Acts 4:23-5:11 Gratitude and Honesty

Jeff Garrison  

Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church

Acts 4:23-5:11

July 5, 2015

 

I am grateful for Rachel who preached for me while I was on vacation and to Allan who brought us the good news last Sunday, right after my return.  Today, we’re going back to the book of Acts (and it is going to take us till October to work through the first sixteen chapters).  The focus of Luke’s history of the church is still in Jerusalem.  We have experienced the mystery of God working through this small group of Jesus’ followers, their growth in number, their ability to bring about miracles, and the first whiff of persecution as Peter and John are hauled before the Jewish council.  Even though there is lurking danger, the picture of the church in the first four chapters of Acts is idyllic.  People are generous, they get along with one another and are seen as such loving people that other can’t help but to want to join and to experience their joy.

Listen to this quote from Donald Posterski, who writes about the appeal of such a vision:

 

In a world gripped by greed, generosity is beautiful.  It is like the sun breaking through the clouds on a dismal rainy day.  Generosity breeds generosity.  Whether the gift is money, time, thoughtfulness, a bouquet of flowers, a special candlelight meal, and a crafted word sent out on a piece of plain paper or an elaborate card–generosity lifts the level of life to what God intends for his creation.

 

“Generosity lifts the level of life to what God intends…”  We have a generous God and as followers of Jesus, we’re to follow suit, living in a gracious and loving manner.  That’s what made the early church so powerful.  But this doesn’t please everyone, for there is a lurking enemy.  Unable to destroy the church leadership before the Jewish council, Satan now works inside the church, using deceit as a way to undermine the fellowship.[1]

My passage this morning begins with another wonderful view of the early church and then ends with one of the fearful things in scripture, judgment.  Read Acts 4:32-5:11.

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A few weeks ago I talked about one of my favorite all-time movies, The Blues Brothers.  Today, I want to share another of my favorite movies, “The Gods’ Must Be Crazy.”  Anyone seen it?  It was produced in South Africa in 1980 and became available in the United States on video in the mid-80s.  The film has grown into a cult classic.

The movie is about a tribe of people in Africa who lived without any connection to the larger world.  The way the movie begins, you think you’re watching a documentary about this tribe.  It’s an ideal world in which they live, with enough food for everyone.  They believe the gods look after them and they share everything and enjoy one another’s company.  It’s as if they have never left Eden, everything is in perfect harmony.  But then, one day, a brush pilot is flying overhead, drinking a bottle of Coca-Cola.  Downing it, he tosses it out of the airplane and it lands in a sandy area in the midst of this village and they immediately assume the gods have sent them a gift.

In time, the bottle becomes valuable as members of the tribe find more and more usages for it.  It is a tool to hammer and pound.  The glass can be used to concentrate the sun’s rays and start a fire in dry grass.  Water can be held in the bottle and one can blow across the top to create music.  But there’s a problem.  There is only one coke bottle and it’s in constant use.  Suddenly, strife develops within the community as they begin to fight over the bottle.  Soon, this behavior takes over other areas of their lives and they begin to hoard goods and not share.  Realizing their tranquility is threatened, the tribe’s elders decide that this gift should be returned to the gods.  They elect one young man to take the bottle to the edge of the earth and to throw it back to the gods…  The rest of the movie is about his journey and it gets even crazier as he runs into an absent minded scientist, a lovely school teacher, and a gang of revolutionaries.

A generous society has appeal.  We are told this was one of the characteristics that made the early church so attractive, that people would seek out the fellowship of the church while knowing they could be martyred for their faith.  For the second time in his story of the church, Luke describes a community in harmony.[2]  But, unfortunately, the church since this era has lost its luster.  The tarnishing of our reputation began in Jerusalem and it came from the inside the church, as we see in today’s reading.

The story of Ananias and Sapphira seems harsh and unbelievable.  It is preceded by the example of Joseph or Barnabas, who was Jewish, a Levite, but also a foreigner as he was from Cypress.  His incredible act of generosity is lifted up in Scripture.   He sells a field and he gives the money to the Apostles to be used for those in need.  We’re told there are others who also did this, too, but with only one example, we are left to wonder how widespread it was (or how many early Christians even had the property to sell).

But then, after lifting up Joseph as an example, Luke gives a counter-example as we learn about two members of the fellowship.  Now, we don’t know what was going on in their heads, but it appears that maybe they saw others, like Joseph, make generous gifts to the church.  Perhaps they wanted to be seen in a good light, as generous, so they, too, decide to sell some property.  You know, good deeds often inspire other good deeds, but they want to be seen for their good deeds without paying the price.  “See how generous we are, we’re going to sell the lower 40 of our farm and give it to the church,” they might have said.  But instead of going through with what they say they are going to do, they give only a portion and hide the fact that they keep part of the profits for themselves.  “No one will know,” they assume.

We can fool others, but we cannot fool God and that’s what happens here.  The Spirit enlightens Peter to what’s happening and as Ananias makes his gift, Peter confronts him.  Although Peter invokes Satan’s name in Ananias’ deceit, this is not a case of the “Devil made him do it.”  Ananias is responsible for his attempt to lie to the Holy Spirit.  We can fool others, but not God!  Furthermore, we learn from Peter that this isn’t some of kind of forced sale of property for inclusion into the church.  The sin of Ananias is not that he gave back only a portion of the proceeds of the sale.   His sin was that he lied and acted like it was a bigger deal that it was.   He thought his little indiscretion would be swept under the rug and no one would know anything different.

The couple’s sin has to do with declaring that they were giving the proceeds to the Apostles, and hiding the fact that they did not follow through.  The Greek verb translated as “kept back” (in verse 3), is a word often used in relationship to the misappropriation of funds.  In other words, what they had given no longer belonged to them, therefore they are guilty of theft.[3]

With Sapphira, Peter gives her a chance to confess.  She doesn’t yet know what’s happened to her husband and so when Peter tells her the amount given and asks if this is what the property was sold for, she sticks to their story.  “Yeah, that’s right,” she says.  The Peter tells her what happened to her husband and she, too, drops over dead.  We might think of it this way, “giving to the church is a serious matter,” but that’s not really the concern here.  The concern is with their honesty toward God.  “We might be able to fool some of the people some of the time, but we can never fool God.”

To have a community like the early church in Jerusalem, people need to be honest not only with one another, but to God.  Satan thought he could corrupt the church with dishonesty, but God’s Spirit insures the church is protected.  Today, we are often causal about our relationship to the Almighty, but this passage reminds us that when it comes to our relationship to God, we are dealing with something beyond us and need handle this relationship with awe and fear.  “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom,” we learn from the Old Testament.[4]

When you talk to God in your prayers or confess your sins to God, be honest.  God already knows what you are going to say, what you are thinking.  In this way, God is like an all-knowing parent who wants their children to take responsibility for their actions.  If the parent is good, the child will get off a lot easier if he or she is honest about what they’ve done.  It’s the same way with God.  Be honest, even if you are struggling and not doing what you know you should be doing.  Then, God like a good parent, can help redirect your way.  Amen.

 

©2015

[1] Jack Stotts, The Message of Acts (The Bible Speaks Today), quote provided by a friend:  “”, as soon as the Spirit came upon the church, Satan launched a ferocious counter-attack…Having failed to destroy the church from outside, he attempted through Ananias and Sapphira to insinuate evil into its interior life, and so ruin the Christian fellowship.”

[2] See Luke 2:43-47

[3] Beverly Roberts Gaventa, Acts (Nashville: Abingdon, 2003), 102.

[4] Proverbs 1:7, 9:10 and Psalms 111:10


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