this is always unnerving because if He did it then, He might do it now. I wish we had the time now to go all the way into what’s going on here, but this will have to suffice for now with the promise that if you want to talk more about it later we can. This was a foundational moment in the early church. If cracks were allowed to develop here—cracks like rewarding dishonesty and greed with high status; something paradigmatically opposite of the ethic of Jesus—they would spell the eventual doom of the movement. The church would have been revealed to be just like every other corrupt organization in the world and would have fizzled out in no time. So, rather than extending time for the possible repentance of Ananias and Sapphira, God in His perfect wisdom and justice knew their hearts were fully hardened to Him and delivered the justice their brazen sin deserved immediately. And I say “they” not “him” because Sapphira was fully in on the ruse and paid the same price as her husband. Verse 7: “About three hours later, his wife came in, not knowing what had happened. ‘Tell me,’ Peter asked her, ‘did you sell the land for this price?’ ‘Yes,’ she said, ‘for that price.’ Then Peter said to her, ‘Why did you agree to test the Spirit of the Lord? Look, the feet of those who have buried your husband are at the door, and they will carry you out.’ Instantly she dropped dead at his feet.”
Luke’s summary of the fallout in v. 11 is…understated: “Then great fear came on the whole church and on all who heard these things.” You think? They realized something together. This whole following Jesus thing was a whole lot more serious than they many of them realized. But to their credit…or rather, to the credit of the Holy Spirit who enabled them…the lesson took. Now, people didn’t want to do anything to cross the apostles or even to get close to them, but they were still being drawn to the movement like ants to a picnic.
Yet just when one challenge is fading away, when one attack of the enemy has failed, he has another ready to go. The Sadducees on the Sanhedrin, the Jewish ruling council, followed through on their threat to arrest the apostles again if they kept talking about Jesus. But, in a plot twist, an angel lets them out with instructions to go back to the temple and keep proclaiming the Gospel. This is another one of those stories you just have to read for yourselves. The Sanhedrin are once again shocked and furious at the powerlessness they seem to have over this group who just won’t stop claiming that Jesus is the Messiah. But they still have the crowds and so once again, their political hands are tied.
Now, that doesn’t mean they’re happy about it. And Peter and the other apostles did their part to antagonize these impotent and religiously defunct leaders. I love the way this plays out in v. 28. Luke starts with the Sanhedrin: “‘Didn’t we strictly order you not to teach in this name? Look, you have filled Jerusalem with your teaching and are determined to make us guilty of this man’s blood.’” The apostles basically reply, “Umm, that would be because you are.” “Peter and the apostles replied, ‘We must obey God rather than people. The God of our ancestors raised up Jesus whom you had murdered by hanging him on a tree. God exalted this man to his right hand as ruler and Savior, to give repentance to Israel and forgiveness of sins. We are witnesses of these things, and so is the Holy Spirit whom God has given to those who obey him.’” In other words, “Nah, nah, nah!” Okay, so it wasn’t quite like that, but it wasn’t all that far off. The only difference is that they were being sincere. They were absolutely committed to their call and honestly didn’t care about what happened to them in their loving pursuit of it.
Listen: Nobody then did this kind of thing. Nobody. Not a single person. It just wasn’t how people thought. And their humble, if defiant, confidence in who their Lord had called them to be absolutely infuriated the Sanhedrin members. They wanted to kill them on the spot. Fortunately, there was one member of the Sanhedrin—Gamaliel, who tutored a young man named Saul—who spoke up, not so much in their defense as against any rash, anger-driven action. Verse 38: “So in the present case, I tell you, stay away from these men and leave them alone. For if this plan or this work is of human origin, it will fail; but if it is of God, you will not be able to overthrow them. You may even be found fighting against God.” Make sense? Just leave them alone, fellas. If they don’t have God on their side, they’ll eventually burn out just like every other such movement. Rome will make sure of it. If they do, you won’t be able to stop them anyway. Let’s keep our hands clean. Well, mostly clean. After a pretty thorough beating, then, they released them once again.
Think about the journey we see the church going on in these verses. They stood out, got tempted away from it, and kept standing out. They stood out, got pounded for it (again), and kept standing out. Look at v. 41: “Then they went out from the presence of the Sanhedrin…” Now, how would we leave if this had happened? Cowed? Fearful? More cautious than before? Not them. “Then they went out from the presence of the Sanhedrin, rejoicing that they were counted worthy to be treated shamefully on behalf of the Name.” Who does that? That’s just weird, right? What kind of a people stands out like this? A people committed to a cause. A people so committed to a cause that they have given over fear of what might happen to them for pursuing it. And their cause was life; life in Jesus Christ. Verse 42: “Every day in the temple, and in various homes, they continued teaching and proclaiming the good news that Jesus is the Messiah.”
Hear the truth, friends: If we are going to be heirs to what they started, we’ve got to be willing to stand out. Last week, we talked about the fact that we have lost the culture. That just means it’s easier to stand out than it used to be. It also means that standing out isn’t going to be received as patiently as it once was. As much as the culture arounds us proclaims to love individualism, what it prizes most is conformity. Standing out is hard, and all the more these days. But we were made to be different. Standing out is hard, but we were made to be different.
When we stand out as different because of our commitment to loving one another and ministering the grace of the Gospel in all that we do (which is really the only way to stand out, by the way), the world is going to take notice. It will first try and tempt us back into conformity. We’ll be given the chance to compromise—just a little bit—for the sake of fitting in a bit more. In Stargirl, they kept trying to get her to use her real name instead of calling herself Stargirl. It’ll be something small. Something that seems totally insignificant. Something that seems like it will help us advance our cause to even more people than we will without it. This temptation may even come from someone who we thought was on the inside. But we cannot take the bait. We were called to stand out. Standing out is hard, but we were made to be different.
If that doesn’t work, we can expect more direct external challenges. We can expect hostility and threats. We can expect legal action or online bullying or of being “cancelled.” Each threat will come with the promise of relief if we will only get back in line. The Sanhedrin didn’t really want trouble with the apostles. They just wanted them to blend in better. Go and be a breakaway Jewish cult if you want. There are plenty of those. Another won’t hurt. But quit being so different. But we were made to be different. Standing out is hard, but we were made to be different. Jesus was different. He didn’t look like the world. We can’t either.
So then, let’s think together: How can we be different? Where is the world around us all the same? Right now, much of the world is anger and fear, isn’t it? We don’t have answers to the hard questions about things like reopening society amid an ongoing pandemic, but what if we could provide a consistent message of love instead of anger and faith instead of fear? We have an election coming in just a couple of months that is going to be incredibly divisive. What if we made a name for ourselves as a place where people who disagreed on politics and desirable political outcomes nonetheless had incredible love for one another because of the bigger commitment they had to one another in Christ? Parents are going to be facing an incredible challenge as we move into the next school year as they desperately try and figure out what to do with their children when they can’t be in the school building but the parents still have to go to work. And let’s not even get started on the mask issue. What if, instead of adding to the noise and bemoaning the difficulties, we were committed to being part of the solution? Standing out is hard. It takes work. It takes creativity and intentionality. It takes boldness and courage. But we have to do it. We were made to do it. Standing out is hard, but we were made to be different. Let us commit to doing it together.