[I preached the following sermon at Saint Peter’s Church on July 22, 2018 (the audio can be found here). We read from Acts 5:1-12.]
Now a man named Ananias, together with his wife Sapphira, also sold a piece of property. 2 With his wife’s full knowledge he kept back part of the money for himself, but brought the rest and put it at the apostles’ feet.
3 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? 4 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.”
5 When Ananias heard this, he fell down and died. And great fear seized all who heard what had happened. 6 Then some young men came forward, wrapped up his body, and carried him out and buried him.
7 About three hours later his wife came in, not knowing what had happened. 8 Peter asked her, “Tell me, is this the price you and Ananias got for the land?”
“Yes,” she said, “that is the price.”
9 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.”
10 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. 11 Great fear seized the whole church and all who heard about these events.
This passage today – the Acts reading – it’s not exactly a feel-good story. And I actually had a choice as to whether to use it! But I guess I figured hey, I don’t work here anymore. No big deal if it bombs. Someone else can deal with the fallout, and this is one at least looks interesting and fun!
And can we also laugh about this story a little bit, too? It’s crazy! There’s literally no explanation for either of their deaths. It doesn’t say God killed them, or that Peter did, or that they had heart attacks, or what!
Now, obviously their death is related to their actions and to Peter and the church’s judgment of their actions, but there’s still a lot of mystery around it. James Dunn, one of the leading NT scholars of the 20th Century (1996), describes it as ‘one of the most unnerving episodes in the whole of the New Testament.’
Richard Dawkins’ book The God Delusion has a chapter that criticizes the Old Testament depiction of God, and then the chapter immediately following it is entitled, “Is the New Testament any Better?” So you can imagine how he might reference this story of the deaths of Ananias and Sapphira in Acts 5 to support an argument that the God of Jesus Christ is also unreasonably harsh, vindictive and too easily used to justify violence in his name, and so on.
So unsurprisingly, the intensity and perplexity of this passage has been used against Christians to call into question the credibility of not only the Scriptures, but even the God to which the Scriptures testify.
Now, I think there’s a way to make sense out of this story and that it need not cast doubt on the integrity of the Bible or on God, but what Dawkins and others like him don’t appreciate is that the credibility of the Christian faith doesn’t stand or fall with whether one particular story or passage can be reconciled with our modern sensibilities — or whether it measures up to the rationality test of an Oxford biologist.
Rather, I think the believability of the Christian faith has much more to do with whether the overall story of the Bible tells the truth about creation, the human condition, our relationship to God, and who God is. And I think even in this strange, offensive passage in Acts, the Bible does manage to tell the truth about us, about the world, and about God.
One of the things that’s true about us as human beings is that we desire to have a sense of belonging and to be accepted by others — not only to be accepted, but even to be celebrated! To be admired, praised, respected and appreciated by other people. It makes us feel good! And it’s satisfying to our ego. It also gives a sense of security, like we have a place in the world and we’re supposed to be here.
And I’m pretty sure that Ananias and Sapphira cared a lot about this too.
Now, there’s nothing wrong with this desire — the desire to be accepted and approved by others. To have people who like you and want to be with you, look up to you, etc. — this is a good thing! Not only is it a good thing, but we need it. Especially when we’re young. Children need it more than anyone else, and so do teenagers.
But at some point, as we get older, even though we always need family and friends and community, the need to look good in front of people and for others to like us and speak well of us — all of this kind of thing — this need or desired very easily becomes disordered. It becomes an idol that can lead us to very deceptive and destructive forms of behavior.
And I want to suggest that this is primary issue facing Ananias and Sapphira in this story.
Ok, because let’s say that out of the 100% of the profits from the land that they claimed were being given to the Church, they pocketed 20% and only gave 80%. I mean, that’s still pretty generous, right? That would be very generous, in fact, by most standards? Now we don’t know much they held back, but even just assuming only a minority of the earnings. What’ the big deal? Are they greedy? Were they required to give this money to the church?
No! Right? More than likely, no would know if you yourself did this today, and you’d still be generous for giving the 80%. So the wrongful act isn’t giving 80% instead of 100%. To do so and be honest about it would be perfectly acceptable according to Peter and the expectations of the church. The offense is the lie, the deliberate deception, the willful attempt to appear more devoted and generous that they you actually are — to seek the admiration and approval of others at the expense of your own integrity.
Maybe they were envious of the way people saw and treated Barnabas in response to his generosity! Whatever the motive, it wasn’t pure. It was strategically and deceptively self-interested.
Jesus himself speaks to the temptation of this kind of self-interest or deception in our good works and offers a strong warning against it in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 6:1-4):
Be careful not to practice your righteousness in front of others to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven. 2 So when you give to the needy, do not announce it with trumpets, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and on the streets, to be honored by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. 3 But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, 4 so that your giving may be in secret. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.
And again in Matthew 23:27, the Pharisees are described as clean on the outside, dirty on the inside, like white-washed tombs, Jesus says — woah to you!
But this still doesn’t quite answer the question of why this particular sin judged so swiftly and seemingly mercilessly.Typically, there are two main objections to Christian faith:
- The problem of evil
- The hypocrisy of Christians
There are others, but these are maybe the biggest, and this passage is primarily concerned with the latter.
The purpose of this story was also in part to connect with the sensibilities of both Jews and Gentiles, and to establish the legitimacy and the seriousness of the newfound Church — its mission, and the conduct of and quality of relationship between and among its members. Joshua 7, similar pagan story, etc.
The scary and powerful thing about this story too is that Peter says Ananias and Sapphira have actually lied to the Holy Spirit, and not just to the people. In other words, it’s as if A&S thought they could fool God — or at least that it didn’t matter what God thought. Pleasing people was more important to them.
So the lesson is straightforward: living for appearances is perhaps the quickest way to judgment. God opposes it, and it’s corrosive to the life and witness of the Church, so it must be rooted out.
At the same time, I don’t think the lesson is that we should be motivated by fear to avoid this kind of behavior – because it might kill us. Rather, as I mentioned, earlier the moral of the story and its inspiration comes from the passage about Barnabas just a few verse earlier that TJ talked about last week — which gives us a picture of generosity, trust, sacrifice and generosity that could and still can fill the life of the church.
32 All the believers were one in heart and mind. No one claimed that any of their possessions was their own, but they shared everything they had. 33 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 34 that there were no needy persons among them. For from time to time those who owned land or houses sold them, brought the money from the sales 35 and put it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to anyone who had need.
36 Joseph, a Levite from Cyprus, whom the apostles called Barnabas (which means “son of encouragement”), 37 sold a field he owned and brought the money and put it at the apostles’ feet.
So Luke (the author of Acts) is holding up these two examples beside each other – sometimes the chapter divisions in the Bible can lead to oversights, because originally they weren’t there. Really, we should have read both of these passages at the same time. One of them – the first, of Barnabas – is the affirmative illustration of the good and transformative generosity that was happening in the church as a result of the grace of God and the Spirit moving in the hearts of the people, the other served as a warning of the potential threats – even then!
So what is the good news tucked away in this story? I think you could put it this way: God has already approved of us! Which makes us free and able, if we feel so led and choose, to joyfully give and live generously — or not. But why lie about it? We don’t fool God. We might fool people for a little bit, but then whatever praise they give us isn’t based on the truth anyway, so what good is that?
So actually the biggest deal here is not even that we can’t ever be accused of being a hypocrite. I’m sure sometimes we all can and should be. The bigger issue arises when we pretend not to be.
Can you imagine, though, advertising for your church on the basis of this kind of community?! “Welcome to Saint Peter’s…. We’re so glad you’re here! If you’re a liar or a hypocrite, though, like Ananias and Sapphira, well — just a word of warning, God might smite you.” Great growth strategy!
But here’s what’s amazing: actually, it was a great growth strategy. Initially, of course, people were afraid and dared not join. But then the things took off! Why is this?
Now sometimes it might seem like that’s what we want — a God’s who’s “easygoing” about sin. But I think deep down, we despise hypocrisy and deceit too — even if we ourselves are sometimes guilty of it! And we certainly don’t want a God who thinks it’s no big deal. Because if we are the ones who become victims of other people’s deceit and hypocrisy, how do we respond? We cry out for justice and for the truth to be announced, don’t we?
Again, the key is the Barnabas story right before. The kind of community the church is supposed to be! That’s why this is such a big deal. Christians can’t mess around with deceit and hypocrisy. And you know who’s most often hypocritical in the gospels? The religious people! Yes, the Pharisees, but today we need to translate that more broadly mean not that different from some of us!
Friends, this isn’t a holiness test or righteousness contest. It’s about our intentions. We’re going to sin, and we’re going to fall way short of God’s best most of the time. But what are we shooting for? Where are we headed? What’s our true north as a community, and who are we trying to please? These are the key questions.
God’s not out to get us. God is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and quick to forgive. But God also loves the Church and will not ultimately allow its members to get away with deception and hypocrisy in the interest of protecting appearances.
The real question is, though, even if we could get away with it, why would we want to? Wouldn’t we rather be like Barnabas?
Also published on Medium.