Sunday, 19 June 2016

Making a difference to one person

A Sermon preached at
Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church
19 June 2016
'Making a difference to one person'

Acts 3.1-10  One day Peter and John were going up to the temple at the hour of prayer, at three o'clock in the afternoon.  2 And a man lame from birth was being carried in. People would lay him daily at the gate of the temple called the Beautiful Gate so that he could ask for alms from those entering the temple.  3 When he saw Peter and John about to go into the temple, he asked them for alms.  4 Peter looked intently at him, as did John, and said, "Look at us."  5 And he fixed his attention on them, expecting to receive something from them.  6 But Peter said, "I have no silver or gold, but what I have I give you; in the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, stand up and walk."  7 And he took him by the right hand and raised him up; and immediately his feet and ankles were made strong.  8 Jumping up, he stood and began to walk, and he entered the temple with them, walking and leaping and praising God.  9 All the people saw him walking and praising God,  10 and they recognized him as the one who used to sit and ask for alms at the Beautiful Gate of the temple; and they were filled with wonder and amazement at what had happened to him.

John 9:1-16  As he walked along, he saw a man blind from birth.  2 His disciples asked him, "Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?"  3 Jesus answered, "Neither this man nor his parents sinned".

Listen to this sermon here:

The scene which Luke paints for us
          in our reading this morning from the book of Acts
          is as contemporary as it is ancient.

It could be any street, in any city, in any country.
          From Bloomsbury to Bangalore,
                   the picture is as familiar as it is troubling.

A man with a physical deformity has placed himself
          on the pavement at a busy intersection,
          and is begging for money.

You may even have walked past him on your way into church this morning.
          Certainly, if you regularly walk the streets of London,
                   you will be no stranger to those who sit and beg.
          Whether they present you with a disability
                   or a note written on a piece of cardboard,
          the message, the request, is constant:
                   ‘Please can I have some money?’

And I wonder, what do you do?
          Do you walk on by,
                   ignoring the person to the best of your ability,
                   pretending not to have noticed them?
          Do you, perhaps, genuinely not notice them,
                   having become so habituated to their presence
                   that it is indeed possible to pass by unseeing.
          Do you mutter a prayer for them?
                   Do you give them some money?
          Do you make eye contact and offer an apology,
                   or perhaps more accurately
                   an expression of sorrow for their condition,
                   before moving on ?
          Do you offer to buy them a coffee,
                   or a sandwich?
          Do you stop for a conversation,
                   to try and find out more about their circumstances?
          Do you invite them to drop into Bloomsbury when we’re open,
                   from 10-4 during the week,
                   for a cup of something warm and somewhere to sit?

I have done all of these things, and more.
          And what breaks my heart
                   is that I genuinely don’t know
                   if any of it has actually made any difference.

And it was no different in the first century,
          with our anonymous friend sitting outside the Temple in Jerusalem,
          strategically positioned in prime location
                   by the gate called ‘Beautiful’,
          with the contrast between the soaring sublime architecture,
                   and his own deformed body,
          carefully constructed to elicit maximum sympathy (and cash)
                   from those entering the temple
                   to bring their worship and offerings before the Lord.

How could a person with their eyes turned to God
          ignore the plight of one of God’s suffering children?
I’m sure that many of those who came to the temple
          gave to the beggar at the gate,
                   believing that by doing so,
                   they were offering to this unfortunate man
                   a tangible expression of the care that God had for him.

After all, the Jewish scriptures were clear in their commands
          that the people of God had a duty of care
          for those less fortunate than themselves;
from widows and orphans,
          to refugees and aliens in the land,
                   to those with physical disability.
As the law code of Deuteronomy puts it,
          ‘cursed by anyone who misleads a blind person on the road’ (27.18).

But then there was the dark side
          to the ancient Jewish attitude towards disability,
                   and poverty more widely,
          and here we have to be very careful not to stand in judgment
                   because our own society can all too readily
                   reflect these same prejudices.

There was a strand of ancient thought
          that regarded physical deformity, and other innate disadvantages,
          as a curse from God.

In some way the disabled person was held to deserve their disability,
          the impoverished person was held to deserve their deficiency.

In an ancient echo of contemporary debates
          around the deserving or undeserving poor,
those that enjoyed power, wealth, and health
          believed that they had received these things
                   as a deserved gift from God,
leaving those from whom such benefits had been withheld
          to fill the role of undeserving scrounger.

This is what lay behind the disciples’ question to Jesus
                   in our reading from John’s gospel,
          as to whose sin had led to the man being born blind.

Jesus, of course, is very clear in his response:
          neither the man himself nor his parents should be held responsible.

There are no people deserving of stigma, isolation, or disability.
          There are no poor people undeserving of kindness.
What matters for Jesus, and indeed for Peter and John,
          is not how the person got into their plight,
          but how they can be rescued from it.

And so it is that Peter utters his famous line,
          ‘silver and gold have I none, but what I have I give you.’

And on such a sentence the world turns upside down.

In this simple statement from Peter, the basic transaction
          which lay at the root of the Jewish Temple system was subverted.

The beggar knew how it was supposed to work,
          the worshippers knew how it was supposed to work,
          the temple officials knew how it was supposed to work.

The Temple system represented middle class religion,
          and was primarily populated by those who had money.

The moneyed worshippers’ job was to give alms to the poor;
          whilst the job of the poor was to receive the handouts.

It was a tried and tested system, and everyone felt better in the process.

The small acts of kindness,
          directed towards an undeserving (or even culpable) poor,
                   appeased the conscience of the rich,
          whilst at the same time highlighting their ultimate powerlessness
                   to effect genuine change.

It is into this context that Peter and John conduct their transgressive act
          against the system of inequality
          that everyone had become complicit in.

They don’t give alms to the beggar.
          They don’t give him silver, or gold, or even a few copper coins.
They refuse the transaction of handing over money
          in exchange for a temporarily salved conscience.

Rather, Peter looks the beggar in the eye,
          and reaches out a hand to him and lift him.

This is deeply subversive stuff,
          because it is challenging all the implicit and unspoken assumptions
          about the way the world works.

The poor are not to be lifted up,
          they are not to be looked at as equals.
They are to be ignored, vilified,
          blamed, stigmatized, and done unto.

They are there to provide the ‘weak’
          to the temple system’s ‘strong’.

If Peter and John had simply given money to the man,
          they would have become complicit in the very system
                   that kept him in his poverty.
But they took a different, more Christ-like path,
          which challenged the system
          and opened the door to transformation.

But doing this was not without consequences;
          the events of the next three chapters in Acts
                   all arise from this specific incident
                   of healing of a lame man in the temple grounds.
          And as with the story of Jesus and the healing of the man born blind,
                   transformatory acts such as these
                   bring a cost to those who enact them.

If you take action to subvert systems of control,
          you are distorting the imbalances of power
                   on which our hierarchical religious institutions
                   and stratified societal structures are built.
And those powers will fight back,
          and will seek to close down the transgressive power
                   of raising up someone whose ‘place’ in life
                   has been predetermined as disadvantaged.

And so Peter and John were both arrested and put on trial,
          while Jesus faced the worst that the Pharisees could throw at him.

And so it will be with us also.

Let’s bring this story up to date, and hear it speak to our world.

Have you noticed that our church, here at Bloomsbury, has a Beautiful doorway?

I’ve been reading the history of Bloomsbury again recently,
          and the story of how we came to have such an imposing fa├žade is fascinating:
                   this was the first Baptist church to be built on a main street in London,
                   and so a grand statement was called for.
                             Not just one spire, but two!
                             Most inspiring, one might say!

But our beautiful gateway, with its Normanesque arch,
          has always marked the entrance to a building
                   designed to minister to the poor and the disadvantaged.
From our location on the boundary
          of the wealth and privilege of Bloomsbury,
          and the grinding poverty of the St Giles Slums,
to the commitment from the very beginning
          to have a person employed to reach out
          into the diverse communities around the church,
this building has always sought
          to bring wealth and poverty together
          in ways that are genuinely transformational.

Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church, at its best,
          has never just been about giving to the poor.

George M’Cree, the first community worker of the church,
          writing in 1876 tells a story told about the first Minister, William Brock.
He says,
There are ministers who have never cultivated
          the art of shaking hands with people.
‘My brother,’ said an aged minister to a friend of mine,
          at whose ordination he preached,
‘never shake hands with a poor man.

Take off your hat to him, brother, if you like, in the street,
          but never shake hands with him.
Maintain your dignity, brother!’

Dr Brock had great dignity, but he also had great humanity.
          He would shake hands with anybody and everybody,
          whether rich or poor, young or old.

To use the expression of a young man to me,
          ‘Dr Brock’s heart always seemed to be in his hand.
          What a shake of the hand he would give you!’

Can you hear the resonance to our passage?

This is a church where, from the very first minister,
          we have sought to reach out and touch,
where we extend the hand of friendship,
          where we do not stand on our dignity.

And still, week by week,
          people queue at our Beautiful gate to ask for alms.
Some of us sat here in this worship service this morning
          will have been standing outside the church since 9 O’clock or earlier,
          to ensure that we have got a ticket for lunch.

Most of those who queued, however, will now be elsewhere,
          coming back in time for lunch at One.

People queue for food, and as a church we provide food.
          Then they come back the next week, and the next.

Except they aren’t going to come back next week,
          because we’re closing down the kitchens and the basement for four months
          to make the place even more beautiful, I mean, functional.

I wonder how we will feel, next Sunday,
          coming into our church without seeing a line of hungry people
          queuing in the street for food that we will provide?

How will we feel coming into church,
          without our basement already full of hungry lonely people
                   who have popped in for a cup of coffee,
          before we ask them to leave so we can have our worship service?

How will we feel after the service next week,
          when those same people are not coming back
                   after spending an hour on the streets
                   waiting for us to finish our worship
          so that they can get their lunch?

Will it feel strange? Will it feel like Bloomsbury?

And it causes me to wonder how much of our identity,
          both personally and corporately, is tied up in the giving of alms.

It causes me to ask myself
          how much of my desperate attempt
          to assuage myself of my guilt at my inherited privilege
          is predicated on the giving of alms?

Do we feel guilty for closing things down for a few months?

But of course, come October, we can re-start the lunches,
          and of course the queues will come back,
          because as Jesus said, the poor will always be with you (Mt. 26.11).

But what if we didn’t just feed the poor?
          What if we didn’t just invite people to queue for food?
What if we didn’t have a queue of people outside our beautiful gate
          making a public statement to the world every Sunday morning
          that this is the kind of place that gives food to the poor?

What would it mean, instead,
          for us to take people by the hand and lift them up, as Peter did,
          so that they no longer needed to queue for bread?

What would it mean for us to look people in the eye
          and see the person behind the circumstance?

As we go into this break,
          I want us to prayerfully consider the things we might do
                   with our refurbished building in October.

Let’s not simply restart things because we have always done them,
          or because we miss doing them,
          or because without doing them we feel guilty or inadequate.

Rather let’s ask the question
          of what it is that we can do, before God,
          that is genuinely transformational for the needs of our city.

Let’s ask what the needs are,
          and be prepared to listen to those
                   who might tell us that the genuine needs
                   are not what we think they are.

Let’s be prepared to let go of our own programs and structures,
          and instead construct new systems
          built on relationships that are genuinely transformational.

Peter said, ‘silver and gold have I none, but this I give you’.

It doesn’t have to be about giving alms, providing food,
          or providing a service that service users can access.

Maybe it can be about building a place of refuge,
          of safety, of friendship.
Where each person who comes is known and valued
          as person loved and unique in God’s sight,
          and where we take them by the hand and raise them up.

And so you might want to take time over the summer
          to get to know our partners a bit better.

You might want to find out more about the Simon Community
          who run our Evening Centre on Tuesdays,
          offering acceptance and opportunities for progression
          to those who live on the street.

You might want to follow up the contact we have had with Ella’s home,
          offering a safe place for women who are trapped in prostitution.

You might decide to get involved in London Citizens,
          taking their two day training
          and learning to join with others in addressing issues
                   of the living wage, affordable housing, and refugees.

You might volunteer to work with C4WS
          who run our night shelter each winter.

You might want to spend time on the Ekklesia website,
          learning a new way of engaging the political debate
          from a radical Christian perspective.

You might want to visit the Soho Gathering,
          and broaden your understanding
          of the glorious diversity of human sexuality.

All of these, and so much more,
          are areas of Bloomsbury’s ongoing ministry
          which are seeking to look people in the eye,
                   extend a hand of equality, and raise people up.
They are about transformation.

However, in all of this we need to remember
          that transformation is God’s responsibility, not ours.
We are not the ones who do the miracle.
          We just have to be prepared to look the person in the eye,
          and to reach out our hand in openness and trust,
          to see the individual behind the circumstance.

This is a risky task, it’s dangerous because it’s disruptive.
          It messes with our systems, and plays havoc with our expectations,
          every bit as much as Peter and John’s actions
                   outside the Beautiful Gate to the Temple
          subverted the systems that the Temple had in place
                   to ensure the poor got enough money
                   to tide them over until tomorrow.

But what if what we hear isn’t what we were expecting.

What if our Community Minister, Dawn,
          our very own George M’Cree of the 21st Century,
          comes back to us and says that there are new and different things
                   we can do with our building
          which will be a transformatory gift
                   to those who come through our doors.

What if we hear suggestions from the margins
          that we might use our resources differently
          to the way we had planned to use them?

Well, I say ‘bring it on’.

Let’s hear from one another.
          Let’s allow the vision for the future
                   to arise from the midst of the present,
                   informed by the values of the past.

Have you ever sat in church and thought,
          ‘if only we could do that?’
Do you have a burning passion for a ministry or an outreach project
          to which you could become so committed
          that it would drive you to your knees in prayer to see it happen?
Do you have a message from God to us
          that we need to hear?
What if money was no object,
          what would you do through this place?

And yes, I know we are running a budget deficit,
          many of you heard my sermon on giving a fortnight ago,
          and if you didn’t, I’d encourage you to catch up on it.
                   It matters.
And yes, we need more income to sustain ministry
          even at the levels of our present commitment.
But as Peter said, ‘Silver and Gold have I none, but what I have I give.’
          And my question is this: What could you give?

The transformatory encounter is not predicated on money.
          That is a secondary issue.
It’s not even predicated on there being
          a large Sunday morning congregation filling our pews,
          although that would be nice!

I firmly believe that if the mission is right,
          if people are being transformed
          through encountering the living power of Christ at work in our midst,
money and volunteers and members and worshippers
          will come forward to join the work.
It has always been the case in the past.

If we are community of radical inclusion
          where all are equal regardless of social standing,
                   economic circumstance, ethnicity, gender, or sexuality,
          then we will draw to us those from all walks of life,
                   and the body will grow.

There are some of us here today
          who have first-hand experience of poverty, homelessness, and exclusion.

It may be that if this is you,
          you are not normally used to being listened to.

It may be that your experience of church
          is of being silenced even as people give to you.

To which, I want to say, ‘not here’.

All our voices are worthy of being heard,
          and so if you have ideas and opinions
                   about what this place should look like, be, and do,
                   as we look to the future,
          I invite you to speak,
                   to talk to those who you have sat with at lunch,
                   to speak with Dawn, Ruth, or me.

On behalf of this place,
          I reach out my hand

          not to give to you, but to raise you up.

Sunday, 5 June 2016

Believing and Sharing

A Sermon preached at Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church
5th June 2016 11.00am
‘Believing and Sharing’

Acts 2.42-47; 4.32 – 5.11 

Listen to this sermon here:

So, shall we take up the offering now?

Our sermon series at the moment, from the book of Acts,
            invites us to address two themes,
            which are, I suggest, two sides of the same coin.

We’re looking at mission, and we’re looking at money.

Last week Ruth introduced us to the theme of mission,
            and this week I’m picking up where she left off
            and addressing the theme of money.

In many ways, this sermon is also a follow-on
            from one which I gave here at Bloomsbury in April last year.
I’m sure you can all remember it,
            but just in case you can’t, I’ve put a link to it on the order of service
            and you can always refresh your memories by reading the script
                        or listening to it again.

I also want to acknowledge a debt to Stuart Murray Williams,
            who wonderful book ‘Beyond Tithing’
                        has influenced my thinking on giving for many years,
            and I’m shamelessly stealing some of his ideas for this sermon.

I’m sure that none of us can have missed the fact that
            there is a vote on the European Union coming up…
And one of the key arguments, that both sides keep coming back to
            is the way the way in which our country manages our money.

Will we be better off in, or out?
            To which I would want to say, to both sides,
            ‘is that the most important question?’
But, clearly, for many, it is.

Votes have been won or lost on issues of the economy for generations
            and Bill Clinton’s successful campaign
                        for the American Presidency in 1992
            was boosted by their coining of the memorable slogan
                        ‘it’s the economy, stupid!’

And we only have to look to Greece over the last few years
            to see the very real and immediate effects
            of what can happen if a government fails to keep the economy on track.

But given all this, I think that it is very unlikely
            that the outcome of the European Union vote, whichever way it goes,
                        will present us with an economic model
            anywhere near as radical as that which we find
                        operating amongst the early Christians
                        in the days following the outpouring of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost.

Listen again to what they did:

Acts 2.44-45
All who believed were together and had all things in common;
            they would sell their possessions and goods
            and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. 

There have, of course, been attempts by various governments in a variety of countries
            to politically impose an economic model
            which has similarities to this early church practice
And the problem which Communism has hit, time and time again
            is that the sharing and redistribution required
            isn’t, it turns out, something which can simply be imposed.

Well, you’ll be glad to know that I’m not about to spend my time this morning
            espousing the case for Christian Communism.

However, I did think I might treat you to a song sung by Billy Bragg,
            which Tim Jones played to us in Exchange on Wednesday evening
                        as part of our series looking at theology and contemporary music.

The song, called ‘The World Turned Upside Down’
            tells the story of the seventeenth century Diggers,
            who were a group of Protestant radicals,
                        sometimes seen as forerunners of modern anarchism.

They based their beliefs about economic equality on this passage from the book of Acts
            that we have as our reading this morning.

Their most famous moment came in April 1649
            when, in a kind of forerunner to the Occupy movement,
                        a group of them went to St George’s hill in Surrey
                        to plant vegetables in the common land.

Food prices were at an all time high,
            and their intention was to pull down the enclosures
            and put the land to producing food for distribution to all.

The local landowners protested,
            and called in the army to evict the Diggers.

Anyway, here’s the song:

‘The World Turned Upside Down’
Lyrics and tune by Leon Rosselson
Sung by Billy Bragg

In 1649
To St. George's Hill,
A ragged band they called the Diggers
Came to show the people's will
They defied the landlords
They defied the laws
They were the dispossessed reclaiming what was theirs

We come in peace they said
To dig and sow
We come to work the lands in common
And to make the waste ground grow
This earth divided
We will make whole
So it will be
A common treasury for all

The sin of property
We do disdain
No man has any right to buy and sell
The earth for private gain
By theft and murder
They took the land
Now everywhere the walls
Spring up at their command

They make the laws
To chain us well
The clergy dazzle us with heaven
Or they damn us into hell
We will not worship
The God they serve
The God of greed who feeds the rich
While poor folk starve

We work we eat together
We need no swords
We will not bow to the masters
Or pay rent to the lords
Still we are free men
Though we are poor
You Diggers all stand up for glory
Stand up now

From the men of property
The orders came
They sent the hired men and troopers
To wipe out the Diggers' claim
Tear down their cottages
Destroy their corn
They were dispersed
But still the vision lingers on

You poor take courage
You rich take care
This earth was made a common treasury
For everyone to share
All things in common
All people one
We come in peace
The orders came to cut them down

Well, we may not be Diggers,
            but nontheless our passage this week from the book of Acts,
            does raise some very challenging questions for us
            about the way in which we handle our money
                        both as individual disciples of Christ
                        and also collectively as the church of Christ.

And the question I want is to spend some time with this morning
            is what it might mean for us, as followers of Jesus in our day and age,
            to take seriously our discipleship,
                        and our commitment to one another in fellowship
            not just in terms of prayerful support, or spiritual nurture
                        but also in terms of how this plays out practically and financially.

Some of you may know that I have more than a passing interest
                        in the events of the seventeenth century
            and in particular, the origins of the Baptist church,
                        and the story of the Diggers takes us right into the world
                                    of political and economic radicalism
                        that gave birth to the Baptist movement
                                    that we here at Bloomsbury are a part of.

In those days, the church of England had the right
            to levy a 10% tax on every person living in England

Everyone in that time was officially a member of the church of England,
                        whether they wanted to be or not.
            So everyone paid their tithe, or 10%, to the church,
                        whether they wanted to or not
It was an inescapable tax,
            which went to support the existence of the state church.

Well, during the seventeenth century
            some people said that they no longer wanted to worship in their parish church,
            and instead they wanted to become members
                        of, for example, Baptist churches
                        or Quaker churches.

And so the question started to be raised by these dissenters
            as to whether they should pay their tithe
                        to the church or England,
            or whether they were free instead to make their financial gifts to God
                        through the church that they actually attended.

Naturally, the Church of England
            realised that if this was allowed,
                        it’s income could drop dramatically,
            so they resisted any such moves,
                        and it was many years
                        before the compulsory tithe was abolished.

So now come with me for a moment,
            to the seventeenth century,
and hear with me a story about a poor old Quaker
            who worked as a bootmaker.

The local parson came to him and said
            “You have not paid your tithe!”

The Quaker replied
            “No, and I am not going to pay you.
            I do not attend your meeting-house,
                        neither have I any use for your services
            Therefore I will not pay.”

The parson said
            “But it is the law of the land.
            You could attend if you wanted;
                        my door is always open
                        and my services are at your disposal
            Therefore you must pay your tithe”

The next morning the parson was surprised to receive
            a demand for payment for a pair of boots from the Quaker

He hurried to the shop and said
            “There is some mistake here.
            I haven’t ordered any boots.”

The Quaker replied
            “No, I know you haven’t had any boots.
            But my doors are always open
                        my services are at your disposal
            and you could have had a pair of boots
                        if you had wanted them!
            Therefore you must pay me for them.”

And this story raises for us the whole question
            of the basis on which we give money to the church…
Do we do so as a tax? As a compulsory tithe?
            Or do we give voluntarily?

We’ll come back to this question in a few minutes…

But meanwhile, a bit of Greek for you:
            Don’t worry, it’s only one word
            and many of you will have heard it before

The Greek word I want us to think about for a minute
            is the word Koinonia. [1]

Does anybody know what it means?

It’s usually used to describe a quality of fellowship
            or a depth of personal relating
                        within the community of God’s people
But it can have many meanings,
            and can mean fellowship, community
                        communion, intimacy
                        joint participation, or association.

In the New Testament, the word Koinonia
            is used in a couple of ways:
                        Firstly it refers to God’s relationship with us his people
                        and secondly it refers to the relationships we have with one another

These two relationships – us and God, and us with each other
            come together vividly in the communion meal
                        the koinonia meal as it used to be called,
            Where food and drink are shared equally
                        between the poorest and the richest.

In 1 Corinthians 10:16, Paul says:
‘The cup of blessing that we bless,
            is it not a sharing in the blood of Christ?
‘The bread that we break,
            is it not a sharing in the body of Christ?’

and the word translated sharing here is, of course,
            the word koinonia.

And in this Paul is pointing us to the fact
            that the koinonia of the Christian community
            which we celebrate whenever we take communion,
                        as we shall be shortly,
is a koinonia between us and God
            symbolised by the blood
and also a koinonia between one another
            symbolised by the bread

The important thing to grasp here
            is that koinonia, or fellowship, goes two ways
                        it goes vertically, between us and God
                        and it goes horizontally, between one another

Koinonia is a concept which is very useful
            in countering the modern mindset of individualism
Because it reminds us that our relationships with one another are vital,
            and that an outlook on life
                        which is focussed on “me” alone
            is very far removed from the way God would have us be.

But Koinonia also has another meaning,
            and in the ancient world it also functioned as an economic term.
For example, it was often used to refer to business partnerships that existed
            in the Roman and Greek world
            that the early Christians inhabited.

This economic meaning of koinonia
            referred to donations made by donors,
            and also to the taking up of a financial collection.

And there is a similarity here with the meaning we are more familiar with.
            Koinonia, whether in its economic meaning, or its fellowship meaning,
            always points us to our responsibilities to one another.

            We have a responsibility to one another
                        in terms of our fellowship relationships
            and we also have a responsibility to one another
                        in terms of our financial activities

Paul himself, in the New Testament, uses the word Koinonia
            to refer to financial contributions (Rom 15:26; 2 Cor 8:4).

And in the early churches, the koinonia was the common fund
            out of which the deacons administered the care for the poor

The koinonia was also the box, into which the gifts
            were placed in church: a kind of first century “offering plate”

So the word koinonia concerned
            not just “fellowship” and “mutual commitment”
but also a sharing of resources,
            a responsibility for the needs of others in the church,
            and the distribution of wealth.

And this understanding of Koinonia
            invites us to see the church
            almost as a kind of business association,
                        where each member is a partner.

The church, by this understanding, is a voluntary association,
            to which no-one should ever be forced to belong
            like they were in England until 300 years ago.

However, once people have agreed to join,
            the implication of koinonia is that
                        their membership of the church carries certain responsibilities,
            both in terms of fellowship commitment
                        and also in terms of financial accountability.

This term koinonia crops up several times
            in the passage we’re looking at this morning.

Take a look at Acts 2 verse 42:

They devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and fellowship (koinonia),
            to the breaking of bread and to prayer.

And then, just in case we don’t get the point
            Luke spells it out again in verses 44 & 45

Acts 2:44-45
All the believers were together and had everything in common (koinonia).
            Selling their possessions and goods, they gave to everyone who had need.

This phrase “everything in common”
            has sometimes been interpreted as meaning that
            personal ownership of property
                        was abolished in the Jerusalem church.

Many Christian groups over the years have, on the basis of this passage,
            advocated the practice of a “community of goods”,
            or the formation of “common purse” communities.

But that isn’t actually what Luke was talking about,
            so don’t start to get worried
            that I’m going to be asking you all
                        to hand over the deeds to your houses!

What Luke is describing here,
            is a voluntary process of redistribution
            from those who had much, to those who had little.

We get some further examples of this practice in action
            if we read a little bit further on in the book of Acts:

So for example in chapter 4 verses 32-37
            we meet Barnabas who sold a field
                        and brought the money to the church for distribution.
And the important thing to notice
            is that we aren’t told that he sold all his possessions.
He was generous, but not to the point of impoverishing himself.

And we find something similar in the rather terrifying story
            of Ananias and Sapphira in the next chapter:

Interestingly, this unfortunate couple are NOT condemned for their failure
            to give over all their personal property.
Rather, Peter explicitly recognised that this was theirs
            to do with as they wished.
What got them into trouble was their dishonesty,
            and their attempt to deceive the fellowship.

The expression of koinonia in the early Christian community
            clearly left individuals free to retain or give away their property.

But it also called for a new understanding
            of economic responsibility of believers for one another.

This takes a bit of thinking about…
            But what was actually going on here
                        was that the Spirit-filled believers
                        in the days following Pentecost
            were so aware of their fellowship with God
                        and their fellowship with one another
            that they were accountable to one another before God
                        in their money and their possessions

Individuals still possessed things;
            they still owned houses, and fields, and so on.
But the difference was
            that what they did with what they owned
            was decided not by the individual
                        but by the community.

As Luke says in Acts 4.32
            “no-one claimed that any of their possessions was their own”

The great sin of Ananias and Sapphira
            wasn’t that they kept property for themselves,
            but that they dishonoured the koinonia relationship
                        between them and the other Christians
                        and between them and God.
As Peter says, in 5.4
            “You did not lie to us, but to God!”

And in this, we come to the heart of the matter…
            because it brings it right back down
            to the issue of discipleship.

You see, Christianity isn’t about a list of rules
            that have to be obeyed to be a proper Christian.

There is no set percentage
            which will tell us that when we have given that amount
            then God will be pleased with our giving
                        and that what is left is ours to do with as we please.

It doesn’t work like that,
            in the community of Spirit-filled post-Pentecost believers.

Rather, what it comes down to,
            is where our hearts are before God…

But ironically, one of the tests of where our hearts are with God,
            is the test of how we behave
            with regards to our money and our possessions.

When God placed his Holy Spirit within us
            and formed a koinonia relationship with us
                        through his son Jesus Christ,
he also placed us within the community of his people,
            that is, the body of Christ, the church,
and he called us into a koinonia relationship with one another

And the biblical testimony
            is that we cannot have one without the other.

The implications of the story of Ananias and Sapphira
            are that it simply doesn’t work
                        to try and cheat the body of Christ,
            because all we end up doing is cheating God
                        and that, as they say, is a recipe for disaster!

We are either in this
            or we aren’t.
We are either disciples of the living God
            or we aren’t.

And if we are, if we have a koinonia relationship with God,
            then we have to get to grips with what it means
                        to have a koinonia relationship with one another.

And if we diminish this relationship with each other,
            then we are, by implication
            diminishing our relationship with God.

This reflection on the meaning of koinonia as fellowship
            not just in terms of spiritual support,
            but also in terms of financial accountability,
brings home to us the difficulty we all face
            in terms of trusting one another,
            and in terms of trusting God.

We like to say we trust in God.
            But when it comes down to it,
            are we actually prepared to do it?
Are we actually prepared to trust God with our finances?
            Or are we going to seek to retain
            some measure of control over them?

I think that this has some serious implications for us
            when we consider our giving to the church,
because I sometimes think
            that we don’t realise the seriousness
            of what we are doing
                        when we give our money to God.

Some plain facts need to be said here
            because we need to try and get our heads around this one.

·        The church is not an institution which needs our support.

·        The church is not a club to which we subscribe.

·        The church is not a building which needs maintenance.

·        The church is not an employer with salaries to pay.

·        The church is not an organisation for channelling our charitable giving.

The church is the body of Christ’s people,
            with whom we are called under God
            to have a koinonia fellowship relationship.

The church is the group of Christ’s people,
            called together by God,
to be accountable to one another in all things,
                        including our money and possessions.

And this is not an optional extra to our faith;
            we cannot kid ourselves that all is right with God
            if we retain control over our finances
                        and in so doing diminish the koinonia relationship
                        into which we have been called.

Which is all very challenging stuff, is it not?

But what does it mean in practice?

Well, I don’t claim to have all the answers to this one
            but I would like to put forward a few suggestions
            as to how we can start to live some of this out
                        in our lives as Spirit-filled post-Pentecost believers.

Firstly, we can consider the issue of our giving.

            How much is it right to give to God?

            How much is God asking us to give to him?

Believe it or not, my concern here isn’t for the future of our church financially
            it’s rather for the future of our church spiritually!

If what we have been looking at in Acts is right,
            and how we handle our money before God
            is an indication of our relationship with God,
then it may be that some of us are skating on uncomfortably thin ice.

This isn’t an issue of money
            this is an issue of discipleship!

So in the name of Jesus Christ,
            who has called us into a koinonia relationship with him
            I would like to challenge us all
                        to think again and to think seriously
                        about how much of our money we are going to give to God.

Aha! I can hear some of you saying
            I do give to God
            I just don’t give to the church…

Well, if that is you, then I would want to ask you a question…

What makes you think that you are qualified
            to tell God what to do with his money?

Because when we direct our primary giving to specific organisations of our choosing,
            what we are actually doing
            is retaining our control
                        over the money we are seeking to give to God.

The post-Pentecost Spirit-filled believers in Acts
            were accountable to one another
            in what they would do with their money.

And as post-Pentecost Spirit-filled believers ourselves
            surely we are called to do the same?

As I said earlier
            giving to the church is not giving to support an institution.

Rather, it is submitting to our brothers and sisters in Christ
            in the use of our money and our possessions.
And it is continuing to give and submit
            even when the community takes decisions we disagree with.

As a church, we decide together under Christ
            what we will spend God’s money on.
We decide together under Christ
            where the resources of the people of God will be used.

And these decisions are taken in koinonia, in community
            they are fellowship decisions.
They are the decisions we take at our church meetings,
            and they encompass everything from our commitment
                        to keeping this building open as a Baptist mission to central London,
            to paying the staff and ministers who serve the cause of Christ through this place.

And if we withdraw that decision from the community,
            and direct our giving to God ourselves,
we withdraw from the koinonia relationship
            into which we have been called.

I’m not saying that we shouldn’t support other charities
            and other organisations beyond those
            which are supported through the church community.
But I do think such giving should be additional
            to the regular and systematic giving to God
            directed through the people of God
                        to which we have been called.

So in the name of Jesus Christ,
            who has called us into a koinonia relationship with one another,
            I want to challenge us all
                        to think again, and to think seriously
                        about how accountable
                                    we are prepared to be to one another
                                    in our giving to God.

So, as church members will know,
            our treasurer has challenged us all to look again at our giving.

Unless giving increases, we simply will not be able
            to carry on doing the things here at Bloomsbury
            that we have discerned together we are called to do.

Unless giving increases,
            we will have to make cuts to our mission and ministry.

So, to return to tithing for a moment.
            Whilst I would never, ever, say that it is compulsory;
            try a little experiment with me.

Think of your monthly income, and divide it by ten.
            Then see if your giving is above or below that amount.

For those here who live on the breadline, living in or on the edge of poverty,
            clearly you should be giving less than a tenth.
In fact, perhaps the rest of us should be giving to help you!
            Which, of course, is what we do, through our hardship fund,
            administered by the ministers to help those in need.

But for the rest of us, my suspicion is that 10% should be starting point
            for our giving to the church.
Indeed, there will be some among us for whom the appropriate amount to give
            will be far in excess of 10% of income.
And hear this: without the generous, faithful, and sacrificial giving
            of us all to the work here at Bloomsbury,
we simply cannot keep doing it.

Did you know that, as a church,
            we give away 10% of all our income?
            We support a variety of causes,
                        including the Baptist Union’s Home Mission Fund,
                        and the Baptist Missionary Society,
                        and the various Baptist Colleges in the UK and in Amsterdam.
            And this is before we start giving our charity of the year,
                        or the various other gifts we make as a fellowship.
So there’s a good precedent for using this as a rule of thumb.

I guess what I have been trying to say
            about our attitudes towards our giving,
can be summed up
            by asking whether we are prepared to trust God,
            and whether we are prepared to trust one another.

And this is a difficult thing to do,
            make no mistake about it;
            but it is also the test of our fellowship, our koinonia.

When the Spirit came on the church at Pentecost
            and created this new community of believers,
the call of God was on them
            to do and be something profoundly different
            from the way of the world.

The call was on them to see the world turned upside down.

From the world’s perspective
            trusting God and trusting one another with our money
            is the stupidest thing to do;
because from the world’s perspective,
            we must look first to me and mine.

But God calls us to do things differently,
            and to model in our lives
            our allegiance to a saviour who came
                        to overturn the world,
            and to bring a new and radical way of living
                        to those who followed him.

And the power to do this,
            the power to live differently,
            comes from the Spirit of Pentecost.

It is the Holy Spirit, at work in us,
            who transforms us, as he transformed those first believers.

It is the Holy Spirit who calls us
            to a life of radical discipleship.

It is the Holy Spirit who calls us
            into a koinonia relationship with God
            and into a koinonia relationship with one another

And it is the Holy Spirit who empowers us
            to live lives transformed from the world’s priorities,
            and rather to live in line with the radical priorities of the kingdom of God.

[1] What follows draws heavily on Stuart Murray Williams’ book ‘Beyond Tithing’ pp. 205ff