This week as we continue with our study in the book of Acts we are going to read one of the most disturbing passages in the whole book, and I think it’s also one of the most misunderstood. Remember that Acts is the story of Jesus’ followers learning how to be the church without Jesus there to micromanage it. They experience the baptism of the Holy Spirit and it changes them. Pentecost was the kick-off for this new community of folks who became known simply by the title The Way. This common word meant a road, a path, or a journey, and to belong to The Way was to live differently, to be on a different path, from the rest of the world. That’s what set this young church apart. Not their fancy buildings, or their beautiful Easter concerts, or their self-righteous and sanctimonious attitudes, no, it was their way of living. They were distinctly different from the culture around them.
Last week we said that the main point of our religious experiences is not what happens during them, but what happens after them. An encounter with the Spirit of the Risen Christ should change us. Every time people are filled with the Spirit in the book of Acts, they light up as another fire of boldness and new community. They testify, which means they speak the truth of their own experiences, and they break down barriers between people. They live in God’s empire right in the middle of the Roman empire.
But real authentic community is not easy. Superficial relationships are easy. Not letting anyone in too close is easy. Not showing who you really are or what you really need is easy. Keeping yourself to yourself is easy. But it’s not true community. It’s not Spirit-filled community. God invites us to something more dangerous and more beautiful than that. And throughout the book of Acts, we read stories of the times when it worked and the times when it didn’t.
This morning’s story comes on the heels of a story of testimony and healing. Peter and John channel the healing power of Jesus to a man who had been lame since he was born and then share their testimony in the Temple. They are arrested and then released because the religious authorities realize they can’t do anything with people who are just speaking their truth. Peter and John return to to the believers and begin to pray for even more boldness and here’s what happens. This is Acts chapter 4 verse 32 through Acts 5 verse 11.
“After they prayed, the place where they were meeting was shaken. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke the word of God boldly.
“All the believers were one in heart and soul. No one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common. With great power the apostles continued to testify to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus. And God’s grace was so powerfully at work in them all that there were no needy persons among them. For as any as owned land or houses sold them, brought the money from the sales and put it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to anyone who had need.
“Joseph, a Levite from Cyprus, whom the apostles called Barnabas (which means “son of encouragement”), sold a field he owned and brought the money and put it at the apostles’ feet.
“Now a man named Ananias, together with his wife Sapphira, also sold a piece of property. With his wife’s full knowledge Ananias kept back part of the money for himself, but brought the rest and put it at the apostles’ feet.
Then Peter said, ‘Ananias, how is it that Satan has so filled your heart that you have lied to the Holy Spirit and have kept for yourself some of the money you received for the land? Didn’t it belong to you before it was sold? And after it was sold, wasn’t the money at your disposal? What made you think of doing such a thing? You have not lied just to human beings but to God.’
“When Ananias heard this, he fell down and died. And great fear seized all who heard what had happened. Then some young men came forward, wrapped up his body, and carried him out and buried him.
“About three hours later Sapphira came in, not knowing what had happened. Peter asked her, ‘Tell me, is this the price you and Ananias got for the land?”
‘Yes, she said, ‘that is the price.’
“Peter said to her, ‘How could you conspire to test the Spirit of the Lord? Listen! The feet of the men who buried your husband are at the door, and they will carry you out also.’
“At that moment she fell down at his feet and died. Then the young men came in and, finding her dead, carried her out and buried her beside her husband. Great fear seized the whole church and all who heard about these events.”
This is the Word of God for all people. Thanks be to God.
Too many times, we read this passage and think that it’s saying that God will strike you dead if you don’t pay your tithes. But that’s not what the story says at all, so just put that out of your mind. Remember that the book of Acts is all about boldness and new community. And this story starts and ends with what it takes to live differently from the world.
It starts with a reminder that the apostles were giving their testimony to the resurrection of Jesus. Because we have heard the story so many times, we tend to hear a little religious static when someone says “resurrection of Jesus.” We think we know what that means. But remember this was not yet a doctrine, much less a dogma of the church, because they didn’t have any dogmas. They were barely even a church yet! To testify to the resurrection of Jesus is to explain why you live differently from the world. To testify to the resurrection of Jesus is to proclaim that God says YES to us even after we have said NO to God. It is to proclaim that the system of state-sanctioned violence does not get the last word. To testify to the resurrection of Jesus is proclaim that you are not afraid of death because it has been conquered. And if you aren’t afraid of death, then you aren’t afraid of anything. You certainly aren’t afraid of sharing.
Because these followers of Jesus believed that God was building a new world in the middle of the old one, they were radically generous. They fought their fear of scarcity by sharing what they had. Friends, to not claim private ownership of any of our possessions is to be miraculously healed of our self-centeredness. Because they saw themselves as one people, they wanted to make sure everyone was cared for. They weren’t afraid of not having enough for themselves, because if God is going to use my generosity to care for that person, then obviously God is going to use someone else’s generosity to provide for me. That is a powerful new type of community and apparently the world noticed.
In order to sustain a community like that, everyone has to be honest. By that I mean truthful. By that I mean those who had needs were apparently honest about them and not ashamed. And those who had resources were honest about it and didn’t try to make themselves look less well off. Everyone gave what was in their power to give and everyone receieved what they needed, and there was no hierarchy of power or worth.
Until Ananias and Sapphira show up. We don’t know anything else about them except this story. So we can only go with what we’ve been told. The story never says that people were required to sell their possessions and give the proceeds to be used for those in needs. People did it because they wanted to. The problem isn’t that they didn’t give all the money. The problem is that they lied about it. It was their field in the first place; they could have kept it. The money from the sale was theirs; they could have kept it or only given a portion of it. The problem is that they were deceitful. They were deliberately dishonest, and deliberate dishonesty is a death sentence for community. Deliberate hypocrisy will kill a church.
We all have some level of hypocrisy in us, things we are will to say but not do, ways we want to look good. The important thing is that when we find it, we root it out. We repent of it and commit to change. But instead this couple chose to flaunt their hypocrisy. They wanted to look like good members of the community without making the sacrifices to authentically be part of the community. And as we see over and over in the Bible, sometimes the scariest thing God can do is is give us what we want. If you don’t actually want to be an authentic member of the community, then you won’t be. Maybe this seems extreme to you. But calling out dishonesty always feels severe to the person who is being dishonest.
God is not out to get our money. I’m not out to get your money. We are each being invited to authentically become part of a community. To be supernaturally healed of our fear of scarcity and our grasping. To be radically honest about what need and what we have. And to trust one another. If we aren’t willing to be honest, if we are deliberately trying to deceive each other and shine up our own image, the church will die. God invites us to live differently from the world, and through the infilling of the Holy Spirit, God gives us the courage we need to actually do it.
This morning as we prepare to celebrate Communion, we remember that we all fall short. Stories like this aren’t meant to give us a weapon to use against other people. They are meant to move us to look deeply at our own lives. We are only able to do this because we trust so firmly in God’s grace. No matter what we do, God is never far from us, even when we do things that are so clearly out of line with Love. As soon as we confess and repent, which simply means to turn around and go the other way, we discover God was right there the whole time and is filled with joy at our desire to change. These past couple weeks in our country have shown us so clearly that we must do better. For Christians, the ability to do better begins with confession and is empowered by grace. So this morning, before we celebrate Communion, let’s take a moment to confess together. We are going to begin with an ancient confession that the church has used for hundreds of years and then I will offer you a few moments to make your own silent confessions. Would you join me?
Most merciful God, we confess that we are in bondage to sin and cannot free ourselves.
We have sinned against you in thought, word, and deed, by what we have done and by what we have left undone. We have not loved you with our whole heart. We have not loved our neighbors as ourselves. For the sake of Jesus Christ, have mercy on us. Forgive us, renew us, and lead us, so that we may delight in your will and follow in your ways, to the glory of your name.
And now I invite you to take a moment to silently reflect, offering your own confession as you see fit …
And now Friends, according to the proclamation of Jesus in Scripture and through the power of his righteous life, death, and resurrection, be assured that God hears our prayers and has already justified us. Release any shame you are carrying and receive God’s grace. Amen.