Another Nice Holiday

Another Nice Holiday

1 Corinthians 15:1-20

Dr. Jim Denison

I have been prepared all week to defend the relevance of Easter theologically. It bothers me that we ask Americans their favorite holiday, and Easter gets 2%. It bothers me that we ask non-Christians why Christians celebrate Easter, and 46% don’t know. And they don’t care.

I was ready to show you why we should care, theologically and biblically; why Easter isn’t just another nice holiday.

Then I realized that would not be the sermon I would need to hear if I were coming to church along with you, if it weren’t my job to preach to you today. What would I want to hear, sitting in the pew beside you today? What do you need me to talk about this morning?

Our text defends and explains the relevance of Easter. Let’s see if these words help us.

The risen Christ gives purpose

The first issue I need to hear about today is stress, burnout. The Northwestern National Life Insurance Company recently did a survey, and discovered that 40% of America’s employees feel either “very” or “extremely” stressed.

I learned recently that there is an American Institute of Stress. What does that say about us? They estimate that between 75% and 90% of our visits to the doctor are caused primarily by stress, with a loss to American industry of $200 to $300 billion annually. We are stressed people.

I need to know that my life matters beyond the day to day struggles and issues we all face, that God can give my life a purpose which makes the daily grind worth it all, that Jesus can use my life to accomplish something beyond myself, something significant. Don’t you?

We’re not the first. Peter gave up after the cross. Jesus had died, and Peter had failed. He had bragged publicly about his courage, then denied three times that he even knew his Lord. The proud fisherman turned out to be a coward. And his life had no more purpose or meaning.

So he went back to what he knew, to fishing. And just there, as Paul says, the risen Christ “appeared to Peter” (v. 5). He forgave him, and restored him. And he called him to “feed his sheep,” to lead his church. He gave his life purpose and significance.

The risen Christ can still do this today. He alone can give purpose and meaning to anyone, no matter our past or even our present. No matter the bad or the good we’ve done. Anyone.

John Grisham’s books have sold more than 40 million copies. He has wealth, fame, and success. But they haven’t been enough. In recent years Jesus has become more real to Grisham than ever before. His salvation, which occurred at the age of eight in a Southern Baptist church in Arkansas, has become more real than ever before. He has donated millions to missions, taught Sunday school, and been part of mission trips sponsored by his church across the world.

In fact, his last book, The Testament, was inspired by a recent church mission trip to Brazil. I read it recently, and recommend it to you. He grapples with faith and life, and presents the life-changing reality of Jesus Christ in a powerful way. And he says that his relationship with Jesus is now “the most important part of my life.”

This morning Jesus reminded me that he is my only purpose. Only he can give my life meaning and significance. Knowing him, and then making him known. Not my work, or schedule, or stress. Knowing the risen Christ personally gives me purpose, meaning, and significance. I needed that.

Do you need “north” on your compass? A reason to be, in the midst of the stress and pressure of life? Only the risen Christ can give you the purpose your heart yearns to find, and only because of Easter. Only because this isn’t another nice holiday. On this Easter morning, why not ask him for the purpose he alone can give?

The risen Christ gives peace

This morning, I need his peace as well. The fighting in Kosovo had us all worried. Where is God when soldiers are captured and civilians are slaughtered? Closer to home, what will the stock market do?

For many of us, fear is much closer to home even that that. Some of you are worried about keeping your marriage together, or your finances; some of you wonder where your children are today, or your parents; some are waiting for the next hospital test or doctor’s visit with great apprehension. Some wonder where you’ll go to college next year; some wonder how you’ll pay for college. We all have fears and worries. We all need peace. We’re not the first.

Consider “doubting Thomas.” After the resurrection, Jesus appeared to the disciples, but Thomas was absent. He wouldn’t believe them without proof.

So the next Sunday night after Easter, the risen Christ appeared to “the Twelve” (v. 5). And when Thomas saw him personally, his questions were answered, his doubts disappeared, and peace was his.

Consider the early Christian movement. They are supposed to take the gospel to the entire world, 25 million in the Empire alone, almost none of whom had ever heard of Jesus. How on earth would they do it?

Then on a mountain in Galilee, the risen Christ “appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep” (v. 6). And to them he said, “All authority has been given to me in heaven and on earth. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations… And I will be with you always, to the end of the age” (Mt. 28:18-20).

He promised them his help, his presence. And the risen Christ gave them his peace.

We have many questions, many doubts, many fears. Psychologists list over 700 phobias in our society today. Everything from “arachnibutrophobia,” the fear of getting peanut butter stuck to the roof of your mouth, to “phobophobia,” the fear of fear. What do you fear? What causes you anxiety and worry this morning? Where do you need peace?


Everybody Can Be Somebody

Everybody Can Be Somebody

Acts 6

Dr. Jim Denison

Everyone wants to be somebody. I do, and so do you. Somebody who matters, somebody who’s important to someone else.

The day was Monday, March 11, 1991, and the president of the United States was desperately trying to prove that he was somebody. President Bush was visiting Anthony Henderson’s school, and sat down beside Anthony to read him a book. Suddenly Anthony asked, “Are you really the president?”

Bush was surprised by the question. “You mean, you didn’t know that? How can I prove it to you?” He showed him his driver’s license, but the boy wasn’t convinced. He showed him his American Express card, then a picture of his grandson playing baseball, then pointed to the black limousine outside. But nothing worked.

The picture in USA Today told the whole story: Anthony sitting with a puzzled president, examining his American Express card. Wondering if he’s really somebody or not. We all want to be somebody special.

I came home from work Tuesday to the tragic news of the killings in Littleton, Colorado. How does it happen that two teenage boys open fire in their high school and kill thirteen people, then themselves? Now we know: they felt rejected by them, by the athletes, the “cool” students, the “in” people. They weren’t noticed, or special. They weren’t somebody. So they did something to get noticed, to feel important, to be somebody. And fifteen grieving families will pay for their perceived neglect, for the rest of their lives.

Everybody wants to be somebody. But there’s only one way which really works—which gives our lives purpose and meaning after the job ends, or the money is spent, or the kids move out, or even life comes to its end. One way to be somebody, which anybody can accomplish. One way to be somebody, today.

What is it?

Stephen ministry begins

Travel with me to A.D. 35, and to the greatest crisis confronting the first Christian congregation: “the Grecian Jews among them complained against the Hebraic Jews because their widows were being overlooked in the daily distribution of food” (v. 1). What is this?

Some in this first congregation were from Palestine, and spoke Hebrew and Aramaic. Others were from the Hellenistic world, so they spoke Greek. Many of these had become Christians at Pentecost, and stayed in the city. Others of them had moved to Jerusalem to retire.

The Jewish people had long cared for their widows, since they had no one else. When a woman married, her father no longer bore responsibility for her care; if her husband died, his family was no longer responsible for her, either. And employment options for first-century women were extremely limited, as you might guess. So the Jewish people took a daily collection for their needs, called the Tamhui or Table, and a weekly collection every Friday as well, called the Kuppah or Basket.

But if someone left Judaism for Christianity, he or she forfeited this support system. So the apostles took it over. However, the church had outgrown the care the apostles could provide. And these families who were not from Palestine were convinced that their widows were being discriminated against.

This is a very serious state of affairs. Not only could widows starve to death if the church doesn’t act; but the fragile racial coalition, which was early Christianity, is in danger of failing. And this splintering of the Christian movement would doom it.

So the apostles call the entire congregation together for the first business meeting in church history, an indication of the crucial nature of the issue. They will seek seven men “known to be full of the Spirit and wisdom” (v. 3).

The congregation elects seven such men. Interestingly, each of them has a Greek name, indicative of the church’s concern for the Greek-speaking widows. And these seven go to work. They organize the first comprehensive benevolence system in Christian history, with responsibility for the care, and even the lives, of hundreds of people.

And the results are spectacular (v. 7): “The word of God spread,” as the apostles continue their ministry of Scripture and prayer (cf. v. 4). “The number of disciples in Jerusalem increased rapidly,” now that the infrastructure is in place for their care and everyone is involved personally in ministry. Even “a large number of priests became obedient to the faith,” now that they see that their widows and families will be cared for if they leave Judaism. Impressed by the care and compassion of the Christians, even priests come to Christ in record numbers.

And Stephen, a man “full of God’s grace and power,” leads the way, performing “great wonders and miraculous signs among the people” (v. 8). Just one of seven men no one had ever heard of before. Not apostles, or prophets, or priests. Not people of fame or status. Just people who would give themselves to personal, caring, compassionate ministry to people in need. People who cared like Jesus cares. And the church will forever be different because they did.

Stephen ministry continues

And their ministries continue, far beyond their greatest expectations. Stephen is stoned to death, but his witness impresses and convicts a young man from Tarsus named Saul. If there had been no Stephen, there would have been no Paul, the most famous convert in Christian history.

Now Saul of Tarsus is on the road to Damascus when Jesus blinds him with his light and call. He staggers into Damascus in desperate need of help and compassion. So God calls another Stephen, a man named Ananias. This Christian is understandably afraid of the infamous murderer of Christians, but he goes to him anyway. And Paul’s eyesight is restored, and his ministry begins. If there had been no Ananias, there would have been no Pauline ministry such as we know it today.

Now Paul has returned to Jerusalem, but the frightened church will have nothing to do with him. So God raises up another Stephen, the benevolent Barnabas. He vouches for Paul and wins for him entry into the Christian community.


Well-Intentioned Dragons

Well-intentioned Dragons

Acts 5:1-16

Dr. Jim Denison

This week I found this list of actual label instructions on consumer goods:

On a Sears hair dryer: Do not use while sleeping.

On a bag of Fritos: You could be a winner! No purchase necessary. Details inside.

On some Swanson frozen dinners: Serving suggestion: defrost.

On Marks & Spencer Bread Pudding: Product will be hot after heating.

On the package of a Rowenta Iron: Do not iron clothes on body.

On a Korean kitchen knife: Warning, keep out of children.

On an American Airlines package of nuts: Instructions: Open packet, eat nuts.

On a Swedish chain saw: Do not attempt to stop the chain with your hands.

Good advice, all.

There should be a warning label over the doors of our church buildings as well: Warning: unity attacked here.

That’s an odd warning, isn’t it? But the word of God says as much: “Be self-controlled and alert. Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour” (I Peter 5:8). And being a great economist, he always attacks us first at the point of unity.

How does he assault our community, our unity? And what can we do when he does, in our personal lives and in our church?

The first dragons (1-10)

“Ananias” means “one to whom Jehovah has been gracious”; “Sapphira” means “beautiful.” Both names proved to be ironic, didn’t they?

Verse one tells us that they “sold a piece of property.” Others have done this to help the poor, and been applauded for their generosity. Now these two want that stage for themselves.

However, Ananias, with Sapphira’s full cooperation, “kept back part of the money for himself.” “Kept back” translates a word which means “to embezzle, to defraud”; sometimes in the New Testament it means simply “to steal” (Titus 2:10). He brings the rest of the proceeds and lays the money at Peter’s feet in a legal act of transfer.

The sin is not in the amount. As Peter makes clear, Ananias could sell anything he liked, and give whatever he wished. The sin is in the intent to deceive: to make the church think he has sacrificially given the entire amount when in fact he has not.

Why is this action so wrong? This is obviously a hypocritical act, pretending to be something he’s not. It is act of pride, putting his own enhanced status before the needs of the poor and suffering. And it’s a dangerous act. If everybody did what Ananias did, there would be no honesty, no objective morality, no godliness left in the church. And this fledgling Christian movement, which has only its character to commend itself to others, would be corrupted and ruined.

No wonder: Satan is the author of hypocrisy, of pride, of attacks on Christian character and unity. He used Ananias to lie to the Holy Spirit (v. 3). This is nothing less than an attack of the enemy himself.

But God doesn’t allow the attack to succeed. He always knows our attitudes as well as our actions. He reveals this deception to Peter, who calls Ananias to account for his sin. And in the instant that he hears his deception exposed, Ananias dies.

Then, three hours later, Sapphira comes in. Peter points to the money still at his feet and asks her, “Is this the amount you got for your land?” Her answer in the Greek is emphatic. She, too, lies deliberately; and the moment her sin is exposed she dies as well.

I know this text is harsh. The same God of grace whose power heals the sick and even the demon-possessed in the verses following, here allows, or perhaps even causes, the death of these two church members. Perhaps they died of shock; perhaps God knew that the fledgling church could not withstand such deception.

But two facts from the narrative are clear: the enemy will attack the unity of the church; and God takes such attacks most seriously.Is it any wonder that “Great fear seized the whole church and all who heard about these events” (v. 11)?

Dragons today

Where do such attacks originate today? We no longer sell everything we have to give to the poor, so that some can exercise hypocrisy in the same way Ananias and Sapphira did. But while the methods have changed, the intent has not.

Marshall Shelley wrote an excellent book on this subject, whose title I’ve taken for my message this morning: Well-Intentioned Dragons (Carol Stream, Illinois: Christianity Today, Inc., 1985). He identifies several such “dragons” at work today. They were all active in the apostolic church. See if you recognize any of these in our church this morning.

Clearly the first category is the hypocrite, the person who pretends to be something he or she is not. Some are what Shelley calls “bird dogs,” always pointing to where the pastor and church should shoot, with no intention of getting involved themselves. “Pastor, if I were you I would give Mrs. So-and-so a call—she has some personal problems you need to help her with.” “The Lord has laid it on my heart that we need to be praying more for revival.” “We need to do more to help the poor in our community.” But the “bird dog” has no intention of getting involved personally. He appears more spiritual than he is.

Others he calls “entrepreneurs,” using the church only for financial or personal reasons, the person who joins the church for business contacts, or to impress his boss who goes here, or to date the girls or the guys who attend. That’s his purpose, his reason for coming, though he doesn’t want you to know it.

Still others he calls the “sniper”: using spiritual language to attack personally. “Be sure to pray for Mr. So-and-so. He has some problems, you know.” “We need to be praying for our [name the staff member]. He’s just not as effective as he used to be.”


Where Everybody Knows Your Name

Where Everybody Knows Your Name

Acts 4:32-37

Dr. Jim Denison

It was his first day on the job. He was a new clerk in the produce department of a super market. A lady came up to him and said that she wanted to buy half a head of lettuce. He tried to talk her out of this, but she persisted. Finally he said, “I’ll have to go back and talk to the manager.”

He went to the rear of the store, not noticing that the woman was walking right behind him. He found the manager and said, “There’s some stupid old bag out there who wants to buy half a head of lettuce. What should I tell her?”

Seeing the horrified look on the face of the manager, he turned around and, seeing the woman, added, “And this nice lady wants to buy the other half of the head of lettuce. Will that be all right?” The relieved manager said, “That would be fine.”

Later in the day, he congratulated the boy on his quick thinking. Then he asked, “Where are you from, son?” The boy said, “I’m from Toronto, Canada, the home of beautiful hockey players and ugly women.” The manager looked at him and said, “My wife is from Toronto.” The boy said, “Oh, what team did she play for?”

Don’t you wish we could solve our relational problems that easily? Unfortunately, most of us cannot. Loneliness is an epidemic in our country today. We see it in the alcohol and drug abuse rates; the suicides; the fact that the number of unmarried couples living together has increased 800% in recent years; the popularity of New Age and alternative spiritual movements; the mushrooming number of chat rooms on the Internet. We are lonely people.

Remember the television show Cheers, about a bar in Boston? The opening lyrics had it right: You want to be where you can see, our troubles are all the same. You want to be where everybody knows your name. Where you can belong, no matter who you are or what you’ve done. Where everybody knows your name. Wouldn’t you like to be part of a group like that? Who wouldn’t?

Outside of television, there’s only one such place. Luke, the author of our text, would like to take us there. Let’s go with him and see if what we discover helps us today.

Where everybody knows your name and your need

As we go in, Luke makes an amazing claim for these people: “All the believers are one in heart and mind” (v. 32a). “All the believers,” he says. Now remember, there are more than 5,000 in this church. And they’ve come from everywhere—Jews and Gentiles, slaves and free, male and female, crossing every barrier of prejudice known to their world. If we were to walk in on a crowd of Jews and Arabs, blacks and KKK members, Yugoslavians and Albanians, we’d be in the same room.

Yet, he says they are “one in heart and mind.” United both in their emotions and their ideas, their feelings and their actions. Aristotle defined friendship as “a single soul dwelling in two bodies.” This is Luke’s claim for these people, here.

It sounds impossible, doesn’t it? But Luke proves it. “No one claimed that any of his possessions was his own” (v. 32b). “No one” is emphatic in Luke’s Greek: there are no exceptions to this rule. “They shared everything that they had” (v. 32c). Jews and Gentiles would not share the same food or even the same room; now they share everything.

The Greeks had a very common proverb: “Friends have all things in common.” These people fulfilled their ideal. And with this result: “There were no needy persons among them” (v. 34). None.

Here’s how this program of congregational ministry worked: People in the church were constantly on the lookout for others in need, so they might report this to the congregational leaders.

When such reports came in, the wealthier members of the church voluntarily responded. This was no Social Security tax or required contribution. On their own, they sold lands or houses and brought the entire amount of the sale to the church. This was an act of Christian charity and grace. The Roman Empire would certainly give them no tax advantages for their contributions.

They placed their money at the feet of the apostles, an act of legal transfer akin to signing over your title today. Then the church utilized a massive aid distribution system, to get the money to those in need. And this happened continually, not just occasionally or during times of special emphasis. This was a regular part of their congregational life.

Now, Luke knows we might be skeptical of such a description. So he invites us to meet someone whose credentials we can check: Joseph, named Barnabas. He’s taking part in this ministry, at enormous personal sacrifice. He is a Levite, thus a member of the priestly tribe of Israel, part of their aristocracy. This means that by law he can own no land in Palestine, for God had decreed that they were to live off the good will of the nation (Numbers 18:20; Deut. 10:9).

But he’s become a Christian, forfeiting all such support. He is something like a pastor living in a parsonage who leaves the church and has no home. His family has some property on the island of Cyprus, where he’s from. It is expensive land, rich and productive, and valuable for tourism as well—something like owning part of Honolulu. It is likely his only financial support and sustenance. But he sells it anyway, brings the money, and transfers it to the church for those in even greater need than himself.

As a result, he must work to support himself for the rest of his life and ministry (cf. 1 Cor. 9:6). He goes from personal wealth to poverty overnight. For this, the apostles nickname him “Barnabas,” which means “Son of Encouragement.” As indeed he is.