Imagine you are a member of a church where many are poor. Some of them don’t even have a roof over their heads. Many are not sure where their next meal is coming from. Most are victims of natural disasters that would strike their part of the world from time to time. But there are a few in the church who are rich. One of them owns a large mansion. He and his wife decide to sell their mansion and downsize. They give the profits from the sale to the church leaders and ask them to use it to help those in the church who are really hurting. The whole thing attracts media attention. Christian and non-Christian alike take notice. Many are curious. Some are suspicious and cynical. The incident makes the rounds on social media and the mainstream media. Many wonder why the couple did what they did.
Well, those of you who know the book of Acts will know that the above is an updated version of what happened in the days of the early church.
All the believers were one in heart and mind. No one claimed that any of their possessions was their own, but they shared everything they had. With great power the apostles continued to testify to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus. And God’s grace was so powerfully at work in them all that there were no needy persons among them. For from time to time those who owned land or houses sold them, brought the money from the sales and put it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to anyone who had need. (Acts 4:32–35 NIV)
Some have seen this as communism, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. No one forced the people who sold their land or houses to do so. Indeed, in Peter’s encounter with Ananias in chapter 5 (v.4), Paul explicitly says this. No one was obliged to liquidate their resources to help the poor among them. They owned their land. Yet they also understood that as followers of Christ, they were now members of His family, a family where, out of love, people understood that whatever they had was to be shared.
I also noted the community that Luke describes was one that was committed to evangelism — they testified to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus — Christ’s resurrection being the bedrock of the gospel message. Anyone can claim to be the Messiah but only Jesus died and rose again, a unique proof for an audacious claim.
But let’s face it. The claim that someone died and rose again is indeed an audacious one. Never happened before. Did it really happen with Jesus? I don’t blame listeners of the gospel for being sceptical. But rich people selling their assets to help the poor was also kinda crazy. And that was something that people could see for themselves. So, when a community that did crazy things shared about a gospel that also had a crazy claim, chances were people would be more inclined to take notice. In fact, many did and the early church grew rapidly. One of the reasons why people took the gospel seriously in those days was that they saw gospel communities that were marked by a high degree of sacrificial love between their members.
In his book, The Mark of the Christian (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2006) Francis Schaeffer called love the final apologetic.
Let us be careful, indeed, to spend a lifetime studying to give honest answers…But after we have done our best to communicate to a lost world, still we must never forget that the final apologetic which Jesus gave is the observable love of true Christians for true Christians. (29)
I worry about the modern church. So much of our evangelism is based on slick programmes and clever arguments. I don’t see how that is anything unique. But in a divided world marked by conflict, people will sit up and take notice of a community made up of members who are united by sacrificial love. The miracle of sacrificial love helps give credence to the miracle of a resurrected Saviour. Yet I see so little of this in many of the churches I know.
If we are serious about evangelism, and every day brings new evidence that humankind is in desperate need of salvation, let us be the community of the final apologetic. Let us love one another as Christ has loved us.