Sunday, September 16, 2007
ANANIAS AND SAPPHIRA
Here's one version of a sermon I've preached 800+ times (that's not a misprint)! You ask, 'Should anything be preached that often?' My response: anything I believe is worth saying is worth saying again. This little-understood story has themes implicit within it which are pivotal to our understanding of the Christian faith.
Text: Acts 4:32-5:11
Preachers don't like this story, apparently. I once spent a morning in a large seminary library hunting for sermons on Ananias and Sapphira and couldn't find any. The two most read preachers' magazines - Expository Times and Pulpit Digest - didn't have a single sermon on this passage. Folks dropping dead in church (it happens occasionally) isn't nice.
There are some big questions here. Why did they do it? How did Peter know? Why was the punishment so severe - and so swift? Why did God deem this sin so bad? "Did they go to heaven?" one woman asked after I'd preached on this passage.
There are no easy answers. And yet with all our questions this story is an acted parable of the Christian gospel; it's about sin, judgment, and the possibility of grace.
In most of our English translations the story begins with the little word "but". Luke, the author of Acts, sets up a study m contrasts. There are Barnabas, a man filled with the Holy Spirit (Acts 11:24), and Ananias, whose heart was filled with Satan (5:3). One was utterly truthful, the other a liar. Here are counterpointed faith and unbelief, selflessness and selfishness, goodness and deceitfulness, sacrifice and sacrilege, trust in God and the worship of self ("hubris," pride), total commitment and base hypocrisy.
The setting was "paradise regained." They had all things in common, real community: shared resources, sensitivity to others' needs, security - not in material things, but in the risen Christ. It's the closest to Utopia the world has ever seen. Sinners - even murderers of the Lord Christ - were repenting and being forgiven and accepted; the sick were being healed; great grace was upon them all.
But in the midst of all this beauty and harmony, the serpent enters the garden again. It's an horrific story. And yet, we feel, Ananias and Sapphira were just ordinary people like us. Don't we sometimes engage in "impression management" to manipulate others' opinion of us? Who of us hasn't sometimes pinched stuff from our employer for personal use? Or falsified our tax return a little bit? Or withheld the truth, or covered up with a "white lie"?
Their motives were probably pretty ordinary - perhaps even defensible. Perhaps their generous or heroic selves were inspired by the generosity of Barnabas. Their fearful selves wondered what would happen in their old age if they gave away all their assets. Their critical selves asked questions about the "bums" on the receiving end of these handouts. Their distrustful selves may have raised questions about the apostles' honesty; the church hadn't appointed auditors yet. But in the end their egocentric selves won; they wanted glory without sacrifice, the kudos Barnabas had received without having to pay the price.
Yes, they were ordinary people - very ordinary. What sins might we have committed if we were sure we'd never be found out? If you had carried out some of the evils you planned or dreamed about, you'd be in jail for life. The sin of Ananias and Sapphira was not greed, but deception, hypocrisy - and who of us hasn't done worse?
But there's something more insidious, subtle, dangerous here,.. Ananias was engaged in an act of worship. Barnabas had laid his gift "at the apostles' feet," and this same expression is used of Ananias. Their offerings weren't merely to the apostles, but to God. Their motivations, the "thoughts of their hearts," were therefore God's concern. Here is the worst kind of hypocrisy - the sort that got Christ so angry - hypocrisy bordering on sacrilege. It wasn't just a matter of pretending to be devout but really being a liar and a cheat; though they were that.
Sacrilege goes a lot further; it's robbing God of what is rightfully God's, "stealing Divine glory," withholding what we have professed as belonging to the Lord. Ananias and Peter are not just two mortals confronting each other. Here the battle is joined between God and Satan, whose instruments they have become.
Astonishing. Perhaps this man and his wife were in the group on which the Holy Spirit fell so dramatically at Pentecost and had also been baptized in water as they joined the church. Previous to that Ananias may even have been among the seventy apostles preaching the Kingdom, healing the sick, casting out evil spirits (Luke 10:9, 17). Let us never forget there is no sin that is impossible for any one of us to commit. There but for the grace of God we go too.
Such was the spiritual power among those people that this sin was immediately detected and judged. How do we explain this sudden death? Members of traditional societies - our Australian aborigines, village people in Papua New Guinea have no problem at all with a story like this, with their experience of the power of "pointing the bone" and of witchcraft. In the (ignorant) West we have to explain it - psychosomatically. (William Barclay, for example, with his penchant for naturalistic explanations of the biblical miracles, reminds us that when Edward I blazed in anger at one of his courtiers the man dropped dead in sheer fear.)
Interestingly, a similar thing had happened twice before. In Eden a man and a woman tried to deceive God, and the result was death. Then there was Achan "stealing" what rightfully was God's: he and his whole family and possessions were destroyed. Adam, Achan, Ananias - at the beginning of each "fresh start" God was making with God's people, the same thing happened. Surely these things are written for our instruction.
Awesome, fearful. As a pastor I wonder what kind of worship service I would have led for the following three hours?! Nothing in our clergy handbooks helps us here. Then, imagine the moment of horror when Sapphira wanders in: every face would have told her the story, if she'd noticed. In the awful silence, they could then hear the footfalls of the young men who'd just buried her husband.
But why this immediate capital punishment with no opportunity for repentance? It's not fair, you say. Negatively, the responses tumble over each other: Who said life was supposed to be fair? Who sets up valid criteria for fairness? Human categories of what's fair are constantly changing. And who's in charge, anyway, in the ultimate sense?
And who's to know whether, as it's been put simplistically, God was somehow "destroying a body to save a soul"? We'll have problems in this "bent world" if we put our faith in systems of fairness - or in our systems of anything. Our trust is in a righteous, just God, who can handle the moral judgments of the universe without too much help from us. On the other hand, we can reverently say: "God has a lot to answer for."
C.S. Lewis, in The Problem of Pain, says God's attitude to sin is analogous to that of a surgeon to cancer. The destructive tissue has to be removed. God!s judgment is love at work destroying what is destroying us. Sometimes the divine surgery is radical (as in this story); sometimes it's postponed.
Peter makes it very clear that Ananias didn't have to follow the course he did. He was in full control at every point (5:4). This wasn't "primitive communism." Private property had not been abolished; no one was being forced to sell his or her possessions. The sharing was voluntary, not a precondition of entering the church. And I'm sure we can say that even after Ananias and Sapphira decided to bring only part of the money, they still had an alternative course of action open to them.
John Claypool imagines another scenario:
If they had just said: "Here is where we would like to be - with Barnabas' kind of trust and generosity. But we find we are not there yet .... All we can do now is give part of the proceeds. Would you help us grow toward what we would like to become?"'
Then there would have been healing and nurture and grace mediated through others in the caring fellowship. But instead there were deceit and death.
The way of Ananias is not only an ancient way, it is practiced in politics and business every day. Wasn't it President Theodore Roosevelt who called those people on Capitol Hill "the Ananias club"? I wonder what might have happened if President Richard Nixon had come clean and told all he knew about Watergate a year before his resignation?
Ananias and Sapphira had a warped view of God - apparently as a sort of cosmic "neurotic perfectionist" who could not accept them if they were imperfect. Occasionally I visit or counsel people who are perfectionists; they got the impression from someone that life has to be highly organized for them to be happy. Often they had parents who rarely praised them for anything. If only Ananias and Sapphira had realized that God is not like this. God is a grower of persons and not in the business of mass production. There's no such thing as instant sanctification.
But they also had a defective view of their fellow Christians. They were fearful about their inability to measure up, and obviously felt they wouldn't be accepted by others if they confessed to being less than Barnabas. Hypocrites also have another problem - a huge inferiority complex. They are unable to accept their own uniqueness and imperfections. Maturity is all about living with imperfection, your own, your parents', others'. Hypocrites have to play a sort of one-upmanship game in which they come out best in every comparison.
The essence of grace, on the other hand, is acceptance - by God of us, and of others and of ourselves. Grace is love-before-worth. It creates worth in another rather than responding to worth in the other.
So grace abounds where sin abounds. And as the church is a society of people on the receiving end of God's grace, it's the community par excellence where we accept others fully on the same basis as God has accepted us (Rom. 15:7): solely on the basis of grace - not law, not doctrine, not sacramental observance, but grace alone!
If only Ananias and Sapphira had understood this! By their behaviour they were denying the most fundamental truth in the Christian faith: we cannot earn significance. We can't achieve wholeness, salvation, through our own efforts. Greatness in Christ's kingdom is a given, a gift, that we gratefully receive in spite of our failures and our sin.
So, Ananias, Sapphira, you didn't have to earn what you'd inherited.
Don't strive to be a luminary; just let your light shine. You don't have to be like Barnabas. You are intended to be your own person, to be what no other is and to do what no other can do. So you can "go to church" and be just who you are. You don't have to play the sick "over-under" games our society forces on us. Church is the place where grace reigns and where all acting stops. You can hang up your mask with your hat at the door. That's why Christ's Church is "glorious," according to the New Testament - not because it's perfect, but because it's being redeemed.
Here's where nobodies become somebodies, "no-people" become "God's people" (1 Peter 2:10).
1. John Claypool, unpublished sermon "Growing is Acceptable," preached March 2 1975, at Broadway Baptist Church, Fort Worth, Texas.