Today’s reading takes us from the mountaintop to the pit in just a short couple of minutes. We read of the incredible nature of church life amongst the earliest Christians, while also seeing the most sobering situation imaginable.
Jerusalem was an economically volatile place to live, and over time it would be the ongoing situation that among the churches of the early Christian world, the Jerusalem church was the poorest. And collections would be sent from other churches to the mother church for the sustenance of this congregation.
But today we read about the ways by which the first Christians cared for each other and met the needs of the entire gathered group (called here by the word “church” for the first time). The people were of one heart and mind. This is every pastor’s dream for his flock – to see the whole body live together in a covenantal community with one another (a theme for a sermon series in the fall). Their common experience of life empowered by the Holy Spirit gave them a sense of unity and oneness that drove them to give to one another whatever was needed. Generosity abounded. Those who had more were quick to do whatever it would take to help – illustrated by some who sold lands and gave all the proceeds to the Apostles for distribution.
Clearly understand that this was not required – at least not beyond a sense of duty driven by love. There were no rules that stipulated the wealthier were to necessarily live in this fashion of cashing resources. So it is incorrect, as some state of this passage, that this is an example of communism.
An exemplary person in this community was a fellow named Joseph (called Barnabas, meaning “Son of Consolation,” because of his gracious concern and encouragement of other people). He sold a piece of property, giving all the collected resources (as did the others) to the Apostles to wisely distribute where needs were evident.
As we turn to chapter five (remember that chapter and verse divisions are not inspired), we see the first word – “But”. A husband and wife named Ananias and Sapphira likewise sold a piece of land, apparently driven by a desire for the affirmation that came with this sort of generous deed, and not as a result of love and communal commitment. We again see that it was not necessary to have done this, but the way they did it was to conspire to collect the assets of the sale, presenting only a portion of it to the Apostles while giving the impression that it represented a 100% gift.
Both lied about the matter when confronted by Peter – who somehow knew, most likely by divine intervention of knowledge of some sort. And both died and were buried. I grant that it seems at first reading to be an extremely harsh judgment, but God was establishing a principle both within and without the community that sin is serious … that sin will be judged. The effect upon everyone is mentioned twice – that a sober fear fell upon the people.
There are lessons for us for today. There is nothing quite so wonderful as a community that lives together in oneness of heart and compassion and support for one another. It was not like today where in a town filled with varied churches one can flip back and forth to fulfill personal preferences. There was but one body, and they were mutually committed to one another – living in a sort of covenant community relationship that needs to be recovered in the 21st century church. And secondly, sin is a big deal; and the church is not about any one of us, it is about God. The church is not about personal affirmation, but is rather about serving in a way to promote and build the kingdom of God.
The Believers Share Their Possessions – Acts 4:32—5:11
32 All the believers were one in heart and mind. No one claimed that any of their possessions was their own, but they shared everything they had. 33 With great power the apostles continued to testify to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus. And God’s grace was so powerfully at work in them all 34 that there were no needy persons among them. For from time to time those who owned land or houses sold them, brought the money from the sales 35 and put it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to anyone who had need.
36 Joseph, a Levite from Cyprus, whom the apostles called Barnabas (which means “son of encouragement”), 37 sold a field he owned and brought the money and put it at the apostles’ feet.
Ananias and Sapphira
5 Now a man named Ananias, together with his wife Sapphira, also sold a piece of property. 2 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.
3 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? 4 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.”
5 When Ananias heard this, he fell down and died. And great fear seized all who heard what had happened. 6 Then some young men came forward, wrapped up his body, and carried him out and buried him.
7 About three hours later his wife came in, not knowing what had happened. 8 Peter asked her, “Tell me, is this the price you and Ananias got for the land?”
“Yes,” she said, “that is the price.”
9 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.”
10 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. 11 Great fear seized the whole church and all who heard about these events.