Scripture: Acts 4:36-5:11
I’d like to tell you that this passage is not about money.
Because it would seem a little anticlimactic, wouldn’t it, for it to be about money, since so far in the book of Acts we’ve seen Jesus ascend into heaven and the apostles receive the fire of the Holy Spirit and head out into the mission field of Jerusalem and perform an honest-to-God healing miracle like Jesus used to and get arrested for it and then released. It’s like we’re ramping up and things are getting exciting and we’re feeling the fire and then all of a sudden it’s a stewardship sermon.
Let’s talk about mission. Let’s talk about resurrection. Let’s talk about all the things that are going on in the world like we mentioned in prayer time earlier. Anything but money.
But, I didn’t write the story, I just preach on it.
If you were here last week, you heard the passage that comes right before this one from today. In it, Luke (remember that Acts is the sequel to the Gospel of Luke) takes a break from the action to shift the scene back to the church community itself, and, he tells us, this is how it worked: no one owned any of their own stuff, and if they did, they sold it and brought the money to the apostles and laid it at their feet, and the apostles distributed it among the people in the community as there was need.
I don’t know a lot of present-day churches that work like that, and to be honest if I did, if someone told me that they had found a new church and the pastor wanted them to sell everything they own and come bring her or him the money, I would be a little concerned. Don’t drink any Kool-Aid, I would say. So I’m not going to tell you that, though I do think that we could all stand to read this passage and feel a little convicted by just how much the church today does not in fact work like that.
Luke does paint a pretty rosy picture of the early church here, one that may make us wonder if it ever could have been really like that, and that brings us to today’s reading, where Luke gives us two specific examples of this principle at work. Just in case we were tempted to take the whole money thing as an aside, Luke isn’t going to let us move on that easily. The first example he gives is the example of Barnabas. We’ll hear more from Barnabas later as he travels around evangelizing with Paul, but in this little section, Barnabas’s claim to fame is that he did in fact own a field, sell it, and bring the money to the apostles for redistribution in the community. This is Barnabas, Luke says, in effect. Be like Barnabas.
But it turns out things are not always quite as rosy as they appear in this early Christian community, because as it turns out, the church of the apostles, the church of the Holy Spirit, the church of Barnabas, is also the church of Ananias and Sapphira, the kind of imperfect people we are perhaps used to church being made up of.
Ananias and Sapphira, like Barnabas, own some property somewhere, and like Barnabas, they sell it, and like Barnabas, Ananias brings the proceeds to the apostles. I don’t know whether to imagine he made a big show of all the money they were donating, or whether he nervously laid it down and tried not to call too much attention to himself. In any case, unlike Barnabas, it wasn’t all of the money they handed over.
I don’t know how Peter knew something was amiss, whether it was something in Ananias’s demeanor, the way he wouldn’t make eye contact, or whether Peter simply had access to that kind of divine knowledge, but instead of saying “Thank you, praise God,” and letting Ananias go, Peter says, “Hmmm.”
“Ananias,” he says, “This is the amount you got for the property?”
“Yep,” says Ananias, “that’s all of it. Definitely all of it.”
Peter shakes his head and says, “Ananias, you didn’t have to do this, you know,” and then Ananias drops dead on the spot. We can think of it not so much as an invisible lightning bolt from heaven, but maybe more like Ananias dropping dead of shame and fear. Either way, it does make for a pretty heavy-handed stewardship sermon, doesn’t it? And we’re not even done yet, because then Sapphira comes in – I don’t know where she’s been all this time – and Peter says, “Thanks for the donation, was that all of it?” and Sapphira says, “Yep, definitely all of it,” and then she drops dead too.
Luke tells us that “great fear seized the whole church and all who heard of these things,” and you can kind of see why. If I was part of the early church there, I might wonder just what I had signed up for, too.
I have to say that I have some sympathy for Ananias and Sapphira, who were really probably not at all as bad as history remembers them. I mean, we don’t know any numbers, but let’s say they kept back 25% of the proceeds. Does anyone here give away 75% of their income? Me neither. (By the way, if anyone can answer yes to that, I’m willing to bet it’s someone poor.) So, the rest of us really don’t have much of a leg to stand on.
Maybe they had bills to pay. Maybe they had an elderly parent to care for or a kid to send to college. Maybe they just weren’t sure what the future was going to hold. They’re not so different from us, are they?
Well, you might say, at least I don’t lie about it, though. Because that was the real problem for Ananias and Sapphira – not that they didn’t fork it all over but that they acted like they did, presumably because they wanted to be seen in the same light as people like Barnabas. There’s no outright requirement here for how much you need to give to be part of the community (though tithing, 10%, is certainly recommended, and in light of this story, seems like a good deal) – there is no outright requirement, so there’s really no reason to lie about it.
I don’t know, though. Just a couple weeks ago I was going into downtown DC for a friend’s birthday dinner, and on my way from the Metro to the restaurant, as I was waiting at a crosswalk, a woman approached me. She asked for some money to get something to eat and buy a new pair of shoes.
I said, “I’m sorry, I don’t have anything for you at the moment.”
But that was a lie. Or at least, it was mostly a lie, because while I actually had a couple twenties on me, it was true that they were not for her. For one thing, I wanted to have them on hand for bill-splitting purposes. For another thing, when I do give money to people I encounter on the street, it’s most often a dollar or two, and 20 seemed kind of steep. I felt a little bit guilty, but I figured she would go on her way and that would be the end of it – only she didn’t go on her way. Instead she stood there and she asked, “If you had it, would you want to give it to me?”
I didn’t drop dead on the spot, but I think I understand a little of how Ananias and Sapphira felt. I would have liked the answer to that question to be yes – if only I had had some smaller bills, if only I hadn’t been on my way somewhere, yes, I would have liked very much to help her, I wish I could have – but obviously, the answer was no.
Often, though, I think the people we lie to about money are ourselves. I can’t afford to give more, we say. I wish I could, and if things were a little different, I would; it’s too bad I can’t.
I don’t know your financial situation. Just putting that out there. I’m guilty too.
It’s striking that this, more than anything else, is the characteristic that Luke chooses to emphasize about what made the church the church. He could have said it was their life of prayer, which is clearly important in many parts of the story. He could have said it was their fellowship, their breaking bread together, which also gets a shoutout in Acts 2 and becomes important once dietary restrictions that separate Jews and Gentiles are removed. But when Luke gives us this picture of the church, what he tells us is that no one owned anything of their own, and all their money was distributed among the community as there was need. Like it or not, being the church, being in the church, has a lot to do with what we do with our money.
It’s also not only about money. With Luke, it never is. “Where your treasure is, your heart will be also,” Jesus says, and in Luke’s Gospel and in Acts when there is a story about what someone does with money it always has to do with where their heart is. Think of Zacchaeus, whose conversion was known by his promise to give half of what he owned to the poor. Think of the Rich Fool, who kept building bigger barns to store his crops that he never got to enjoy. I think it’s a pretty good indicator for us, too. If someone were to look at your bank account or credit card statement, what would it tell them about what is important to you? Not what you wish was important to you – but what’s actually important?
These stories of Barnabas and of Ananias and Sapphira are stories about where people’s hearts are. Are they ready to literally buy in to this community called the church? Are they all in? Or are they holding something back?
I told you that I’m not asking you to sell everything you own and bring me the proceeds, at least not today, but I did get to thinking – so what does it mean, then, to be all in? What does it mean for our hearts to be here in this community? What does it mean to be fully committed to this thing we call church?
I thought of our membership vows. When we join the church we promise to support God’s work here through our prayers, our presence, our gifts, our service, and our witness. Are we making good on those vows? Or are we holding something back? Do we say, well, my occasional presence is good enough, when I don’t have other plans? And maybe I’ll remember the prayers that people lift up in service every once in a while? And I’m happy to help out when I can, but I wouldn’t want to volunteer for anything that would be too much of a commitment? It’s too bad I can’t give more. I definitely would want to, if I could.
I’m not pointing any fingers, here. These are questions for you to think about. And some of you haven’t taken these vows, and it’s OK to not quite be all in yet, as long as we’re honest about it.
But God does need people who are all in. Maybe it’s time.
Think about it: how can the church be the Body of Christ in the world – serving and healing and sharing God’s love and working for justice – if we’re not first the Body of Christ, together?
To be the Body of Christ together is to be committed to each other.
To pray, for and with each other. To be present, together, with each other. To pool our resources with each other to do better things together than we could do alone. To serve each other, to commit to doing our part so that someone else can do their part. To encourage one another and share our stories so that we create new testimonies to share with others. Committed, to each other.
I struggle with this sometimes. Last weekend at Annual Conference we were debating some of the constitutional amendments we were supposed to ratify, two of which had to do with gender justice – simply asserting our belief that women are equal to men, and equally created in the image of God. And I listened as, for different reasons which I won’t go into here, a number of people got up to oppose these amendments, and others applauded them. We won’t know the actual results until all the conferences have voted, so I don’t know how it turned out. But I was about ready to call it a day. If this is church, I said, I think I’m done. Sometimes pastors have these moments.
Reading this passage this week, I had to question how far my commitment went to these other people who make up the Body of Christ with me. How far did my presence there in the same body with them go? Right up until they say something that makes me mad? How deep does my commitment go to these people who are part of the same Body of Christ go? Maybe I’m Ananias. Maybe I talk a good game but I’m only willing to give so much.
It can be exciting to talk about mission, about going out and doing bold and good things in the world. And if the church doesn’t have a mission, the church doesn’t have much.
But it’s here that our mission starts, here together and to and with each other.
And God needs people who are all in, who aren’t holding back. Their money, yes. But also everything else.
If you had something to give – would you want to?
 Cf. Will Willimon, Intepretation: Acts, p.54