Monday, 13 April 2015


Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church

Acts 4.32-35  Now the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common.  33 With great power the apostles gave their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all.  34 There was not a needy person among them, for as many as owned lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold.  35 They laid it at the apostles' feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need.

Psalm 133.1-3  How very good and pleasant it is when kindred live together in unity!  2 It is like the precious oil on the head, running down upon the beard, on the beard of Aaron, running down over the collar of his robes.  3 It is like the dew of Hermon, which falls on the mountains of Zion. For there the LORD ordained his blessing, life forevermore.

Now the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common
When I was a child, I brought up on the adage
            that I should always try to ‘live within my means’,
which meant that if I wanted something, I should save up for it,
            and only buy it when I had enough money.
Of course, this meant that if I hadn’t got the money,
            I needed to earn more, to work harder,
            and to go without until I could afford it.

And so it was that at the age of thirteen I took a job
            working for the paper shop opposite Sevenoaks station,
                        starting at 5am every morning
                        before catching the 8.05 train to school;
and so it was
            that I bought my own motorbike when I turned sixteen,
            with money I had saved up myself.

And broadly, this has remained my approach.
            Of course, I borrowed a lot of money
                        when I took out a mortgage to buy a house,
            but apart from that, I’ve never been one to live, ‘on the never never’.

There’s an old song, which I think I learned at Boy’s Brigade,
            that enshrines this adage of prudence…
Perhaps you know it too?

I've got sixpence
Jolly. jolly sixpence
I've got sixpence to last me all my life
I've got tuppence to spend
And tuppence to lend
And tuppence to take home to my wife.

The values here are clear:
            prudence, investment,
                        spending within your means,
                        and taking care of your own,
            are the ingredients for a happy life.

And, of course, there is much here that is good,
            much that is sensible,
            and much that many of us still need to hear.

I don’t regret the years we have spent paying off our mortgage,
            I don’t regret the years of cheap camping holidays,
                        even though friends who were prepared to borrow
                        were going abroad twice a year.

But I do wonder if this is all there is to be said
            about the question of how we should be with our money…?

Thinking somewhat beyond the level of the individual for a minute,
            this is the question that the financial crash of 2008,
                        and the subsequent global recession,
            has posed for many countries, our own included.

Is it sustainable to live with a deficit?
            Is it prudent to spend your way out of debt?
Do all debts need to be repaid?
            What are the responsibilities of those responsible for money?

If there are choices to be made about what we will spend our money on,
                        and there always are,
            then who gets to take those choices,
                        and on what basis do they take them?

Where are our spending priorities going to lie?
            And where are we prepared to live with cuts?
Are we content to commit to renewing Trident?
            Are we committed to universal healthcare?
What about the social security budget?
            What about overseas aid?

These are not simple decisions,
            and yet they form the backdrop to much to the election-wrangling
            that is dominating our news media in the run up to the May 7th.

And that’s before we even start getting onto the question
            of how the different taxation policies of the various political parties
            are going to affect different segments of the population.

Did you know that on the Conservative Party website,
            you can put in your personal income details,
and they will tell you how much better off you are
            as a result of their taxation changes.

So I did it, and apparently, I’m on course
            to pay £770 less tax on my income this year,
            than I would have done if I had earned the same amount in 2010.

There was then, naturally,
            an invitation to donate some of that money to their campaign,
                        so that, as they put it,
            ‘we can keep cutting taxes and keep securing a better future’.

I assume they mean a ‘better future’ for me, and others like me,
            who are fortunate enough to have a regular taxable income.
But we won’t get into that particular diversion here and now.

However, it raises for me an interesting question,
            which takes us into the realm of our Bible reading this morning
                        from the book of Acts.
And this is the question of, whose money is it anyway?

Listen again to Luke’s words:
Now the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common

Is ‘the pound in my pocket’ really mine?
            Or is there another way of looking at this?

I prefer to think of my money as being mine ‘on trust’
            rather than mine ‘absolutely’.

It may be mine at this moment,
            but that doesn’t mean I am free from obligations in what I do with it.

Some of the money that is currently mine,
                        I have on trust from the government,
            and when I have filled out my tax return,
                        and calculated my obligation to the state,
                        I’ll have to give it over to them.

So, by proxy, we might say that my money
            is mine on trust from the cancer patient,
                        whose therapy will be paid for out of taxation,
            or the child whose education will be state funded,
                        and so on, and so on…

For others of us, we might say that some of the money we have
                        is on trust from our children, or from other dependents,
            and we are not at liberty to simply spend it all as we wish,
                        lest they go without at our hands.

One might indeed raise the question
            of whether our money is ever truly ours,
                        even when it is sitting in our bank accounts?
            Or is it merely ours ‘on trust’ for now.

This language of ‘trust’ with regard to money is an interesting development,
            because it takes us away from the idea of ‘me and my own’
            and into the world of corporate responsibility.

So, charities have ‘trustees’ whose role is to ensure
            that the funds of the charity are used in accordance
            with the trust deed that set it up.

Here at Bloomsbury,
            our deacons and ministers are designated the ‘trustees’ of this church,
and as such they have a responsibility to the current church members,
                        and also to those who founded this church 167 years ago,
            to make sure that we do not misuse
                        the money that comes in each week,
            whether through the cash or cheques given via the offertory plate,
                        or through the monthly standing orders
                                    that an increasing number of us use
                                    for our giving to the church.

It’s all a matter of trust.

And, here’s the thing that I think it boils down to:
            I think our money is only ours on trust from God,
            and I think that what we do with it will tell us quite a lot
                        about how much we trust one another,
                        and about how much we trust God.

Look with me for a moment, if you will,
            as this challenging little story from the book of Acts.

Luke tells us in v.32 that:
the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul,
and no one claimed private ownership of any possessions,
but everything they owned was held in common.

And he goes on in v.34
There was not a needy person among them,
for as many as owned lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold.  35 They laid it at the apostles' feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need.

Can you hear the politically loaded soundbites?
            Phrases which could have come straight from the manifestos
                        of our current political parties?

‘private ownership’, ‘possessions’, ‘held in common’
            ‘needy person’, ‘ownership of lands or houses’,
                        ‘proceeds of what has been sold’
                        ‘distribution to each as any has need’

This is a political text, every bit as much as it is an economic text,
            and whilst it directly addresses the financial situation
                        of the earliest Christian community
            as they tried to work out together, in real terms,
                        what it meant to be followers of Jesus Christ,
it also speaks to a wider and more contemporary context
            of fiscal policy and monetary dogma.

Clearly, for the early Christians, discipleship did not simply mean:
            prayer and worship, and singing and communion,
                        and other such spiritualised practices.
Rather, the scope of conversion to the path of Christ
            had implications for every area of life,
            not least the way in which money and possessions were handled.

But this verse has also had financial and political implications
            for Christians down the centuries between then and now.
Including, notoriously, our own forbearers, the Anabaptists.

Did you know that the thirty-nine articles of the church of England
            include the following injunction:

Article 38.
The Riches and Goods of Christians are not common, as touching the right, title, and possession of the same; as certain Anabaptists do falsely boast. Notwithstanding, every man ought, of such things as he possesseth, liberally to give alms to the poor, according to his ability.

This argument about communism of goods,
            and whether it is right for Christians to seek to impose such a policy
                        by means of political force
            is not a new one.

And current debates around Christian responses to capitalism and socialism,
            to issues of big state or big society,
need to be heard in the context of the historic attempts
            by some Christians to demand, by virtue of compulsion,
                        that which others have believed
                        should be a matter of voluntary conviction.

The Christendom alliance between church and state,
            against which the Anabaptists took their stand,
held that it was the duty of each citizen to give tithe to support the church:
            Under Christendom, church support and state taxation were conflated.

The Anabaptists argued that this was a misunderstanding of scripture,
            and that, rather, each believer should be free to commit themselves,
                        financially and in other ways,
            to the gathered community of believers
                        of which they chose to be a part.

My own conviction is that communism of goods
            is not something that should be compulsory,
and that to attempt to make it such
            is to fall into an analogous lure to that which Christendom offered.
I do not think that Christian values and state legislation are interchangeable,
            whether it be the compulsory tithe to support the state church,
            or the mandatory communism of goods,
            or indeed any other attempt to construct an enforced fusion
                        of voluntary conviction and state responsibility.

Taxes are taxes,
            what is due to Caesar is due to Caesar,
            and what is due to God is due to God.

And so we find ourselves back at our text from Acts,
            with its tantalising fusion of money, politics, and theology.

And it seems to me that there are two key principles at play here in this story,
            which come together to effect practical change.

Firstly, the group are united in their devotion to God:
            Luke says ‘the whole group of those who believed
                        were of one heart and soul’ (v.32)
And secondly, no-one regarded their possessions
            as being under their own control.

In many ways, these two aspects directly reflect the saying of Jesus,
            that the whole law and the prophets could be summed up
            as pointing to love of neighbour, and love of God (Mk. 12.30-31 //s)

And here we encounter a theological principle which I’ve already alluded to,
            which is, that the way we handle our money and possessions,
            will be determined by both our attitude towards our neighbour,
                        and our attitude towards God.

Do we love our neighbour as we love ourselves?
            Do we trust our neighbour?
Do we love the Lord our God
            with all our heart and mind and soul and strength?
Do we trust God?

Let me put this another way…

If our money and possessions are simply ours on trust from God,
            then our willingness to part with them as part of our discipleship
            will be directly dependent upon the extent to which we trust God.

However, the question of the extent to which we are willing to trust our giving
            to the community of disciples of which we are a part,
            will be dependent upon the extent to which we trust one another.

If we are united in love, both our love of God and our love for one another,
            then giving to God through the fellowship of his people
            is no problem at all.

And here I’d like to bust a key myth:
            The church does not need your money.

What I mean by this, is that the ‘church’, and specifically, in our case,
            Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church,
is not a charity that needs anyone’s support.

This might sound a strange thing for me to be saying,
            given that my monthly stipend is directly dependent
            on the congregational giving of this congregation.
But I really mean it.

We’re not a charity seeking supporters,
            and we’re not a worthy organisation seeking funding.

We’re something far more wonderful than that:
            we’re a community of Christ-followers,
committed in love to one another,
            and to the God of love that we encounter through Christ,
and, like the first disciples in the book of Acts,
            we’re trying to work out what it means to follow Christ
            in a complex and confusing world.

‘The church’ is not an organisation that we support;
            rather, ‘the church’ is us.
And the institutional side of the church,
            is simply that which arises to help us live out before God
            the life of discipleship that we are called to.

So, if we believe, after prayer and discernment
            that what God would have us do with his money
is to sustain a central London witness to the inclusive gospel of Christ,
            then that is what we do.

If we believe, after listening together to the gentle whispers of the Spirit,
            that it is right before God for us to call ministers
to serve this congregation and to facilitate its ministry day by day,
            then that is what we do.

If we believe that it is right for us to feed the homeless,
            care for the vulnerable,
                        speak truth to power,
            and declare the word of the Lord in our generation,
then that is what we do.

And these things are our church,
            they, and so much more, are Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church.
But all this is a function of our discipleship,
            it is an outworking of the commitment, trust, and love,
            that we have towards one another, and towards God.

So, I would want to suggest,
            we shouldn’t determine our giving to the church
on the basis of what we think the church needs from us
            at any given moment.

Because when we do that,
            we reduce the covenant community that is the people of God
            to the level of a charity that needs our support.

Rather, we give to God, faithfully and sacrificially,
            month by month, or week by week,
and we surrender that giving to our sisters and brothers in Christ,
            so that together we can discern
what God would have us do with his money.

If we say to ourselves,
            ‘Bloomsbury has a nest-egg in the bank,
            they don’t need my money, so I’ll give it elsewhere.’
We are, in fact, rather missing the point.

It is true that Bloomsbury has a nest-egg in the bank,
            we have set aside some money for the next generation,
or perhaps for the next time this grand old building of ours
            needs major surgery.

But this is not a reason to withhold our giving to God,
            given through the body of his people.

It is also true that Bloomsbury is currently running an annual deficit,
            and that over the next few years we will face some difficult decisions
about how much of what we currently do
            we will be able to continue to do.
And unless giving increases,
            some things, some people, may have to be cut.

Let me tell you about a visitor we had here to the church recently.
            He was, I think, an actor here for one of the many script read-throughs
                        that take place during the week.
            (another one of our sources of income:
                        one which is useful, but not enough
                        to solve all our problems, unfortunately).

This actor stopped to talk with me in the foyer,
            as I was stood there with my clerical collar on, looking like a vicar.
I showed him around the church,
            told him something of the history of the place,
and outlined some of our current ministry.

He was particularly interested in the work we do
            with the homeless and vulnerable,
and as he left, he asked if he could make a donation
            to the work of the church.

I said, yes of course,
            and he said he would like it to go to the hardship fund.
I gently suggested that a donation to general funds might be more useful,
            but he was adamant that it should be to the hardship fund.
So I promised him I would make sure it went into the right fund,
            and with that he reached into his pocket,
            and gave me a five pound note.

Now, don’t get me wrong,
            a fiver is a fiver,
and for some of the people who come through our doors,
            that is a significant amount of money.
There have been occasions when people have tried to give me five pounds,
            and it has made me weep with humility at the level of their sacrifice.

But I’m fairly sure that was not the situation here.

I offer this story, not to condemn the actor,
            who I know was giving with a good heart,
            and I know the Lord has received his gift.

But he thought he was giving to a homelessness charity.
            He had conflated giving through the church,
            with giving to the person shaking a bucket outside the tube station.
And I don’t blame him for that at all,
            firstly because he’s not part of this church,
            and secondly because those of us who are part of the church,
                        can find it all too easy to do the same thing.

So my challenge this morning is for each of us
            to spend some time prayerfully reviewing our giving.

For some of us it may be that we make a commitment
            to start giving regularly to God,
laying our gifts at the feet of our sisters and brothers in Christ
            so that we can decide together
            what God would have us do with his money.

For some of us it may be time to take out a standing order to Bloomsbury,
            or to review the level of our current standing order.

Deciding on ‘an amount’ is never easy,
            and, as you’ve heard, I’m no great fan of the 10% tithe,
            but many find that a useful place to start;
recognising, of course, that 10% of a large income is not as sacrificial
            as 10% of a meagre social benefit payment.

For some of us, it may involve visiting the conservative party website,
            seeing how much tax they’ve saved us,
            and committing to give that money back to God.

It’s not for me to answer this question for others,
            but it is my place to ask the question.
It is also my place to say
            that all that I have said applies to me as well…

But in all of this, remember:
            Bloomsbury does not need your money
            to keep the good work that is Bloomsbury going.

But... I do believe that the kingdom of God needs Bloomsbury,
            and that it is the grace and love and mercy of God
                        that has called this church into being,
                        and which sustains us day by day.
            We are the kingdom of God in this place.

And so we are called to love one another,
            to trust one another,
            and to live in the unity of the Holy Spirit.
And we are also called to love God,
            with all our heart, and all our soul,
                        and all our mind, and with all our strength.

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