Accompanying Presentation (opens in a new window)
We have been going through the book of Acts during the past few weeks. We have seen from Acts 1 that the church age is one characterized by the Holy Spirit. To live correctly in this age we need to be acutely aware of the prompting of the Holy Spirit in the various situations with which we are faced. From Acts 2 we saw that the death and resurrection of Jesus changed things at the cosmic level. The outpouring of the Spirit, which was the marker of the new age of God’s reign, has happened while the current age continues. The clash between two diametrically opposed eras, with two markedly different agendas, is the reason for much of the conflict true Christians face. Then from Acts 3 we saw that healing is something that God still does. Those of you who came forward last week either for prayer or for proclamation of healing, please let us know what God’s response has been. We have faith that he does heal because he is the same God who reversed the barrenness of Sarah, Rebecca, and Rachel. Those reversals show that God has power over death. And the supreme demonstration of that power is the resurrection of Jesus. If God can reverse the sentence of death, then surely he can also heal! And he heals by his Spirit.
So much talk of the Spirit! The number of references to the Spirit in Acts boggles the mind—that is, it boggles the mind if one does not realize that the church is a body created and sustained by the Spirit. Without the Spirit there would be no church. If this is so, what was the life like to which the Spirit called the early Christians? To answer that question, let us take a glimpse into some of the information Luke provides us with. I have asked Rocio to read for us the text for today’s sermon.
What in the world do we make of these events from the early church? Not quite the rosy picture we would have liked. In fact, the way Luke writes, we get the impression that it was not quite the rosy picture he would have liked. It was not smooth sailing for the early church. Quite the contrary, Luke tells us about Ananias and Sapphira and about the food distribution problem. While the second problem is solved quite amicably, the first ends in a terrifying way. What does Luke want Theophilus to understand through these stories? To answer that, let us consider the stories in turn.
Luke begins his story about Barnabas by telling us about the economics of the early church. “No one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common.” For those who have grown up in America, this smells of Communism—something more suited to Cuba than to Capitalist America. And I have read some American books, which blame the later destitution of the Jerusalem church on their practice of communism. But the way Luke writes, he wants us to think of this practice as a good one. In fact, he cites Barnabas as an example of this practice. And Barnabas is the only prominent character in Acts, who does not have a blemish on his reputation. So, according to Luke, the communism of the early church was a great practice.
But it was not institutionalized communism like in Cuba. Luke does not say, “No one had private property” but “no one claimed private ownership.” There is a marked difference. The first statement, “no one had private property” would imply that the church owned the property as a corporate body with some sort of finance team handling the buying and selling of such real estate. However, from Acts 6 we see that the church was hardly organized enough to handle even food distribution! The second statement, “no one claimed private ownership” implies that no one was selfish, that those who did have private property treated it as though it wasn’t exclusively theirs. I hope you get the crucial difference. Rather than an institutionalized communism, the early church had an ad hoc, need-based communism. Landed people sold their land as and when liquid assets were needed among the early Christians.
The early church was a community based on self-less giving. This is the kind of community that St. Francis of Assisi wanted to start. Born into a wealthy family, he sold all his inheritance and distributed it to the poor. Then he requested permission of the Pope to start an order of monks—known today as the Franciscans. One of the rules of the community was that each monk had to accept voluntary poverty. This meant that someone born poor could not become a Franciscan monk because poverty was then not a choice. He wanted the monks to be able to understand what it meant to surrender all their possessions in service of Jesus. St. Francis’ example has inspired many, not least in our lifetime Mother Theresa of Calcutta.
Now Luke is careful in these stories to indicate that proceeds from real estate sales were placed at the apostles’ feet and not in their hands. Placing it in their hands would imply that the proceeds were a personal gift for the apostle concerned. However, placing it at their feet implied that the monies were for the community but could be distributed by the apostles.
After telling us the positive story of Barnabas, Luke contrasts it with the story of Ananias and Sapphira. Now their fault was not that they held some proceeds for themselves. As Peter indicates, even after the sale of their land, they had full authority in the matter of distributing the cash. They could have kept every denarius if they wished. Their fault was that they gave part of the proceeds to the church claiming that it was the full amount they had received from the sale. So Peter charged them with lying. Now most translations have the phrase “to lie to the Holy Spirit.” Quite literally, however, the Greek reads, “to falsify the Holy Spirit.” That is, by their act of secrecy, Ananias and Sapphira brought false testimony about the Holy Spirit and what the Spirit was doing in the church.
What was the Spirit doing in the church? Remember, when we learned from Acts 2 we saw that the pouring out of the Spirit was the sign of the new era that God was birthing while the present era continued. The new era of God’s kingdom is one in which, as Jesus repeatedly said, the first shall be last and the last shall be first. It is an upside-down kingdom in which the king dies for the subjects, in which the subjects are therefore called to live self-sacrificial lives that emulate their king.
But Ananias and Sapphira conspired to hide things from the rest of the body. On the one hand, it would afford them prestige within the church. “Ah!” people would say, “have you seen the generosity of Ananias and Sapphira? They have given the entire proceeds of the sale of a piece of prime real estate. Much like Barnabas. What a selfless couple.” Yes, such words of praise would have been exchanged among the early Christians. On the other hand, if the church did prove to be a big mistake, they would have some funds as an escape route. In Acts 5 Gamaliel advises the Sanhedrin to wait. He says that if the church is a human effort, it will fail on its own. If, on the other hand, the church was God’s work, nothing could destroy it. And the church is nothing without the Holy Spirit. So by keeping for themselves a secret escape route, the couple were actually calling into question the existence of the Spirit in the church. After all, if the Spirit was in the church, the church was going to be around for the long haul. No plan B would be needed in that case. But Ananias and Sapphira kept a plan B.
Their dual motives—seeking prestige and having an alternate plan—constituted a falsification of the Holy Spirit. And if it is the Holy Spirit that is responsible for the spread of God’s kingdom in and through the church, then falsifying that Spirit is what Jesus called the unforgivable sin. The actions of the couple meant that they did not seriously believe that it was the Spirit that was fueling the church. At some level they believed that some other power was at work. But, as Jesus indicates, to ascribe to a foreign power what it evidently the work of God’s Spirit is the unforgivable sin.
Both Ananias and Sapphira recognize the gravity of their error. They understand that they have sinned grievously. When Peter says, “You have falsified the Holy Spirit,” they realize that they were guilty of the same offense as those who accused Jesus of working by the power of Satan. And with that knowledge both of them died.
We should avoid seeing in their deaths lightning bolts from the sky. The text only tells us that they fell down and died. We are certainly to view their deaths as judgments from God but we should leave the mechanism of judgment ambiguous as Luke does.
Now we should also attempt to understand this couple. Living the life in the Spirit is not easy. And nowhere does the bible say that it is easy. The easy thing is to go the way of the world and to seek prestige and to find security in money, as did Ananias and Sapphira. To emulate king Jesus is to swim against the tide of human experience and expectation—kind of like Harrison Ford’s character in Mosquito Coast. Having messed up his dream to bring technology and money to a jungle tribe, he lies dying in a boat, which his son is rowing. And as they are floating downstream, he asks his son, “We’re going upstream, right? We’re going upstream, right?” His son lies and reassures him that they are going upstream. And the father responds, “Good! Because the only things that go downstream are dead.”
In this age of self-centeredness, God’s Spirit brings us to life in Jesus so that we too like him can swim upstream. We can swim against the currents of this era that tell us to seek prestige, that tell us to find security in money. To swim with the currents of this era is to concede that we are dead.
The third story we heard today dealt with the selection of seven servers. In connection with the Barnabas story, Luke tells us that among the early Christians there was none who had any need. What Luke means is that no need was overlooked for here in chapter 6 we see that there indeed was some need and that the need was subsequently met. Luke introduces us to two groups of Christians—those who could speak Hebrew or Aramaic, whom he calls the Hebraists; and those who could speak only Greek, whom he calls the Hellenists. We are still dealing with a fully Jewish early church. So the distinction is a linguistic one and not a racial or ethnic one.
The widows among the Greeks speakers were disadvantaged not because of some intentional discrimination. Rather, most likely their ignorance of Hebrew and Aramaic may have kept them ignorant about the food distribution times. It would be like going to the heart of Mexico and announcing to them in Russian that there was food to be had. Someone who did that would have only himself to blame if all the food went waste!
When the oversight was brought to the apostles’ attention, they rightly point out that administration of food distribution was not their calling. Note that it is not a question of one ministry being better than another. The apostles were called to be witnesses to Jesus. Hence, others had to be found to manage the food distribution. And here we should learn from the apostles. Rather than keep control within the circle of Hebrew speakers, they hand over control to the Greek speakers. After all, if the ministry were among Greek speakers, who best to understand the need and meet it than the Greek speakers themselves? The Greek speakers best understood the need that had to be met.
St. Ignatius met with a similar response. He was appalled at the lack of biblical knowledge among the Roman Catholic priests. So he went to the Pope and told him about the ignorance rampant among the clergy. He wanted the Pope to start a school for training priests. The Pope, however, told him to start an order of monks who would study the bible and be the theologians of the church. And so was born the order of the Jesuits. The Pope argued, as did the apostles in Acts 6, who best to meet the need than the one God led to identify it?
This should be a lesson to us today. When we bring the gospel of freedom to people dying to hear it, let us not then enslave them to us. We should not make people we are ministering to dependent on us. Rather, let our presentation of the gospel be in such a way as to promote only the humbling knowledge of their dependence on God.
So what is God telling us through these stories? Let’s consider them in reverse order. Acts 6 does not describe a soup kitchen that caters to people not connected with the church. It is not an evangelistic strategy that Luke describes. Rather, it is a process of meeting the needs within the community of faith. How many of us know of needs within NUPC that are waiting to be met? If God has brought to your notice a need, then he is also calling you to make that need known to the leadership. We leaders are human also and therefore have many blind spots. Because of that, we need your input. If you see someone in the body suffering, do not be silent. We have to work together to discern creative ways in which we can alleviate the suffering. That is why God has placed us in a body.
The story of Ananias and Sapphira warns us to be careful of what we do in the body of Christ. Everything we do must be in accordance with the Spirit that is at work in us. Let us, therefore, not serve in order to be noticed or applauded. Rather, let us serve in order that we might be more like Jesus. Like Jesus let us look for our praise from God. And God does praise us. It is he who says, “Well done good and faithful servant.” And let us not serve half-heartedly. The church is one basket in which you want to put all your eggs! It is after all fueled by God’s Spirit. It is after all here for the long haul. It has been around for the past twenty centuries and is not showing any signs of fading. Therefore, if anything, it is a good investment to serve in the church.
The story of Barnabas tells us that each of us has something to contribute. Remember, each of you is unique. No one else can take the place in God’s kingdom that is reserved for you. If it does not seem that NUPC right now has a place where you can serve and feel fulfilled, bring that to the notice of the leadership. Tell us what is on your heart. Share with us the paths along which God is taking you. Open our eyes to new possibilities of spreading God’s kingdom.
This is how the church is supposed to work—each one of us serving in the capacity to which God has called us; not one of us being forced or coerced into serving in a way unsuited to God’s calling on our lives. This is how we can take care of the business placed before us—by living as members that fully benefit from and fully contribute to the health of the body. And it is the health of this body that we now proclaim and promote as we move on to celebrate communion.