Monday, 7 June 2021

A Message from the Early Church: Why Have You Let Satan Fill Your Heart?



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.


Tuesday, 11 May 2021

Prophetic Truth


I think one of the essential things we should emphasise to children is the importance of telling the truth. The Buddha is supposed to have said that there are three things that cannot be permanently hidden, the Sun, the Moon and the truth. I think that this is one of those undeniable facts of life, the sort of fact that we might ignore at our peril like the old adage that the only inevitability is death and taxes. How important it is to tell the truth and to try to live with integrity. It is so important not only for us as individuals, at the individual, personal level but it is important in every field of human activity, in all organs of government and in every institution of business, religion and charity and political activity. Without the perception of truthfulness and integrity individuals lose respect and organisations become damaged and can ultimately die. We place such an importance on telling the truth and yet how often do we see the failure of truth, the betrayal of trust, financial shenanigans, the cover-ups that go right to the top of the political system even aided and abetted by Prime Minister's as official records years after the events reveal and are made public. We have to ask, as we should where the moral compass is and what is driving this dishonesty, we have to ask the pertinent question - why? And in whose interest this level of corruption is working?

We tell children always to tell the truth but somehow, I can't help thinking that this truthful childlike quality we try to encourage is not really in the more sophisticated world of the adult the touchstone for all our relationships, as it should be. As we 'grow up' it seems that we are expected to accept that with a nod and a wink that we can subvert a promise or a contract because after all; that's the real world that’s the world we supposedly we live in. And besides, that kind of dishonesty is what everybody else is doing or going along with and so we tell ourselves that at some level that it's OK to turn a blind eye to dishonesty. 

I can't help but think that story of The Emperor's New Clothes should not remain in the primary school but rather that it should be elevated to the level of a religious parable and so we can say that the Kingdom of Heaven can be likened to the child who declared in spite of the proclamations of the government, the press (and to bring it up to date, the MSM) in spite of all this, the the Emperor was indeed as naked as the day that he was born. 

Indeed, the unexpected emergence of such compelling and innocent honesty, in the story of the Emperor’s New Clothes became in fact, a catalyst for a re-wakening in the consciousness of the people, the government and the Emperor. Such childlike honesty deflated the tyranny of ego and prepared the way for humility and awareness. If the Kingdom of Heaven is to come to earth, this kingdom which is 'righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit' then it must be based on truth.

In the Gospel of Matthew (21) we can recall the story of Jesus who overthrew the money changers in the Temple but in the violence of this scene we overlook the children who were crying their support, "Hosanna to the son of David", they shouted and cheered. And when chief priests and the scribes saw and heard this, they rebuked Jesus who in response reminded them of the Scriptures (Psalm 8) "Did you never read, 'Out of the mouths of babes of babes and sucklings thou hast perfected praise.' Here Jesus had committed a revolutionary act by overturning the moneychanger's tables; he had struck at the heart of economic injustice, for he said that the house of prayer had become a den of robbers. The writer George Orwell once said that "In a time of universal deceit - telling the truth is a revolutionary act." This revolutionary act, as we know led to the crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth, but as someone else once observed, you can kill the revolutionary but you can't kill the revolution.

We may have heard the phrase 'speaking truth to power' - 'speak truth to power' this phrase is actually credited to an American civil rights leader of the 1950s: Bayard Rustin, and not necessarily the Quakers. But this speaking truth to power is an inspiring phrase because it is suggestive of authority, that the power of the truth is the only way to live it suggests law, the law as truth, a way of living based on experience and what actually works. If we look at the book of Proverbs, we can read the collective experience of an ancient, Semitic people who in a series of pithy adages, if you like, have recorded their collective wisdom, a wisdom that doubtless informed their laws and ethics e.g.


Proverbs 16:16-21                                    New Living Translation               

How much better to get wisdom than gold, and good judgment than silver!

The path of the virtuous leads away from evil;whoever follows that path is safe.

Pride goes before destruction, and haughtiness before a fall.

Better to live humbly with the poor than to share plunder with the proud.

 Those who listen to instruction will prosper; those who trust the Lord will be joyful.

The wise are known for their understanding, and pleasant words are persuasive.

These ancient laws appear hard and severe and when we read such law in the book of Leviticus, for example, we can see that there can be terrible retribution for those who have transgressed. In today's easier times and more enlightened days the laws and ethics appear to be unreasonable and barbaric. But in primitive and uncertain times when the very survival of the Israelites as a people was uncertain a code for living was required and so this need, this requirement found its expression in the worship of the God of Israel, the one true God and the injunction was that they should observe this law that they might grow and prosper in the promised land to which they were going.

This Mosaic law has also a benign and generous dimension for its moral code reminds the people of Israel that they should not take advantage of foreigners that live amongst them, that they should treat them like native-born Israelites, and that they should love these foreigners just as much as they the Jews love themselves. They, the Israelites are brought to mind of their previous existence as foreign workers or slaves before they were delivered out of Egypt by God before they obtained their freedom. This particular text in the book of Deuteronomy makes reference to the bad old days in Egypt reminding the Israelites of what it's like to be in need, to be poor as they were, and to be oppressed as they were, and now, the law  requires them to empathise with the stranger with the refugee and to show mercy and compassion as well as hospitality.

Deuteronomy 24:19-22             New LivingTranslation                                  

“When you are harvesting your crops and forget to bring in a bundle of grain from your field, don’t go back to get it. Leave it for the foreigners, orphans, and widows. Then the Lord your God will bless you in all you do. When you beat the olives from your olive trees, don’t go over the boughs twice. Leave the remaining olives for the foreigners, orphans, and widows. When you gather the grapes in your vineyard, don’t glean the vines after they are picked. Leave the remaining grapes for the foreigners, orphans, and widows. Remember that you were slaves in the land of Egypt. That is why I am giving you this command. 

All of this comes from the Mosaic Law, the Law of Moses spread throughout the books of the Bible: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy which of course includes the Ten Commandments found in Deuteronomy 5 and Exodus 20. These laws are therefore not simply a moral abstract but ethics and religious requirement aimed at creating social responsibility and social coherence. But as the twelve tribes of Israel move from their nomadic lifestyle and embrace a more agrarian society, we see how the history of the Jews unfolds as it continues through the pages of the Bible. As the way of life became more settled and food production becomes more reliable then, the social structures alter and those that have become wealthy and by definition more powerful no longer feel the need to conform to the same religious and moral code that once held their ancestors together as a people. As the new society gives way to the old the disparities in wealth and power become ever pronounced and typically those who are able to amass such wealth feel that they are no longer held by the same ties of kinship and obligation begin to exploit the weaker and more vulnerable.

This move into wealth and prosperity for the higher echelons was accompanied according to Jewish Biblical history either by a turn to the pagan religions of the Canaanites or a simply by an adherence to the worship of God which is merely outwardly ritualistic and formal. It is under circumstance such as these that Prophets emerge striding on to the scene, calling the Israelites back to their true religion, to their covenanted relationship with God. One such Old Testament prophet was Amos he lived at a time when Israel was enjoying great prosperity, in the 7th century BC, but Israel had also become corrupt and decadent. His truth was not welcome when he said that the offerings and the sacrifices to God were no longer acceptable and that in fact the assemblies and religious assemblies had become despicable in the eyes of God. Such religious practice and events had merely become opportunities for hypocrisy and displays of high status at a time when the poor were being sold into slavery, bribery was common place and no justice could be obtained in the courts. Amos prophesying for God said " I know how many are your offenses and how great your sins". Here in Amos' preaching he makes the case that there can be no division between social justice and a right relationship with God as he says: "But let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream!"

 Amos 5:21-24                                         New Living Translation

I hate all your show and pretence—

the hypocrisy of your religious festivals and solemn assemblies.

I will not accept your burnt offerings and grain offerings.

I won’t even notice all your choice peace offerings.

Away with your noisy hymns of praise!

I will not listen to the music of your harps.

Instead, I want to see a mighty flood of justice,

an endless river of righteous living.

The words of Amos were of course unwelcome to the ruling elites and the wealthy such truth cutting like a sword and exposing the contradictions and the lack of equality had an unsettling effect so much that Amaziah the priest of Bethel sent a message to the king, to King Jeroboam that Amaziah was raising a conspiracy in the very heart of Israel, he said, "The land cannot bear all his words" The land cannot bear all his words. How hard it is to hear the truth and again we are reminded of George Orwell's words, "In a time of universal deceit - telling the truth is a revolutionary act." Not only can telling the truth be a revolutionary act but it often requires great courage to do it but it can also cost you your life. We often recall the death of John the Baptist that begins with Herod's birthday, an occasion on which the daughter of Herodias danced before him pleasing him so much that he publicly asked her to choose any gift he could give her. The girl asked her Mother, Herod's wife, Herodias, what she should ask for and her mother told her to ask for the head of John the Baptist. This was not merely a passing whim on behalf of Herodias but it stemmed from her deep resentment against John because he knew that Herod had married her, the wife of his brother, Philip and John had publicly preached that it was not lawful for him to do so. 

Galatians 5:13-15          New Living Translation  

For you have been called to live in freedom, my brothers and sisters. But don’t use your freedom to satisfy your sinful nature. Instead, use your freedom to serve one another in love. For the whole law can be summed up in this one command: “Love your neighbour as yourself.” But if you are always biting and devouring one another, watch out! Beware of destroying one another.

We teach children to tell the truth and so we should. But finally, we should understand that there is another component in the equation and that is love. Truth and love go together and, in this respect, it is the ultimate message as St Paul, in his letter to the Galatians says, "The only thing that counts is faith in active love" He wrote, "You my friends were called to be free people; only do not turn your freedom into licence for your lower nature, but be servants to one another in love. For the whole law can be summed up in a single commandment: 'Love your neighbour as yourself.' But if you go on fighting one another, tooth and nail, all you can expect is mutual destruction. I mean this: if you are guided by the Spirit, you will not fulfil the desires of your lower nature." Let us live in the spirit of the Prophets, speaking the truth in love and with courage.

Saturday, 13 March 2021

By Every Word from the Mouth of God


In Lent we are brought face to face with the trials of Jesus in the wilderness as told in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke. Before Jesus was led into the wilderness, we have this unforgettable image of his baptism at the hands of John and then his coming out of the water, the heavens opening and the Spirit of God descending like a dove and God saying, 'This is my beloved Son in whom I am well pleased'. This is a scene, an unforgettable scene, that is etched in the hearts and souls of millions of believers, the glory of transcendence, Jesus enveloped in the love of God. It's a story that will be remembered forever and yet for others gathered at the Jordan River, it could have gone completely unnoticed, so quickly may that moment have passed.

As we move quickly from the third to the fourth chapter of Matthew's Gospel, we see that glory, indeed, is a fleeting thing. How starkly has the scenery changed. After forty days and forty nights of isolation and fasting, the story approaches its climax. But the story centres not on an invincible God but rather the figure of Jesus as a flesh and blood human being. Perhaps in his everyday humanness we might have even discovered there was something quite ordinary about Jesus so ordinary in fact, that walking past you in the street you may not even have noticed him. That same ordinariness prompting disbelief in the synagogue at Nazareth, where those disbelieving words were uttered, 'Isn't this Joseph's son?'

But here we are in our own mind's eye looking on, observing Jesus as a hungry and weakened human being, much in need of sustenance and there before him the round stones looking for all the world like rolls of bread. And then the tempter's challenge, 'If you are the Son of God, command that these stones be made bread'. It's not hard to imagine, the power of that temptation, the hunger, the heightened sense of smell and taste, the imagining of freshly baked bread. Probably by this ravenous stage any kind of bread would have been more than welcome. Bread had appeared in the wilderness before, after God had said to Moses, 'Look I am going to rain down bread from heaven to you.' (Exodus 10:16)

This providential God who can and does supply our needs, this Father God to whom all are children; why should we not take and eat all that we need? And yet Jesus in his time of trial refused precisely because the priority was God, of subjugating the flesh to the spirit. So, Jesus said that we do not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes out of the mouth of God. These words were familiar to Jesus.

Remember how the Lord your God led you through the wilderness for these forty years, humbling you and testing you to prove your character, and to find out whether or not you would obey his commands. Yes, he humbled you by letting you go hungry and then feeding you with manna, a food previously unknown to you and your ancestors. He did it to teach you that people do not live by bread alone; rather, we live by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord(Deuteronomy 8:2-4):

Further on in this text the people of Israel are reminded that even in the times of plenty they should not forget 'the Lord your God, who rescued you from slavery in the land of Egypt'. In the same way, today we too are reminded that we simply cannot live by bread alone, that we should not turn our backs on God if we wish to remain blessed by his presence in our lives.

But I assure you of this: If you ever forget the Lord your God and follow other gods, worshipping them and bowing down to them, you will certainly be destroyed (8:19)

 Today, other gods are being worshipped and our connection with God is becoming eroded through cynical disbelief, through the worship of science, through the worship of false ideologies as though they have all the answers. And so, the worship of God is displaced through intellectual arrogance; man puffed out with ignorance and false pride worships not God but himself. Today, the rainbow flag and the elevation of identity politics have become venerated icons of public worship, so much so that they have found their way into our churches leaving no room for the real living God. In the Bible this is known as idolatry. Idolatry can be anything that gets in the way of our worship of God. The Bible as a matter of historical fact recorded idolatry as the worship of Baal, the practice of magic and the sacrifice of children. We see this today in the murder of the unborn child and the sacrifice of childhood to all the various manifestations of so-called progressive policies that cut against the grain of the Judaeo-Christian tradition; beliefs and traditions that hitherto have served countless generations.

When we acknowledge that we cannot live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God we recognise our dependence on Him, we need bread but we need God first. Without a 'God first policy' we rapidly become prey to the idea that there is no God. That way lies despair and the wickedness we see in the world today. When Joshua was an old man, near the end of his life and after he had led the tribes of Israel into the Promised Land, he gathered them all together and put before them a challenge: 

But if you refuse to serve the Lord, then choose today whom you will serve. Would you prefer the gods your ancestors served beyond the Euphrates? Or will it be the gods of the Amorites in whose land you now live? But as for me and my family, we will serve the Lord. 

(Joshua 24:15)

When Jesus declined to turn the stones into bread, he made a statement about his relationship with God, he put God first, like Joshua, his statement, his confession was that he would serve the Lord. The challenge for us today, is to do the same. Let us serve the Lord our God.