Often, when things aren’t going well in a church, we have a tendency to criticize the leadership. We point fingers at the lay leaders or the pastors or the staff. If the leaders led better, if the minister preached or prayed better, if the staff did better programs, our church would be stronger. I typically have agreed with those assessments, and as a leader in a church, I typically feel a huge burden of responsibility when things aren’t going so well. But here’s a story in Acts 5 that has challenged my thinking on that today.
However, a man named Ananias, along with his wife Sapphira, sold a piece of property. With his wife’s knowledge, he withheld some of the proceeds from the sale. He brought the rest and placed it in the care and under the authority of the apostles. Peter asked, “Ananias, how is it that Satan has influenced you to lie to the Holy Spirit by withholding some of the proceeds from the sale of your land? Wasn’t that property yours to keep? After you sold it, wasn’t the money yours to do with whatever you wanted? What made you think of such a thing? You haven’t lied to other people but to God!” When Ananias heard these words, he dropped dead. Everyone who heard this conversation was terrified. Some young men stood up, wrapped up his body, carried him out, and buried him.
About three hours later, his wife entered, but she didn’t know what had happened to her husband. Peter asked her, “Tell me, did you and your husband receive this price for the field?”
She responded, “Yes, that’s the amount.”
He replied, “How could you scheme with each other to challenge the Lord’s Spirit? Look! The feet of those who buried your husband are at the door. They will carry you out too.” At that very moment, she dropped dead at his feet. When the young men entered and found her dead, they carried her out and buried her with her husband. Trepidation and dread seized the whole church and all who heard what had happened. (Acts 5:1-11 CEB)
I’ve always thought this story was odd and kind of freaky and weird and disturbing. Do they really just drop dead right there on the spot? Ananias and Sapphira are contrasted with Barnabas, who at the end of chapter 4 sells a field and gives all of the money to the apostles. But Ananias and Sapphira decide to keep a little back for themselves and, I’m assuming, give most of what they have to the apostles. That’s pretty good, right? Wouldn’t most churches be beside themselves if every member gave 75% of their money to the work of the church? Why is this such a big deal? Isn’t it normal for people to keep some of their own money? Aren’t we just supposed to give 10% at most to God?
As I’m thinking about it, it seems like there are at least two things going on here that make what Ananias and Sapphira did a big deal.
1) They are dishonest and deceitful to Peter and the rest of the Apostles. Dishonesty and deceitfulness are things that can rot a community from the inside out. When you read the first few chapters of Acts, you see how a tight-knit community is at the heart of this movement of people who are trying to follow Jesus. They care for each other, take care of each other’s needs, and share life together in a radical way, displaying God’s love to the world through their love and care for each other. There must be trust within a community for it to be strong and healthy. Dishonesty and deceitfulness are big-time trust killers. Honesty and transparency are essential.
Dishonesty and deceitfulness can take all kinds of forms in our churches. In my own community, am I being honest and transparent in my dealings with people? Am I speaking the truth? Am I participating in gossip directly or indirectly? When I hear other people say things that aren’t true or that aren’t constructive, am I challenging them or just dismissing them as harmless? Do I talk ABOUT people when I have issues more than talking TO the people I have issues with? What’s the casual conversation like in my Sunday School class or small group that might be destructive to the community rather than constructive?
2) They are unwilling to give everything to God. Peter and John and the other Apostles have seen Jesus give absolutely everything, including his life, for God and for them. As for themselves, they’ve been beaten and live in fear for their own lives and are willing to give their own lives as well. As far as they’re concerned, following Jesus is an all-or-nothing proposition. Following Jesus demands nothing short of their everything, their whole lives, their whole selves, and to be part of this community means giving all of yourself to it. Because a community is only as strong as its weakest members, Ananias and Sapphira compromise the strength of the whole community when they fail to offer all of themselves to it.
How strong is my own commitment to Christ? To my church? God asks for my everything, and when I’m not willing to give that, it doesn’t only affect me, it weakens the whole community.
Churches are weakened when dishonesty, deceitfulness, selfishness, and unwillingness to give our whole selves to God and to sacrifice for the good of the whole are present in any members of the community. Each of us must strive for honesty, transparency, and selflessness, not just the leaders but all the people who make up the community. Building a strong, healthy church is a shared responsibility. If the leaders are weak in these areas, the community is weaker. If the members of the community are weak in these areas, the community is weaker. We all share responsibility together.
This is a long journey and we won’t arrive there overnight, but where can we start? What could I do to be more constructive in my community? What can I stop doing that is destructive in my community?
God, may I give my whole self to you and to your work in the world, not just part of me, not just a few hours of my week, but my whole life.