July 30, 2023

Integrity in Community: The Sorry Tale of Two Fake Disciples

A Sermon Preached by Canon Simon Butler

Acts 4:32-5:11

Members of the congregation at St Mary’s were asked to suggest passages of the Bible on which the preaching team could preach this summer, with the expectation that these would be passages that were less familiar or more challenging. This Sunday, Simon was asked to preach on the disturbing story of Ananias and Sapphira, in Acts 4:32-5:11.


I want to thank Jazz Wilson for bowling me the biggest curve ball of the summer sermon series. “Who on earth are Ananias and Sapphira?” asked a member of the congregation the other day, “I’ve never heard of them.”

Well one reason you’ve never heard of the story of Ananias and Sapphira is that it is never read across the three year cycle of readings in any of the mainstream Christian denominations; another reason is that, well, what on earth do you do with a story which involves two church members being struck down dead when they held back some of their belongings when others were being generous? I mean, it would be a brave preacher who used the story to encourage people to give generously to the church: look what happens when you don’t give all that you could! And a third reason to avoid preaching about this passage would be the sense that I have that, if Peter had behaved the way he did in this story, he would rightly have the Diocesan Safeguarding Team looking into his action. Peter’s behaviour is an embarrassment to us. The story is frightful and puzzling.

Some passages simply don’t preach well in the light of what we have learned about human nature and psychology. And it is worth saying, it seems to me, that when we read the Bible we must exercise a degree of care about how to interpret it. The Book of Acts is not a manual for the exercise of contemporary Christian ministry; it is an account of the earliest days of the Church. It may well be that this passage has a ring of truth about it in terms of an event in the life of the earliest days of the church (why on earth would it be in the Bible unless it were something that actually happened; after all it doesn’t show the church in a particularly good light). But that doesn’t mean it invites us to model our behaviour on it.

So, what is the passage about and what can it say to us, if anything at all? I’ll try my best in what follows!

The context here is the explosion of the work of the Holy Spirit after the Day of Pentecost. This doesn’t just have an effect on the relationship between the disciples of Jesus and God; it has an effect on the community of believers. There’s an explosion of growth after Pentecost; but there’s also an explosion of community life: people join in prayer and in listening to the apostles’ teaching. They share in the breaking of bread, whether that is a community meal or an early version of the Eucharist. But they also share what they have: there’s an explosion of generosity. People offer their belongings in what appears to be a Spirit-inspired new way of being community, as they provided from their own resources to support those who had little or no resource of their own. This is totally radical in the context of the culture of the time, especially Roman culture: we can presume that the wealthy supported those who were poor, and the free supported the slaves. I was trying to think of a modern comparison to help us understand the revolutionary nature of the moment. For those in this country, who are used to the idea that healthcare is free at the point of need, we are often bemused by the way some US politicians talk about our NHS as a form of ‘socialism’ that should be resisted by all freedom-loving people.

The society in which the early church emerged was one where there were patrons and clients. The patron would use his wealth to support a series of clients, who would then offer political and social support to the patron. The stories in the early chapters of Acts see a system of patrons and clients being replaced by a system based on love of neighbour.

Enter Ananias and Sapphira. What do they do? Well, they clearly engage in an act of deceit. They want to look like everyone else – unlike coercive forms of Communism in our own age the choice to be generous was not forced. They could have decided not to do it, and this would have been fine. But, unlike open-handed Barnabas, Ananias and Sapphira are calculating. Their decision to keep back a portion of the land they sold reveals that they are not motivated by love of neighbour, but by the system of patronage and influence that was part of the world from which they came. They look generous, but they give for the sake of status, not out of love. As such, in the context of this early explosion of Pentecostal energy, they are impostors. They are pretend disciples.

A couple of things emerge from this story for me. There is something vital to the Christian life about integrity, and about the desire to live as those whose deeds and words match up. The old criticism of the Church is that it is full of hypocrites, to which the answer to the critic is that there is always room for one more hypocrite. None of us escape that accusation, although many of us would be more willing to admit our failure to live up to our calling than Ananias and Sapphira did. Integrity is when you choose your thoughts and actions based on your values rather than personal gain. We can all admit to such a lack of integrity to some degree or another. It’s why penitence is important, as we acknowledge our failure to live lives of integrity; it’s also why discipleship is important, that we are learners from Jesus throughout our lives. Jesus doesn’t ever turn us away when we fail; his patience with us is legendary – it takes him to the cross in the end, that there might always be a way back to God when we wander from the pathway. It’s also why he gives us the Holy Spirit from whom, when we listen to God in prayer, scripture and in the countless other ways God speaks, comes the power of Jesus Christ not just to know the right thing to do, but actually to do it. Ananias and Sapphira think they can gain the honour and respect of the community – and indeed the honour and respect of God – on the cheap. They fail to realise that it is impossible to cheat God, who sees into our hearts. God wants integrity, not half-heartedness.

And the other thing that arises for me from this sad and uncomfortable story is something about the importance of the community. In the story Peter says this to Ananias, “Ananias,’ Peter asked, ‘why has Satan filled your heart to lie to the Holy Spirit and to keep back part of the proceeds of the land?…How is it that you have contrived this deed in your heart? You did not lie to us but to God!’ Peter sees the lie to the community as a lie to God. That’s quite a thing to ponder: a lie to the community is the same as a lie to the Spirit of God. What is going on in the early days of the church is that the early Christians are being formed into a community that practises love, expressed through the concern they have for one another. When Ananias and Sapphira deceive the church, they are shown as falsifying the work of the Holy Spirit, and as such they are presented as something of a threat to the identity of the Christian community. It’s a serious thing indeed to deceive the community of faith. This is an invitation to ponder the responsibility we have to one another as fellow disciples in the church today. In Galatians, Paul underlines this in this verse: “So then, whenever we have an opportunity, let us work for the good of all, and especially for those of the family of faith.”

True, our common life in the church today is very different from the life of the first century post-Pentecost church. But, even in our atomised, individualistic society, with its emphasis on individual rights and freedoms, we are called to live differently, to practise the same love of neighbour as characterised the early Church, and which is at the heart of the message of Jesus. It’s important then that our relationships with one another are good, that we put right by our own actions the things that are wrong, that we practise truthfulness with one another and don’t allow our own need to be seen as righteous to hide our own responsibility to make peace and to seek reconciliation. The practice of generosity, which caught out Ananias and Sapphira so catastrophically, does involve our money of course, but it also involves generosity with so much more. We are called to be generous in our judgments, generous in acknowledging our own faults, generous in ensuring that we do not take advantage of the goodwill of others for our own ends. Community matters to God. And, with its awful consequences for these two fake disciples, we are reminded that causing harm to the community matters an awful lot to God.

Belonging to God, and belonging to the church, bring a change in our orientation. We learn, through trial and error, to honour God by honouring those around us whom he calls into his community of faith. God’s Spirit is given to you and me to enable us to do this. Let us seek the Spirit’s help in this most challenging of tasks – to live in community and to live with integrity. Amen.

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