Stories From The Rebel Alliance
Ananias and Sapphira: The Cost of Doing Business
Feb. 4, 2018 Sermon Text:
I want you to raise your hand if you’ve been out of the country. Okay some but not all. Alright put your hands down. What about if you’ve played on an organized sports team? Like with a jersey or a uniform? Okay…Been to the emergency room? Alright alright last one. I want you to raise your hand if you’ve ever stolen something? It could be in childhood, it doesn’t have to be from a store, from a sibling or a friend or a parent? Maybe you’d consider cheating in school to be stealing answers? C’mon, was it Luther who said ‘sin boldly’? All right keep those hands up…ushers if you could take note and make sure these fine people put something in the offertory plate this morning.
This exercise is the beginning of one of my favorite ice breakers where we try to find 10 things everyone in the room has in common. With a group this size it would be incredibly difficult to do assuming we ignore the obvious ones like we’re all breathing, we’re all in this room, etc etc. Now I love this exercise so much because it prompts storytelling, it gets people talking about things that have happened in their life with, up until this point, total strangers. Now at the beginning folks will usually suggest things that don’t require much vulnerability, like I did. But as we go I like to push a little and try to get people to admit to things they normally wouldn’t, and these are often what prompts the best, or at least most interesting, stories. Not that I don’t want to hear about your travels abroad, for instance, but I kind of want to hear about that time you drove a car 100 mph, when you went to the principal’s office in 3rd grade, or the story behind when you stole something.
That’s what the story is about this morning, theft. Some of us are guilty of that, and willing to admit it in church no less. I cheated on a spelling test in 2nd grade. Forgot how to spell the word “use.” I was debating between “yous” and “youz” and neither looked quite right. So I took a peek at my buddy’s test. Oh…”use” I did know that. I changed my answer. I proceeded to immediately get caught and I haven’t cheated on a test since. But, nonetheless, I have cheated. I can’t change that. Ananias and Sapphira also lied, but their fate was much different than mine.
It’s important to set the stage for this story. We’re in the book of Acts, so Jesus has been crucified, resurrected and ascended up into heaven and the church is now trying to figure out…well… essentially how to do church. Parts of it seem idyllic, while other parts are pretty rough. I have to imagine at this point there is concern about loyalty. I mean, put yourself in that position. One of your own, Judas, turns your leader over to be executed. Peter, his second in command, bails on Jesus, denies him three times, as do the other disciples. At the beginning of Acts they have to restore the disciples, who are now apostles, disciple meaning student of Jesus during his ministry and apostle meaning messenger or ambassador, so that they are back to twelve because Judas is obviously not part of the club anymore. So they bring in a new guy and they have a new job now to go out and literally spread the Word (Capital W). Peter is walking around healing people similar to how Jesus did in his ministry. The Holy Spirit shows up for the first time for Pentecost and then Peter and John go before the council to be questioned about their new ideas and the only reason they aren’t killed is because the people love them so much. The powers that be don’t kill them only because it’ll start a riot. So, some good and so bad. Now I want to read a few verses that come right before our story.
This is Acts 4:32-37:
“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.”
So there are a few things that I want to point out here. The first being that “no one claimed private ownership of any possessions.” As Mike has mentioned before people at this time had no concept of separating their religious beliefs from their political beliefs from their economic beliefs. It seems in the early church there was no private property. Religious intentional living communities still do this, monks and friars don’t personally own things the way we do. Now, is this a model we are meant to live by today? That’s another sermon altogether. What I want to emphasize is that to be part of the movement at this time you can’t really hold things back for yourself. I also would like to point out that the early followers of Jesus believed his return was imminent. So, if you honestly believe the second coming is soon then it is a little easier to part with your stuff. Furthermore, it says “There was not a needy person among them.” They had such abundance from pooling resources that they not only had enough for them to live but enough left over to distribute to those in need after the fact. In fact, shortly after this story there is discussion about the widows complaining that they weren’t getting their just due of the distributions and so they appoint Stephen to handle that, it is his job to make sure the most vulnerable of the vulnerable get a fair share of the leftovers.
So now we get to our story. If you’re having trouble remembering don’t worry I’ll run through it really quick. Ananias and Sapphira are a married couple. They conspire to sell a piece of property and then lie about how much they sold it for so that they can keep some of the proceeds back for themselves. Cost of doing of business. Ananias goes by himself to give the money to Peter and the other apostles. Peter immediately knows he’s lying, how I’m not sure but he’s been magically healing people too so it isn’t too farfetched within the confines of the story. Peter then points out that not only did Ananias lie to his fellow Christians, his friends, but he lied to God as well, at which point Ananias falls down and dies. Three hours later Peter asks Sapphira what the price of the land was, she lies, Peter knows this too and then says “Look, the feet of those who have buried your husband are at the door, and they will carry you out” and she then falls down and dies. They are then buried together. And as the Bible says “…great fear seized the whole church and all who heard of these things.” And that’s the end of the story. So now I’d like to talk about the possible endowment growth campaign.
No I’m not going to do, but in all seriousness that is a brutal ending. All I got for cheating was a stern talking to by my 2nd grade teacher and my parents, Ananias and Sapphira got the chair.
So there’s a lot in this story, no happy ending, but a lot to chew on.
What I want to focus on is why this story makes sense. We as the reader see right beforehand that when everyone in the movement is honest, then there is plenty to go around. The second people start holding back, the whole structure crumbles. So I get that. But death seems a little extreme. Until I read ahead a little more and see Stephen getting stoned to death. It’s not like Peter goes around killing people after this story. Acts 5:12, the verse right after this story, says “Now many signs and wonders were done among the people through the apostles.” Generally speaking they are doing great work in the world, which is what gets them arrested again. If I was in that place, if was already paranoid about issues of loyalty, and I was under constant threat of arrest and execution for spreading the ideas of Jesus, and then these people try to hold out on us I’d be pretty upset too. I mean this is life and death stuff we’re talking about here.
But a few hundred years down the road Christianity got pretty popular. It isn’t really life and death today for us is it? This radical way of living communally was domesticated. We have yet to see a successful society in which no one claims private ownership of possessions.
A recent example of this in my life is the discontinuation of one of my favorite collegiate institutions, campus bikes. These were easily identifiable simple bicycles that floated around Grinnell’s campus. We as the students owned them communally. They were physical manifestations of self-governance, which is a guiding principle at the college that’s hard to succinctly describe but boils down to acting with integrity, honesty, and responsibility.
I was talking to a current student just the other day and I found out they are no longer in service. They are all busted up and sitting in storage. Memories came back of people abusing them because, well college students sometimes do things like that. Looking back I guess it was a matter of time unless we, the students, actively started taking more responsibility for the bikes.
One of the first things we learn as children is how to share, and yet for some reason it is very difficult for us humans to share with integrity.
I read an article recently that said 82% of all of the growth in global wealth in the last year went to the top 1%, whereas the bottom 50% saw no increase at all.
In the period between 2006 and 2015, ordinary workers saw their incomes rise by an average of just 2% a year, while billionaire wealth rose by nearly 13% a year – almost six times faster.
This to me doesn’t look like sharing with integrity.
People should absolutely be rewarded for their elite skillsets, I know many of you are intimately familiar with C-suite level positions. But it is interesting that with just slightly more than one day of work, a CEO in the US earns the same as an ordinary worker makes during the whole year.
To put it on a global scale, a CEO from one of the top five companies in the garment industry will make the same amount in just over four days as an ordinary Bangladeshi woman, who works for that company making those clothes, will make in her entire lifetime. Same amount of money, 4 days for a CEO, entire lifetime of a Bangladeshi woman. I mean I get incentives, but I’m really not sure we can justify that one.
In the early church the Bible says ‘there was not a needy one among them’ and yet Ananias and Sapphira kept money for themselves anyway. It wasn’t about survival, there was more than enough to go around. It was about greed, there is no other real explanation I can see. And greed comes at an expense. That money they kept back could have gone to the apostles to be used for the betterment of those most in need.
Did this story truly happen, I don’t know. And to be honest, it doesn’t really matter to me if it did or not. What matters to me, what is honestly frightening, is that this story is just as relevant now as it was 2000 years ago. In fact, it might be more relevant now. I see myself in this story as Sapphira. Ananias seems to be calling the shots here. I didn’t choose for more than half of the global population to live on between $2 and $10 a day. That isn’t my fault. I’m not personally responsible for the record setting income and wealth gaps we see in the UC today. That’s on Ananias…But I am complicit. This is done with my consent. I sometimes still buy clothes made by Bangladeshi women, shoes made by children, an iPhone made in a factory that has to have nets outside the windows to keep people from jumping. I don’t know if the companies in my stock portfolio pay their workers fairly or bother with sustainability.
But my fate doesn’t have to be the same as Sapphira’s. Ananias has done his damage. The poverty both here and abroad is very real, poverty compounded by a focus on dividends instead of human beings. But Peter gave Sapphira a chance. “Tell me whether you and your husband sold the land for such and such a price.” Instead of agreeing, maybe I can say ‘yes he said that but I don’t think it’s right.” I can chose to purchase products from responsible companies, I can choose to get my groceries from CSAs, I can choose to patronize local businesses, women and minority owned businesses and pursue fair trade options. I can choose to empower my neighbor instead of mindlessly consuming what is cheap and easy.
Ananias and Sapphira chose to express their lack of faith by clutching what they had. We can choose to express our faith not only with our words, not only with our actions, but with our wallets because there is much to be done. And that, my brothers and sisters, would make us messengers of God’s Word in the world, known by our love not by our net worth. We can come together, in truth, in kindness…to walk in the spirit of economic justice. We can choose to live as Ananias and Sapphira, putting faith in what we keep for ourselves, or we can be messengers, apostles, of faith and healing.
It has happened before, many signs and wonders were done among the people through the apostles… that’s the very next verse after this story. The question for us as a people of God, as apostles, the question I leave you with this morning is what signs and wonders can still be done? What signs and wonders must be done? Amen.