October 24, 2004
Christ’s Love Compels Us to Confront Evil among Us
Acts 5:1-11

I love to brag about the Grantham Church. I really do. I think you are a wonderful collection of people. A few days ago I was visiting with my mother in the hospital. Several of you had either called her or stopped by to see her. Just a moment or two after I stepped into her room, her roommate said, “The Grantham Church must be special. People are calling and visiting all day long!” I assured her that you are very special, and I encouraged her to visit us and see for herself.

Luke, it seems to me, shared similar feelings about the early church in Jerusalem. You can sense his excitement throughout these early narratives. Nowhere do you see Luke’s pride over these first followers of Jesus more clearly than in his descriptions of their generosity. Luke, you will recall, had a special interest in money and the dangers that it presents to the followers of Jesus. Both in his gospel as well as in Acts, he brings us face to face with this crucial issue: the way we think about money makes a profound difference in our faith journey. Luke, in fact, goes so far as to say when people are genuinely filled with the Holy Spirit, they are transformed from being self-centered and security-seeking people, like Gehazi in 2 Kings 5, to generous and compassionate people who give of what they have to empower others. Such a transformation has in fact occurred in the early church. Both glimpses that Luke provides concerning life within this young, Spirit-filled community show them giving and giving and giving. And so he is proud of the church, even as I often am when I see you giving generously and caring for peoples, both inside and outside of these walls.

Yet even Luke’s overwhelming sense of nostalgia—“everyone gave freely and no one among them had a need”—could not hide this simple fact. The church is not perfect. The church is called to be holy, set apart to serve God within the world, but it nevertheless consists of human beings like you and me who sometimes mess up big time. And it is precisely such a colossal “mess-up” that Luke now recounts for us in 5:1-12.

We could, of course, spend a considerable amount of time discussing various details in the story of Ananias and Sapphira that confound us. Perhaps no passage in Acts strikes against our modern sensibilities more than this one. Peter’s countenance seems overly harsh and the punishment outrageous. Some even refer to the entire affair as a “punitive miracle” and wonder why in the world Luke ever included it when he fashioned the book.

Here is what we know. In contrast to Barnabas, who sold his field and gave the proceeds to the community, Ananias and Sapphira sold their property and gave only a portion of the proceeds to the church. The issue in focus here, however, does not concern either the sale of the property or the giving of an amount less than the whole. Peter’s questioning of Ananias makes this quite clear (5:4). The type of selling and giving that Luke holds up as a model in 2:43-47 and 4:32-37 is all the more virtuous because it is voluntary. No one in the early church, including Ananias and Sapphira, was required or coerced into giving anything against their will. Ananias and Sapphira could have kept their property like many people and simply thrown a few coins into the plate from time to time.

The issue here, once again, does not concern either the selling of their land or their withholding a percentage of the proceeds. Instead, the issue centers on the impression that these two individuals sought to create of themselves within the community. They agreed between them to sell their property, retain a portion of the proceeds for themselves, and yet make it appear as though they were sharing everything. They were, in other words, disingenuous, seeking to enhance their reputation by magnifying their generosity unfairly. And once again, it was all about money.

It is fascinating, isn’t it? Money does apparently lie at the heart of virtually everything people do and think about, just as Karl Marx suggested. It certainly did for Ananias and Sapphira. Before we react too judgmentally to them, we must remind ourselves just how important money is to many of us today. People flaunt it as a symbol of status—they wear certain clothes, drive fancy cars, and live in posh neighborhoods. Or, as in the case of Ananias and Sapphira, they do precisely the opposite and associate their self-worth with their generosity! We are often either proud that we have money, or else proud that we give it away. And in the process, we fail to be real. We hide behind the walls of our own insecurities, all the while trying so hard to become secure. Ananias and Sapphira lived a lie in the community. And that was a tragedy.

So Peter, empowered by the Spirit, responded with remarkable precision. He cut through Ananias and Sapphira’s masks and exposed their treacherous deception. In hearing Peter’s words, first Ananias and then, a few hours later, Sapphira, fall to the ground, dead.

And here are a few things that we don’t know. We don’t know more about Ananias and Sapphira themselves. We don’t know what their standing was in the community, or if they occupied positions of particular importance that brought added responsibility. We don’t even now how they died. Most of us assume that they were struck dead by God, although Luke never specifically says that. That Luke regularly points out the leadings and promptings of the Spirit throughout Acts makes this omission seemingly significant. We know, for example, of other tightly-knit communities in which norms and expectations are so significant that nearly unbearable stress occurs when a violation is publicized. I remember a man who took one of my classes in Nairobi. Although he had been a Christian for many, many years, he told me that, if someone in his home tribe were to place a curse on him, his gut would churn. Violating taboos and communal norms can be devastating, so much so that many careful readers of Acts conclude that Ananias and Sapphira died of natural causes—heart attacks—brought on by being exposed. We don’t know for sure.
But when we focus in on the story itself, we are struck by this overwhelming impression: confronting evil within the community matters a great deal. But why is it so important to deal with sin among us? Why does Peter react so firmly? The answer, I assume, lies in the lasting effects that sin can produce.

Sin, for one thing, profoundly affects the person committing the sin. Sin, according to the Bible, is far more than an annoying gnat or a common cold. Sin isn’t a distraction that you can simply ignore or a weakness that you, on your own, can overcome. Sin is a disease far more severe than even cancer, wreaking havoc on every human heart. From the very beginning of Genesis, human beings are told that sin leads to death. “In the day that you eat of this, you shall surely die.” And while the deaths of Ananias and Sapphira strike us as being unreasonable and even grotesque, the truth of the matter is that their fate is more noteworthy for its timing—they died so quickly and without apparent recourse—than for its actual occurrence. “The wages of sin is death,” Paul wrote in Romans 6:23. You and I must be very careful not to mistake God’s patience and mercy with some sort of divine indifference.

Sin, furthermore, deeply affects the community as a whole. It is, without a doubt, nearly impossible for us today to imagine the degree of connectedness that these early Christians surely felt with each other. We talk about “community” and try with some desperation to create it, but it remains somewhat evasive nevertheless. These people, by way of contrast, were “tight.” They had made lasting commitments to each other and depended on each other in profound and lasting ways. In order to sustain such a deepening sense of community, trust was essential. It was a fundamental aspect of their life together. To violate that trust—and be publicly exposed—was a catastrophic thing indeed.

Think about this from a perspective familiar to all of us. Trust is of inestimable importance in the relationship between a parent and a child. I remember when one of my seminary professors was struggling with his oldest son, who I recall was in his mid-teens at the time. His son had deceived him in a major way—he lied to him—and Dave found this nearly overwhelming. As they sat down to talk, Dave tearfully told his son that they could work through virtually anything as long as they could trust each other. But once that trust was broken, everything changed. Fear. Anxiety. Restlessness.

There is, let me make clear, no such thing as a sin that is entirely private. The sins that we commit will inevitably affect others in one way or another. Those effects may be direct and readily noticeable, as when people suffer loss through thievery or injury through violence. But the effects might just as well remain virtually undetectable for awhile, festering beneath the surface—deteriorating relationships, loss of love, and on and on. Sin, rest assured, affects other people.

And finally, we notice that the severity of Ananias and Sapphira’s sin is further magnified by the awareness—specified so clearly by Peter—that their act of deception was a lie, not simply against their fellow believers, but against God himself. Our sins, as surprising as it might sound, affect God. God grieves over our sins. God experiences the pain that goes along with being rejected. When we sin against another person, we ultimately sin against God.

It reminds me of David’s reaction to the prophet, Nathan. David, you will recall, had committed a series of atrocious acts that led eventually to the murder of Uriah. When Nathan confronted him with his sin, David immediately responded, “I have sinned against the Lord (2 Sam. 12:13).” For years I found that response disturbing. Hadn’t David, after all, sinned against Uriah, whose body lay rotting out in some battlefield?

David, of course, had learned what we must all learn. A sin committed against another person is ultimately a sin against God. You simply cannot commit a sin against another human being without at the same time committing a sin against God. God is the standard by which everything in life—our thoughts and deeds alike—are measured. This held true for Ananias and Sapphira as well.

I love the Grantham Church, but we are not perfect. We are human beings saved by grace, but human beings nonetheless. Sometimes we mess up. Sometimes we sin. Our sins affect us. Our sins affect others. Our sins affect God. And sin, this frightening story of Ananias and Sapphira makes clear, matters. So, compelled by Christ’s love and empowered by the Holy Spirit, we followers of Jesus rise up to confront evil among us.

Thankfully, this story in Acts 5:1-11 is not normative in the New Testament—it is the exception rather than the rule. Over and over again, we are called to restore, assist, and correct each other in love, not to kill and destroy. Why do we confront evil among us? To help the sinner. To protect the community. To glorify God.