There is a story in the bible that for years has been one I like to skip over. It is a story of greed deceit and of death. But these are not the reasons why I skip over this story.
I like to skip over this story because it is a story that I struggle to interpret and understand. Parts of the text make sense to me but other parts make me uncomfortable. And every time I read it, I am tempted to read the parts I like and skip the ones I don’t. (Yes, going to seminary and getting ordained does not give you complete knowledge of the scriptures. Don’t let anyone make you believe otherwise. Going to seminary and getting ordained just means I have some extra tools to study scripture).
Let me share the text with you:
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 just to human beings but to God.”
When Ananias heard this, he fell down and died. And great fear seized all who heard what had happened. Then some 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 conspire to test the Spirit of the Lord? Listen! 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.
What just happened? These people give money to the Church community, keep some behind for themselves, and they die because of it? Why does the Church community need all of it? Isn’t half enough for the Church community? And how do Ananias and Sapphira die? Was it God? Was it Peter? Was it the young men? Better yet, why is death the outcome of their lie?
Do you wonder these same questions or is it just me?
If I am honest with you, I don’t have the answers to these questions. (At least not perfect ones). I have wrestled with them for a long time though. Every time I read texts like the story of Ananias and Sapphira, I stop and I question the text. When I get annoyed, I close my bible and walk away from it. I continuously study theologians of both past and present. And in doing so, I begin to put my understanding together of the bible.
Let me be clear about something. I don’t have authority to just make up a belief or stance on my own. We don’t believe that as United Methodist’s.
I am, however, called to engage with the many who have wrestled and reasoned with these texts for years and years. I am called to apply my understanding of scripture to my context. In the United Methodist Church we believe that reaching a theological conclusion requires us that we use scripture, reflect on our tradition, use reason, and apply to our experience.
So I want to share my thoughts with you about this text.
Right before this text, in Acts 4, we read that the early Church had become one in heart and soul. Because of this, no one claimed any private possession of any possessions, but “everything they owned was held in common” (Acts 4:32).
There is a lot happening in this previous section. The early Church has chosen to place everything they own and possess and place it in a general budget that everyone can use. The theory here is that by sharing all possessions, everyone is better off than by anyone trying to be off on their own.
In the text, Ananias and Sapphira have sold their property and are placing money into this pile of goods that is to be shared among the community. But for reasons unknown to us, perhaps fear of not having enough, Ananias “kept back some of the proceeds and brought only a part and laid it at the apostles feet” (Acts 5:2).
The disciple Peter catches him in his lie, calls him out on it and before we know it, Ananias drops dead. The same thing happens with his wife Sapphira about three hours later.
Here is where I always get caught up. Why did they die?
Maybe the point is not that they died right then and there, but rather that by keeping some of the profits back, they basically refused to fully immerse themselves into trusting the community. And that in and of itself, is the same as dropping dead.
Here is my thought: maybe they died not as a punishment for keeping back money, but rather as a result of trying to live on their own outside of the community.
You see, they wanted the benefit of “sharing all things in common” but they also wanted to have something that was just their own and no one else. It was as if they needed to care for themselves just in case the community let them down, took advantage of them, or ran out of common goods.
They wanted in, but not fully. Just in case.
Do you ever feel that way about the community around you? We want the benefits of the community watching out for us and helping each other, but we want to also have something that is our own. We want to live in community, but we want to be able to seclude ourselves from that community when we don’t benefit from it.
In my community, we are expected to keep our trees trimmed, our grass cut and our house kept up. I appreciate being a part of a community like that because it benefits. But I also find myself at times wishing these rules weren’t in place, especially when those rules affect me. In my back yard, there is a tree that has branches that are getting out of hand. It is so out of hand that the branches are even starting to affect our fence.
According to the community covenant, I should have trimmed this tree and fixed the fence a long time ago, but I don’t want to make the expense just yet. I have bills to pay, I have expenses that need to be made and, to be honest, it just is not a priority because it isn’t directly affecting me. In putting this off, I am saying that I want the benefits of being in community but only if they don’t affect me. (Don’t worry, we are looking at ways to take care of it now).
We can say the same things about church. I have found myself wanting to be in community with the church for all the positive things the community brings. But the second the community requires something of me, I want to walk away, to seclude myself, and let others deal with it. I want to be solitary when the benefits of community stop or pause.
John Wesley stated in one of his sermons that there is no such thing as a solitary Christian. And you know what, I agree.
Can you imagine giving birth to a child and being the only one around to celebrate or rejoice? Can you imagine the death of a loved one and having to go through that entirely on your own? Can you imagine losing your job or getting a promotion and having no one to share that with? Having to do these things on your own would be miserable and completely life sucking.
Perhaps the death that Ananias and Sapphira experience, though it was a real death, also reminds us that going through this life on our own is like a metaphorical death. Outside of community we have nothing. Living life in solitary is not really life at all. Perhaps death is better than a solitary life.
My challenge to you in this new year is to fully become a part of a community. I am biased, but join our Mid City Church community. Join our small groups, come serve with us. Come visit us at our preview services, worship with us at our launch on March 15, 2020. Come be a part of this community.
And if not this community, then I want to encourage you to find a church to be a part of. Be a part of other communities as well. Meet your neighbors, talk to coworkers you don’t know. Get to know the barista at your coffee shop, or your waiter at the restaurant, or the person who delivers your mail. Get involved, make friends, grow in love with God while having others around you. But more than anything, go all in! Don’t be like Ananias and Sapphira and only dive partially in.
Go all in and don’t live a solitary life.
Because while I may not have all the answers to the bible, I do know that a solitary life is not really life at all. Surround yourself with people, with community.
And if you are looking for a community, we always have room at Mid City Church for you!
Together on the journey,