By Bill Mefford
This is part of a multi-week study of Acts and how we can continue to build a progressive Wesleyan movement that manifests God's Kingdom on earth in our local churches. Any study of the New Testament church will both critique where we are currently as a church as well as stir up visions for where God is leading us. That is the goal here.
There are discussion questions below for you to use and discuss with your Sunday School class, youth group, Wesley Foundation group, or local church or other band of believers you meet with (whatever you call church). Begin by reading the adjacent chapter in Acts and then the post below. End by answering the questions. Please let us know what happens and what you learn at Bill@figtreerevolution.com. We would love to share any new insights or missional engagement with others! Let's build the Wesleyan progressive movement together!
Just when you think that this new church community cannot get any more harmonious, you turn from chapter 4 to chapter 5. Acts 5 is one of the most difficult chapters in all the Bible for me. It flat out does not make any sense. Let's remember what has happened this far. The disciples begin the book of Acts trapped within their own nationalistic and selfish understanding thinking that Jesus was going to re-establish God's Kingdom only for the benefit of Israel when they witness the pouring out of the Holy Spirit showing the universality of God's Kingdom.
The disciples then see the creation of a dynamic and vital community of believers, where people from all backgrounds, no matter what their age, gender identity, or economic status, they are all called to lead and speak truth to God's people and the world. ALL means ALL for this community. The new followers of Jesus are of one heart and mind, and they freely share their possessions as anyone had need. They resist the pressure from religious leaders to stop their witness and they refuse to allow the poor to be used for their own benefit, but instead, they seek holistic and complete healing that includes justice.
Yes, the disciples have indeed come a long way.
And now we come to the chapter where two people are killed for lying and not sharing the proceeds from what they sold with the rest of the community. Talk about a downer.
It would be so much easier if we could just ignore chapter 5 and move to chapter 6. In fact, that is what we tend to do, no matter if you are conservative or progressive. This is what, at least in part, makes studying Scripture so fascinating; it challenges our nice, neat, and tightly wound theologies. But fidelity demands that we not skip troubling passages. Skipping what is difficult is exactly what we as progressives cannot do - we must deal with truths that are hard to fathom. We must live without inventing absolute answers to every doubt or curiosity that arises. We must live by faith. If we choose to invent superficial answers that erases all doubts and calms all troubling waters, then I would suggest what we have is not faith in God and the mystery of who God is and what God's will is for the world. Instead, we have created our own mythology.
So, in a spirit of faith, knowing that the very mystery of who God is and what God's will is for the world, let's begin, as always, with what the text says here and decipher what we can learn.
Ananias and Sapphira sold a piece of property and conspired to give only part of it to the community and to secretly hold back part of it for themselves. They wanted to be seen as being more faithful than they were in reality while securing their own affluence and security. This would hardly make Ananias and Sapphira an oddity in the life of God's people historically, or even now in the present day.
Though this study is a little dated, John and Sylvia Ronsvalle show how giving has steadily decreased in recent history. While the New Testament church was known for members sharing all of their possessions as any had need, the Ronsvalles paint a different picture between the years 1968 and 2002 (2004:1, 7). The exact numbers show that the percentage of giving per member decreased from 3.11% of gross income in 1968 to 2.62% in 2002. To show the lack of sharing in more poignant terms, if giving had maintained the same percentage level as 1968, then the increase in giving over what was given in 2002 would total $3.7 billion.
So, while the 3.11% given in 1968 is hardly reflective of the spirit and ethic of the New Testament church, if the 2002 church had maintained a 1968 level of faithfulness there would have been $3.7 billion more that the church could have (hopefully) used missionally to address poverty and marginalization, and to even create possibilities for advancing justice. The point being that though Ananias and Sapphira, in my estimation, did not deserve death, their willingness to hold back part of the earnings for themselves for their own affluence and security and to appear to be more righteous than they in fact were did have real implications. The same is obviously true today.
It is always fascinating to me to hear leaders in the church decry the financial status of the church. The truth is that, given all of the financial holdings, the reserves that many local churches and national boards or agencies sit on, and the value of the facilities that the church owns, the church in the global North at least is ridiculously wealthy. The problem is that, like Ananias and Sapphira, the institutional church continues to hold back part of its earnings for its own affluence and security while it wants desperately to be seen as faithful. And like Ananias and Sapphira, the institutional church in the global North is indeed facing death. Perhaps the greatest lesson for the institutional church today from this chapter is that appearing to be righteous while pursuing affluence and security is deadly. The church is called not to worry about rebranding. The church is called to fully give all of our resources to bring about mercy and justice for those in need. Full stop.
Lord have mercy for where we currently are.
Interestingly, when Peter confronts Ananias about his lie he charges him not with lying to the community, but rather, with lying to the Holy Spirit. Peter, like Jesus taught him, sees doing wrong to others as equivalent to doing wrong to God. For Peter, as for Jesus, holiness is not confined to personal spiritual practices, but instead, is also inherently social in nature; the way we treat those around us is a form of holiness.
Now, I still find this chapter deeply bothersome. I just do not believe that someone should be killed for lying (or anything else!). But imagine if we approached the community of believers, our local sisters and brothers in Christ, with the same reverence and respect that we approach God. I am not sure all disagreements would disappear altogether, but surely there would not be such ugliness that seems to characterize church relations so often, especially nowadays in the United Methodist Church where distrust is the norm. Gone would be the way those who are in "leadership" view their service as a career ladder. Gone would be the non-stop harassment of church leaders by people in local churches who seem to have nothing better to do than hold pastors to impossible standards. Gone would be the attitudes that the church is for certain people who can help the church with their tithes and social status while others who are identified as too needy are shunned. To approach our local churches as we approach God would necessitate that we hold a reverence and even awe for the times we gather together and for the people we gather with.
So, as chapter 5 ends, we see, in spite of the tragic events that start this chapter, the community continues. The band of Jesus' followers continues its upward growth, signs of healings and wonders continue to surround them, and persecution from the hands of the worried religious establishment continued as well.
But the growth of the disciples has only just begun in many ways.
Questions for Discussion:
1) How do you handle difficult or challenging passages in Scripture such as this one involving the deaths of Ananias and Sapphira? Do passages such as this one make it more difficult to maintain faith or do you tend to dismiss passages you disagree with or find troubling?
2) Do you see any parallels between the actions and the result of those actions for Ananias and Sapphira and the institutional church today?
3) Thinking first reflectively and then answering with your group, do you approach the local and universal Body of Christ the same as you approach the presence of God? as Peter charged Ananias with lying not to the people, but to the Holy Spirit, how, if at all, would your actions or attitudes change if you were to approach and treat the community of believers as you treat God?