The story of Ananias and Saphira as told in the fifth chapter of the Acts of the Apostles is for me, a surprising story indeed in some ways I think it is a very odd story; even more, that that particular story should be accorded such significance within the history of the early church. To sum it up briefly, a married couple, Ananias and Sapphira, members of the church in Jerusalem, sell some property and then, Ananias presents the proceeds of the sale from this property to the apostles, as we understand it, declaring it to be the full amount of the money they received from the sale. The leader of the Apostles, Peter, somehow knows that this is a deception and informs Ananias that in attempting to deceive the Apostles, that in fact, Ananias wasn’t deceiving them, but rather, deceiving God.
In the face of this exposure, Ananias dropped dead. Some young men then came in, wrapped his body in a sheet, carried him out and buried him. Three hours later Ananias' wife, Sapphira, appeared before Peter and she too, when questioned by Peter stated that the money presented to the apostles was indeed the full amount received from the sale of the property. When Peter revealed that he knew she was lying and that she had sinned by lying to the Holy Spirit, and that her husband, Ananias had paid with his life for that deception and that she would also die, it came to pass, that she dropped dead and as Peter predicted the young men came in and carried her dead body out also. Then we are told that after that: ‘Great fear gripped the entire church and everyone else who heard what had happened.’
This story of Ananias and Sapphira is told in eleven short verses and that is all we have. The writer of this story, Luke, is the same Luke who wrote the story of Jesus’ Parable of the Prodigal Son. When the Prodigal Son returns to his father’s house he says: (15:21) ‘Father I have sinned against both heaven and you, and I am no longer worthy of being called your son.’ And we know that the Prodigal Son was forgiven, we know too, that right at the heart of the Christian faith is that as we pray to be forgiven our trespasses it is really on condition that we must also forgive those that trespass against us.
In the Gospel of Matthew (18:15-17) we are given a model for resolving offences or dealing with sin within the Church, Jesus said: “If another believer sins against you, go privately and point out the offence. If the other person listens and confesses it, you have won that person back. But if you are unsuccessful, take one or two others with you and go back again, so that everything you say may be confirmed by two or three witnesses. If the person still refuses to listen, take your case to the church. Then if he or she won’t accept the church’s decision, treat that person as a pagan or a corrupt tax collector.
The fact is that we are not given any run-up to the story of Ananias and Sapphira, and there's no indication that they were given the opportunity to make amends or to confess. And let us not forget also, that it was the same Peter, the Peter at the centre of this story who once asked: ‘Lord how often should I forgive someone who sins against me? Seven times? ‘No not seven times,’ Jesus replied, ‘but seventy times seven!
But in spite of all this Christian commitment to forgiveness, we have this brutal story of a couple dropping dead, that leaves the entire church in the grip of fear. Surely the Church is to be built on love and not on fear, for example in the First Letter of John, John writes, ‘perfect love casts out fear’. (4:18) I’ve done quite a bit of thinking about this story of Ananias and Sapphira and I’ve tried to put it into some context. We could say that Peter was acting in a sadistically judgemental way or alternatively we could say that he was merely observing a process which was taking place before his eyes.
After all, Peter said that there was no compunction on either Ananias or Sapphira to sell their property and even after they had received the cash they could have donated as little or as much as they wanted. Nobody was asking or forcing them to give. Peter’s key question to Ananias was, ‘why have you let Satan fill your heart? Fundamentally, we are left with the nub of the problem. We are faced with the age-old problem of sin. Ananias and Sapphira desired the approval and the accolade of the Church for what they were hoping would be seen as their unbridled generosity and their commitment to the spiritual life. They sought to buy status for themselves both in the secular world and in the Church but as Jesus said in the Gospel of Luke (16:13) ‘No one can serve two masters. For you will hate one and love the other; you will be devoted to one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and be enslaved to money.’
This is really what Jesus' overturning of the money changers tables in the Temple was really all about; corruption. How Satan gets into the minds and hearts of individuals and thus into the Church. Great vigilance is required, ‘Why have you let Satan fill your heart? Said Peter. Satanic inducements often seem to offer a convenient and comfortable, even compassionate and spiritual solution. We should not forget the truth of that saying that, 'The road to hell is paved with good intentions'. But in the book of the Prophet Jeremiah, we are reminded that, ‘The human heart is the most deceitful of all things.’ We can deceive ourselves but invariably there will come a reckoning.
None of us are without some regrets or things in the past that we are ashamed of. To be publicly shamed can lead to death. In researching this sermon, I heard of a bishop who had been having an affair. When his wife discovered this and confronted him, he had a heart attack and died. Such emotional stress is known as stress cardiomyopathy, it can be fatal and it most certainly killed Ananias and Sapphira.
Again, Peter pointed out to Ananias that he and his wife were under no obligation to do what they did. We on the other hand are obliged to conclude that they both wanted to be ‘someone’ but as we have also seen today (Reading from: Light Upon Light by Andrew Harvey: No ‘Above’ or ‘Below’ page 226) the really holy ones just want to glorify God to let their light shine and wherever they are placed in the scheme of life they do not look to be revered by others. Ananias and Sapphira didn't need to seek to become 'somebody', because, like you and me, they already were somebody. How to live? Be humble, be yourself and in the words of Jesus: ' Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father which is in heaven.'
Attribution: Classical Numismatic Group, Inc. http://www.cngcoins.com