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A sermon on ACTS 5




Part I: Ananias and Sapphira

A dear friend of mine, a pastor in a Baptist congregation, discovered that the church-treasurer was embezzling congregational funds. He spoke with the church-treasurer about the dishonesty, only to find the man unyielding and defiant. A short while later he spoke with the man again, found him in the same frame of mind, and told him that if he didn’t straighten himself out and replace the money he had stolen the police would have to be notified. The treasurer did nothing. Finally my friend went to the police and had the treasurer arrested. Immediately the congregation turned on my pastor friend and accused him of humiliating everyone in the congregation by washing the church’s dirty laundry in public. With heavy heart my friend left the Baptist pastorate. He has never returned.

How different was the situation with Peter, Ananias and Sapphira, detailed for us in Acts 5. Ananias and Sapphira, husband and wife, church-members in Jerusalem, sold property. Part of the money received in payment they then contributed to the church. The remainder they kept back for themselves. They were denounced as traitors.

What wrong did they commit? They were under no obligation to give any of it to the congregation. They hadn’t had to sell their real estate in the first place. When they had sold, they had given part of the proceeds to the congregation. What had they done wrong?

This: they tried to acquire a reputation for large-hearted generosity fraudulently. They were not wicked in contributing only a part of the proceeds; they were wicked in contributing part while pretending to contribute the whole. They were deliberately deceptive. They schemed to acquire a reputation they didn’t deserve for a virtue they didn’t possess. Their scheme was a ruse, nothing more than calculated deception. Their deed was fraudulent; they themselves were phoneys.

Peter, with the heightened perception of the Spirit-attuned, X-rayed the heart of Ananias and said, “You fraudulent fake! You have lied to the Holy Spirit; you have lied to God.” Ananias collapsed. Dead.

Sapphira, wife of Ananias, sashayed into the church in Jerusalem three hours later. “Did you sell the land for — $50,000?” Peter asked her. “For $50,000 exactly!” she lied brazenly. “How is it that you and your husband colluded to tempt the Spirit of the Lord?” Peter shot back. “Do you hear footsteps at the door? They are the footsteps of the men who have just buried your husband, sister, and now they have come for you.”

Let’s return to my pastor friend. He certainly did the right thing by confronting the church-treasurer. He did the right thing by notifying the police. The congregation, however, did the wrong thing in turning on him and accusing him of washing dirty linen in public.

Luke tells us in Acts 5 that “great fear came upon the whole church, and upon all who heard of these things.” The people were right to fear. They had many reasons to be shaken up. (i) The fraud that Ananias and Sapphira perpetrated was the first outbreak of notorious sin in the young church following Pentecost. (ii) Peter, a leader of apostolic authority, was anything but a mush-head, confused and cowardly in equal measure. Neither was he inclined to pussyfoot around. When notorious sin appeared, he knew what to call it. (iii) Deliberate deception of Christ’s people is always heinous, never to be made light of. (iv) The dishonesty of Ananias and Sapphira, their hypocrisy, was reprehensible. It was more than hypocrisy, however; it was an attempt at “testing God”, a Hebrew idiom whose meaning we shall probe in a moment. (v) Such blatant phoniness, such unconscionable attempts at parading oneself as extraordinarily generous when one is actually corrupt and mean-spirited; this calls forth the judgement of God. And God’s judgement is decisive, thorough, unalterable.

The Christians in Jerusalem knew all this. They were wise to fear.

The story of Ananias and Sapphira illustrates a recurring theme in Luke’s writings, in his gospel as well as the Acts of the Apostles. The recurring theme is hypocrisy and God’s outrage in the face of it. In classical Greek HUPOKRITES meant “actor”, a theatre actor. Gradually the word was extended to mean “dissembler, deceiver”; then the word was extended again to include all the connotations of someone who is intentionally a fake, a phoney, a fraud. Over and over in Luke’s gospel Jesus is found hissing, “Hypocrites!” When our Lord came upon the calculated deceptions of religious phoneys he denounced them on the spot. Few things provoked his rage like the calculated connivings of the cutesies.

One thing has to be noted in this discussion: Jesus does not flay those who aspire to godliness and transparency yet fall short of their aspiration. Any sincere person falls short. And for all sincere people who fall short our Lord has the tenderest word of mercy. But falling short of godly aspiration is as far from calculated duplicity as the east is from the west. Our Lord leaves no doubt of this at all.

Peter told Ananias and Sapphira that by their crafty, cunning, two-faced racket they had “tempted God”, “tested God”. To “test God” is a Semitism, a Hebrew idiom that means, “to see what one can get away with”. When Jesus was tempted or tested in the wilderness he refused to throw himself off the highest point of the temple and see if he would land on the ground intact. Quoting the older testament he had replied to the tempter, “You shall not tempt the Lord your God” — meaning, “We ought never to see what we can get away with.”

Christians love God. Loving God includes obeying God. Then how can anyone who loves God try to see what she can get away with? We try to see what we can get away with only when, in a moment of sin-born folly, our folly-fuelled craftiness eclipses our love for God.

Folly? Yes, folly, because the truth is, in life we get away with nothing. Only a fool thinks that the holy God indulges unrighteousness.

There is another aspect to the story of Ananias and Sapphira that we should comment on. When Peter confronts Ananias he says, “You kept back part of the proceeds of the land you sold!” “Keep back” is the same verb in the Hebrew bible that is used in the story of Achan in Joshua 7. As the Israelites defeat other nations militarily they are forbidden to plunder the goods of the conquered people. Achan, however, covets the silver and gold belonging to the defeated people. Knowing he is supposed to leave it alone, he and his family filch it nonetheless and hide it in their tent. When he and his family are discovered they are put to death.

“Primitive barbarism!” you say. Not entirely; there is more than a little wisdom here. We are told that Achan coveted. If his coveting were indulged, if his coveting were tolerated, then Israel as a whole would be infected with coveting. Once the people were infected with coveting they would be at each other’s throats; the consequences for the community would be disastrous. No community can thrive where coveting is unchecked. Martin Luther pointed that if we violate the tenth commandment (concerning coveting), then we violate them all. For if I covet my neighbour’s goods I end up stealing; if his reputation, I bear false witness against him; if his spouse, I commit adultery, and on so forth. Twelve hundred years after the incident with Achan Paul ranked coveting on the same level as the most lurid, pornography-abetted promiscuity. (In both Eph. 5:3 and Col. 3:5 he weights coveting equal with “fornication and impurity.”) Was he right?

The early church was as horrified at an outbreak of coveting and the deception surrounding it as it was horrified at an outbreak of fornication and the closet-secrecy surrounding that. Ananias and Sapphira wanted to advertise themselves as uncommonly generous people, detached from the octopus stranglehold of money; they wanted to advertise themselves as spiritually superior when all the while they were crafty schemers who wanted to exploit money and hoodwink people. They wanted to enjoy a reputation as self-forgetfully saintly when all the while they were self-promotingly sleazy.

Peter tells them that however many people they may have deceived, they haven’t deceived God. Their folly is huge, since they should have known that God is not mocked. No one gets away with anything, ultimately.

Ananias and Sapphira have much to teach us negatively.


Part II: Peter’s Influence

Peter, on the other hand, has much to teach us positively. People in Jerusalem carried their sick friends into the street so that Peter’s shadow might fall on them. Were these people superstitious? Perhaps an element of superstition lingered in them. After all, what was Peter’s shadow supposed to do for them?

The point that concerns us today is the fact that Peter was esteemed, venerated even, in Jerusalem, the place where he had denied Jesus and had wept inconsolably. Now the risen one has turned him rightside up and put him on his feet. Peter is recognized as leader in the young church.

We should note that no church hierarchy, no bureaucracy, no government has appointed him to such a position. He is recognized a leader, acknowledged a leader, inasmuch as Christians in Jerusalem see him, hear him, talk with him, observe him day-by-day. They know he is to be trusted as their spiritual guide. His influence is immense.

Influence — anyone’s influence — is always to be contrasted with coercion, with what we can do directly, with what we can effect by sheer effort, with what we can engineer wilfully. Influence is what is left to us when we can’t coerce, can’t wrench, can’t engineer, can’t control or dominate.

When I was pastor in Streetsville a congregation in a nearby city asked me about the chairmanship of our official board. Does the minister or a parishioner chair Streetsville’s board? (A parishioner does.) Whereupon I was told, “Any minister who agrees to surrender his power-base and allow a parishioner to chair the board is a minister who isn’t worth his salt.” You see, a minister who surrenders his power-base is left only with his capacity to influence.

This is all Peter had. Yet this was enough for the Christians in Jerusalem. They loved him. They were in awe of him. They considered it an honour just to get close enough to him to have his shadow fall on them.

Think of our Lord Jesus Christ. Once he has decided to go to the cross he has renounced all control; influence is all he has left. No one, after all, is more powerless than someone skewered to a cross. Does anyone second-guess him for his decision, even fault him? “And I, if I be lifted up, will draw all (manner of) men to myself.” Will draw them, not drive them; he has renounced driving in favour of drawing. “Any minister who agrees to surrender his power base…isn’t worth his salt.” Surely no one wants to say that by going to the cross the Sovereign One has rendered himself useless.

A year or two ago I was in the home of a church member when the fellow told me I had saved his life. (My ears perked up since it isn’t every day I am told that I have saved life.) It turned out that a few weeks earlier I had mentioned in a sermon that the older I became the more I realized how small is the sphere of my control, even as I realized how large is the sphere of my influence. Therefore I was free to relinquish all desperate attempts at having control, free to shed the frustration at not being able to control, free to rest content in my influence, knowing that under God this was enough. It was only a line in the sermon, not even a major point, let alone the entire sermon. When I returned home from making my house-call I pondered my own line. It has since saved my life many times over.

Not so long ago I had lunch with three middleaged women from St.Joseph’s Roman Catholic Church in Streetsville. Two of the women are gainfully employed. The third one, not gainfully employed, I met years ago when I was visiting in the psychiatric ward of Mississauga Hospital. Although she wasn’t a parishioner, I always spent time with her in the course of visiting our own people in hospital. She had been ill; deranged, in fact. I had called on her once a week for twelve consecutive weeks before she was discharged. A few months later she was back in hospital, psychotic once more. This time I called on her for thirteen consecutive weeks. She hasn’t been psychotic since. She is well, yet remains fragile, and is somewhat apprehensive on account of her fragility. As the lunch with my friends unfolded this woman lamented that she is the only one of the four of us who isn’t gainfully employed. She said she feels useless, can’t do anything, anything worthwhile, anything helpful. Not only did she lament this, she was enormously frustrated by it.

I spoke gently about the difference between control and influence, coercion and influence, force and influence. Then I reminded her that she loves me and she prays for me. What could be more important? Her cheerful disposition brightens many. How many people can say as much? Most importantly, her courage during her psychiatric downturns has continued to supply courage for dozens of other people who have fallen ill and would otherwise believe that they are never going to be well again. I told her how often I have mentioned to ill people (without divulging any confidences) that I know someone who was deranged and who recovered. I told my friend that her influence is vastly greater than she will ever know.

This woman is a Roman Catholic, married to a truck driver. With respect to denominational affiliation, social position, education, cultural preferences; with respect to these matters she and I live on different planets. Yet her influence is limitless, none of which she sees.

For a long time now I have pondered the link between influence and intimacy. Of course there is a link: my wife’s influence on me is huge, while her coercion of me is minimal. Plainly our intimacy is the context and vehicle of her influence. To be intimate with someone is to know that person well. Or is to be known well? Or is it both?

Martin Buber, one of Jewry’s finest 20th century philosophers, maintained that what we know of a person must never be confused with information we have about that person. What we know of a person is the extent to which we ourselves have been changed by that person. What I know of my wife is the alteration she has brought about in me. Please note this carefully: what I know of her is exactly the difference she has made in me. In other words, we know someone else only to the extent that that person has changed us. (Buber, of course, developed his understanding from his grasp of what the Hebrew bible means by “knowledge of God.” We know God precisely to the extent that we have been changed by him.)

Dozens of people who have no control over me have nevertheless changed me profoundly; which is to say, I know them. Dozens of people over whom I have no control I have nevertheless changed; which is to say, they know me.

All of this adds up to one thing: influence is infinitely more important than control. We must never so bewail our inability to control that we cease praising God for our influence.

Peter, turned rightside up by the risen one, was possessed of measureless influence; people were helped just to have his shadow fall on them.


Part III: The Conviction and Assurance of Peter and John

Acts 5 concludes in a way that always moves me. “Then they [Peter and John] left the presence of the council, rejoicing that they were counted worthy to suffer dishonour for the name [of Jesus]. And every day in the temple and at home they did not cease teaching and preaching Jesus as the Christ.”

Peter and John had been arrested a second time inasmuch as they had defied the authorities and had continued both to proclaim Jesus as the world’s sole saviour and to denounce the authorities as murderous. The apostles’ imprisonment had concluded with a beating and release. At the end of it all, so far from remaining silent as instructed, they were found commending Jesus Christ to anyone who would listen.

I am always moved at their unalterable conviction of the truth of Jesus Christ; moved again at their unerodable assurance of their inclusion in the life of the risen one himself. The authorities tell them to be quiet lest they be jailed again? They reply, “Do what you want with us. We must not, cannot, suppress the truth. We are witnesses [that God has exalted him as Leader and Saviour].”

A witness, be it noted, is not the same as an announcer. An announcer simply makes announcements. The announcer announces whatever he is told to announce. The announcer is himself detached from whatever he announces. In fact he has acquired the announcement itself third-hand.

A witness to Jesus Christ is different. The witness testifies to that event which has swept up and seized the witness himself. Whereas the announcer is personally uninvolved in the news he is spouting, being no more than a mouthpiece for it, the witness has first-hand experience of the event to which he is testifying; he embodies it.

Right here we must be careful to distinguish the gospel understanding of witness from the modern understanding. In a modern setting a witness (of an automobile collision, for instance) must, by law, be impartial, someone who observed the event but was not involved in it. With respect to the gospel, however, the opposite is the case: the witness must be someone who didn’t merely observe the event but was (and is) involved in it.

Peter and John, having been drawn into the risen Christ’s life, cannot remain silent about his truth or about their involvement with him. The authorities insist they shut up? They must speak, not because they are ornery or unmindful of the pain the authorities can inflict, but just because their immersion in Jesus Christ renders silence impossible.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer was told to remain silent. He didn’t remain silent, and was hanged. Martin Niemoeller was told to remain silent, and instead he told Hitler to his face that Hitler was a coward who had no right to molest the church. Oscar Romero was told to remain silent, and the authorities in El Salvador had the archbishop gunned down. Gunpei Yamamuro, a leader of The Salvation Army in Japan, was told to remain silent, and was beaten half to death repeatedly by order of the Japanese government.

We must never confuse tenacity concerning the gospel with orneriness or rigidity. Peter and John were neither ornery nor rigid. Jesus Christ had seized them and commissioned them witnesses.

At the end of the day Peter and John know who they are because they first know whose they are. Knowing this, they are unable to remain silent. If their testimony brings them suffering, then knowing why they are suffering is reason for rejoicing.

And so the gospel spreads unstoppably.


                                                                                                        Victor Shepherd       

September 2000