February 16, 2020

Ananias & Sapphira


Why is it that someone always has to come along and spoil things?

As kids we would be having a great time playing a game.

And then along would come Sid, petulant, pouty, Sid.

He would do something mean throwing the wet blanket of his whiny self-centered behaviour over the game.

And the fun was over.

The newly empowered church was having a great time.

People were being added to the church in huge numbers, three and five thousand at a time.

The long-promised jubilee of the Lord was finally at hand.

Those new believers who had more than they needed were selling off their excess assets and giving the proceeds to the church, laying it at the feet of the apostles, so they could redistribute it to the needy believers in their midst.

The ideal of Jubilee, promised but never actualized in Old Testament times, was at last a reality in the midst of God’s people.

Everyone who believed that Jesus of Nazareth was the long-promised Messiah, was so infatuated with the love of God that they no longer saw the assets that God had blessed them with as their own.

Jubilee was here at last, the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of the living God was in the midst of the believers, signs and wonders were here at last.

Miraculous healings at just the passing over of Peter’s passing shadow were here at last; the Kingdom of had come to earth.

Jubilee was here, Barnabas sold a piece of land he owned, gave the money to the apostles.

And people who lacked, hungered no more.

Jubilee, the time when debts were forgiven and justice restored was a last real in the land.

The world’s greatest party had begun in Jesus’ powerful name.

And then the wet blanket showed up.

Wanting to get in on the action, wanting recognition, a married couple decided to play at being part of the party.

Wanting to be recognized as people who mattered in this new Holy Spirit movement, Sapphira and Ananias cooked up a scheme.

“Let’s sell that piece of land over by the olive orchard, it’s not all that productive anyway.

And let’s pretend we got five thousand denary for it, when we will get much more than that.

And let’s give the five thousand to Peter and the other apostles, tell them that was every penny we got for the land.

And let’s bask in the praise and adulation of the people for our “generous” act.”

“Yes, let’s”.

And that is what this unfortunate couple chose to do.

And they totally spoiled the party.

The good times were over.

It’s pretty hard to get happy, pretty hard to keep on having fun, when someone loses an eye.

Let alone when people are dropping dead in the congregation.

Especially when all they did was tell a little falsehood; okay a lie.

If ever there was a piece of the Bible that would never make it into the Revised Common Lectionary, the Sapphira and Ananias story is it.

You might remember me complaining in another sermon that the lectionary tends to censor the scriptures by editing out the hard bits, like in Psalm 137 where it says, 8“O daughter Babylon, you devastator!
Happy shall they be who pay you back
what you have done to us!
9 Happy shall they be who take your little ones
and dash them against the rock!”

You can’t blame the lectionary for sidestepping tough bits of scripture like the one you just heard.

Who wants to try to get their head around a scripture like verses eight and nine of Psalm 137?

I was tempted to bypass the Sapphira and Ananias story by excluding it from this sermon series on Acts.

But believing that other scripture that says, “16All scripture is inspired by God and is* useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, 17so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work.” (2 Timothy 3:16-17)

I felt that rather than editing out this difficult story we should reflect on it together to see what teaching, reproof, correction or training in righteousness it might have to offer.

So, let’s do that, let’s reflect together to see what God might be trying to say to us through this tragic story.

There are many different approaches to reflecting on scripture.

For example, you can read the piece and then reflect on questions that come to your mind from the reading.

A question that might have come to mind when you read this piece last week is, “My goodness, God, wasn’t killing two people over a lie a bit of an over reaction on your part?”

Fair question.

Let’s consider that question as we look at the context of the story.

There was God, the Holy Spirit, powerfully moving among the new people: saving souls through faith in Jesus as Messiah, healing broken and diseased bodies by the mere passing of Peter’s shadow, forming a new community who so loved God that they actually loved one another by sharing their worldly wealth with one another.

That is the setting of the story.

The Holy Spirit was so moving among the new community of God’s people that the old paradigms of personal possessions were breaking down.

Old power structures were disappearing; succumbing to the grace of God through the power of the holy Spirit.

Worldly goods were no longer hoarded by those who had much at the expense of the suffering of those who had nothing.

The Jubilee of God was no longer an Old Testament ideal that could never be lived up to.

God’s Jubilee was with the people.

There was joy and celebration in the air.

That is the story that Sapphira and Ananias wanted to lie their way into.

They did not want to run the risk of being fully committed to what was going on in the new community of believers.

They were too proud to admit, even to themselves, that they needed to hold back from committing honestly and fully to what God in the Holy Spirit was doing through the ministry of the apostles.

They were too deceitful in their hearts to tell the truth abut their reservations around giving all they had into the hands of God’s leaders.

So, they lied.

And like the first lie ever told, “But the serpent said to the woman, ‘You will not die…” (Genesis 3:4), this lie too, ended in the judgment of God falling upon those who acquiesced to the lie.

God was offended at Adam and Eves lying disobedience to his command to refrain from eating the forbidden fruit.

And they were banished from the Garden.

God was offended with the lie of Ananias and Sapphira and he exercised his right to judge them.

Taken by their own deceit.

Taken by their own proud disobedience.

They forfeited their very lives.

God was in the early stages of building a new community, a community free from deceit, deception, self-interest and pride.

God had no patience with these people who chose to try to deceive their way into this community.

Last week I talked about wanting to see signs and wonders in the church today.

Signs and wonders like the lame walking, cancer sufferers being healed.

Maybe this story, the Sapphira and Ananias story, is meant at some level to say to us, “Be careful what you ask for!”

Maybe when we read the story of the healings God did in the early church and wish that the power of God still moved in the church in such mighty ways.

Maybe we should reconsider.

Maybe we should count the cost of being part of a church where God is so present and so powerful.

How many of us, entrenched as we are in the culture of today with its fascination with worldly goods, with its idolization of power and place, with its fixation on looking out after number-one?

How many of us could bear to stand in the presence of the apostles and declare that we have given our all for the good of others?

Probably not many, certainly not me.

So maybe we are better off with the way the church is today.

We like to be in control of our stuff; both physical and spiritual.

We are not all that happy to turn over the control of lives to God.

We are not all that interested in being judged by God for the stuff we do, or fail to do.

We are quite happy with a faith tradition that doesn’t push us too hard.

That doesn’t challenge us to look too closely at our personal lives; comparing them to the exemplars like Barnabas, that our scripture sets before us.

We are very big on emphasizing the grace of God, as we should be.

But we are somewhat loath to speak about and deal with, the judgment of God, the holiness of God and our scriptures call for us to be likewise.

Sapphira and Ananias, envying the party that God was throwing in the lives of the people of God, discounted God’s judgment, failed to discern the work of the Holy Spirit, and felt free to try to crash the party by not showing up with the real goods.

Surely, they reasoned, we can have our cake and eat it to.

God is being so gracious to his people; let’s get our piece of the action by just pretending that we are all-in with this new thing God is doing in our midst.

We should be able to get away with a little lie in order to improve our standing in the community.

What’s the harm?

After all, God is all warm and fuzzy, right?

God’s grace is cheap, it doesn’t cost a thing, right?

Turns out they were wrong.

Turns out grace is free but it’s not cheap.

The grace of God, that God freely gives us through faith in Jesus as Son of God, was purchased at a very dear price.

And that price demands that God’s grace not be taken for granted, or worse yet, be mistaken as an acceptable cover for an intentionally corrupt and unrepentant heart.

Sapphira and Ananias learned there is a cost to approaching the Holy of Holies, the grace of the Holy One of Israel, with deceit in your heart.

If we would avoid paying that price, here is all that our God requires of us.

Sincerely accepting in our heart, the gift of faith in Jesus as Son of God, Messiah.

And then embodying that faith through living a life dedicated to loving God and loving others.

Galatians 5:6 says, “the only thing that counts is faith working through love.”

God asks us all this morning to live each moment of each day dedicating our hearts, through the power of the Spirit, to paying the cost of grace by taking up our cross in love and following him through faith.

Let us, each one of us, take a moment now in silence, to rededicate our hearts to that form of faith in Christ that expresses itself in love…