The Heart of the Church

Acts 4:32-5:11

We don’t like this passage. It’s one of those that we would rather skip over, or better yet, erase from our New Testament. It seems too judgmental, too demanding. It sounds too… Old Testament. We want an easy-going, non-judgmental God who is happy with whatever leftovers we toss his way. And granted, I’m not expecting any sudden funerals this morning after the offering, but it does highlight the seriousness with which God looks at our commitments and our giving – and even more than that – our hearts.

Our passage begins with a reaffirmation of what we have already read about the unity and generosity of the church. How could you not want to be a part of that? To be a part of something that is so powerful and dynamic? Look at vs. 32 – there were thousands of Christians in Jerusalem by now and Luke writes “All the believers were one in heart and mind.” No critical remarks in the lobby, no cliques separating “us” from “them”, no meetings in the parking lot to discuss the faults of the apostles. They were “one in heart and mind,” and that doesn’t mean there weren’t things they could have polarized and separated over – it means they intentionally chose to be united in harmony.

And it wasn’t just a surface harmony – you know what I’m talking about – lots of lip service to being one, but back-biting and dissension underneath. This unity had legs on it – “No one claimed that any of his possessions was his own, but they shared everything they had.” They put their money where their mouth was. Vs. 34 continues that thought – “There were no needy persons among them. For from time to time those who owned lands or houses sold them, brought the money from the sales and put it at the apostles' feet, and it was distributed to anyone as he had need.”

The heart of the church is found in the way we treat each other. It’s one thing to say you love one another, but what are you going to do about it? We see what they did about it. They put their lives on the line for each other. Why would you do that? What could compel you to just give it all away?

When you read this paragraph, did you wonder what vs. 33, was doing there? Vs. 32 talks about sharing their possessions, vs. 34 talks about sharing their possessions, and there stuck in the middle is vs. 33 – “With great power the apostles continued to testify to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and much grace was upon them all.”

Vs. 33 is the key to the passage. You’ll go just so far and give just so much because you’re a nice person and a generous humanitarian. But their unity and generosity isn’t because they were nice people – it’s because of the resurrection of Jesus Christ, and the grace they had experienced in his forgiveness. They weren’t following a humanitarian leader, they were following a risen Lord. And you aren’t likely to be generous and extend grace unless you have first experienced that kind of unconditional grace and generosity. Vs. 33 is the key to the passage, because it gives us the reason for all of this. Doctrine always precedes practice. What you believe about God will mold the way you live. You will imitate the God you believe in, and they believed that Jesus was risen from the tomb and ruling in their lives, and grace had been poured into their hearts – and that’s why they could go and sell their lands and possessions and just give it away to take care of each other.

And is it any wonder that it is in this context of unity and generosity that we meet Barnabas – I love Luke’s note telling us that his name means “Son of Encouragement.” We’re going to see Barnabas again and again in Acts and it will always be standing up for someone, giving someone a hand, pouring his life out for others. Paul would have never made it if it hadn’t been for Barnabas; Mark would have remained a rejected quitter if it hadn’t been for Barnabas; the church at Antioch would have been just a little struggling mission spot if it hadn’t been for Barnabas. So, I’m not surprised that the first time we meet Barnabas, he’s giving something away to take care of brothers and sisters in Christ.

Well, apparently he started something. People looked around and said, “now wasn’t that a great thing to do” and they followed suit and sold property and brought the money to the apostles to distribute to the needy. And I’m sure those who did were admired and appreciated by others and everybody wanted to get in on that… including a couple named Ananias and Sapphira.

It’s an unsettling story, because it’s not as much about giving as it is about the heart. We’ve seen the heart of the church – what it should be/can be – here we get a frightening picture of what it could be – Acts 5:1-11 Now a man named Ananias, together with his wife Sapphira, also sold a piece of property. With his wife’s full knowledge he kept back part of the money for himself, but brought the rest and put it at the apostles’ feet. Then Peter said, “Ananias, how is it that Satan has so filled your heart that you have lied to the Holy Spirit and have kept for yourself some of the money you received for the land? Didn’t it belong to you before it was sold? And after it was sold, wasn’t the money at your disposal? What made you think of doing such a thing? You have not lied to men but to God.” When Ananias heard this, he fell down and died. And great fear seized all who heard what had happened. Then the young men came forward, wrapped up his body, and carried him out and buried him. About three hours later his wife came in, not knowing what had happened. Peter asked her, “Tell me, is this the price you and Ananias got for the land?” “Yes,” she said, “that is the price.” Peter said to her, “How could you agree to test the Spirit of the Lord? Look! The feet of the men who buried your husband are at the door, and they will carry you out also.” At that moment she fell down at his feet and died. Then the young men came in and, finding her dead, carried her out and buried her beside her husband. Great fear seized the whole church and all who heard about these events.

They are apparently a wealthy couple, because they owned land, and that put them in a financially elite crowd in the newborn church. They see the example of Barnabas and others who are selling property and giving it to others – and I don’t know whether they were feeling pressure to do what they really didn’t want to do, or that they just were being led by pride and the desire to be admired for their generosity – but they sell some land and give the money to the apostles… but not all of it.

And here’s where the problem comes. They lie about it. They put their heads together and made a decision to give only part of the proceeds, but to tell them they gave it all. We look at this from our superior position and say, “how could they?!” But haven’t you ever fudged the figures to come out in your favor, or painted the picture a little brighter to make yourself look better? Haven’t you done what everyone else is doing because you wanted to fit in? That’s what they did. And that’s where Peter challenges Ananias.

But what we excuse as a little exaggeration or white lie, Peter nails as a Satan-filled heart and lying to the Holy Spirit. Ananias comes in alone to deliver the money to the apostles. If I’m guessing, it was with a bit of show and vanity. Peter asks him, “So, Ananias, you and the wife sold your land to give to God? That’s quite a generous gift, giving all that to the Lord.” “Oh, yes, that’s just the kind of people we are, giving it all to the Lord.” What Ananias doesn’t know is that Peter knows. And Peter shows him how sinful his deceit was.
· You didn’t have to sell the land, it was yours to keep.
· When you sold it, you weren’t obligated to give any of it away – you could have kept all of it for yourselves.
· But you sold it to give to God – and lied that you had given it all when you hadn’t.
· And Peter throws up his hands – “What made you think of doing such a thing?”
· And then the most damning accusation of all – “You have not lied to men but to God.”

What follows is a horrific moment. Peter doesn’t pronounce a sentence of judgment. There is no remorseful cry for mercy. Just, bam! Ananias fell down dead. I don’t know if Peter expected it – I know that nobody else saw it coming. But listen to the impact it had – “And great fear seized all who heard what had happened.” I’ll bet it did. Everybody starts thinking back to times they had been less than honest, when they had let their pride get the best of them. “That could have been me!”

They carry Ananias out and bury him… and wait. Three hours pass and Ananias’ wife Sapphira shows up. She was probably looking for Ananias, wondering what was keeping him. “He was going to come down to deliver the money and then come home – that was three hours ago – have you seen him?”

Instead of an answer, Peter asks her a question, “Tell me, is this the price you and Ananias got for the land?” “Yes, that is the price.”

Perhaps Peter was hoping she would come clean and tell the truth, but with his fears confirmed he looks her in the eye and says, “How could you agree to test the Spirit of the Lord? Look! The feet of the men who buried your husband are at the door, and they will carry you out also.” And just as death had come to Ananias, Sapphira falls down dead, and the young men come and bury her with her husband.

And if you think Ananias’ death caused a reaction, Sapphira’s death had to be like an 8.2 shockwave on the Richter scale. Luke writes, “Great fear seized the whole church and all who heard about these events.”

When was the last time you saw somebody drop dead when confronted with sin? This is like something out of the Old Testament, when God took sin seriously. It reminds you of names like Achan and Nadab and Abihu and Lot’s wife, when God took matters into his own hands.

And I hope the impact of this isn’t lost on us. It’s easy to slip back into a easy-going complacency toward sin. Don’t worry about sin, God has more important things on his mind. As long as nobody gets hurt – nobody will be the wiser.

The problem is that sin always does damage. Our dismissal of sin with nobody getting hurt is so short sighted, because it assumes that sin is all about us. The problem is that sin is all about the cross – where Jesus died for our sin – and the Hebrews writer tells us that when we wink at sin and dismiss sin as unimportant it is as if we are “crucifying the Son of God all over again and subjecting him to public disgrace.”

When there is sin in the ranks, it affects the church. When we allow Satan to get a foothold among us he begins with an infection that grows and spreads. What we think is private has a way of moving among us and as it moves among us, it’s amazing how quickly the world around us finds out. And when we refuse to take sin seriously and we fail to deal with it in our own lives and in the church, we are giving Satan the opportunity he is looking for to cripple and destroy the church from within, and destroy her influence and effectiveness without.

Sin is too dangerous to be treated lightly. The church is too precious to be exposed to such danger. Let’s not wait for the shockwave of sin to set us back on our heels and cause great fear to seize us. Let’s deal with it in our lives. It’s time to throw open those secret closets and let God deal with the hidden sin that we’ve kept from him.

Let me close by going back to the picture Luke painted before Ananias and Sapphira. And the picture is even more powerful having seen how the church dealt with the potential threat to it. This was a church that generously and eagerly poured themselves out for each other. When there were needs they responded. When they saw opportunities they gave. And when the world around us sees that, it cannot help but take notice.