I stand before you today with fear and anxiety about this morning’s text about Ananias and Sapphira. This text has been called a “Text of Terror.” The three-year lectionary from which we usually preach from skips over it. Up to this point in the book of Acts, everything has been about building up the community; from the coming of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost, the teaching and fellowship and miracles of the apostles to Barnabas selling a field and giving the money to the community. Up until now, things looked pretty good. But now, we find the first serious problem, and it comes from within the community. Let us hear these words of our Lord. (Read text: Acts 5:1-11).
It starts with the sale of property. Tradition tells us that Barnabas unselfishly held nothing back. His generosity was huge, with the giving of the all the money from the sale of his property to the community. And the apostles praised Barnabas’ action, lifting up his gift and how it would help all those in need and this early church community thrive. But there were those who were jealous of the notoriety that Barnabas received and wanted to be lifted up in the eyes of the community. Ananias and Sapphira had land they could sell, too, and they sold it of their own free will. There was nothing that said to be part of this band of people who declared Jesus as their Lord and Savior that they had to sell anything, or that if they did, they had to give it all to the community. There existed only the desire of one’s own heart to share the property they owned to help others who were in need.
Now, it not exactly clear what Ananias and Sapphira actually did. From the Greek, they either said they were going to give the proceeds of the entire sale of their land to the church, kept a portion, and gave the rest to church with the understanding that that was all of it. Or, they gave it all and then took a portion back. Either way, in the eyes of the public, they were generous givers like Barnabas, but in the eyes of God, they were hypocrites.
As you go through the gospels, especially Luke’s gospel, one of the sins that Jesus stressed over and over was the sin of appearing to be something that you are not. It’s like keeping the front yard immaculate for the world to see, but the back yard is filled with old broken down cars and rubble and the grass has grown three feet tall. This couple wanted to appear to be ardent supports of the community. But they were truly supporters of themselves. And this was their undoing. When confronted with their sin, the undeniable truth of the charge against them mixed with the unbearable shame of what they had done, they dropped dead. There is nothing in the story to indicate that Peter intended that either of them die. The sense of their own guilt, coming upon them with the force of a shock that was fatal is enough to explain how they die.
Now, the death of Ananias and Sapphira may seem cruel and violate the love and goodness that Jesus himself displayed. But we can’t forget that from the beginning, seriousness of discipline is expressed at the heart of the Gospel. In our baptismal vows are the questions of renouncing the ways of the world and turning with our entire being, heart, mind, soul and spirit, towards God in Christ. When we attempt to live with one foot in world and one foot in the Kingdom of God, we can be torn apart. And that is what happened to this couple. They brought their undoing upon themselves by cutting themselves off from the group and from God by attempting to be something they were not.
But something else happens in this passage that we can miss if we get stuck on Ananias and Sapphira’s demise. This is the first time that the author of the book of Acts uses the word ‘ekklesia,’ or church. “And fear seized the whole church and all who heard of these things.” From the birth of this community of believers who professed Jesus Christ as Lord at Pentecost to Barnabas selling his field for the sake of the community, we have this view that everything was perfect. Maybe Ananias and Sapphira help us understand that things weren’t that perfect. Maybe it takes having them on the pages of scripture to get all the pieces of the puzzle together and get a compete picture of what the church is, a community of the followers of Christ made up of real people who are subject to sins and temptations while at the same time attempting to be guided by the Holy Spirit moving in their midst.
We want a church where we have the Holy Spirit, the powerful worship, the fellowship and the teaching. But to have those things, we also have to have the understanding of who we are. The church is a community of people who know they are sinners. It is here we do not try to cover up our sins and shortcomings. God knows what we have done and it is here that we freely admit that we are not superior to the person sitting next to us nor better than the person who will never step foot in the church. It is here we take responsibility for our sinfulness; it is here that we invite people to come into our backyards and see the piles of trash, and we don’t blame anyone else for creating those piles. The theologian Charles Morrison says, “The church is the not a society of good people; it is a society of sinners. It is the only organization in human society that takes sinners into its membership just because they are sinners. It is the only organization that keeps on saying week after week, year after year, age after age: ‘We have left undone those things which we ought to have done, and we have done those things which we ought not to have done.’”
But it doesn’t stop with just the recognition that we are sinners. We are a community of dissatisfied sinners. We don’t like the fact that we have trash piled up in the backyard, we want to see it gone! We are not happy with what our sin has done in our lives and the way things are in the world. We look out and see that brokenness is real, and we don’t like it. We take the brokenness of the world and our own sin seriously. We do not come together to justify our present way of life or advertise our piety by just saying we are sinners. We publically profess that we need to be forgiven for what we are, that we want to change, and need help in making the changes in our life. Shirley Guthrie words it this way, “The people of God…are holy not because of what they have or what they are but because of what they are seeking to receive and become.”
But also, the church is gathered in the name of Jesus Christ. We have this idolized view that the early church was perfect and that we can strive for that perfection, too. Ananias and Sapphira give us a more accurate picture of what is really in the midst of the church, then and now. And when we admit that, we stop pointing to ourselves but point to the one who is perfect. Holiness, purity, and goodness are not found in the church and its members as such but in him whom they seek forgiveness, change, help, and new direction. We can only point to Christ’s goodness, strength, purity, and wisdom.
And that means we are not a passively receiving community. Christ forgives his church, but he also directs his church by the Holy Spirit. We cannot be comfortable with only a confession of sin. It is in and with him that we respond to our dissatisfaction we find in our own lives and in the world. We start cleaning up the backyard. But we do not do it alone. God has given us each other and he has given us Christ. If we are serious about wanting to change, we go out into the backyard with a shovel and start cleaning things up. We go with Christ’s community for help and support. But we also find that Christ is there, leading us, directing us, but most importantly, he’s already done the heavy lifting.
So, I still struggle with what to do Ananias and Sapphira, especially since I see so much of myself in them. Earlier I said everything up to this reading that happened was for the building up of the community. In the verses that immediately follow their story, we find that many dared not join the church, probably out of fear of what happened to this couple. But the church still grew! I wonder if I would have joined the church. There are days I find myself at a deep level of shame for the things I’ve done and the things I’ve left undone. And then I remember what Ananias’ name literally means. It means, ‘the Lord has been gracious.’ And I know that I am dependent on his grace and mercy. We all are. And that dependence begins with the confession that the people of God are sinful and he only is holy. But it also means that we get up and start moving, set out on the way that leaves our sinfulness behind and move toward his holiness with him.
In the name of the one who convicts us of our sin,
and in the name of the one who frees us of our sin,
and in the name of the one who moves us beyond our sin, Amen.