July 17, 2016 “Fooling Whom?” – Acts 4:32 – 5:11

Acts 4:32 – 5:11
“Fooling Whom?”
July 17, 2016 – Ninth Sunday after Pentecost

“Fishermen are born honest, but they soon grow out of it.” There’s something about talking with other fishermen that makes us want to embroider the truth just a little. When the story is told to someone else, that perfectly acceptable ten inch rainbow gains a couple inches. Catching it took just a little more skill and time than the reality. I think there might be a similar tendency among parents talking about their children or people in marketing presenting the latest sales figures. We slant our stories and our graphs to makes ourselves look a bit better.

I’ve got a double whammy in that regard because besides being a fisherman I’m also a pastor. When pastors meet each other, almost always, sooner or later, someone asks, “So how big is your congregation?” or if she’s a little more subtle, “Tell me about your church.” And there kicks in a seemingly inescapable tendency to round a 75 average attendance to 80. We find ourselves offering a picture that’s just a little larger and prettier than reality.

Part of it, as I shared with the children, is our human desire to compare ourselves and our performance with others in order to feel good. It’s true even when we hear about the performance of a congregation that hasn’t existed for nearly two thousand years, that first church in Jerusalem presented in glowing terms again here at the end of Acts 4. One of my first reactions is to try to find a way to say that our church is like that, or perhaps that things in the first church of Jerusalem weren’t quite as good as verses 32 to 37 paint them.

We get the feeling that nobody held onto their possessions, and that they shared and gave up everything so that nobody was in need, like it says in verses 32 and 34, sounds just a little too good to be true. That feeling is justified a bit by the rest of the text we’re studying today. At least two people in the Jerusalem church weren’t on board with all that. And if you turn over to Acts chapter 6 you will find that there are people, women, still suffering need and being neglected.

Moreover, if everyone was all-in with that having-everything-in-common program, why pick out one person, Barnabas, as an example in verses 36 and 37? Yes, he appears later as Paul’s partner and an important leader and missionary, but why single him out for selling his field and turning over the money to the apostles if everybody was doing the same?

Before we go too far down that road of making ourselves feel better about our Christian living by lowering our estimation of theirs back then we need to read the rest of the text. The disastrous lies of Ananias and Sapphira are shown here so that we may see clearly and admit our own tendency to make comparisons and then deceive others and ourselves about just how good we are.

In a seminary preaching class our professor handed out difficult texts for a practice sermon and I got Ananias and Sapphira here. My mistake then was to turn that sermon into a message about giving. Despite what Peter says so clearly about the couple’s deceit, about lying, I focused on their greed and lack of generosity. That was certainly there, but God does not often just strike greedy people dead. Wall Street would be a ghost town if He did. And it would be easy to say that their real sin was lying, but even that doesn’t usually rate a divine death sentence, or else there would a lot less people running for office.

So what was so bad about what Ananias and Sapphira did? They were well off members of the first church. They saw the example of Barnabas and others. And they decided that was the expectation, the standard to which they had to measure up. Sell everything and put the money “at the apostles’ feet,” place it at the apostles’ disposal for ministry to the poor. Except they weren’t quite read to do that. So they cooked up together a little big fish story to make it appear that they had done what they really hadn’t.

It’s right there in verses 1 and 2, they sold their property, but kept some of the money for themselves, for their own needs, maybe for old age, for their retirement plan. But  when Ananias brought part of the sale sum and “laid it at the apostles’ feet” he evidently deliberately said or acted as if it were the whole amount they got for the property. He stretched the size of the spiritual fish a bit to make them look better. Ananias himself was caught by Peter’s spiritual insight, and his wife Sapphira got hooked as well when she too lied to cover her husband’s story.

But why were these lies so vicious as to deserve immediate death? Where is the gentle forgiving spirit of Jesus in the fierce attitude of Peter here? Ananias had no opportunity to recant or repent, to change his story and make it right. He simply fell down dead. Sapphira had it even worse. No one told her her husband died. She walked in looking for him, and was immediately cross-examined with an equally horrible outcome.

What’s it about? Why this awful scene of death and divine wrath encroaching upon the beautiful story of the development and growth of the first church? As I said, those first Christians were not perfect. Many of them must have told other lies. What was so bad about these particular falsehoods?

In verse 3 Peter asked Ananias why he let Satan get such control over him that he contrived “to lie to the Holy Spirit.” But doesn’t God forgive all sins in Jesus Christ? Why is lying to the Holy Spirit a Christian deal breaker? Remember what Jesus said about blasphemy against the Holy Spirit in Mark 3:28 and 29, that it won’t be forgiven? It’s like that. The Holy Spirit is the agent of new life in Christ. When you trust Jesus to forgive your sins and start to change your life, it’s the Holy Spirit in you who brings you that forgiveness and new life. Blaspheming or lying to the Spirit alienates you from the very thing you need most, the source of life.

Their lie to the apostles and the rest of the church caused Ananias and Sapphira to call into question the very spiritual foundation of the church. By deceiving their brothers and sisters in Christ, they denied the reality of the Spirit who gave the church its life. They imagined that what came only through the power of the Spirit could be faked.

This book of the Bible is commonly called “Acts of the Apostles” but many have said it should be “Acts of the Holy Spirit.” Starting on Pentecost, the events of Acts are directed and driven by the Spirit. Stephen stands up to preach and is martyred because he is full of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit sends Philip to the Ethiopian, directs Peter to the house of a gentile named Cornelius, leads the church at Antioch to send out Barnabas and Paul as missionaries. Paul’s final journey to Rome is set up by the Holy Spirit guiding him to where he will be arrested. The story of Acts, the story of the first Christians, is the story of the Holy Spirit at work.

So a lie to the Holy Spirit makes the whole Christian story a lie, says that everything the church is and does is false. You can try to fool people in the church, but when you try to fool the Spirit who holds the church together and makes it what it is, you only end up fooling yourself and ruining the appearance you wanted to make.

Yet we still want to ask, “Where’s the grace?” People ask it today when the church takes a strong moral stand, refuses to dissemble and pretend that the Bible does not teach what it does about the how human beings were created to live. We’re called “judgmental” and “self-righteous,” holding others to standards we ourselves don’t meet. That’s how Peter may look, a one-man posse, judge, jury and executioner for two liars who weren’t really worse than anyone else. Where’s the grace?

That’s just it. Grace is the issue. In lying to the church and thereby to the Holy Spirit, Ananias and Sapphira cut themselves off from the Holy Spirit and from the grace of Jesus which He brings. The grace is there but they couldn’t see it, would not have it.

The grace is right there in Peter’s words in verse 4, “While it remained unsold, did it not remain your own? And after it was sold, were not the proceeds at your disposal?” All that sharing of property and money was purely voluntary in the Christian church and still is. Other communities back then, like Jewish monks at Qumran, had a rule about giving up all your property. Members were punished if they held back. But the church had no rules like that. It was all voluntary, all by grace and love.

Jesus said that He came into the world to save sinners, to redeem and rescue people who were not good enough on their own. It’s His grace that makes us the people we want to be, not our own efforts, whether those efforts are in earnest or in pretense. No Christian has to prove her righteousness because we are all forgiven sinners no more, no less.

The grace Jesus Christ gives through the Holy Spirit means the church is the single community on earth where no one needs to pretend to be what they are not. Everyone enters the church in the same way, as Peter preached on Pentecost in Acts 2:38. We repent of our sins and are baptized to accept the grace of forgiveness in Jesus’ name.

When Ananias and Sapphira came trying to look good, trying to appear holier and more generous than they were, their fraud cut right to the heart of what the church was about. Peter did not deny them grace because they lied. By lying in that particular way they cut themselves off from the Spirit and denied themselves grace and forgiveness.

If they had come truthfully with part of the money, all would have been fine. Grace would have covered whatever weakness or lack of faith they might have had. But as soon as they decided their place in the church was based on how they appeared, on their own good deeds, they were doomed.

We often forget this, but whenever we forgo grace in favor of what we can accomplish on our own, we cut ourselves off from the Holy Spirit of God. That is why Paul was so hard on Christians in Galatians 3:1, “O foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you?” he says. They turned from grace and thought they could save themselves by keeping Jewish law. We do the same whenever we make our relationship with Christ depends on our own goodness.

The novel Egyptologist by Arthur Philips[1] is the chronicle of a poor young Australian boy named Paul Caldwell who we learn is the illegitimate son of an eccentric millionaire and therefore heir to a fortune he doesn’t know about. But trying to get out of his poverty and lack of social standing, Paul develops an enormous fraud, passing himself off as Ralph Trilipush, a respected British archaeologist digging for the lost tomb of an Egyptian king.

A private investigator employed by the millionaire tries to trace Paul Caldwell to help his employer find his heir so the fortune may be bestowed. He follows the trail to Egypt and meets the man calling himself Ralph Trilipush, but never makes the connection. Confronted by the investigator, Caldwell posing as Trilipush spins out one lie after another. He ends up broke, penniless and dying for lack of medical care in Egypt, never knowing he has millions waiting for him if he will only admit his fraud and say who he really is. By lying, he cut himself off from his only hope, he destroyed the possibility of a wonderful and gracious deliverance from his poverty.

That’s what happened to Ananias and Sapphira, and that’s how it is when we make ourselves into frauds as Christians, when we pretend we are better than we really are. We cut ourselves off from the grace that lies deep in the heart of the Body of Christ, in the Holy Spirit who fills His church.

A strange thing about this passage is a word in the last verse, verse 11. “And great fear seized the whole church and all who heard of these things.” It’s the very first use of the word “church” in the book of Acts, the first occurrence of the Greek term ecclesia. At the end of this frightening story, in “great fear” the church emerges.

Maybe the church is named here for the first time to remind us who we are and what we are to be about. We are a community of truth and a community of grace. We are all sinners who admit what we are to each other. We are the one gathering on earth where nobody needs to pretend. The warning is that if we pretend anyway, we will quit being the church, quit being the people whom Jesus saved and in whom lives the Holy Spirit.

This fearful text calls us to truly live in the wonderful grace we have. Nothing is quite so terrible, nothing quite so despised by God as a phony victorious spirituality which refuses to admit struggle, failure and weakness. The Holy Spirit of Jesus Christ fills broken vessels which are empty without Him. If we pretend to be full already, we are fooling no one.

So we have a ministry of truthfulness to each other which is a ministry of shared grace. Some of us may be called like Peter to speak truth about sin. But the greatest ministry of truth is honesty about our own weaknesses. And the ministry of grace is the love which accepts each other in spite of weakness and sin.

When we are untruthful about our weaknesses, we may even cause each other to forget that grace. Like Martha demanding that Mary help in the kitchen, we can put such expectations for spiritual performance on one another that someone feels she has to pretend in order to measure up.

Ananias and Sapphira saw others making total sacrifices of their property and thought they had to measure up to an unwritten standard. In the process they became spiritual frauds and were lost. We need to do all we can in our own church life to make sure we are not by attitude and implication holding each other responsible for standards which Jesus never intended, tempting each other to lie in order to look acceptable.

Even cheerfulness can be a false standard. To imply by our words or by the songs we sing in worship or by our own efforts to paste on a smile that everyone on Sunday morning ought to be completely happy, we may tempt others either to despair or to the fraud of faking joy they don’t feel. By being willing to be near and to accept those who are sad when we gather, we affirm the grace of Jesus Christ working in us by the Holy Spirit.

The lesson of Ananias and Sapphira is that the church is meant to be the one community on earth where grace turns all the expectations upside down. We are to be the one place where it is totally safe to fail. But sometimes just the opposite is true. People leave the church because it doesn’t feel safe at all.

This doesn’t mean that we always wear our sins and troubles on our sleeves, letting it all hang out all the time. But it does mean that each of us may find another Christian or two, maybe a group, with whom we can be totally honest, and at the very same time totally accepted, despite failures, doubts, and weaknesses. That’s the grace of Jesus Christ in which we believe. That’s the grace we are called together to offer each other.

If you’ve been pretending, been trying to fool the people around you into thinking you are better than you are, your gift is the grace of Jesus Christ strangely present in the story of Ananias and Sapphira. You’re not fooling everyone. You may not be fooling anyone. Most assuredly, you are not fooling God’s Holy Spirit. But He doesn’t need to be fooled. He’s only waiting for you to be honest, only waiting for you to admit how much you need Him. He doesn’t want to condemn you or punish you. He only wants to fill you with new life, a new life of honesty and truth in the grace and power of Jesus Christ.

And if you’ve been looking at those around you and secretly or evenly publicly complaining that they don’t seem to measure up, that they’re not carrying their weight or living up to Christian standards, then our text warns you not to make your brothers and sisters into frauds. Let’s teach our children, spouses, our friends in Christ that their worth does not depend on how well they do in our eyes. Let the Holy Spirit use you and me to offer that same grace of Jesus to people who are broken and weak just like we are.

So quit fooling others, quit trying to fool God, quit fooling yourself. Big fish stories might be fun to tell, but as a way of life for Christians, they rot and they stink. God wants us to measure ourselves and others honestly. Lay down your whole self—failures, weakness and all—at the feet of Jesus. Then His Holy Spirit will raise you up to be what you never thought you could be. No fooling.

Amen.

Valley Covenant Church
Eugene/Springfield, Oregon
Copyright © 2016 by Stephen S. Bilynskyj

[1] (New York: Random House, 2004).