When you go to a track meet, you will see the runners lined up ready to start the race waiting for the announcement of the start. The first command given is not “go,” but “on your mark.” That is the signal for the runners to find their place and stand ready.
Back in the days of ancient Greece, each runner literally had a mark. Each had a special design identifying a particular athlete. The audience could tell who the runners were by looking at their mark.
In long-distance races with “staggered” starts, finding the right mark and its corresponding lane is crucial. The marks ensure that all the competitors will run the same distance with compensation for those running on the inside of the curve or a longer distance on the outside of the curve. There are also marks along the course of the race, telling runners when or if they may “cut in” and claim the first lane. On a straight-line start, the winners are often those first off their mark. To be quick off the mark is to waste no time. To be slow off the mark or to overstep the mark is to lose the race.
Luke is the traditional author of the book of Acts, and in our passage for today he demonstrates the unique marks of the first century church. This new church showed the marks of the true church, and those marks hold true for today.
“They continued steadfastly in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and prayer. Fear came on every soul, and many wonders and signs were done through the apostles. All who believed were together, and had all things in common. They sold their possessions and goods, and distributed them to all, according as anyone had need. Day by day, continuing steadfastly with one accord in the temple, and breaking bread at home, they took their food with gladness and singleness of heart, praising God, and having favor with all the people. The Lord added to the assembly day by day those who were being saved” (Acts 2:42-47).
We find a blending of several marks in this passage. Many have taken these five points and made them the outline for the requirements of a church. Every church has to pay attention to teaching, fellowship, communion, prayers and stewardship. But today I want to focus on that last point, which is best described by a phrase at the end of verse 46, “with gladness and singleness of heart.”
Our Sunday night book study group has been reading The Divine Conspiracy by Dallas Willard. It was a book that had been referred to me several years ago, and our group decided they wanted to study it in depth. As with any book, there were some ideas that we disagreed with and others with which we agreed.
One of the most profound and central ideas of Willard’s book is that many Christians have accepted the gospel of sin management, but have not understand the command to Christlikeness.
We are glad that God has provided a way of taking care of our sins and made arrangements for us to go to heaven, but we have very little understanding of or commitment to changing our lives in the here and now. We are satisfied with going to heaven when we die, but don’t want to make any changes now.
Willard suggests that we have missed the heart of the gospel according to Jesus. He insists that we should be real students of Jesus studying the curriculum of Christlikeness. I would suggest that one of the marks of Christlikeness is having “glad and generous hearts.”
I sometimes wonder how it is that we have so twisted the message of Jesus so that now it seems to place no demands on our lives. We are followers of the one who said,
“If anyone desires to come after me,
let him deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me.
For whoever desires to save his life will lose it,
but whoever will lose his life for my sake, the same will save it.
For what does it profit a man if he gains the whole world,
and loses or forfeits his own self?” (Luke 9:23-25)
Somehow we have decided we can follow Jesus without a cross, without demand, without change, without sacrifice and without “glad and generous hearts.” We want a low demand faith. We want a faith that we can practice at our convenience. We want a faith that doesn’t challenge our weaknesses and requires nothing of us.
But even popular wisdom says, “That which costs you nothing is worth nothing.” “You get out of something what you put into it.” “No pain; no gain.” Oh, we realize the truth of those words when it comes to our vocation. We know that we have to work to get ahead. We know that we have to train to succeed in athletic contests. We know that sacrifice is required if we want to achieve greatness. We know that the Rotary Club will expect us to pay our dues and volunteer our time if we are to remain a member.
But we think our faith requires nothing. We give the church the leftovers. We give left-over time. If we have time, we will come to church events. If there is nothing better to do, we will stay home on weekends and go to church. If we have money left at the end of the month, we will make a donation. And then we wonder why our faith means so little to us.
In preparing for this sermon, I used my computer Bible program to do a simple search on the word “cost” and found some interesting verses.
In Acts 22, I found the case where Paul was arrested in Jerusalem. When he was brought from the Roman tribune, he spoke to the Jews first. He told for the third time in Acts the story of his conversion on the road to Damascus. Finally, he said that Jesus had told him that the Jews would not accept his testimony, and that he would turn go to the Gentiles. The Jews were outraged with his speech, and should to the Roman authorities that Paul should not be allowed to live. They took off their cloaks, and tossed dust into the air.
The Roman tribune didn’t really understand why the Jews were upset, but he ordered that Paul should be flogged to find out why the Jews were so upset with him. But on the way to his flogging, Paul asked a centurion, “Is it legal for you to flog a Roman citizen who is uncondemned?” It shocked the centurion that Paul was a Roman citizen, so he explained the situation to the tribune. The tribune came and asked Paul, “Tell me, are you a Roman citizen?” Paul replied that he was. Then the Roman tribune said, “It cost me a large sum of money to get my citizenship.” Then Paul explained that he was born a citizen.
I found it very interesting that both Paul and the tribune recognized the value of Roman citizenship. A citizen had rights that the rest of the people did not. They could not flog Paul without cause. And in the end, Paul appealed to his Roman citizenship when the Jews were about to lynch him. He had the right to appeal his case all the way to Caesar because he was a citizen.
Something so valuable was worth the price, and the tribune testified that it had cost him a large sum of money to be a Roman citizen.
Should we be citizens of the Kingdom of God for anything less?
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In Luke 14, Jesus made it clear that citizenship in the Kingdom of God was also costly. Jesus said,
“If anyone comes to me,
and doesn’t disregard his own father, mother,
wife, children, brothers, and sisters,
yes, and his own life also,
he can’t be my disciple.
Whoever doesn’t bear his own cross, and come after me,
can’t be my disciple.
For which of you, desiring to build a tower,
doesn’t first sit down and count the cost,
to see if he has enough to complete it?
Or perhaps, when he has laid a foundation,
and is not able to finish,
everyone who sees begins to mock him,
saying, ‘This man began to build, and wasn’t able to finish.’
Or what king, as he goes to encounter another king in war,
will not sit down first and consider whether he is able with ten thousand
to meet him who comes against him with twenty thousand?
Or else, while the other is yet a great way off,
he sends an envoy, and asks for conditions of peace.
So therefore whoever of you who doesn’t renounce all that he has,
he can’t be my disciple” (Luke 14:26-33)
Then I found a very interesting story in 2 Samuel 24. It is the story of David building an altar to the Lord on a threshing floor that he bought from a man named Araunah. When King David came to this man to buy the threshing floor, he said, “Let my lord the king take and offer up what seems good to him. Behold, the cattle for the burnt offering, and the threshing instruments and the yokes of the oxen for the wood: all this, king, does Araunah give to the king.”
But David replied to Araunah, “No; but I will most certainly buy it from you for a price. I will not offer burnt offerings to Yahweh my God which cost me nothing.” So David bought the threshing floor and the exen for fifty shekels of silver. Then he built his altar and made an offering to the Lord.
David refused to make an offering that cost him nothing. But it seems that many Christians today don’t mind doing that at all.
Can you imagine having that attitude toward your wife or husband. Can you imagine a groom who wants to get a ring for his wife, but he decided to get one from a bubblegum machine. Do you think his wife would be happy? Why not? It would be a great deal for the husband. He would have a ring for the wedding and it would cost very little. No, I am afraid that his wife would not accept such a cheap gift.
Or suppose that his finance already had a ring. Perhaps she had a ring that she had inherited from her grandmother. Maybe it was her grandmother’s wedding ring. The husband realizes that his future wife really was not in need of a ring. So would it be a good decision for him to decide not to give her one?
Sometimes cost does matter. It matters when you want to give your very best because of your love. At a wedding, being cheap is not a value. Oh, there are no laws that require a husband to give nice gifts to his wife. No law demands that a man give a nice ring. Only love demands it. Failure to give a worthy gift is an insult to love. Love demands a “glad and generous heart.”
The same is true with God. No law requires that we give to the church. You can be a member of this church and enjoy all the benefits of church membership and never give a dime. Only one or two people in the church will ever know. The pastor will never know that you don’t give, and the church will never give you any less service because you don’t give. Our church will invest thousands of dollars in your children’s activities. Our church will take your youth to camps and Christian concerts, and you will only pay a small fraction of the expense. It’s the best deal you will ever get. Our church will provide a pastor to visit you when you are in the hospital. Our church will provide this lovely building and wonderful worship experiences, and it will cost you nothing! There is no rule in our church that requires that you give anything.
But what does that say about your faith? A faith that costs you nothing is worth nothing. Failure to give a worthy gift is an insult to the love of God. It can be done, but it is not the mark of a true Christian. Love of God demands a “glad and generous heart.”
Your gifts to the church should not be based on what the church needs, or how little you can give. If everyone simply gives based on their love of God, there will be plenty of money to take care of our local church needs, and we will be able to support mission causes around our world.
Scripture quotations from the World English Bible.
Copyright 2005, Dr. Mickey Anders. Used by permission.