Sunday, June 21, 2015


Now the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common. With great power the apostles gave their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all. There was not a needy person among them, for as many as owned lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold. They laid it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need. There was a Levite, a native of Cyprus, Joseph, to whom the apostles gave the name Barnabas (which means ‘son of encouragement’). He sold a field that belonged to him, then brought the money, and laid it at the apostles’ feet.
But a man named Ananias, with the consent of his wife Sapphira, sold a piece of property; with his wife’s knowledge, he kept back some of the proceeds, and brought only a part and laid it at the apostles’ feet. ‘Ananias,’ Peter asked, ‘why has Satan filled your heart to lie to the Holy Spirit and to keep back part of the proceeds of the land? While it remained unsold, did it not remain your own? And after it was sold, were not the proceeds at your disposal? How is it that you have contrived this deed in your heart? You did not lie to us but to God!’ Now when Ananias heard these words, he fell down and died. And great fear seized all who heard of it. The young men came and wrapped up his body, then carried him out and buried him.
 After an interval of about three hours his wife came in, not knowing what had happened. Peter said to her, ‘Tell me whether you and your husband sold the land for such and such a price.’ And she said, ‘Yes, that was the price.’ Then Peter said to her, ‘How is it that you have agreed together to put the Spirit of the Lord to the test? Look, the feet of those who have buried your husband are at the door, and they will carry you out.’ Immediately she fell down at his feet and died. When the young men came in they found her dead, so they carried her out and buried her beside her husband. And great fear seized the whole church and all who heard of these things.  - Acts 4:32-5:11

The book of Acts is a fascinating series of stories about the early days of the movement that followers called "The Way" and which we now call Christianity. It's a fascinating look at how the disciples and others fared after the death and resurrection of Jesus. They were, in essence, starting out leaderless and it was up to them to become leaders themselves and to spread the message of Jesus even further. They had decisions to make, sometimes very difficult ones, and they knew their choices would set the standard for those who came after them.

Jesus taught that each person should help his or her neighbor by sharing what they had with each other. The new group was trying hard to live up to that; those who were rich could give more but even the poor gave what they could. In the in the reading today, we see people offering monies to God that were gained through sale of property or income. They brought it to the apostles to be given out as needed with no conditions. Of course, there's always one in every group who either wants to be considered special enough to get by with not giving their past, or they are status-conscious and want to make themselves look better than they are.

Ananias and Sapphira were wealthy enough and who also were part of the group. They saw others give their gifts and donations but behind closed doors, the two of them decided to fudge just a bit. Ananias must have looked rather pious as he brought their donation to the apostles and laid it at their feet. He would look good to the onlookers and that was important to him. What he didn't count on, though, was that the apostles knew he was fudging. They questioned him, and he swore that this was what he had received in full for the sale of some land. That was his mistake. In the blink of an eye Ananias realized they had seen through his deception but it was too late. He was on the floor and dead before the eye could blink again.

Sapphira, not really knowing about all of this, was summoned and asked the same question, "Is this the full amount of the sale you promised to give?" She affirmed that this was indeed all, and suddenly found she too was trapped. Like her husband, she went from life to death in the blink of an eye. This surely must have been an eye-opener for everyone watching, and also a very good lesson that you don't mess around with God.

Did you ever fudge on your taxes? Sneak your answers to the homework assignment from the back of the book? Take credit for completion of a project when actually other people did most of the work? Did you try to pass a knock-off garment or bag as an original?  I imagine most of us have to say yes to some kind of fudging in our lives. We wanted to look good but we ended up cheating ourselves more than anything else. We compromised our integrity, and, hopefully, that little angel on our shoulder called our conscience gave us a rather sharp nudge.

Everybody wants to look good. Image is important, and it's been that way since Adam and Eve. The very public downfall of Ananias and Sapphira certainly gave those present a very pointed object lesson in what pride, greed, and arrogance could do to someone. Of course they were honest citizens who had given what they promised so they had no need to worry. But I'll bet they were even more circumspect from that point on with their neighbors as well as with God.

In my childhood church, one verse was repeated rather frequently: "… Be sure your sin will find you out" (Num. 32:23d). It was cautionary in that it made us remember God was always watching but with the unspoken thought that so were the neighbors. One of the greatest hobbies these days seems to be building up heroes and then relishing their downfall due to their cheating, drugs, alcohol, or whatever. All the money in the world can't cover up everything forever. God knows about it right away, probably knew about it before even happened, but when we find out about someone else's stumble or downfall, instead of thinking to ourselves that we  should be careful not to do that, we just pick up the closest rock and start pitching. Of course there are the occasional times, like when a best friend asking, "Does this make me look fat?", where a tactful answer might be better than a brutally honest one (this is doubly important for spouses).

I have to cringe a little inside every time I read the story of Ananias and Sapphira. I recognize myself in the story as someone who has fudged more than a few times. I didn't feel terribly guilty at the time but thinking back on it, it is somewhat shameful. I've asked forgiveness from God and I'm sure God has forgiven me, but the neighbors are not always so accommodating. Perhaps the best move would be a lot more circumspect and a lot more honest as I go forward.

This cautionary tale should remind all of us that what we say and what we do have to line up. If we say we are Christians, we have to be careful to walk the talk – to follow the teachings of Jesus to help the poor, the widows, the orphans, the homeless, the oppressed, and all the others whose lives are lived, if not in quiet desperation, at least in distress and anxiety. We call it the social gospel, but much of what we do is discuss it, how to pay for it, how to administer it, how to decide what qualifications have to be filled before it can be dispersed. Very often we don't get too far beyond that.

I was reminded the other day that while we can't always do great things we can do small ones. We admire those who give great amounts to the church or to organizations that help God's less fortunate children, or  establish clinics and schools and churches in countries where, without help, those things would not exist or only exist minimally. In our own country, our own neighborhood, random acts of kindness are a way of doing small kingdom tasks that can make a difference in someone's life. No fudging necessary, and we would be walking the talk, instead of just talking about it.

Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café Saturday, June 20, 2015.

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