Pride

[Part 2 of a blog adaptation of the October 28 message at The District Church: “Jubilee.”]

After Acts 4–after the heady hope of the Jubilee community, after the generosity and selfless sacrifice of Barnabas–we move into chapter 5, and we run face-first into reality. Ananias and his wife Sapphira sell a piece of property, keep some of the proceeds and bring the rest to the apostles, while pretending to bring all of the proceeds from the sale. They are found out, and as a result, they both “fell down and died.”

It’s a troubling episode for many of us–it seems awfully harsh! But Luke doesn’t just explain it away; he doesn’t paper over the sin in the community, nor over things that freak out the early church community (and us!). It’s really important that we see things like this, that we’re reminded that God isn’t just a kindly old man, God is not your buddy or your pal. God calls us his friends, God invites us into his family, God is our Father; but it would be folly to forget that he is still God.

Take electricity for example. It’s a potent thing: it can run your laptop, charge your phone, power the cell towers that allow you to stay connected with people; it runs cars and buses and trams and trains; it brings light and heat to our homes and cities; it allows us to store and cook food, to wash dishes and clothes; it enables us to watch or listen to or play with all kinds of entertainment. But if you’ve ever experienced electric shock, you know it’s not a pleasant experience—it makes sense to me now why my childhood nanny freaked out when I tried cutting through a power cable with a pair of scissors. And if you’ve ever seen the power of a lightning strike up close, you know that it’s not to be trifled with and that if you do, you’re going to get hurt. Did you know that the temperature of the air around a lightning bolt is over 50,000 degrees Fahrenheit, six times hotter than the surface of the Sun? You don’t mess around with that stuff!

One of my favorite lines from C.S. Lewis’s story, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, is when the children are told that the great Aslan, whom they’re about to meet, is actually not a man, but a lion; and so they’re naturally a little nervous about meeting him.

Lucy: “Then he isn’t safe?”

Mr. Beaver: “‘Course he isn’t safe … but he’s good. He’s the King I tell you.”

I love that. But there’s a difference between the power of electricity and the power of God: the power of God is personal, and the God who wields this power is good and you can trust him.

So we should always remember—we need to always remember—that God is not to be treated casually. God is not just someone we can make in our own image—no, we are made in his: God, the Holy One, the Creator of the heavens and the earth, so glorious that when Moses asked to see his glory, in Exodus, he says, “You cannot, for no one can see me and live.” He wasn’t saying, “I could show you but then I’d have to kill you,” but rather, “There is such a gulf between you and me that you wouldn’t be able to handle the fullness of my glory.” Think about that! This is the God that Ananias and Sapphira were treating so lightly; they had forgotten what it was all about, who it was all about.

Which brings us to what I think is the root of the problem here in Acts 5 and what I think is one of the most potent poisons known to the people of God–to the Jubilee community: pride, that which C.S. Lewis called “the great sin.” In Mere Christianity, he wrote:

Pride gets no pleasure out of having something, only out of having more of it than the next man. … For Pride is spiritual cancer: it eats up the very possibility of love, or contentment, or even common sense.

Just as Kryptonite is lethal to Superman, pride is lethal to the Jubilee community.

  • Pride eats up the very possibility of contentment: Ananias and Sapphira weren’t happy to just give a certain amount of money.
  • Pride gets no pleasure out of having something, only out of having more of it than the next person: they weren’t just giving because they wanted to bless the community; they were giving because they wanted to be recognized for giving—and they wanted to get the recognition without having to make the sacrifice. There’s a reason Luke juxtaposes their story with that of Barnabas; they wanted to be like Barnabas—”Barnabas” was sort of a nickname given to this man Joseph by the apostles, probably because of what he was like: an encourager, a friend, a supporter. Ananias and Sapphira wanted that.
  • Pride eats up the very possibility of common sense: their pride led them to come up with this plan; their pride led them to stick to it, even when they had the opportunity to come clean. Their pride led them to think that they could fool God.

The point of this story isn’t that God wants you to keep your finances in order—though he does; the point of this story isn’t that you shouldn’t give money to the church—you should; the point of this story is that God is holy and God hates hypocrisy—that child of pride. John Ortberg writes,

According to Jesus, hypocrisy is not just the failure to live up to what we aspire to. Everybody does that. The core of hypocrisy is deception—mean-spirited and selfish, although sometimes even unconscious, deception. (Who is This Man?, 122)

We can think of any number of scenarios involving hypocrisy: the politician who rails against corruption and who herself is caught in a bribery scandal; or the priest who speaks of a God who loves children while himself abusing them; or the pastor who preaches about the sacredness of marriage and is discovered having an affair.

I often read these stories, particularly about the ones that happen within the church, and at first, I react in the same way as when I read the story of Ananias and Sapphira, with righteous indignation, with incredulity, with a pitying shaking of the head.

And then the Spirit of God sort of taps me on the shoulder and reminds me to take the plank out of my own eye, reminds me that I have a tremendous capacity for self-deception, convicts me for the sin of pride, for looking down on others when only God has the right to judge. And it is when I humble myself—for humility is the opposite of, indeed the antidote for, pride—that God gives me compassion when I look at others and grace when I look at myself.

And that is when we truly embody this Jubilee community. We live out this Jubilee community:

  • when we work toward right and restored relationships with the God who has forgiven our sins and with those around us, even if—perhaps especially if—they have done nothing to deserve it;
  • when we love others with the love of the Christ who died on the cross because of love;
  • when we forgive those who have wronged us as God forgives us;
  • when we give generously and sacrificially, when we meet the needs of our church body and the needs of our neighbors—both friend and enemy;
  • when we proclaim the resurrection of Jesus Christ and what this good news means for all people; and
  • when we humble ourselves, asking God to forgive us for our sins and to make us better, and allowing the Spirit of God to perform surgery—however painful—on our souls to remove the spiritual cancer of pride..

My parents actually gave me the middle name, “Barnabas.” And I want to be like him: I want to be uncomfortably, sacrificially generous; I want to be part of this Jubilee community; I want to be so in love with God and such a part of the body of Christ that I make decisions that might not make sense to the rest of the world.

But I acknowledge that often I make decisions with ulterior motives—in fact, nothing I do is ever completely pure. Did I serve on this occasion because I love serving or because I love the recognition that comes with serving? Probably both. If no one knew that I had served, would I still do it? Probably, but maybe a little more grudgingly. I acknowledge that my so-called ‘sacrifices’ are nowhere near as costly or as heartfelt as the sacrifice of my Lord deserves. I know my life will not always match up to what it’s supposed to be, and sometimes it won’t even be facing the right direction.

But in those moments, when I am brought down low, the same God whose might is imposing and even frightening, lifts me up with his strength. The same God whose holiness shows up every defect and flaw and blemish in me burns away those very defects and flaws and blemishes with that same holiness. The same God whose presence is overwhelming fills me with this same presence and reminds me that it is the Spirit of Christ living in me—and not my own strength—that will accomplish all things. The same God who convicts me of my sin also reminds me that if we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive our sins and will purify us from all unrighteousness.

Pride takes all sorts of different forms, and I’m pretty sure that we all struggle with this sin in some way:

  • Maybe it’s being judgmental, concerning yourself more with where others are going wrong than with where you need correction.
  • Maybe it’s lacking patience, as if everyone should work to your schedule and your timetable.
  • Maybe it’s not thinking about others enough, riding roughshod over other people’s feelings.
  • Maybe it’s self-centeredness, not even being aware of how you’re hurting people.
  • Maybe it’s refusing to ask for help, because to ask for help would be to show weakness and you don’t want to appear weak.
  • Maybe it’s selfishness, not wanting to share with others the material blessings you’ve been given because you think they belong to you, or not helping those in need because you’ve forgotten that they belong to God.

Ask God to show you what it is. Ask God to forgive you. Ask God to heal you and make you new.

Maybe it’s fear or uncertainty or anxiety or your past—something that is causing you to hold on or hold back or hold out, something that is keeping you from giving your time or your money or your relationships or your life to God. You’re not sure if you can trust him; you’re not sure if you can trust other people; you’re just not sure who to trust.

I want to encourage you to trust in Jesus Christ: he isn’t safe, but he is good.

Jubilee

[Part 1 of a blog adaptation of the October 28 message at The District Church: “Jubilee.” Read part 2 here.]

In Leviticus 25, God decrees that, for the people of Israel, every fiftieth year is to be a year of Jubilee: liberty was to be proclaimed to all people; debts would be forgiven; land would be sold back to its original owners; and slaves would be set free. The purpose of this was to show the surrounding nations–and, perhaps more importantly, to remind the people of Israel–that God was in control and God would provide.

The year of Jubilee was meant to remind the people of Israel that whatever land they owned or whatever crops or fruit they reaped or however successful they became, and on the flipside, whatever debts they had accrued, however many mistakes they had made or opportunities they had squandered, however low they had sunk, ultimately everything belonged to God and ultimately everyone belonged to God.

When we look at the early church in Acts 4, where everything was held in common, “No one claimed private ownership of any possessions” (v.32) because they recognized that everything belonged to God; and “there was not a needy person among them” (v.34) because they recognized that everyone belonged to God. They showed uncomfortable, sacrificial generosity on a daily basis.

Whatever fears they might have had about not being cared for, whatever reticence they might have had about giving of themselves and their belongings—these were assuaged by the trust within the community: they trusted that they’d be looked after, they trusted in each other and in the discernment of their leaders, and most importantly, they trusted in God and in his provision. They were the people of God, the Jubilee community.

The precise details of the situation in Acts may be a little different from ours, but we face similar fears and uncertainties to the early church, similar questions about how we’ll survive or how God will provide, about what it means to be involved in the community of the body of Christ, about how much we can trust each other with our lives or our time or our money or our emotional and relational energy.

We love the idea of this Jubilee community: of no one being in need, of doing life together, of being open to one another; and intellectually, we can agree that everything belongs to God and that everyone belongs to God. But sometimes, when we realize how much work it’ll actually take or how much it’ll actually cost us, we flinch: we hold on or hold back or hold out because we think, it’s smart to protect yourself, it’s safer to insulate yourself.

When Jesus returns to Galilee to begin his public ministry, he says, in Luke 4:18-19:

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.

He’s quoting here from Isaiah 61—and when he mentions “the year of the Lord’s favor,” he’s talking about Jubilee. Jesus was saying that his mission was to proclaim the year of Jubilee, and it wouldn’t simply be a time of material restoration, when land and property are returned and financial debts are forgiven, but these things will be part of the larger reality of all things being made right: good news for the poor, release for the captives, sight for the blind, freedom for the oppressed.”

And in carrying out this mission, Jesus refused to protect himself; he refused to insulate himself—from the poor, from the broken, from the hurting, from the lost, from the world of sinners separated from God—and for these people, for us, he gave his very life—quite literally—as the ultimate act of sacrificial generosity.

In Acts 4, we see this community of Jesus-followers taking up the mantle of their master, walking in his footsteps: healing the sick, casting out demons, sharing their possessions with one another, ensuring that there were no needy persons among them. This was Jubilee community.

In fact, this generosity—not just of spirit but of possessions and of life—came to be one of the most defining characteristics of the early church. A few hundred years later, around AD 360, the Roman Emperor was Julian the Apostate, and he was not a fan of Christians or their faith; yet in a letter, he wrote,

it is disgraceful that … the impious Galileans support their own poor as well as ours, while everyone can see that our people are in need of aid from us.

The early church cared not just for their own community but for the people they lived among, people who didn’t believe what they believed, people who may have disagreed pretty strongly with what they believed. It didn’t matter—it doesn’t matter: everyone is made in the image of God. So they put others’ needs far above their own, treated the welfare of others as more valuable than any of their possessions and any of their time, and held others’ lives as of greater importance than their own.

This is something that has been a great encouragement to me in these early years of The District Church’s existence: we care. We care for each other, we seek to live out true community with one another, we share our lives with each other and encourage one another, we challenge each other to grow closer to God, and we care also for those who aren’t part of our church community. I love how we’ve gotten involved in our neighborhood: partnering with Samaritan Inns and Christ House and Park View Kids Zone and various schools, to just love on people, to meet them where they are, to provide food and supplies and resources. I love how we’ve been so generous: last year we gave tens of thousands of dollars toward famine relief in Somalia and to build a well in Liberia. When people need help, we help; when people need jobs, we pass along résumés and job postings; when people need a place to stay, we step up and offer a couch or a spare room. These things may sound pretty ordinary, but to me, they’re signs that we’re on the right track.

Now we’re not perfect by any means—far from it. We are sinful, selfish, messed-up, broken human beings, after all. The early church wasn’t perfect either; but that didn’t stop God from doing great things in and through it.

Us not being perfect doesn’t stop God from doing great things in and through us. You not being perfect doesn’t stop God from doing great things in and through you.

Let us thank God for that!

This year, for Lent …

Welcome to Lent 2010. (For those who are unfamiliar with Lent, check out this primer from Beliefnet.)

Writer extraordinaire Julie Clawson penned a great and very thought-provoking piece on just what Lent is about (which you can find on God’s Politics or on her own blog). Of particular note:

Lent isn’t about denial; it is about transformation. It is the season in which we prepare to encounter Christ’s sacrifice by endeavoring to become more Christ like ourselves. Transformation is about letting ourselves be filled with God’s presence so that we can be shaped by God’s grace. Our acts of kenosis — denying ourselves in order to empty ourselves enough to allow God to fill us — are means to an end. They are disciplines that prepare us to be transformed. We deny ourselves so that we can be reborn as new creations — to live more fully as the kingdom citizens God desires us to be.

Various friends are doing various things for Lent. Some decisions are related to food: one friend is going vegan for lent, while another is committing to the Daniel fast. Others are choosing to spend less time staring at a screen, whether it’s through swearing off of Facebook or abstaining from watching TV. Yet others are choosing proactive resolutions, in one case deciding to commit to a half hour quiet time every day.

Me? I’ve been thinking more about what it is that would be healthy for me, and what would best clear space for God. I went to an Ash Wednesday service last night at which Dallas Willard reminded us that “Christ died for all, so that those who live might live no longer for themselves, but for him who died and was raised for them” (2 Cor. 5:15). Like Julie, I don’t want to withdraw from Facebook, which is one of the few ways I’m able to keep contact with my widely-dispersed friends. I don’t really drink coffee or eat sweet things all that much, so abstaining from those wouldn’t create much lifespace.

I’ve decided that my Lenten plan will be a little mish-mash of everything:

  • I’m giving up alcohol. I’m an artist. I don’t need any additional aids to make me emo.
  • I’m gonna try to be more consistent with working out a little every day. I’ve been hobbled by various ailments since I’ve moved here–I blame a more sedentary lifestyle.
  • I’m cutting down on my TV intake–not completely, but some. So I’m still keeping Lost, Smallville, Chuck, The Big Bang Theory, How I Met Your Mother … uhhh, I might rethink this one. 😉
  • For those of you who remember the 6-month dating fast of 2007–Micah and Christie?–I’m instituting something similar for Lent. The last few months have made me realize that I need to be a little more settled, especially since I’m still trying to find my feet in DC. (Six months was a doozy; Lent should be a breeze.)

What about you? What’re you doing for Lent (if anything)?