Whenever I detect the presence of family in a passage of Scripture, I can’t help but zero in on it. I even try not to do so – to avoid being repetitive – to try to let God teach me something else from the text. But I can’t help it. Especially in Acts 11.
The church in Antioch learned a famine was coming. That sealed the deal. They would send money. They had to help out their church family in Jerusalem. Notice the language that is used here – “to send relief to the brothers (and sisters) living in Judea.” These weren’t just other church members. These weren’t Sunday morning acquaintances, participants in the pre-service ritual of small talk. These were “brothers and sisters.” This was a family.
Taking care of the church family is important. It’s the mark of a Christian. In fact, it’s a bit risky, according to Scripture, to neglect the family of God. The disciple John – the disciple who clung to Jesus’ side – wrote this: “By this we know love, that he laid down his life for us, and we ought to lay down our lives for the brothers. But if anyone has the world’s goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God’s love abide in him? Little children, let us not love in word or talk but in deed and in truth” (1 John 3:16-18).
I had a ministry once where I got lots of calls from people in the community seeking financial help. Some needed their electric bills paid. Some needed gas money. Some needed rent assistance. The pastors in town had set up a system to help the many people in the community who reached out to us.
I made it a practice to ask these folks about where they went to church. Almost none of them had church homes. Being a church-goer wasn’t a prerequisite to getting help, but it was instructive to me – as needy person after needy person confessed to me, “No, I don’t have a church home.”
Eventually, I simply started responding by urging these callers to find a church home. “If you had a church home,” I told them, “we wouldn’t be having this conversation right now.” When they asked why not, I would tell them that their church family would have taken care of their needs. To have a church family is to have every need covered.
I never got the sense that those callers were offended by my suggestion. But I’ve gotten the sense other people, perhaps, have been. It’s probably pretty arrogant and condescending to suggest a person’s financial needs would be covered simply if that person were to join a church!
And yet, remember from our reading from Mark’s Gospel, Jesus told his disciples, who left everything to follow him, “Truly, I say to you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or lands, for my sake and for the gospel, who will not receive a hundredfold now in this time, houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and lands, with persecutions, and in the age to come eternal life” (Mark 10:29-30).
I am convinced Jesus is talking about the church. “Now in this time,” he said. And we’ve already seen in the Book of Acts how the early church was living this out (Acts 2:45; 4:34-35). The biblical model is this: My stuff becomes your stuff when we join the church together.
We’re Americans, and we struggle with texts like these. We like our stuff. We like our personal property. But the early church was taking their personal property and voluntarily selling it to make sure their brothers and sisters in the church had everything they needed. This wasn’t Communism – or even a commune. It simply was generosity and selflessness.
No one was required to give, but they gave because they desired to do so, and they gave as they were able. “So the disciples determined, every one according to his ability, to send relief to the brothers living in Judea.”
And again, we’re Americans, and we struggle with this. I’ve heard people with the audacity to say the early church was wrong-headed in all this sharing. These critics say, “If only they hadn’t been so quick to sell their possessions, they would have had enough to cover their own needs during the famine. They would not have needed help from outsiders.”
But can’t you see? There was enough for everyone even in all of that sharing. When someone is weak or in need, God gives another more than enough so he or she can share! “By this we know love, that he laid down his life for us, and we ought to lay down our lives for the brothers” (1 John 3:16). Surely the world gives us plenty of opportunities to practice sharing!
Of course, I probably really was arrogant and condescending in proclaiming to people that all they needed was a church home for their financial and material (and spiritual needs) to melt away. Many churches aren’t very good at living out the biblical mandate to love their brothers and sisters in Christ in this way – to treat them as family, to care for their every financial need. Many churches aren’t knitted together closely enough even to recognize one another’s needs.
But the vision has been laid before us by Jesus and John and the church in Antioch. And we ought to strive for it. “Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers (and sisters), you did it to me” (Matthew 25:40).
We must strive for this.
A question for your day: Is there anyone in your church family who is living in a season of need?