June 14, 2020
In high school, I did an independent study on utopias. I read fiction and non-fiction, and what I mostly remember from that study is that utopias don’t exist. In the first part of today’s reading, though, it sure sounds like it:
- The people had powerful spiritual experiences
- They were of one heart and soul
- They had all things in common
- And there was not a needy person among them
This vision of a great utopian church is often held up as a model–but no one can really figure out exactly how this early community of Jesus followers operated.
Even within the utopian vision there is contradiction. We are first told that “no one claimed private ownership of any possessions,” but then it seems that people are selling the land and houses that they own. And then Barnabas is commended for selling a field and laying the money at the apostle’s feet. Which is great and all. But the text doesn’t lead us to believe that he sells everything. I suppose it’s possible that field was all he owned, but probably not. And, then Peter says to the ill-fated Ananias: “While the land remained unsold, did it not remain your own? And after it was sold, were not the proceeds at your disposal?”
So apparently not all things were held in common. Some people did claim private ownership of possessions. And that was O.K.?
One of the reasons I wanted to study the book of Acts this summer and think about the theme of “Being Church” is because the way we function and operate and especially the way we worship as a church has shifted because of COVID-19. The old rules are gone and new rules are in place. For some of you it may seem like those of us planning worship and leading the church know what we’re doing. But we don’t. We’re all making this up as we go.
And that was true, even more so, for the earliest followers of Jesus. Sure, Jesus had told them to love God and each other. He had told them that the last would be first and that the Kingdom of God was like a mustard seed and that he is the resurrection and the life . . . but Jesus never laid out a structure for church officers or discussed the proper economic model for the church.
These first Christians had to take the principles Jesus taught them and figure out for themselves what those principles would look like, practically, in community. And they were kind of inconsistent and unclear about how they should function as a church. Which actually feels very familiar and rather comforting.
Everyone getting along and being of “one heart and soul” and having no needy people among you—that all seems really hard and pretty elusive. But being inconsistent and unclear? That’s the church I know and love.
Still, at least at this point in Acts, we have what is—if not a completely utopian image—at least a generally positive picture of the earliest group of Jesus-followers.
Barnabas– who goes on to be a great leader in the church and accompany Paul on many missionary journeys–may not sell all of his property, but he sells what we assume to be a valuable field and donates all the money to the community—for the leaders to “distribute to each as any had need.”
Then, of course, we get to the highly disturbing story of Ananias and Sapphira. (As a side note, why do we hear about Ananias’ wife and not Barnabas’ wife? I mean, there is only one woman named in this whole passage and she doesn’t come out too well.)
Anyway, Ananias and Sapphira also sell a piece of property. And they also lay money at the apostle’s feet. Except, though they claim to be giving all of the money, they actually only share part of the money.
So, naturally, they are struck dead in quick succession.
It’s a troubling story that brings up all kinds of questions about the nature of God and grace and sin and punishment. Those are good things to talk about—another time.
Today, I’m not so much interested in approaching this as a factual story that says something about God, but as a story that, for some reason, the writer of Acts thought it was important to include in their history of the church.
My Old Testament professor used to say that the Bible is the word of God about the nature of God and the nature of God’s people. I think that Ananias and Sapphira’s story may have more to say about the nature of God’s people and the church than it says about God.
After the pious act of Barnabas giving all the money to the church, it is easy to read the story of Ananias and Sapphira as a story about generosity. I joked with Ryan that I was going to use this as my stewardship sermon—you all better send checks to Roberta this week . . . or else.
And while generosity is an important element for the early church—and for any healthy community—and while you should most definitely support the church financially as you are able—I don’t think that’s why the writer of Acts includes this story.
I don’t think this is the first century equivalent of a stewardship sermon. I think this story is here because it is ultimately a story about trust.
Peter says that Ananias and Sapphira did not have to sell their property. And once it was sold, they did not have to give the money to the church.
But what they did have to do—what they should have done—is be honest with their community.
This makes a lot of sense. For any community to be healthy, the people who are part of that community need to be honest with each other. This is true of communities as small as couples and as large as nations. When you can’t trust each other, things get bad.
And the earliest church is in a particularly precarious position, which makes honesty and trust even more important. One thing the early followers of Jesus were known for—and sometimes persecuted for—was including all different kinds of people in their community. While the broader society maintained pretty strict divisions along the lines of gender, nationality, and class, the church sought to form a community that was broadly inclusive and equitable.
It’s a noble idea. But so hard to do. The wealthy elites were not used to being on equal footing with peasant farmers. And peasant farmers were not used to dealing with wealthy elites who had their best interests at heart. Women were not used to having a public voice—and men were not used to listening to them.
In essence, the early church was bringing together people who were not used to trusting each other. They were working very hard to build that trust. One way they did that was by the wealthy members giving generously of their wealth to care for those with less wealth. The wealthy said they cared about their fellow community members, and then they showed that care in a tangible way. This built the trust that was essential for the church to grow and thrive.
It’s not about the money that Ananias and Sapphira held back. It’s about the very fragile trust they threatened in the community. The person who wrote Acts wanted to strengthen the church, and to do that they had to assure people that those within the church were trustworthy. And what better way to show that the community is trustworthy than to tell a story of liars who are dealt with harshly?
I am in no way promoting harsh punishments for lying—or any other bad behavior. I do, however, think it is important to pay attention to the emphasis this story places on the need for communities to be a place where we can trust each other. And—more than that—where we are trustworthy for each other.
Especially right now when we are discussing new ways of being church and how to keep each other safe and healthy during Covid; especially now when we are talking in earnest about racial injustice and white fragility; especially now when we are questioning social structures and institutions in new and possibly scary ways . . . especially right now, the church needs to be a community of trust.
We need to be able to trust each other if we hope to have productive, meaningful conversations. And we need to be seen as trustworthy if we want the broader world to listen to anything we have to say.
Church utopia may not be a realistic goal, but I believe we can, as a church, present a basically positive image of what it means to be followers of Jesus. We can be generous and take care of all who have need. We can be honest in our words and our actions—people worthy of trust in a world searching for voices with integrity.