A Healthy Church is Authentic (Acts 4:36-5:11)
After fighting a highly publicized bout with cancer, bicyclist Lance Armstrong went to win seven Tour De France titles between 1999-2005. It seemed like cycling was in his blood. The greatest comeback story in all of sport sucked in media, sponsors, and cancer patients looking for a hero. It seemed almost un-American to not root for Armstrong, until it was discovered that there was more than cycling in his blood. Apparently, he won all those titles while using illegal substances. The chief executive of the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency called Armstrong and his team as organizing the “most sophisticated … successful doping program sport has ever seen.” In October 2012, Armstrong was stripped of his seven Tours de France victories and permanently banned from cycling.
I was not shocked when I first heard this. It is kind of the norm now. We have steroid scandal in baseball. We have singers lip-synching at presidential inaugurations. We have a quarterback with a fake online relationship. Not to mention reality television, which is probably one of the most unrealistic things out there. There is plastic decking that looks like real wood. Vinyl flooring that appears to be ceramic tile. You can purchase fake fur or jewelry, phony noses, hairpieces, and other body parts. If you don’t want to pay full price for Rice Krispies, you can go to certain stores and get Crispy Rice cereal. I read an advertisement for fake mud in a can that you can spray on your car and make your friends think you just came back from a fun adventure through the rainforest.
We shake our heads at this stuff, but really we are all Lance Armstrongs. In his Christianity Today article, “Living Like Lance: Everyone Dopes,” Jay Wood says: “…there’s a little bit of Lance in each of us.” He talks about the increasing number of cheating that is happening in the academic and corporate world. He goes on to say, “At both elite and pedestrian levels, cheating is often motivated by the underlying desire to have worth as a person. Nothing wrong with that. But when coupled with the belief that we have worth as persons only insofar as we are winning in our various fields of competition, it sows the seeds of pride and envy. We cannot abide being bested in the race for looks, popularity, wealth, athletic success, power, or any other arena of competition.”
I think he gets to the root of the issue there. We find our identity and worth in the wrong thing. And because it is rooted in the wrong thing, we cut corners, lie, put up a front and compete with others to get it. And we become fake and broken.
The church is often no different. One author says, “Good wishes can be mistaken for prayer. Success can be misconstrued as spiritual achievement. Inspirational bumper stickers and symbols can be seen as evangelism. Excellent music can cover for authentic worship of the heart. Humorous or emotional stories can pass for inspired preaching. Christian clichés can be handed out as biblical wisdom. An attractive personality can be mistaken for a Spirit-filled life.” Fruitfulness in ministry can be passed off as holiness in character. How many of us engage in impression management to manipulate others opinion of us?
There is a cry in our world for authenticity. And if there is one thing Jesus spoke out violently against it was hypocrisy, which is the opposite of authenticity. Hypocrisy is saying one thing and doing the opposite. We are all hypocrites in that sense, but real hypocrisy goes deeper. Warren Wiersbe says, “Hypocrisy is deliberate deception, trying to make people think we are more spiritual than we really are.” And we are going to see that God has not changed in his views towards hypocrisy. God hates it. But the Gospel says that this Jesus came to kill our hypocrisy and through His work on the cross, He bridges the gap between what we say we are and who we really are. A Healthy Church is an authentic church. I want to explore that today. Let’s start with this:
I. Comparisonitis kills Authenticity (Acts 4:36-5:2)
How did Ananias and Sapphira end up dead? It all started with Barnabas. Luke mentions him for the first time in Acts 4:36. Luke loves this guy and mentions him 23 times in Acts. Every time you read of him, he is encouraging and helping somebody, hence his name, “Son of Encouragement.” His name is Joe, but the apostles gave him that nickname. The Gospel freed Luke had said how the church was unified and that unity was shown by how much they cared for needy members through their selfless sharing of resources. Exhibit A: Barnabas.
This was not coerced giving, but completely voluntary. When the grace of God fills your heart, your wallets and hands always empty. Barnabas felt convicted to sell his property, take the money and give it to the apostles to use to care for needy believers. As a result, people admired him, applauded him, appreciated him and he got attention, respect and even a nickname. Notice the “but” in Acts 5:1. This shows you that we have three people who look the same but are contrasted with each other. Now perhaps Ananias and Sapphira wanted to give as well, but it was not selflessness that was driving them to be generous, but it was the attention and approval: “Love us like how you loved Barnabas!” Give us nicknames! (“Gracious” and “Beautiful” were not enough). Ok we will. Dead and Deader.
John Stott put it this way, “They wanted the credit and the prestige for sacrificial generosity, without the inconvenience of it. So, in order to gain a reputation to which they had no right, they told a brazen lie. Their motive in giving was not to relieve the poor, but to fatten their own ego.” John Macarthur adds, “They saw an opportunity to make a double profit: They would gain spiritual prestige and still make some money on the side.” And where did it begin?
I think it began when they took their eyes off Jesus and put them on Barnabas and started to compare. Pastor and Blogger Tim Challies says, “Envy makes you feel resentment or anger or sadness because another person has something or another person is something that you want for yourself. Envy makes you aware that another person has some advantage, some good thing, that you want for yourself and, while he’s at it, he makes you want that other person not to have it.”
C.S. Lewis says, “Pride gets no pleasure out of having something, only out of having more of it than the next man. We say people are proud of being rich, or clever, or good-looking, but they are not. They are proud of being richer, or cleverer, or better-looking than others.” When you are proud you compare yourself with another person and there are only two possible outcomes: If you believe you come out on top, you feel even more pride; if you believe you come out on the bottom, you feel envy. Envy comes when Pride is wounded.
Where do we catch comparisonitis today? It is on facebook. You sit there browsing through people’s lives, photos and status updates, sitting in self-pity wishing why your life stinks compared to theirs. Self-loathing and this self-brooding sets in. Singles look at other singles and compare, moms look at other moms and compare, newlyweds look at other newlyweds, pastors look at other pastors and compare. We are presenting ourselves as better than we really are so others could envy us. But in the process, we are not bridging the gap between who we say we are and who we really are, but widening it further. Are your eyes on people or are they on the Lord? Secondly:
II. Authenticity grows in the presence of God (Acts 5:3-11)
Church service had started. The worship team has sung, “I Surrender All.” Ananias comes up to Peter and the apostles and says he gives them all of the money from the sold property. Notice how Peter interprets the situation. Hypocrisy is not just a sin against the leaders of the church and other believers, but it is against God.
Peter sees this as Satan working to destroy the church. He tried from the outside through persecution and when that didn’t work, he tries from the inside. It is like Adam and Eve all over again. God starts something new and Satan tries to bring it to ruin. And Satan is a liar and deceiver. He Himself is an angel of light. Also, there are a lot of similar parallels here to the story of Achan in Joshua 7. Right after the destruction of Jericho, Achan steals some of the treasure and hides it. It seems like when God starts something new, Satan works really hard to stop it, but God also puts a stop to it quickly.
But as one commentator puts it, “The church is the place of God’s presence.” It is not a business where all challenges and problems are just simply “worked out.” You are coming into the very presence of God. When you see who He is is when you truly see who you are. Self-awareness comes from God-awareness. Pastor Rod Cooper adds, “The closer I walk with God, the more quickly I feel my sin and realize how much I need God. It’s like a huge mirror with a great big light over it. When we stand away from the mirror, things look pretty good: suit looks in order; tie looks straight; the hair, what’s left of it, is combed. But as you begin to move towards the mirror, things begin to show up. The suit has a spot on it. The tie is a little bit wrinkled. The hair is out of place. The closer we get to the bright light, the more we realize our defects. It’s the same way when we get close to God. When we get close to him, we realize how much we need him and how far we are from him. We’re convicted of our sin.” Yes, the closer you get to the light, the more dirt you see on your shirt.
Not only do we see a little dirt on our shirt, but we see all of our righteousness is like filthy rags (literally menstrual cloths). American evangelicalism has lost a sense of the majesty of God. He is an easy-going God. Church has become a place of amusement and entertainment more than amazement. People go to church to be entertained. We can learn much about reverence from our Orthodox and Catholic friends. As it has been said, “It is partly because sin does not provoke our own wrath that we do not believe that sin provokes the wrath of God.” We must see hypocrisy from His eyes. It brought Him to death.
Here we see not that God is making a point more than marking a pattern. Sin is serious. Deadly serious. God is angry toward sin because He loves us. Like a surgeon removing the destructive tissue of cancer, God moves decisively. Here is where people say, “I like a God who is loving, not a God who gets angry.” If you never get angry about anything, you don’t love anything. Anger is a love response to a threat to the object of your love. As Becky Pippert says, “Think how we feel when we someone we love ravaged by unwise actions or relationships. Do we respond with benign tolerance as we might towards strangers? Far from it. Anger isn’t the opposite of love, hate is, and the final form of hate is indifference. The more a father loves his son, the more he is angry at the drunkard, the liar, the traitor in his son. And if I, a flawed, self-centered woman can feel this much pain and anger over someone’s condition, how much more a morally perfect God who made them.”
God’s love for His church is revealed in the death of this couple. Were they believers? Scholars are not sure. I think so. They are mentioned in context with the other believers. Does God in loving discipline take people out for the fame of His name? I think so. 1 Cor. 11:30-32 talks about believers who die taking communion in an unworthy manner. 1 John 5:16 talks about the sin unto death. It is not for eternal damnation, but God taking the believer home to protect His name on the earth. We don’t know who is committing this sin or how God decides who should go. But yes, this is in the Bible and yes, God takes sin seriously not just in past tense, but present tense and in the future tense too, when its presence will be gone forever.
But for now the church is not a museum for saints, but a hospital. Things are messy at a hospital. There is healing, but there is also bleeding. No one is completely well except the one true Physician. So I don’t understand when people say, “Christians are all just hypocrites!” What they mean is, “Christians are fake and not always honest, so there is no reason for me to become a Christian!” While this, may sound like a good argument, it actually comes from a deep misunderstanding of what Christianity is actually about. Most people (even some “Christians”) think Christianity is simply about being good and moral, and if that were the case, being a hypocrite would actually contradict Christianity. But Christianity is not about being good. It is about Jesus being good on our behalf. You want to almost ask that person, “Have you ever said one thing and done another?” Yes? Well, it looks like you fit right into this dysfunctional family of sinners saved by grace!
R.C. Sproul adds,
“For a Christian to be a Christian, he must first be a sinner. Being a sinner is a prerequisite for being a church member. The Christian church is one of the few organizations in the world that requires a public acknowledgement of sin as a condition for membership. In one sense the church has fewer hypocrites than any institution because by definition the church is a haven for sinners. If the church claimed to be an organization of perfect people then her claim would be hypocritical. But no such claim is made by the church. There is no slander in the charge that the church is full of sinners. Such a statement would only compliment the church for fulfilling her divinely appointed task.”
So the answer for hypocritical sinners is to encounter God’s presence. What happens when His presence breaks through into our hearts? All false pretenses fall apart. This is why Hebrews says the Word is a sword (Heb. 4:12). It cuts us open and lays us bare. Sin becomes disgusting, then grace becomes amazing. His grace is stronger than our sin. All the follies of sin we resign. We see that we cannot fool Him. We are inauthentic because we are afraid that if people see the real us, they will not love us. But when Jesus’ presence breaks through, we see the real Him with real love looking at our real heart with all of its brokenness, fears, anxieties, loneliness, selfishness and sin. It’s a mess. But He doesn’t leave.
Listen to Keller here:
But the gospel transforms us so our self-understanding is no longer based on our performance in life. We are so evil and sinful and flawed that Jesus had to die for us. We were so lost that nothing less than the death of the divine Son of God could save us. But we are so loved and valued that he was willing to die for us. The Lord of the universe loved us enough to do that! So the gospel humbles us into dust and at the very same time exalts us to the heavens. We are sinners but completely loved and accepted in Christ at the same time. … He saw your heart to the bottom and loved you to the skies.
When can I get the courage to stop hiding? When I am loved. In the story Phantom of the Opera, the phantom, Erik, has a horribly disfigured face, so he wears this mask. He hides in this opera house, not wanting to be seen by others and also because he has done some things he should not have done. But then he meets a woman named Christine. She touches his heart. At the climax of the story, the mask is removed. He knows his face is hideous and waits for Christine to scream in horror. She doesn’t. Her heart would become moved by compassion and pity, and she even kisses his scarred face. Her love changes him. When he allowed her to fully see him, with all of his disfigurement and he stopped hiding, he was fully known and fully loved. First the mask must come off. Then love can penetrate the heart. When that happens, you don’t care what people think. You have fallen into the arms of the only person’s approval that really matters.
John Ortberg says, “I hide because I don’t want to be exposed in my fallenness, my darkness. I hide because I’m afraid if the truth about me is known, I will never be loved. I hide from other people. I hide from God. I hide from truth—in a sense, I hide even from myself…afraid that if the full truth about me is known I won’t be loved. But whatever is hidden cannot be loved. I can only be loved to the extent that I am known. I can only be fully extent that I am known. I can only be fully loved if I am fully known.
Blogger Brad Sarian adds, “To be honest, Christianity exists because hypocrisy is prevalent in everyone’s life. Jesus came to save us from being fake, dishonest, double-minded hypocrites. It is when I realize that Jesus went to the cross to kill my hypocrisy that I can be freed up to be honest about my shortcomings. I can be honest about my failures. I can be honest about my sin, and ultimately not be a hypocrite. The cure to hypocrisy is authenticity. And nothing allows us to be more authentic than knowing we are approved and accepted in Christ.”
Why are we not more authentic? Because we have not truly tasted His authentic grace that is stronger than our hypocrisy. How do we taste His grace more? Get accountability. Get people in your life who you can trust to correct you, direct you and protect you, to speak the truth in love. Get musical worship. The times I am confronted with my hypocrisy and grow in authenticity are the times I have worshipped in song. You don’t feel your way into worship. You worship your way into feeling. We try to sing lot more songs about Jesus here than man. You can sing them with all your heart because they are true whether you are feeling good that day or not. Serve behind the scenes. When you serve and no one is there to notice those things, you learn to serve God for God. George MacDonald wrote, “Half of the misery in the world comes from trying to look, instead of trying to be, what one is not.”
In his 2000 memoir, It’s Not about the Bike, Armstrong wrote, “At the end of the day, if there was indeed some Body or presence standing there to judge me, I hoped I would be judged on whether I had lived a true life, not on whether I believed in a certain book, or whether I’d been baptized” (117). Sadly, he is being judged on that very thing by everyone, only to be judged by the final judge. One day I hope he finds his hope in the power of the blood of Christ to forgive him. May His authentic love and grace overwhelm our hearts and burn all false fronts and cause us to authentic followers of Jesus Christ.
Wood, J. “Living Like Lance: Everyone Dopes,” posted 16 Oct 2012, http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2012/october-web-only/living-like-lance-everybody-dopes.html accessed 21 March 2013.
Mutchler, J. From http://www.preachingtoday.com/illustrations/2005/july/fakemudauthenticityinacan.html accessed 22 March 2013.
Wiersbe, W. W. (1996). The Bible Exposition Commentary (Ac 5:1). Wheaton, IL: Victor Books.
Stott, J. R. W. (1994). The Message of Acts: The Spirit, the Church & the World. The Bible Speaks Today (109–110). Leicester, England; Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.
MacArthur, J. F., Jr. (1994). Acts. MacArthur New Testament Commentary (150). Chicago:
Challies, T. “The Lost Sin of Envy: How Envy Behaves,” http://www.challies.com/christian-living/the-lost-sin-of-envy-how-envy-behaves accessed 22 Mar 2013.
Keller, T. quoted in http://allkindsoftime.blogspot.com/2004/11/about-anger.html accessed 22 Mar 2013.
Sarian, B. Adapted from “Christianity is only for hypocrites,” posted on 31 Mar 2012, http://bradsarian.com/blog/christianity-is-only-for-hypocrites/ accessed 23 Mar 2013.
As quoted by Challies, T. http://www.challies.com/quotes/a-prerequisite-for-membership accessed 23 Mar 2013.
Keller, Timothy (2011-11-01). The Meaning of Marriage: Facing the Complexities of
Commitment with the Wisdom of God (p. 158). Dutton Adult. Kindle Edition.
Ortberg, John (2010-05-11). Love Beyond Reason (Kindle Location 3437). Zondervan.
Sarian, B. Ibid.
Wiersbe, W. W. Ibid.