Acts 5:1-11 (NRSV)
But a man named Ananias, with the consent of his wife Sapphira, sold a piece of property; 2with his wife’s knowledge, he kept back some of the proceeds, and brought only a part and laid it at the apostles’ feet. 3‘Ananias,’ Peter asked, ‘why has Satan filled your heart to lie to the Holy Spirit and to keep back part of the proceeds of the land? 4While it remained unsold, did it not remain your own? And after it was sold, were not the proceeds at your disposal? How is it that you have contrived this deed in your heart? You did not lie to us* but to God!’ 5Now when Ananias heard these words, he fell down and died. And great fear seized all who heard of it. 6The young men came and wrapped up his body,* then carried him out and buried him.
7 After an interval of about three hours his wife came in, not knowing what had happened. 8Peter said to her, ‘Tell me whether you and your husband sold the land for such and such a price.’ And she said, ‘Yes, that was the price.’ 9Then Peter said to her, ‘How is it that you have agreed together to put the Spirit of the Lord to the test? Look, the feet of those who have buried your husband are at the door, and they will carry you out.’ 10Immediately she fell down at his feet and died. When the young men came in they found her dead, so they carried her out and buried her beside her husband. 11And great fear seized the whole church and all who heard of these things.
Well, isn’t that a sweet story? A married couple sells some land and gives the proceeds to the community….well, most of the proceeds. By agreement, the two decide to give only a portion of the proceeds but say it’s the whole thing. The difference, they keep for themselves.
So, Ananias brings the offering and lays it at the apostles’ feet. Knowing of the deception, Peter calls Ananias on it. Ananias’ response to getting caught? He drops dead. Three hours later, unaware of her husband’s demise, Sapphira appears. Peter asks if they sold the property for the lower price. She says yes. Then, she too drops dead.
What in the world is going on here? Why is this story in the Bible? Aside from a potentially compelling stewardship illustration J, what good news is there for us in the disturbing story of Ananias and Sapphira?
It might help if we look at the larger context of Acts. It couldn’t hurt, right?
Fifty days after Jesus’ death and resurrection his followers gather in Jerusalem for the high holy days. After God’s Spirit swoops in and stirs things up, the people…
devote themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers…All who believed were together and had all things in common; 45they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds* to all, as any had need. (Acts 2:42-44)
Two chapters later, the community is still clicking on all cylinders. Listen:
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. …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. 35They laid it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need.
36There was a Levite, a native of Cyprus, Joseph, to whom the apostles gave the name Barnabas (which means ‘son of encouragement’). 37He sold a field that belonged to him, then brought the money, and laid it at the apostles’ feet.
To this point, the believers have acted as one. Everyone is on the same page. They really do have all things in common, even their ideas and hopes and motivations.
But it’s a community…which means things aren’t going to go smoothly forever. There’s going to be a hiccup. At some point, someone’s going to forget about working for the common good and will put themselves first….and they’ll do it, not because they’re bad people, not because they’re selfish people, but because…
Why do people sometimes put their own needs ahead of the needs of the community? We hear it over and over in the Bible–work for the common good, love your neighbor as yourself, have all things in common….yet sometimes we keep something back for ourselves; we withhold our gifts–time, talent, authenticity, honesty. We know the community is strengthened when we commit ourselves fully, but sometimes we just don’t.
Do you wonder why Ananias and Sapphira lied about their gift, why they held something back for themselves? The expectations were clear: have all things in common. They’d just seen Barnabas sell his land and give every cent of the proceeds to the community. But for some reason, they couldn’t do it; they weren’t yet ready to give everything they had to the community.
Luke doesn’t say why Ananias and Sapphira drop dead in the doorway when their lie is found out. He doesn’t say “God struck them dead.” He doesn’t say, “the wages of sin is death. See?” He doesn’t say the couple had pre-existing cardiac issues. He just lets us know they lie, then they die.
I wonder how things might have gone differently? What if, when their resolve to give everything to the community wavered, instead of lying they’d gone to Peter and confessed: “We can’t do it. We sold this property intending to give all the proceeds to the community, like Barnabas did, but we can’t do it. We’re so sorry, but we just can’t do it.”
And what if Peter had responded: “Giving all to the community is hard; it takes time. Thank you for being honest about your ability to commit. Your confession is a step in the right direction. Being honest about your limits also builds community. Give what you can now. Later, as you grow deeper into this community, perhaps you’ll find it easier to give more.”
Maybe Luke included this story of Ananias and Sapphira as a cautionary tale…not so much to warn against holding things back from the community, but to warn against lying about it. Trying to be someone we’re not, and trying to convince others we’re someone we’re not–that is what kills koinonia. Inauthenticity kills community. Dishonesty kills community. Being flawed people? That doesn’t kill community. In fact, it is our flaws, our limits that provide fertile ground for growing deeper as a community.
I’ve learned that lesson again in the last year and a half. Raised Southern Baptist and called to pastor, my journey into ministry wasn’t easy. I went to seminary to become a children’s minister– because that’s all I thought women could do in church. But a few professors helped me see that my true calling was to pastoral ministry. Just as I was opening myself up to my call, the fundamentalists took over the seminary. By the time I graduated, I heard every day, “Women can’t preach; women can’t pastor.” In my head, I knew the words weren’t true, but they seeped into my heart anyhow. Seminary is a joyous experience for many. For me and my classmates, it was traumatic.
It’s taken a long time, but I’ve done a lot of healing. You all have been key to that healing process. I’ve never felt like a woman pastor here; I’ve just felt like your pastor. Your acceptance of me has helped me live into my true calling. You have acted me into well-being.
Sometimes, though, even after we’ve healed, something happens and all the old pain rushes back. That happened to me at the Cobb Interfaith Thanksgiving Service in 2013.
A year or so before the service, the Cobb Interfaith Spiritual Leaders group had begun meeting. Some folks floated in and out of the group, but six of us formed a core—five men and me. Over the course of the year, the six of us had become good friends.
I went to the Thanksgiving service joyful and eager to support interfaith work in our community. But when the procession of clergy began, and I saw that there were just two women and that among the large group of men were my five good friends from the Cobb Interfaith group—all the exclusion I ever had felt because of my gender came flooding back. Feeling excluded again—and betrayed by my friends—I walked out.
As I reflected, prayed, and processed the experience with others, I struggled with how to respond. In my head, I knew those men never would have excluded me intentionally. But still. I hadn’t been included when they had. The two token women had been enlisted; there was room for no others. Yet the platform had plenty of room for all those men. I knew my friends only wished me well, but—because of the old hurts—the group no longer felt safe for me. I sent them an email letting them know what had happened and that I was taking a break from the group. To a man, they responded with great compassion.
I stayed away for a long time—over a year. I had all but decided not to return to the group when I was invited to participate in an interfaith prayer vigil for marriage equality last April. Participating in that service was a homecoming. It was good to reunite with my friends.
The experience was good enough that I went to our group’s meeting in May. All through the meeting I debated, “Do I tell them about my journey in the last year or not? Do I explain why I came back, or just go on as if nothing happened?”
I opted to tell my story. Those men—my friends—listened with their full attention and again with deep compassion. The first person who spoke said, “We’ve been waiting for you to tell us your story, Kim. We’re so glad you’re back.”
The photo on your bulletins was taken this past Thursday. For the first time, I hosted the Cobb Interfaith gathering. Ten of us—women and men—gathered around the table, broke bread, and talked about how people of all faiths might work together on healing racism in our country. Then I led us out to the peace pole and got Lynne to take our picture. A couple of the faces in this picture you’ll see again Saturday night at our musical celebration.
Why tell you this story? I tell it because it demonstrates just how hard community can be sometimes…and how much stronger community becomes when we’re honest with each other. Had I not shared my Thanksgiving service experience with my friends, it wouldn’t have been as dramatic as what happened to Ananias and Sapphira, but it would have amounted, essentially, to the same thing—I would have been dead to that community. Instead, because I confessed my limitations, it gave them the opportunity to be supportive of me, which gave me the opportunity to receive their care for me, and to feel included.
As we sat around the table Thursday, I realized we had come a long way. I had come a long way. What good friends we are! What a strong community we are becoming. I know there will be other hiccups along the way, and I know that the next time we hit turbulent waters, we’ll be able to navigate them with greater skill…because, look! We’ve already done it once.
When we started on this journey of growing deeper into community here at Pilgrimage this summer, I didn’t realize just how hard the work of deepening community can be. But, as I’ve learned with my Cobb Interfaith friends, that hard work strengthens community as nothing else can.
I just wish someone had told Ananias and Sapphira.
In the name of our God, who creates us, redeems us, sustains us, and hopes for our wholeness. Amen.
Kimberleigh Buchanan ©2015