Honesty. Integrity. Generosity. The theme of our current worship series, “Acting Like a Christian”, brings to mind the great actor Sir Laurence Olivier. Once asked what his advice to aspiring actors would be, he replied, “What is acting but lying and what is good lying but convincing lying?”
There is a way of hearing this series as an invitation to hypocrisy, putting air quotes around the word “acting”, as though what we are called to do is to behave like Christians regardless of our interior lives so that we fool the world into thinking we’re better than we are.
If you haven’t guessed already, that’s not where we’re headed.
A few months ago, Jeff Chance stood up here reflecting on his experiences as a Habitat volunteer. Jeff’s words that day were a seed for this very conversation as he asked, quite rightly, about the importance of Habitat and ministries like it. Is it to put hammers on our wall, to put notches in our tool belt, letting us know how many houses we have built? Or is it that such work is an opportunity to put our faith into action so that the love we proclaim is more than just words?
As we read through lessons taken from the book of Acts, we will reflect on what it means to “act” like a Christian – that is, to embody the very things that we say we believe. And what better moment is there to begin with than a casting call? As God puts out the word that actors are needed to take part in this grand human drama, will we respond? Do we think we have what it takes? Will we play a role in shaping what comes next?
Before we go any further, let’s get one thing straight: this cannot be about pretension or falsehood. And it cannot be about achieving moral perfection or getting ourselves into a place where we can judge others who fail to meet our standards. If that’s where we start, then we haven’t been paying attention.
Our lesson this morning from the letter of John drives this point home. Writing to one of the earliest Christian communities, he writes, “If we claim that we are free of sin, we are only fooling ourselves.” If you’ve been worshiping with us for some time, then those words should ring familiar, as we use them from time to time as our invitation to weekly confession: “If we say we are without sin, then we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us.”
But John goes on to make his case even more pointed: “If we claim that we have never sinned, we contradict God and even make God a liar.” If we pretend that we’ve got it all figured out, we’re not fooling anybody. And even worse, we are poor representatives for God.
This is a theme we visit regularly here at OPC. Words like “church” and “Christian” are negative, a reality that can be quite foreign to those of you like me who were raised in positive experiences in the church. But if you ever spend significant time with folks who are not part of church – whether because they never have been or because their experiences were so negative as to be hindrances – then you know what I’m talking about. God has been poorly represented by those who claim to act in God’s name. Or, more pointedly, Christ has been poorly represented by those who claim to act in his name.
A moment from history to illustrate, perhaps only made obvious in its moral lessons by the intercession of time.
Sam Oni was the first black man to attend Mercer University. Oni was admitted in 1963 and had been encouraged to apply by a Mercer alum named Harris Mobley. Mobley was a missionary of the Southern Baptist convention who met Oni in his native Ghana. Three years later, in 1966, Oni decided that he would worship at nearby Tattnall Square Baptist Church one Sunday morning.
When he arrived, Oni was met at the door by two deacons who barred him from entering. “I wish to join you in worshiping the living God,” he said, “the God of us all.” They were unmoved. Oni continued: “Do you realize what you are doing? Why do you treat me in this fashion? I am your brother. My people have heard the gospel from the lips of your people. Did they deceive?” As a crowd gathered outside, worship began inside, with the music providing the only necessary commentary as the congregation sang:
Where cross the crowded ways of life,
Where sound the cries of race and clan,
Above the noise of selfish strife,
We hear thy voice, O Son of Man!
To be fair, Christians aren’t the only ones who fall prey to hypocrisy. Religions are filled with folks who say one thing and do another. And it’s not just religion that is to blame. Those who claim no god or reject God altogether fare no better in the morality department.
And yet, is that really the point? There’s a reason that John’s letter uses the first person plural. This behavioral standard is a communal one, for the whole church. And it is one that flows not from ourselves, but from the God whom we claim to know in Christ: “If we claim that we share life with God and continue to stumble in the dark, then our lives reveal the lie: we are not living what we claim.” Our job is not to hold others up to our standards, but to live up to the standards we set for ourselves!
How far we have come from that world described in the book of Acts! One of the things that we know about the early church is that their moral behavior was one of their most effective evangelism tools. It was well-known and well-noted how they lived together and how they lived within their society. Practices such as the one we read about in our lesson this morning, making sure that no one in their community was in need, these were acts that spoke volumes, and spoke well. They made others curious to know what was behind their extreme choices, such as their generosity and sharing.
How do we measure up to that standard? How are we at sharing what God has given us with those who are in need? Or do we more likely to stand at the door, barring entry to others who want to take part in God’s good gifts?
Do we even recognize who it is that has given us what we have? Or do we simply assume that everything we have gained is due to our own worthiness?
Honesty. Integrity. Generosity. These are the watch words of John’s letter to the church, to us, this morning.
Now, I am aware that it is tentative business to preach about money on a day when ya’ll are voting on whether or not to give me a raise. So let me put it this way. However you vote, the challenge to me remains the same: am I honest, do I show integrity, am I generous with what I have received? Whether I get a raise or not, the questions don’t change.
And neither do they change for you. Because money may be the object in the lesson from Acts, but it is not the point of that lesson. Instead, we should see it as a tool that teaches us something about ourselves. The risk is that it might teach us something that we don’t want to learn.
How honest are we about money and the way we see money? Do we give off light? Or do we cast shadows of darkness?
How much integrity do we put into the money we have? Can others see a direct line from what we say about God to how we handle what God gives us?
And the bottom line, so to speak, is this: are we generous? Do we share, or do we hoard?
I have no answers to these questions today. My hope is that each of us will do a serious accounting of them in your own lives; because, believe it or not, God has a role for you to play. If you’re ready to go, that’s wonderful. God be with you! If you’re not ready, then…well, that sounds about right; because it isn’t, really, about what we do. It’s about what God does through us.
Friends, we are called to be agents of God’s work. We are invited to serve as ambassadors of God’s love. May those two realities collide as we put our faith into action.