Our church is currently going through the Book of Acts. It’s an inspiring account of the first church’s encounter with the risen Jesus, empowerment by the Holy Spirit, and growth as a community of faith in the world.
Modern-day church goers should marvel as signs and wonders lead to spectacular growth of the movement that would soon accept the label, “Christianity.” In the early chapters of Acts, the momentum is palpable. Luke tells a good story.
I recently had a chance to reflect on one of these stories. Acts 4:32-37 describes the church being “one in heart and mind” as they shared their possessions so that there were no needy among them. Such was the testimony to how “God’s grace was so powerfully at work in them all.” As a leader in a church striving to be “connected in community” this example is both challenging and inspiring - church can indeed be a community for better.
And then we read the first part of Acts 5 - Community for worse. Memo to St. Luke: great way to halt the momentum of a story!
The story of Ananias and Sapphira is a publicist’s nightmare. The husband and wife duo decide to attempt deceiving the community by pretending to share all the profits of a recent land sale with the group, only to withhold some for themselves. Peter confronts them separately, and on both occasions, upon hearing his accusation, Ananias and Sapphira both drop dead. For an infant religion trying to tell its story and assert its credibility, Luke doesn’t do the movement any favors by including this dark tale. What’s going on?
Well, first, I don’t think we have to like this story. One can accept the authority of the bible and still wrestle with it. In fact, to not wrestle with stories of sin and death and judgement is troubling in its own right. So I think we have to ask the hard questions of such accounts, realizing as a pastor-friend noted, “This is one of the stories which demonstrates the almost stubborn honesty of the Bible. The Bible refuses to present an idealized picture of anything.”
The story of Ananias and Sapphira is loaded with misconceptions and assumptions. It’s helpful, then, to ask, what doesn’t the story say?
- It doesn’t say they die because they didn’t give everything. No, giving was voluntary, not mandatory.
- Nor does it say God killed them. There is implied judgment/consequence, but not of the explicit “lightning-bolt” variety. In fact, we don’t know how they died. Heart attack? Supernatural intervention (God or Satan)?
- It also doesn’t say the group was struck with the fear of the Lord. Luke just describes a “great fear” - not surprising considering the circumstances.
- And the lesson here is not that all people that lie will be struck dead. I recently heard someone reflect, "If God kills for this, how do we account for the amount of way worse sins in Christian history?" Which is another way of saying don’t build a pattern of application from one isolated (and peculiar) story.
So, what does the story say?
- Peter knows more than most - somehow, and we’re not told precisely how or why, but Peter is given special insight into the situation and motivations of this deceptive couple.
- This is clearly more than one situation of deception. Similar to the betrayal by Judas (Jn. 13:2) evil is at work - “How is it that Satan has so filled your heart that you have lied to the Holy Spirit...” (Acts 5:3). This isn’t a simple case of lying.
- As such, this instance of lying reveals a dishonest character, an unwillingness to be fully committed to being of “one heart and mind” (4:32)
- In terms of their death, Ananias and Sapphira seemingly die as a direct result of this circumstance: evil has seized them and they are consciously dishonest before the community (and God). This is not just hypocrisy in action, but a hypocrisy that defined their life.
Well, in some way this story serves an example of a key reality expressed in the Bible: sin leads to death. As Adam and Eve were expelled from the garden, they became separated from the sustainer of life, God the Creator (Gen. 3). As Paul summarizes, “The wages of sin is death” (Rom. 6:23). In confronting Ananias and Sapphira, Peter is the spokesperson for this reality that plays out before their very eyes. As Greg Boyd reflects, “they suffer the consequences of sin set in the motion since Adam and Eve. They have chosen to reject God, not God punishing them for lying… With a grieving heart (reflected in Jesus’ tears over Jerusalem [Lk 19:41]), God at this point grants people their wish and withdraws his protection, thereby allowing evil to run its self-destructive course (e.g. Rom. 1:24-26).” Not sure this solves our discomfort with the event itself, but does offer an explanation in terms of the pervasiveness of sin and evil still in our world.
Yet at the same time we don’t know the whole story of this couple. What was in their hearts beyond this event? Like Judas the betrayer, are we simply left to lament how some in the community are so overcome with the power of sin and evil that death overcomes them?
Instead of explanation, then, I would suggest we leave this story in a place of ambiguity, lamenting that at times community is indeed for worse instead of for better.
And then know this: God’s love and forgiveness overcomes our sin and brokenness and even death. Yes, fear seized the community. But as we know from other places in the New Testament, bearers of the good news of Jesus’ resurrection declare, “Fear not” – God’s ways of life, love, and restoration are beyond our ways of striving and despair. “Fear not”, even in your darkest moments – for God still loves you. Know this love. Accept this love.
Which brings us back to the first part of the story, community for better… Share this love. Meet the needs around you. Be of “one in heart and mind” in the midst of all that life brings.
These contrasting stories reminded me of U2’s song, “One”, with which I end my reflection:
One life…With each other
But we're not the same…We get to…Carry each otherCarry each other…One