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Sunday, May 28, 2017
Scripture: Selected Verses from Proverbs & Acts 4:36-5:11
Rev. Troy Hauser Brydon
This is the Word of the Lord? Thanks be to God? Really? When was the last time you heard a sermon on this text? The Revised Common Lectionary, that three-year plan of Sunday readings, does not include the story of Ananias and Sapphira. I did not check with Becky, but I’m pretty sure that this is not part of our Young Children & Worship program. This is a hard and, frankly, frightening text of Scripture.
The text itself acknowledges as much, “And great fear seized the whole church and all who heard of these things” (5:11). We can count ourselves among the latter in that verse, because we hear this story about a husband and wife who lie to Peter and receive an instantaneous death sentence for it and think, “What? I thought Christianity was about grace and forgiveness. What’s this doing in here?”
I may be strange, but I actually like wrestling with these difficult texts. I enjoy them because there is often so much interesting stuff we encounter by engaging them. I find that their meanings and lessons stick with me better than some of the more straightforward stories of Scripture. So, today we’re going to unpack the meaning of this difficult story, and then we’re going to use it as a mirror for our lives, for it has a lot to say to us today.
The Text Itself
Let’s take a deeper dive into the story of Ananias and Sapphira. You’ll notice, first of all, that we didn’t start right in chapter 5. We always must look at the larger context of a story when we read it because it often tells us something about the story itself. Remember that when the Bible was first put onto paper, it didn’t have chapters and verses. Actually, they didn’t appear for well over 1,000 years, so, while they’re enormously helpful to us in some ways, they also can create issues with how we read the Bible. Think about it: How often have you actually read one of the books of the Bible straight through in one sitting? Chapters and verses have put us in the position of digesting very small morsels of God’s Word, which sometimes can lead us to miss out on the robust meal that God has on offer.
Ananias and Sapphira’s story occurs right on the heels of a very positive passage about how this early community of Jesus followers is unified in heart and mind. I preached from this passage a couple of weeks ago when we talked about sharing. At the end of chapter four, there are a couple of verses where Acts tells us about a Levite named Joseph, whom the apostles start calling Barnabas, which means “son of encouragement.” Barnabas sells a field he owns and gives all the proceeds from the sale to the apostles for the purpose of supporting this Christian community. Perfect. Good job, Barnabas! These verses bridge the description of the way this beloved community cared for each other to the story of Ananias and Sapphira.
Before I dig into chapter 5, I also need to point out that what Barnabas did was not a requirement for participation in the church. There are multiple examples, including Lydia, about whom I preached two weeks ago, where people retain ownership of businesses and properties and use those as a way of promoting the mission of the church. Barnabas did what he was called to do, and that was one way of doing it. It wasn’t the only way.
So this brings me to the focal point of our text today. I am sure there was much celebration in the early church over the gift of Barnabas. It likely sustained them for a good bit of time. Their esteem of Barnabas must have been high. So, Ananias thinks to himself, “I have some property. I’ll sell it and give some of the proceeds of the sale to the church. Just not all of them.” His wife, Sapphira, is agreeable to the plan. They believe that they can support the Christian community, receive the accolades of the community, and still have a nice chunk of money left for themselves. After all, who would know the difference? It’s not like they were handing over their 1040s to Peter along with the money, right?
This story is about how we handle the blessings of God in our lives. It is also about honesty. Not just honesty before people, which is certainly vital, but honesty before God, which is imperative. Had Ananias come to Peter and said, “We sold some property, and we decided to give ten percent of the sale to the church,” then this is just a story celebrating a family learning generosity. But because they tried to deceive Peter and their brothers and sisters, this story takes a horrific and tragic turn. The cost of their deceit is their lives, revealing to both the earliest followers of Jesus and us today that lying is a serious breach in the Christian community.
This attempt at deception is the first internal crisis among the earliest Christians. Prior to this they had faced plenty of opposition from outside their number, but this is the first time that wickedness showed up among the believers. Did you know that the first time the word “church” is used in Acts is at the end of this story? Until this moment of temptation and failure to live the way God called them to live, they were just “believers” but not “church.” I think that Luke, who wrote Acts, is intentional in waiting to use the term “church” until this moment of failure. I believe he does so for a couple of reasons. First, the church needs to know that it will succumb to temptation, but that it’s what it does on the other side of that failure that matters. The church survived this horrific, fearful event, and grew in strength and number. Second, we also need to see that the temptation to treat God’s blessings in our lives selfishly is always there. It’s how we choose daily to live for God with our whole lives that makes a difference in us, in the church, and in the world.
Since Easter Sunday we have been thinking about how the earliest followers of Jesus ordered their lives to follow Jesus in the world. We’ve called this series “Practicing Faith” because we must learn to put into action what we believe about God. So far we have talked about bearing witness, offering healing, sharing, conversion, and standing up for right in the world. Today’s topic is money, and in particular it is about how we learn to be honest with ourselves and with God about the role money and possessions play in our lives. Many don’t like to hear money talk in church, but I believe that any topic we’re not willing to talk about in our lives – whether money or violence or lust – gives that particular topic undue power in our lives. Talking about it shines light on it, and so we’ll talk about it to let God be Lord of all things, not just some things.
Before I get any further, I want you to know that this is an issue for all of us. Whether you consider yourself poor, wealthy, or somewhere in between, the same biblical principles about how we handle the resources of our lives apply. Throughout my ministry I have pastored people who had very little but who knew deep in their hearts what it meant to be generous. I also have met people who were poor and whose hearts were also impoverished. I have ministered to wealthy people who were miserly, and I have known wealthy people who were unbelievably generous with their lives and resources. This is an issue for all.
So, we’re going to talk about money because it matters. It’s risky business for us not to talk about money. Why? Because if we don’t talk about it, we let only voices outside of the church talk about it, and many of them are not speaking to us from a Christian perspective. Also, because if we are not thoughtful about what we have, we can get ourselves into unimaginable trouble – not just practically but spiritually. Today, I’m just going to touch on the topic, but, trust me, more is coming – and not just when it’s time to pledge the church budget!
How we use what we have matters to God. I cannot say it more plainly than that. This is apparent in how we spend, save, invest, and give. It is also apparent in how we use our talents and time seven days a week. The way we handle the resources of our lives is a mirror for our hearts. When was the last time you held that mirror up to see the condition of your heart?
I am a blessed man for many reasons. I am blessed because my parents raised me to be a giver from an early age. I am blessed because I married a woman who is firmly committed to being a giver. This commitment has been there through thick and thin.
I was just getting started as an associate pastor on St. Simons Island in Georgia. We had three young children at home. Still young and still only a couple of years into ministry, I was not making enough to pay for our expenses, and we were under enormous financial stress. We weren’t giving much to the church. We were wondering if we could even continue in ministry because it just wasn’t working financially. We had an old, junky Ford Windstar. We called it the “Death Star” because it constantly broke down. We’d cobble the money together to fix it, and a few months later, something else would happen.
It was Mother’s Day 2010. I was already at church for the early service. Jess drove the family to the church for worship. Everything was going well, until Jess went out to the parking lot to the Death Star. She turned the car on, put it into reverse, and it didn’t move. The transmission was cooked. We had no money. It felt awful and hopeless. My prayer life got a lot better all of a sudden, praying things like, “God, if you could just see us through this, then…”
It’s a feeling we never wanted to have again, so from that day forward we made plans. We planned how to be generous, consistent givers because we firmly believe this is our calling as followers of Jesus Christ. We also got serious about handling all of our life’s resources in a responsible manner. We worked really hard. We said “no” to a lot of things in our lives. We didn’t eat out, except for one night a month at Chick-fil-A on Kids’ night where their meals were $1.
I never want to go there again, believe me. Through it all, it affirmed to us that how we use what God gives us matters. God calls all followers of Jesus Christ to be wise and disciplined with money. God calls us to be honest about it – which ends up being Ananias and Sapphira’s major issue. And God calls us to be generous with it.
Perhaps it’s time to take an inventory of how each of us spends our time, our talents, and our money over the course of a given week. Is Christ Lord over it all or only an hour on Sunday morning? The way we handle money is a mirror for our hearts. What does your mirror show you?
The second issue is this: How we speak to each other matters. Ananias and Sapphira spoke falsely, which is detrimental to the community. Honesty goes way beyond financial concerns. In his interpretation of this passage, Will Willimon writes this, “When you think about it, the quality of the church’s life together is evidence for the truthfulness of the resurrection. The most eloquent testimony to the reality of the resurrection is not an empty tomb or a well-orchestrated pageant on Easter Sunday but rather a group of people whose life together is so radically different, so completely changed from the way the world builds a community, that there can be no explanation other than that something decisive happened in history.” The way we live together matters because it’s part of our witness.
In the end, this passage is about money, but it’s also about so much more. It’s about what it means for a people to have their lives so transformed by the cross and resurrection that they live in a new way – a way that is an attractive alternative to the selfishness and survival of the fittest mentality we see all around us. How we use the resources of our lives matters. How we speak to each other matters. How we live matters – both eternally and to our community (inside and outside of these walls) right now.
 Willimon, William H. Acts. Interpretation Commentary, p. 51.