Sermon April 25th Acts 4:32ff Anger: Ananias and Sapphira Rev. Betsy Hogan
Full disclosure: For the second week in a row, I've stretched out a traditional lectionary reading of the season of Easter.
It's a good discipline, for me at least, as a preacher, to essentially be "forced" by the lectionary's assigned list of readings to "receive" meaning from the story, rather than just hunting up a story that says what I want it to.
But at the same time, the lectionary's assigned readings are limited. They're limited by length, but to some degree they're also limited by the desire for a reading to be palatable. Not disturbing or distasteful or discomfiting.
Which is not to be confused with readings that are challenging. Because that's all good. In fact, it's a big part of the point. So LOADS of lectionary readings are challenging. And provocative. And meant to shake us up. So we'll think more, go deeper, stretch ourselves. Challenging is good.
But unpalatable? The lectionary tends to avoid. Which is why what we usually hear is that "the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and everything they owned was held in common..."
...but not the next bit. About TWO of those who believed, Ananias and Sapphira, who weren't quite as "one heart and soul" as everyone else, and very much did not go in for the "holding everything in common".
It's a rather unpleasant story. Made far more so by the centuries of commentary that have pretty much interpreted the whole episode not simply as Ananias and Sapphira dropping down dead of shame, but in fact as their having been STRUCK DOWN DEAD by God as punishment.
Which emphatically is not what happened. There is ZERO indication here that God struck the two of them down dead. Did they each of them fall down dead? Absolutely. But there's NOTHING that suggests that this was anything more than their own shock and shame when their deceitful wheeling and dealing was found out.
Instead of being "as one heart and soul" with all the believers, and "selling what they had and holding it all in common", they've contrived to secretly pocket some of their wealth and then they've lied about it.
They've broken faith with their neighbours. They've abused people's trust. And they've been found out. Enormous shame. Even unto death.
And it's hard not to read this story and assume quite easily that this episode was remembered and recorded as a straight-up warning. Against breaking faith with one another. Against going behind each other's backs. Against lying about it. Against deceit.
Because we only really hear about the Apostle Peter's reaction to the whole ugly episode, but I can well imagine how the rest of the community felt. I can well imagine the hurt and the anger.
I can well imagine just feeling really let down – thinking they were all in this together and then finding out that – no, apparently they're not. Because Ananias and Sapphira decided to be selfish.
I can imagine the sadness of that and the discouragement of it. And maybe even the profoundly unChristian revenge-fantasy fury it was really hard to tamp down.
So I can imagine this episode being remembered and recorded as a straight-up warning, but also – unattractive though it may be – as pretty much a great big seriously unChristian expression of schadenfreude.
Not that anyone actually wanted Ananias and Sapphira to actually drop down dead – but hurt and discouragement and betrayal and anger, they don't bring out the best in us. They really don't. So I can imagine that this episode? Really didn't bring out the best in that first Christian community.
And maybe you can too. And you know what? After the past several days of the combination of stress and fear, combined with the fury of frustration that we got SO CLOSE to the last major restrictions being lifted, and the anger but also the kind of spiritual let-down that people would actually be just thoughtless... this is not a good feeling.
And I really wish that instead of just getting Peter's reaction to that whole ugly Ananias and Sapphira episode, we'd heard a little bit more about how the rest of the community felt. And how they coped. Other than, of course, by clearly registering -- by virtue of remembering and recording the whole mess – that it hit them hard.
Because they had a lot invested, those early Christians, in their need to trust one another. They really did depend on the notion that they were all in it together. That they could count on each other.
So it could be easy to look at this episode and to wonder why the fuss, why Peter's anger is so visceral, why the sense of betrayal practically leaps off the page. I mean, it's only one couple! They should have shared everything, they didn't share everything, but it's only one couple. Who turn out not to be quite as up for full-on "one heart and soul" "share everything" Christian community as maybe they originally thought they would be. I mean, it's regrettable, but presumably there were loads of other people who self-selected out of joining the early Christian community for the very same reason.
So it'd be easy to look at this episode and to wonder why Peter's reaction is so emotionally laden. Unless we take seriously how much the earliest Christians really DID have invested in the notion that they were all in this together.
Because it was a lot. It was everything. It was well-being. It was security.
Peter's not at his best, in this passage. I doubt very much that any of the rest of them were either. It's not a good feeling.
And I wish we knew what they did with it. Apart from Peter, at least, who just let it all out in a stream of invective.
We do get to feel angry. At the end of this week, we get to feel angry. 25, 38, 44, 52. But it's purposeless. And we know that. Peter let fly and honestly, the result was horrifying. And revenge-fantasy moment notwithstanding, I am absolutely certain that he was horrified himself. By what his anger led to.
And probably the rest of them were too.
But here's what we do know. They got through it. The next time we see that early Christian community that had been so profoundly disheartened by that selfishness of Ananias and Sapphira, and so shaken by the insecurity it caused, it's literally just in the next chapter of Acts. When there's suddenly an issue of people in need who have to be taken care of – it happens to be too many hungry widows and not enough helpers –
and lo and behold, there it is! Their community energy! That core of strength and faithfulness. That one heart and soul that binds them together.
It did get shaken, but it's still there. And lo and behold, they manage to put the pieces back together, focus forward and not backward, and they get themselves sorted, they get organized, they get focused – and those widows all get fed.
They got through it. They refocused, they re-concentrated on taking care of each other, they doubled-down defiantly on the notion that we ARE all in this together, and they got through it.
Maybe that's why the episode got remembered. Maybe that's why it got written down. So that in case they ever got hit again, or in case we did, we'd know what was possible. Angry, disheartened, frustrated -- what binds us together heart and soul hasn't changed. We're going to get through it. Amen.