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A Sharing Community


Acts 4:32-5:16


“All the believers were one in heart and mind,” Luke tells us. To say they were one in mind is to say they were united in their understanding; in their understanding of the gospel, in their understanding of him whose gospel it is, in their understanding of the mission to which they had been appointed; in their understanding of the world — with all its turbulence and treachery and turpitude — which the Christ-appointed mission is to engage.

And just as they were one in mind, so they were one in heart; that is, their experience mirrored and confirmed understanding of their Lord and his truth, of the task which he had assigned them and his promise wherewith he sustained them. Whatever they grasped with their mind they also found grasping their heart as understanding and experience interpenetrated each other, interpreted each other, corrected each other. In other words they didn’t display the grotesque disfigurement of a one-sided cerebralism that is devoid of matching experience, or the no less grotesque disfigurement of a sentimentality devoid of intellectual substance. Mind and heart, understanding and experience, truth and discipleship, comprehension and conviction: the earliest Christian community appeared not to be afflicted with that religious lopsidedness which leaves Christ’s people lurching.

Luke insists that they were one in heart and mind. No doubt there were several reasons why the apostolic community was united.

[1] In the first place they were all united to Christ. To be united to Christ was at the same time to be united to one another. Jesus Christ always renders one with each other all whom he renders one with himself. According to Scripture, all who are converted to the Master are added to his body. No one can be bound — or can claim to be bound — to Jesus and yet be unrelated to the Church. We should note, while we are considering this point, that Scripture never suggests that Christians must strive to render themselves one. Christians are never urged to bring unity to the body of Christ. They are never urged to constitute themselves that body. Their unity, rather, is given them in Christ, by Christ. They are henceforth to attest it, magnify it, live it, and take care not to contradict it. But they are never told they are to fashion it. Jesus Christ is himself the truth and reality of the individual who clings to him and also of his people collectively, his body. The unity of Christ’s people is given and guaranteed by the fact that Jesus Christ himself isn’t fragmented.

[2] The people of whom Luke writes were one, in the second place, in that they were together the beneficiaries of the Holy Spirit. Throughout his earthly ministry Jesus had been the unique bearer of the Spirit; now the exalted Christ was the unique bestower of the Spirit. Pentecost had been the final act in the saving ministry of Jesus Christ before the parousia. His people, beneficiaries of his teaching, his atoning death, and his victorious vindication, were now the beneficiaries of that last act which completed all he came to do and give for their salvation. Pentecost was as crucial for Christ’s people as the cross. They were one in the Spirit precisely to the extent that they were one in his death and his resurrection.

[3] They were one, in the third place, in that the Pentecost outpouring of the Spirit had been the reversal of Babel. “Babel” was a one-word abbreviation for the darkest recesses in the human heart that had continued to find men and women disdaining the goodness of God, despising their creatureliness, seeking to construct a monument to themselves that would allow them to boast that at last they rivalled God, even eclipsed him. Their culpable presumption had found them scattered by God’s judgement, unable to understand each other, unable to communicate with each other. Pentecost, however, had overturned Babel, gathering into one all who clung in humble faith to a crucified Messiah. Now believers of utmost diversity — racial, ethnic, linguistic, cultural — discovered that reconciliation with God through Christ overcame their ingrained hostility to each other. And as the Holy Spirit had communicated the gospel to them they were now able to communicate with each other.

[4] Undoubtedly there was a fourth reason for the community’s oneness, a reason, this time, that any social scientist grasps: the earliest Christians had been molested individually and collectively, and the more they were molested the more they found comfort and consolation in each other amidst relentless pressure.

Peter and John had already been imprisoned. “After further threats [the authorities] let them go,” we are told.(Acts 4:21) Sure, Peter and John were the primary targets, but all who claimed kinship with them and owned them publicly (that is, all the early-day Christians) were no less threatened themselves. Even the Criminal Code of Canada recognizes that the threat of an assault is itself an assault. The threat of an assault has to be a criminal offence just because the assault threatened is as much a psychological violation as the assault performed. Like Peter and John, Christ’s community had suffered at the hands of the state, at the hands of religious authorities, and at the hands of the mobs.

Of course the community was one. It was suffused with the Spirit; it knew itself to be God’s demonstration project in the reversal of Babel; it had been targeted only to find that abusers drove them into each other’s arms as surely as the abusers drove them into the arms of him whose cross was now invincible.

It’s no wonder that “with great power the apostles gave their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus.” After all, their testimony to the risen one was simply his testimony to his own resurrection through them. Their testimony to him, therefore, could no more be feeble than his testimony to himself, the risen, ruling one, could be ineffective. Commensurate with the great power of the apostles’ testimony was the great grace that came upon all in the apostolic fellowship. And then in the same breath Luke tells us that there wasn’t a needy person in that fellowship. Why wasn’t there? “From time to time” (the NIV correctly grasps the force of the present iterative verb tense in Greek); “from time to time” — that is, as needed — the people liquidated real estate and possessions in order to ensure that no one in their midst was destitute.

The text doesn’t mean that believers literally renounced all private ownership. (Peter, a few verses later, acknowledges Ananias’ property to be his own.) Believers, rather, didn’t hoard any possessions as their own. They looked upon their possessions as trusts which they had been charged to steward on behalf of people who lacked possessions. Distribution was adjusted to need. Since Christians are those who cling to Israel’s greater Son, they looked back to God’s way with Israel and heard unmistakably the word from Deuteronomy (15:4), “There should be no poor among you”, and no poor among them just because God’s blessing upon his people collectively supported sufficiency individually. Barnabas, a son of Israel himself, embodied this text as he sold off some of his real estate in order to ensure that there would be no poor within the community described in Acts.

Barnabas, mentioned in the last verse of Acts 4, is contrasted starkly with Ananias, mentioned in the first verse of Acts 5. Barnabas is depicted as holy and exemplary where Ananias is depicted as wicked and despicable. What did Ananias (together with his wife, Sapphira) do?

The community was united, but Ananias and Sapphira violated the unity that Jesus Christ had vouchsafed to it.

The community was suffused with the Holy Spirit who magnifies truth; but Ananias and Sapphira plainly were of a different spirit, the Father of Lies.

The community shared openhandedly, sharing out of its abundance with those beset with scarcity; but Ananias and his wife dissembled, thinking they could deceive the very people who were always and everywhere transparent.

The community shared out of self-forgetful compassion, reflecting the compassion of its Lord whose bowels had knotted whenever he had seen people in any need of any sort for any reason. Ananias, however, in the shabbiest self-preoccupation pretended and postured a generosity he didn’t have in order to gain a reputation he didn’t deserve among people he wanted only to exploit. Ananias was duplicitous, fraudulent, phoney, a fake. What made it all worse is that he perpetrated all of this while masquerading as a follower of Jesus Christ and fellow-Christian in the community.



Christian leaders and Christian congregations ought to be truthful and transparent at all times, but especially when money is involved in the affairs of the congregation. Regrettably, however, Christian leaders and congregations aren’t always truthful and transparent where money and congregational life are concerned.

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. To date he has not 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. Soon they were dead.

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 foaming, “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 doesn’t 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 older testament 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 so fast, please; there’s 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 (the opposite of sharing) is unchecked. Martin Luther pointed out 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. To violate the tenth commandment (re: coveting) is invariably to violate them all. 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 sharers, 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.

Peter, on the other hand, has much to teach us positively. Immediately following the incident of Ananias and Sapphira, Acts 5 proceeds to tell us of Peter. 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 inexcusably 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 leader, acknowledged 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 force, 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 Mississauga a congregation in a nearby city asked me about the chairmanship of our official board. Does the minister or a parishioner chair the 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.

Influence was 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; once our Lord has committed himself to the cross 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 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.) The man informed me that for years he had controlled (no other word will do) his wife and his two adult sons. Now his wife was resisting control while his sons simply removed themselves beyond the orbit of control. Now he was faced with a wife who was physically present but profoundly absent, as well as two sons who were absent in every sense. And how had I saved this man’s 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 to 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 Mississauga. 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 is well now, yet remains fragile, and is somewhat apprehensive on account of her fragility. As the lunch with my friends unfolded this woman lamented that she was the only one of the four of us who wasn’t gainfully employed. She said she felt useless, couldn’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 psychiatrically and would otherwise think 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, rather, 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 my influence has 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.

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 invincible 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 information he’s announcing 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 wasn’t 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 — whereupon Niemoeller was imprisoned for eight years and scheduled for execution. Oscar Romero was told to remain silent, and the authorities in El Salvador had the Roman Catholic 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.

What is it, then to be a sharing community?

It’s to share material goods and spiritual gifts with our fellow-believers so that the needs among us are met.

It’s to share all that we have and are in such a way as to make plain that coveting has ceased to hook us.

It’s to share ourselves with others, renouncing all attempts to control, coerce or manipulate, entrusting ourselves instead to our Lord who knew his vulnerability to be an influence, charged by the Holy Spirit, that was nothing less than effectually sovereign.

It’s to share in the witness of him who came to bear witness to the truth he is himself, therein to find that the Word of life expands unstoppably, bringing forth life and fruitfulness as only it can and as it assuredly will.


                                                                                            Victor Shepherd           

August 2002