The first lesson appointed for today, Acts 4:32-35, comes to us from the New Testament book of Acts.
It takes place not only after Jesus’ resurrection from the dead, but also some time after Pentecost, the day when the crucified and risen Jesus sent the Holy Spirit to the disciples.
At one level, the topic of today’s lesson is money, which seems an odd thing to be talking about on the Second Sunday of Easter.
But Jesus said more about money than He did about heaven and hell combined. And for good reason: As Quaker theologian Richard Foster has pointed out, money is a power in this world, an alternative god that many people follow and give their lives for.
Every day, you and I must decide whether we will control the money we have or whether money will control us.
If we repose our hope in money or in anything other than Jesus, we separate ourselves from the risen Jesus, the only One Who can give us a life worth living on this earth or a life with God beyond the grave.
Today's appointed lesson, Acts 4:32-35, is just the start of a slightly longer story that Luke, the author of Acts, wants to tell us. Today, I want to look not only at the beginning of the story, but also its completion in Acts 5.
So, please go to Acts 4:32. There, we’re told that the first Christians were united and “neither did anyone say that any of the things he [or she] possessed was [their] own, but they had all things in common...” Now, slip down to verse 34: “Nor was there anyone among them who lacked; for all who were possessors of lands or houses sold them, and brought the proceeds of the things that were sold, and laid them at the apostles‘ feet.”
Nobody told the first Christians that they had to share with each other or take care of poorer fellow Christians. Out of simple gratitude to Christ for dying and rising to give them forgiveness for their sins and everlasting life with God, they made the decision that they would all take care of one another. They responded to the radical act of God in Jesus with a radical commitment to His Lordship over their lives.
In 2 Corinthians 9:7-8, Paul writes: “Each of you must give as you have made up your mind [notice, he doesn’t say, “as someone tells you to give”], not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver [the original Greek more literally says, “a hilarious giver”]. And God is able to provide you with every blessing in abundance, so that by always having enough of everything, you may share abundantly in every good work.” According to our lesson, the first Christians were living this way of life. Because of their belief in Jesus, no one among them went without anything they needed.
Now look at Acts 4:36: “And Joses, who was also named Barnabas by the apostles (which is translated Son of Encouragement) [it was his nickname], a Levite of the country of Cyprus, having land, sold it, and brought the money and laid it at the apostles‘ feet.”
This is faith in the risen Jesus! In those days, land equaled wealth, which equaled prosperity. As long as you had land, you could farm it, sell its produce, and eat the rest of the crops yourself. With land, you probably would never go hungry. And if you ever ran into a rough financial patch, you could sell off parcels of it and have enough money to float through until the good times returned. Land meant financial security.
Yet, here was Barnabas, selling off his land, selling off his financial security, because he believed in Jesus more than he believed in financial security.
The story of Barnabas is a positive, joyful expression of faith in Jesus.
Yet, even in a church in which there was so much faith, where believers voluntarily gave themselves to Christ and to one another, there was also unbelief.
That’s what we see in what Luke writes next in Acts, the second act in his narrative about the early Christians and their possessions. Look at Acts 5:1-2: “A certain man named Ananias, with Sapphira his wife, sold a possession. And he kept back part of the proceeds, his wife also being aware of it, and brought a certain part and laid it at the apostles’ feet.”
People like Barnabas gave all they had voluntarily. When they did so, obviously, the early Church was grateful, even though, we know from other things we learn about his life from Acts and from the writings of Paul that Barnabas did what he did to honor God, not to gain people’s gratitude.
Ananias and Sapphira wanted to be complimented and revered like Barnabas. And they wanted to do it on the cheap. They wanted the title of sacrificial, giving Christians without making the sacrifices or truly trusting that Jesus would take care of them.
They were like people who want...
- Easter without Good Friday,
- forgiveness without repentance,
- the power of Jesus at work in their lives without surrendering to Jesus,
- Christianity without the stuff in God’s Word, the Bible, they don’t like.
Satan, Peter writes in the New Testament book of 1 Peter, is like a roaring and ravenous lion, looking for who to destroy, even among Christians who claim to follow Jesus, yet lack the self-discipline to seek God's help in resisting temptation.
Maybe Peter had the memory of Ananias in mind when he wrote those words. Ananias had listened to Satan telling him, “Better hold back some for yourself. Who do you trust: yourself and your own judgment or an unseen Holy Spirit you can’t see sent by Savior you can’t see?” Ananias caved. He believed more in himself and his money and craved the accolades of others more than he did believed in or craved Jesus.
In verse 5, we’re told that Ananias heard Peter’s words and fell down dead. Then it says, “So great fear came upon all those who heard these things.” I’ll bet!
The book of Hebrews says that it’s a fearful thing to fall into the hands of living God. The first Chritians saw just how fearful the moment that Ananias fell dead.
Through the years, some members in the churches I’ve served as pastor have used this passage as a reason for not estimating their giving for the coming year. “I don’t want to lie to God if my financial situation changes,” they tell me.
Listen: God will never hold us accountable for promises we can’t keep, only those we refuse to keep.
Ananias made a promise not commanded of him by God or the Church. But having made that promise, he deliberately broke it.
Could he have been forgiven? Of course he could have been, had he been repentant. But there’s no evidence of that. Nor was his wife Sapphira repentant. When confronted by Peter, she stuck with the same lie and met the same fate.
What are we to make of these events?
At the beginning today, I said that at one level, this lesson is about money. But it’s also about other things.
Look at Acts 5:11. Sapphira has just, like her husband, fallen over dead. We’re told: “So great fear came upon the church and all who heard these things.”
This is the first time in the book of Acts that Luke refers to the first Christians as “the church.” The word translated as church in the Greek language in which the New Testament was written is ekklesia, which literally means “called out ones.”
The church is the fellowship of believers in Jesus who have been called out of the world to stand under Jesus’ lordship, who claim Jesus as the center and the only hope of their lives.
When we submit to Jesus’ lordship, we also become part of a fellowship in which we are accountable to our fellow Christians.
The Church is that group of people who, in response to Christ’s promise of forgiveness and new life for all who repent and believe in Him, make promises of our own. Our promises may be to trust in Jesus, be faithful in our marriages, or to listen to the Holy Spirit when He tells us the truth about sin and about forgiveness. But when we make promises to God, the Church is there to remind us of those promises, help us keep them, show us when we have failed to keep them, and encourage us when we have kept them.
All of this is what Jesus calls, “the keys of the kingdom,” the power and responsibility to declare forgiveness to the repentant and condemnation to the unrepentant. We see Jesus giving this job to the Church in our Gospel lesson for this morning, on the evening of His resurrection: "Jesus said to them again, 'Peace be with you. As the Father has sent Me, so I send you.' When He had said this, He breathed on them and said to them, 'Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them if you retain the sins of any, they are retained" (John 20:21-23).
Peter confronted Ananias and Sapphira not because he was a holier than thou busybody, but because he knew Satan was at work in their lives and wanted to give them a chance to repent and get back on track with God and because when we fail to challenge Satan’s attacks on believers, the witness of the Church for Christ is compromised. This is why Martin Luther said that in every sermon, a preacher must proclaim both God’s law and God’s promise or else the whole truth about God hasn’t been proclaimed.
But here, I think, we come to the deepest point of what Luke wants to show us in these verses of Acts 4 and 5.
Luke compares and contrasts belief and unbelief. It’s very easy to look like a Christian. And, unlike Ananias and Sapphira, we may get away with it until the days we die far less dramatically than they did.
But why settle for looking like Christians when we can actually be Christians? Authentic belief in Jesus may entail greater sacrifice and greater truthfulness before God than the fake Christianity it can be so easy for us to adopt.
But fake faith always ends in death.
True faith always ends in resurrected life with Jesus Christ!
Which do we prefer? That’s a question we need to answer with our lives every day.
We watched Bonhoeffer: Agent of Grace yesterday in Catechism class. Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a Lutheran pastor in Germany who opposed Hitler and his Nazi regime, not because he thought the Church or pastors should be involved in politics, but because the Nazis demanded that Hitler be worshiped alongside God.
In the movie’s closing scene, Bonhoeffer is about to be executed and someone says to him, “So now it ends?” Bonhoeffer replies quietly, “No.” Then, he stepped onto the scaffold to his death.
When you belong to the crucified and risen Jesus, when you’re repentant for your sins and believe that Jesus is your only hope, you know that the end of this life is not the end of your life.
Following Jesus frees us to make and keep outrageous promises, to hold Him first, last, and foremost in our lives even when Satan and things like materialism or the praise of others falsely gained, try luring us away from Christ.
Jesus frees us to be outrageously giving, believing, encouraging believers like Barnabas--to be part of Christ’s true and eternal church.
May the Holy Spirit empower all of us who are part of Saint Matthew to be outrageously believing followers of Jesus every day of our lives.