In today’s scripture from the book of Acts, we are told of the precarious balance upon which the body of Christ rests. Twice now, we have heard passages that tell us the believers sold everything they had and made sure there were no needs in their community. Twice now, we have been told of their love and faithfulness and how everyone who joined this community of Christ was full of prayer and devotion. We look through rose-colored glasses at the life of the early Christian community and wonder why we can’t have that kind of church, too.
But things were not as rosy as they seemed.
Living in community is dangerous business. A community that cares for the needs of others is a community where people can share their needs without being embarrassed with them. A community that heals the sick is a community where people are not afraid to speak the truth about their own disease. A community that prophetically stands with the underdog is a community where people sacrificially put their own lives on the line for the lives of others.
When we hesitate, when we pull back, we do so because there are great risks involved in being vulnerable, open and honest in community. We might have to take off our fake plastered on smiles and tell the truth about the problems in our lives. We are afraid of our own tears, afraid of our own weakness, afraid that the community around us will turn their backs if they really knew what was going on.
Earlier this spring, we were just starting worship, when my grandmother walked in the door and sat down right over there. The grandmother I no longer visit. The grandmother who my parents are engaged in a legal struggle with. And I couldn’t look her in the eye during worship. I knew if I looked over at her, I would start to cry. I knew I would lose it. I avoided that third of the room the entire service, until it came to the time when in this particular service, because of my planning and God’s sense of humor, people came forward for a time of prayer. There she was, standing right in front of me. The tears started to roll, and for a minute I was a blubbering mess, but thankfully was able to pull myself together so that we could keep going and finish our service.
I share that because I know how hard it is to bring our full selves into community. I know what it means to hold back and not tell the full story. I know how scary it is to be vulnerable in front of other Christians. I know what it means to have the heart of Ananias and Sapphira.
In Acts chapter 5, we find the story of this couple who just couldn’t surrender it all to God. They were inspired by the acts of sacrificial love and community we have been talking about for weeks… a community that shared everything in common without worrying about what belonged to whom – AND inspired by a man named Barnabas who sold a plot of land and laid the proceeds at the feet of the disciples.
Our verses this morning are a continuation of that story, because immediately following his sacrificial act, Ananias and Sapphira decide to do the same… sort of. They, too, sell a plot of land and bring the proceeds from the sale to the disciples… except they lie about how much they sold it for and keep some of it back for themselves.
In the midst of a community where all are of one heart and mind… in the midst of a community where everyone cares for everyone else and no one has need… in the midst of a community – united by the Holy Spirit – where no one says “that’s mine, you can’t have it,” Ananias and Sapphira hold back. They embezzle money from the sale and hide it for themselves. They in essence, reject the community, reject the Holy Spirit, and seek to provide for their own welfare.
Ananias and Sapphira were telling the church – it’s nice what ya’ll are doing, and we want to help, but we’re not going to become beholden to you. We’re going to stand over here on the sidelines and get praise for our giving but we sure as hell are not going to let you take care of us. We can take care of ourselves just fine, thank you very much.
The body of Christ requires every person… every member… to fully participate. None of us is more important than another. Each of us has something someone else needs and each of us has something that we need to receive from this body. An eye can’t see without a brain to process the information. A hand can’t reach out to help without an arm to support and extend. A stomach is pretty worthless without a mouth to bring it food.
For our physical bodies to work, we need to have interdependent systems. Each one giving and receiving. Each one playing its part in the whole.
And for this body of Christ to work, we, too, require interdependence. We can’t hold back. We need to not only do our part and give, but also allow others to do theirs. If we are sick, we need to say something so that those with the gift of healing can pray for us. If we are in need, we need to bring that to the body so that those with the gift of generosity can support us. The Holy Spirit has formed this unique body of Christ so that among us we might not only be of one heart and mind, but through us no one has to be alone or in need.
And that “no one” includes us.
I used to think that the greatest sin of Ananias and Sapphira was the fact that they lied to God and the community about how much money they had sold their land for.
But the more I put this story into the context of this community of believers who relied upon a spirit of trust and vulnerability and risk in order to be united, I realized that their sin wasn’t so much that they lied, or stole the money, but that they held back.
We are asked to love God with all of our heart, soul, mind and strength. We are to become “living sacrifices.” Jesus Christ died for us and he wants our whole selves in return.
And here come two people who want to be a part of the community and want to walk with Jesus, but who don’t want to dive all the way in. They pretend that they do – they want the prestige, they want to be a part of this awesome new movement, but they just are not ready to commit ALL THE WAY.
And you know what is really sad – they don’t have to. They could simply have said that. They could have been up front with Peter and said “Hey, we want to support the church and see what you guys are doing and maybe someday we’ll be at the point where we can do what Barnabas has done and really place ourselves in community.”
Peter even reminds Ananias that the land was his to do with as he pleased and he didn’t have to sell it and he didn’t have to give it to the church… but when they did so, and when they lied and pretended to really surrender themselves, when they hid who they were, they were actually putting the whole community in danger. They were acting directly against the Holy Spirit and the unity it brought to the church.
Living just a few miles away from the Amana Colonies, we are aware that communal living is tough. To really trust and rely upon one another, to throw in your lot with others, is not easy. Those kinds of communities do not last for a long time precisely because the temptation to hold back, the temptation to disrupt the tenuous balance of community is so strong.
In their act of holding back, of refusing to fully give in, in their lack of surrender… Ananias and Sapphira let a Spirit of Discord into the body of Christ. They denied the unity and power of the Holy Spirit. They said with their actions, “it’s okay God, I’ll take care of myself.”
And God’s response… well – this is the difficult part of the story. First, Ananias and the Sapphira fall dead.
I find this so troubling because I sometimes hold back, too.
We don’t always let God have our hearts and minds and soul. We are timid with our faith. We surrender some… but not all.
This passage makes me uncomfortable, because I realize that I’m really no different than Ananias and Sapphira… what on earth prevents God for striking me dead, right here and right now for holding back, myself?
Rev. Mark Vergruggen asks the question: ” So why aren’t we punished with a death sentence? The short answer is the grace of God. Psalm 103:10 says that the Lord “does not treat us as our sins deserve or repay us according to our iniquities.” That’s grace. Grace is not something we can demand from the Lord. It’s not something we can earn.
What we learn in the story of Ananias and Sapphira is that we still worship a holy, awesome, and fearful Lord. In a world full of grace, we do not simply have a free pass to act however we want. God is still righteous and just and has every right to punish sinners by death or other means.
We are tempted to simply believe that grace covers all and to run through this life as if our actions do not matter. We are tempted to rest in the love of God and not consider what the consequences of our sin might be. And yet those consequences are real. Other people are really hurt in the process… communities and families can be destroyed… and when we deliberately sin, we are saying to God – I don’t want you or need you… I can do this myself.
Sin is turning our backs to God. Christ demands all and we give some. We hold back and don’t fully let the Holy Spirit build up this Body of Christ. We refuse to surrender and therefore we deny the power of the Holy Spirit to transform our hearts, this church, and the world around us.
We might not be struck dead here in this place at this moment, but what do we stop from growing and living and thriving by our blatant denial of the Holy Spirit?
This path of Christian faith is not easy. While the book of Acts has begun with all sorts of joyous accounts of healing and transformation and triumph over the powers of evil, these passages remind us that discipleship is hard. It is a warning to those who are considering this faith: think twice. Think about the price you are being called to pay. Think about what is being demanded of you. But also think about the joy and the possibility and the abundant life that awaits if you are willing to let go of what you think you need to embrace what God knows you need.
Christ wants to build a church in our midst… a community of people who depend on one another but most importantly who depend on God. Are you willing to let go? Are you willing to dive in? Are you willing to let the Holy Spirit transform us into the body of Christ? Or are you going to hold back?