October 17, 2004

The Love of Christ Compels Us to Empower Others
Acts 2:40-47; 4:32-37

There is a great deal of Gehazi in each and every one of us. “What,” you may ask, “is Gehazi?” The right question is, “Who ws Gehazi?” Gehazi served as administrative assistant to Elisha, the great prophet of Israel. On one occasion, a Syrian military commander by the name of Naaman journeyed south to Israel because he had been told that Elisha possessed the power to heal him of his leprosy. After arguing a bit over Elisha’s prescribed remedy, Naaman dipped seven times in the Jordan River. Rising up after the seventh dip, Naaman’s leprosy was gone and his skin completely restored “like the flesh of a young boy (2 Kings 5:14).” With great excitement, the Syrian commander offered payment to Elisha for his services, an offer that Elisha quickly declined.

Gehazi, however, had other ideas. Believing that Elisha should have collected a sizeable fee for a deed so great, Gehazi secretly ran after Naaman. “Two prophets just came to my masater, Elisha,” Gehazi lied, “and he would like you to give each of them silver and clothing.” And so, without reservation, Naaman reached into his deep satchel and paid Gehazi the requested amount. Upon returning home, Gehazi denied the entire affair when interrogated by Elisha—“Your servant has not gone anywhere at all,” he said. And with that, Naaman’s leprosy covered Gehazi, this self-serving man.

There is, as I said before, a great deal of Gehazi in each and everyone of us. In fact, this quest for security and independence goes all the way back to the creation stories, where Adam and Eve reached for the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Ever since, people of all times and cultures have been striving to gain more and more and more. More security. More possessions. More power. More money. The urge to follow Gehazi and look out for ourselves runs deep.

Some years ago, Karl Marx argued that virtually everything we do and think relates in some way to our economic situation. What will it cost? How deeply in debt will I be? What are the interest rates? What return will I gain? How much will I earn per hour? How can I achieve financial security? How will it affect my tax bracket? Does giving this away make good financial sense? How can I increase my company’s profit margin? How will we pay for college? Should I rent or buy? Where can I find the best mortgage for a new house? How can I convince my mom and dad to increase my allowance? Which career provides the highest salary? Our interest in and concern about money, if we are honest with ourselves, lies deep within us. The fact that we rarely talk about money and our financial habits, particularly in church, only underscores the private and even sacred status that we have assigned to it.

Luke never read any of Marx’ writings, but he unquestionably displays a similar conviction concerning the importance that money plays in people’s lives. For Luke, as Will Willimon points out, money is not a sign of divine approval, as various contemporary preachers want us to believe, but a real and ever-present danger. And as a result, Luke talks about money with alarming frequency. In his gospel, for example, Luke recounts no less than six of Jesus’ parables that relate specifically to money. Of these six, only one of them—the parable of the pounds—appears in any of the other gospels.

Luke, to be sure, speaks positively about money in certain passages. In the parable of the debtors (7:41-43), first of all, a gracious creditor willingly cancelled both a large and small debt for two people who were unable to repay him. In the parable of the Good Samaritan (10:29-37), a wealthy foreigner—the Samaritan—used his money to provide medical care for a beaten and abandoned Jewish traveler. And in the parable of the pounds, three unnamed individuals are praised or condemned according to their investment practices. But Luke also vividly describes the dangers surrounding money. He tells us about a rich fool (12:16-21) who built bigger and bigger barns to contain his increasing holdings, holdings that might very well have been used for others. Luke describes an unjust steward (16:1-8) who was accused of squandering property. And in the parable of the rich man and a beggar named Lazarus, we need not guess which of the two ended up in Hades and which in heaven at Abraham’s side. Money, Luke points out, is powerful and dangerous. The rich young man is unable to let go of it, and the prosperous barn-builder wants more and more and more. “How difficult it is,” Luke remembers Jesus saying, “for those who have wealth to enter the Kingdom of God!” Virtually everything we do and think about, Marx said, revolves around economics.

When we come to the book of Acts, then, we should not be surprised to find that the central importance of money continues. Acts is, after all, a continuation of the gospel of Luke. In chapter 2 of Acts, the Holy Spirit falls upon the early Christians, Peter preaches his memorable first sermon, and thousands of people believe and repent. Immediately thereafter, Luke provides the first glimpse into the inner workings of this early Christian community (2:43-47). And in this first glimpse—this window—of the inner life of the community, what do we find? Economics. The people who have are selling their possessions and sharing with those who do not have.

In chapter 3, Peter and John heal a crippled beggar. This healing causes an uproar that leads to Peter and John’s arrest. Following their release from jail, Peter and John return to the other believers, who worship and praise God. Once again, Luke informs us that the Holy Spirit fills these disciples and empowers them to speak with boldness (4:31). With that said, Luke for the second time provides a glimpse into the inner workings of the Christian community—another window (4:32-37). And what do we find there? Economics! Those who have sell their possessions, no one claimed private ownership, and, Luke points out, “there was not a needy person among them,…” Two windows into the life of the early Christian community, both following outpourings of the Holy Spirit and effective public proclamation. And in each of these windows, Luke wants us to see followers of Jesus who have somehow overcome their similarities to Gehazi and now give generously with joy and compassion.

The way Luke arranges his material in these opening chapters of Acts suggests to me that he is asking a rather probing question. As he balances these outer and inner pictures of the early Christians, it is as though he asks, “Which of these is more striking, more miraculous? The healing of an invalid? Or the transformation of a self-centered human heart into one that gives generously? The powerful proclamation of the Gospel to large crowds, or the transformation of a self-centered heart into one that gives generously? The willingness of the disciples to withstand imprisonment and interrogation, or the transformation of a self-centered human heart into one that gives generously?”

It is always interesting to see how various theological traditions describe the evidence of the filling of the Holy Spirit. In the Pentecostal tradition, people typically associate the filling of the Holy Spirit with speaking in tongues. Tongues is a so-called sign-gift that confirms that you have in fact been baptized with the Holy Spirit. In the Wesleyan tradition, a tradition that has greatly informed our own church over the years, the evidence of the filling of the Holy Spirit is a clean heart. I went to Asbury Seminary, deeply rooted in Wesleyan theology, and we were taught that, when the Holy Spirit fills us, he cleanses our hearts and empowers us to live holy lives. Could I be so bold as to add another possibility? When the Holy Spirit fills Jesus’ followers, they become generous givers. They abandon this incessant and age-old quest for security and riches, and instead use all that they have to empower others.

Luke, if you will jump ahead with me all the way to Acts 20, uses Paul as a final counter example to the Gehazi tendency that is deep within all people. “In all this I have given you an example,” Paul suggests, “that by such work we must support the weak, remembering the words of the Lord Jesus, for he himself said, ‘It is more blessed to give than to receive.” Gehazi took. The Holy Spirit transforms the people of God into generous givers.