October 26, 2014
Rev. John Watts
Nampa First UMC
THE SCRIPTURE NO ONE TOUCHES
Acts 4:32 – 5:11
You thought we were done with the Book of Acts! Maybe we should be. This is not a passage of scripture I am eager to preach on. In fact this particular passage brings back a painful memory from nearly 30 years ago.
Helen and I were hosting a Bible Study in our home. There was a man named Dick who was attending, which was something of a miracle. Dick was the proverbial male who stayed home on Sunday mornings. Or played golf. Or went fishing. Anything but church. His wife never missed. Dick was never there. But his wife got him to come to our Bible Study. And it soon became apparent that Dick wanted very much to have the kind of faith his wife had. He wasn’t a follower of Jesus yet, but he wanted to be one.
We were working our way through the Book of Acts. And then we came to the story of Ananias and Sapphira. Dick got mad. Really mad. Here in the Bible he had found the very reason he had never wanted anything to do with church. Here was a story that tapped into everything he had always disliked about religion. Here was God striking people dead who weren’t willing to hand over all their money. I’ll never forget Dick’s visceral reaction to this passage of scripture! It reinforced what he had always believed about church but hoped wasn’t true — that all the church really cares about is money.
Actually there is more here to offend than the part about Ananias and Sapphira. Had we kept reading we would have seen that having these two drop dead turned out to be a real blessing for the church. It put the fear of God into everyone. We are told the church grew “more than ever” (5:14). I guess fear is a great motivator. And we’re also told that people were being healed. Sick people were being brought to Peter in such numbers that he couldn’t keep up with them all. So they would just bring their loved ones close enough so that Peter’s shadow would fall on them. This doesn’t sound like faith to me. This sounds like superstition. So here we have fear and we have superstition. The two great pillars that draw many to church, but that repel many, many more.
And this isn’t even the worst of it! The passage that comes just before we meet Ananias and Sapphira is a passage that has gotten many a pastor into some serious trouble. It tells us that the first Christians owned everything in common. There was no such thing as private property. And there was no such thing as poverty. Their secret? “From each according to his ability. To each according to his need.” That’s Karl Marx, by the way. But it’s uncomfortably close to what we just read from the Book of Acts. Yes, we seem to have stumbled upon communism in the Bible!
I sure wish I had never decided to preach on this passage of scripture! It’s not in the lectionary. Many pastors follow the lectionary each Sunday. The lectionary assigns the scriptures you are supposed to use. The theory as it has been explained to me is that the lectionary forces you to deal with scriptures you would never choose on your own. But even the lectionary people didn’t choose this one! So why did I? Why in the world did I??
The Bible does tell us that “all scripture is inspired by God”
(II Timothy 3:16), so maybe we just need to go on the assumption that this one is too and dig a little deeper and see what God might have for us even in this scripture that no one touches.
I’m going to suggest this passage isn’t about communism and fear and superstition. This passage is about giving. It is about giving ourselves to God. And it is about giving ourselves to each other.
The early Christians did that. Whatever we may think of their living arrangement, they were very clear on their priorities in life. God came first. Others came second. Self came third. And they were very clear that all their material possessions belonged to God. They were stewards, not owners. They were accountable for how they managed what God had entrusted to them. Accountable to God, but accountable also to each other. There was a strong sense that they were in this together. They could count on each other. They didn’t have to worry about others being disloyal to their shared commitment.
So we are given two examples. First a positive example. Then a negative one.
The positive example is Barnabas. This is where we first meet Barnabas in the Book of Acts. He will soon become one of the main players in the ongoing story. We’re simply told here that he sold a field, took the money, and brought it to the apostles. That’s what they had agreed to. That’s what he did. That was their covenant as a Christian community.
And then the negative example. Ananias and Sapphira. (Ananias, by the way, was a common name back then. You might remember Ananias as the hero in the story of Paul’s Damascus Road conversion. You might wonder if this is the same Ananias. We can safely say he is not. Why? Because Paul is converted in chapter 9. This is chapter 5. The chapter 5 Ananias does not live to see chapter 9.) Here’s what happens. Ananias and Sapphira are a married couple who together sell a piece of property. And then together they decide to bring some of the money to the apostles, to hold onto some of it for themselves, and then to lie about what they have just done. They pretend to be doing what they had promised to do. They figured no one would know. They figured they would get away with it. I’m sure they had need for the money and they probably thought they were being plenty generous with the money they did hand over.
Well, as you already know, it doesn’t turn out well for Ananias and Sapphira. They are found out. And they both drop dead. Ananias first, then three hours later, Sapphira. “And great fear came upon the whole church, and upon all who heard of these things” (5:11).
This is a stewardship sermon in case you haven’t figured that out by now. We are in the middle of our annual stewardship campaign as I think you know. This passage is generally considered a little over-the-top even for sermons designed to encourage generous giving. Somehow the implication that if you don’t give all your money to the church you will drop dead tends to rub people the wrong way. My friend Dick tipped me off to this a few years ago. There are other passages of scripture I could have chosen. Lots of them. People are often surprised at how much the Bible has to say about money and stewardship. Jesus had plenty to say on this subject. So you might be wondering why I chose this particular passage of scripture at the risk of making you all mad.
The reason is that this passage is not telling us we will drop dead if we don’t give all our money to the church. I could be wrong. If I drop dead before this sermon is over, maybe I was wrong. But I don’t think so.
The issue with Ananias and Sapphira wasn’t that they held onto some money. The issue was that they broke their promise and they lied about it. This early Christian community was bound together by two things. Two sacred commitments. They had given themselves to God. And they had given themselves to each other. The dying part is a little weird. Very weird, actually. But in a spiritual sense, by their own actions they had already died to their community. They had broken the promise that made community possible.
But what does this have to say to us about stewardship? What does this say to us that has relevance for our lives as Christians today? How about this? Whenever I keep what I am free to give, a part of me dies. And whenever I give what I am free to keep, a part of me comes alive.
I think we’ve all had the experience of seeing something one way and then we take a fresh look at the same thing and suddenly we see something else entirely. Here is the classic illustration of that.
This is either an old woman or a young woman depending on how you look at it. This Ananias and Sapphira passage is kind of like that. At first glance, it’s all about shame and guilt and fear. It’s about our most distasteful stereotypes of a church that only cares about money. But at second glance, it’s about life and freedom and joy. It’s about what’s possible when we live the way God wants us to live. Whenever I keep what I am free to give, a part of me dies. And whenever I give what I am free to keep, a part of me comes alive.
I don’t think God expects us to give away everything we have. I can think of only two places in scripture where that is expected. This is one. The other is where Jesus tells the rich, young ruler to sell all he had and give it to the poor. These apply to specific circumstances. It’s not a general rule that applies to everyone. If we all gave everything away we would have nothing left to give. We would all be poor.
The general rule is that God owns it all. Whether we have a lot or a little, it all belongs to God. And God lets us manage it. God lets us take care of it. God gives us the freedom to earn, spend, save, and give as we choose. But it’s really not our money. It really all belongs to God. Just as we belong to God. That’s the general rule.
Here are four specific guidelines.
First, earn honestly. God wants us to earn money. God gave us that ability. God wants us to work. We are happiest and healthiest when we are using our God-given abilities productively. We don’t always get paid for what we do. And whether we get paid or how much we get paid does not determine the value of what we do. But earning money is a good thing. As long as it is earned in an honorable way. As long as it is earned honestly.
Second, spend wisely. Ananias and Sapphira notwithstanding, God is not opposed to spending money. Spending on basic needs for ourselves and those who depend on us. And beyond those basic needs. God wants us to enjoy life. I think it’s OK once in a while even to spend money on luxuries. Things we don’t absolutely need. As long as we aren’t spending money we don’t have. As long as we are watching what we spend and remembering to whom we are accountable. As long as we are using wisdom in the way we spend.
Third, save responsibly. There are people who earn a lot and spend a lot more and therefore are always on the brink of financial ruin. For example, 78% of the players in the National Football League are bankrupt within five years of retirement. And as I understand it, they get paid pretty well! God wants us to save for the future. We enjoy life not just by spending money now but also by knowing the peace that comes from the knowledge that we will have money to spend in the future.
And to give. That’s the fourth guideline. Give generously. Giving is a lot of fun. God made us that way. God made us so our greatest joy would come from giving. Those who discover this and experience this are the happiest people on earth. It’s true that you cannot buy happiness. But it’s also true that you can give it away.
And the amount you give is not the main thing. Some can give more. Some can give less. The main thing is the generosity. What’s generous for one person is not the same as what is generous for the next person. Because we don’t all have the same. But we all have enough to be generous.
Whenever I keep what I am free to give, a part of me dies. And whenever I give what I am free to keep, a part of me comes alive.
Dick didn’t see that the first time he read the story of Ananias and Sapphira. What he saw he didn’t like. And what he saw is what a lot of people, inside and outside the church, see and don’t like. A church that always has its hand out.
But let me tell you the rest of the story of Dick. Fortunately he didn’t let Ananias and Sapphira run him out of our Bible Study. He hung in there with us. Eventually he actually started coming to church on Sunday morning. His wife was thrilled. And so was Dick.
I hadn’t seen him in 20 years. But I saw him again just about one year ago. He said something that touched me deeply. He thanked me for leading him to Jesus Christ.
To be a follower of Jesus means giving ourselves to God and it also means giving ourselves to each other. That was the covenant that held the early church together. It was all about giving, not getting. It was all about generosity. It was not about fear. Even though fear was in their hearts that awful day when their friends, Ananias and Sapphira dropped dead.
It’s very interesting to me that the Book of Acts, the book that tells the story of the church, does not even use the word “church” until five chapters in. The word is used for the very first time at the end of the passage we just read (5:11). A terrible thing had just happened. But it turned out to be a wonderful thing. Because these first Christians had discovered that giving was what held them together. And having discovered this they could for the first time be called “church”.
Dear God, we pray that you might make us better stewards. We pray that you might give us a clearer sense of the awesome privilege and responsibility that is ours of managing your money. We pray for those who are really struggling with their finances right now and for whom this message might seem irrelevant or even offensive. And we pray for those who are struggling on the other end of the spectrum, trying to discern your will for some significant resources they know they cannot take with them. Help us all to discover and to experience the joy of giving. We cannot buy that joy. But we can give it away. In Jesus’ name, Amen.