Preached at Watchung Avenue Presbyterian Church on June 16, 2013 on Acts 4: 32 – Acts 5:11 as part of a series on journey and transformation that is personal and lived out corporately in the life of our congregations.
Sometimes the biblical story isn’t everything we want it to be and it doesn’t talk about all of the sides of God we want it to. Today’s lesson in Acts is one of those stories. In fact the lectionary, the “official” readings for every day of the year and those that get talked about on most Sundays in most churches skips right over this story and many others in the Bible. Too grim, too difficult, too challenging. Better left unsaid, or untold. And so it is part of the biblical story that is left hidden away.
But yet, here it is. It seems to me that all stories, even the messy and complicated ones merit a hearing. I mean, if it wasn’t an important story, then Luke wouldn’t have taken the time thousands of years ago to write this one down, right? There is something in here, there is something in there for us to hear—and for us to learn and grow from.
Before I get to the story of Ananias and Sapphira, let’s first start with some background about the early church which explains why the story is told in the way it is:
The early church was set up very differently from the sorts of churches we have today. While we have all the trappings (for better or for worse) of institutional life—the early church did not have these things. Instead they had a very strong community life. They reached out, invited others to join them and shared what they understood to be the Good News about salvation in Jesus Christ with many people. Membership in the early church was done differently than it is today. Most members of the early church were baptized as adults. This makes sense because the church was just getting started and so there weren’t these generations of families who were part of the church like we have today. Babies are great, but if you are just getting started—you need adults. Baptism in the early church was by full immersion, meaning that your whole body went underwater. It was preferred that people fast for a few days before being baptized and there was a long period of instruction and community discernment before baptism took place. Again, another reason to not baptize babies. They didn’t know what they were agreeing to. You needed to be an adult to get baptized because baptism signaled a total change in your life and a complete reliance on the life of Jesus to guide all of your decision-making. Babies couldn’t make promises like that or understand commitments like that. You needed to be an adult.
Like baptism, there were specific instructions and behaviors around property and finances that were important in the early church. As we heard in today’s reading in Acts, “no one owned their own property, instead they had everything in common.” It has been researched that those who were preparing to join the early church did not have to part with their personal property right away, but that instead offered it to the community. But you could change your mind, leave the church and keep your property. But when you got baptized, when you made that public profession of faith, things changed. You no longer owned anything yourself, everything belonged to the community. It is a radical way of being committed to something and a way of life that is pretty difficult for us to even imagine today.
This background information begs the question: “What happened?”
How did we as the Christian church get so far away from these fundamental early practices that marked the Christian community as being so life-changing and so different from the world around them? How is it that we are now just like the culture around us in how we behave towards property and even towards baptism?
Most church historians point to the year 313 as the moment when everything changed and we began the process of morphing into the Christian practices we have today. That is when Emperor Constantine issued the Edict of Milan, making it legal for the first time in the Roman Empire for Christians to gather for worship (up until that time the worship of the early church was illegal). Emperor Constantine also began an ambitious building project, putting up the first basilicas and turning Christian faith into something that became synonymous with state-sponsored political power and influence. Of course, there have always been those in our larger tradition who have gone against this trend—but their numbers since that time have been in the minority, not the majority as they were in the early church. Of course, is the short version, but the rest, as the saying goes—is history.
It’s an impossible request for us to go back 1700 years to the “good old days” of the church. That’s a lot of history to undo and a lot of practice to unlearn. We are who we are, but that does not mean we shouldn’t critically examine why we are the way we are—and hold that up to the light and see if what we have become is or isn’t faithful to who Jesus would ask us to be. How we relate to our faith, to our church and to each other shouldn’t be something we just blindly do—if we are part of the church of Jesus Christ, then we should be in the business every single day of critically examining our lives and taking an honest look at who we are up against the biblical record of what Jesus tells us. This means we cannot have a passive or an uncritical faith. We have to be in the business of constant and faithful self-examination.
Since the biblical story today is about money and about personal holdings—in this case property, let us take a short look at the biblical record on this issue. Jesus reminds us that we cannot serve both God and money—it won’t work. Jesus tells us to sell all we have and give it to those in need. Jesus encourages us to think about the idea that where we spend our money or how we use our money will tell us where our heart is. And yet money and economics are the thing we talk the least about most of the time in church. How can we critically examine this central issue that Jesus talked about so clearly and the early church lived out so radically in a way that does real justice to our incredibly complicated relationship to money and our faith today?
Two months ago I offered to our Session some feedback based on a stewardship class I recently attended. One of the statistics I offered to them is that for Presbyterians today, what they give in a year to their congregations on average amounts to under 1% of their annual yearly income. It comes to an average of about $700/year in our country. It’s not very much money when you think about it, about $2/day. The person who led this seminar I went to and that I shared some information from with the Session suggested that in our congregations today we’d be better off going back to the model of the early church where membership equaled baptism and baptism equaled a high level of commitment. The leader of the seminar wasn’t saying that we should equate church membership today to giving over all of your property to the church, but should instead think about what a high level of commitment really is—and not allow anyone to “join” until they are ready to meet or exceed that high bar of commitment.
Now I understand that this is a suggestion that most people today do not want hear—but there are Christian churches where giving levels are higher. They are our Pentecostal sisters and brothers, some of our Baptist brothers and sisters and our Anabaptist (or historical peace church—Mennonites/Quakers). Why is that? Because their “bar” for membership is a lot higher than it is in most Catholic, Methodist, Lutheran, Episcopalian…and yes….Presbyterian congregations. A higher level of commitment is expected, nurtured and woven into the fabric of the lives of those congregations and expressions of Christian faith. If we are honest with ourselves—that is not the case in our congregations. Our #1 focus is Sunday morning, not the rest of the week.
So why did God kill Ananias and his wife Sapphira? Why such an extreme measure? Even with all of this background, God still seems mean-spirited in this passage for most of us. It’s not the sort of God we’d want to be involved with right?
The British biblical scholar NT Wright writes about the passage in this way:
We don’t like Acts 5…but we [also] can’t have it both ways. If we watch with excited fascination as the early church does wonderful healings, stands up to the bullying authorities, makes converts to right and left, and lives a life of astonishing property-sharing, we may have to face the fact that if you want to be a community which seems to be taking the place of the Temple of the living God you mustn’t be surprised if the living God takes you seriously, seriously enough to make it clear that there is no such thing as cheap grace…..’God is not mocked’ as Paul puts it in Galatians….we either choose to live in the presence of the God who made the world, and who longs passionately for it to be set right, or we lapse back into some variety or other of easy-going pragmatism, even if it has a Christian veneer to it. Holiness, in other words, is not an optional extra…..the earliest Christians were quite clear. To name the name of Jesus, and to invoke the Holy Spirit, is to claim to be the Temple of the living God, and that is bound to have some consequences.
Ananias and Sapphira were struck dead by God because they lied. And they lied about the most fundamental question there is. It is the question Jesus asked Peter three times, “Do you love me?” In their lying Ananias and Sapphira answered the question quite clearly, “No.”
Their love was not strong enough to be honest. Perhaps what they should have done is to say that they were not 100% on board yet. They were not ready for baptism. That would have been ok, they could have stayed in the learner stage of being a part of the early church. Lots of people in that time did. That was completely acceptable. But instead they made commitments and didn’t follow through with what they had agreed to do. I believe that this is the one thing God most wants from us—to get honest about what we really believe, what our commitments really are, and who we really follow.
I leave you today with this unsettling ending to this unsettling story as something to chew on this week as you talk to God in your prayers. What does membership mean? What does baptism mean? What is the role of money in your life, my life, the life of our congregation? And where is Jesus in all of this?
Let us pray:
O Lord our God,
It is too easy to say your ways are mysterious and we do not understand you.
In fact, your Way is very clear.
We are only mindful that we are not always close to it.
So today we ask you for mercy.
Today we ask you for understand.
Today we ask you to open up our lives in new and radical ways.
Today we ask you for courage to follow You.
Help us as we listen to your Story which is our Story.
Help us as we seek to be renewed and even reborn.
As we prepare to gather around your Table
Remind us of our calling and restore in us your Promise.
In Christ’s name we pray. Amen.
 N.T. Wright. Acts for Everyone: Part I. Louisville, KY: Westminster/John Knox Books, 2002/2004.