“Soliciting Celebrity,” Acts 4:36 – 5:11

My sister, when she was in first and second grade, was a liar. I spent all week trying to come up with a better way to say that but there just isn’t one. She was liar. The lies she told weren’t little ones, they weren’t subtle lies, these were pretty big, real lies she was telling. I’ll give you two examples; both of these were at school and both of them got discovered because of notes her teacher sent home in her agenda. Parents had to initial the agenda each day to prove someone had seen the homework and all that, so my mom looked every day and one day there was this note: “Congratulations, Rebecca told us the good news! So excited for you all!” And my mom looked at Rebecca and said, “Rebecca, did you tell Mrs. Brewerton that I’m having a baby?” The tears started immediately. I’m not sure what the plan there was, Rebecca wanted a younger sibling at that point so maybe she thought that she could force the issue if she just started telling people it was happening? I’m not sure. One thing she did eventually reveal is that another kid in the class’s mom was expecting and Rebecca didn’t like all the attention that that was getting the boy. Keep that mind, its going to be important later.

The second lie involved Rebecca telling the class that our dog had puppies. One, our dog was a boy. Two, the vet had taken care of the puppy thing. So she tells this lie which is strange but shouldn’t prove to be too much of a problem except for this: our house was only a five-ten minute walk from the school. And at that time the classes walked every afternoon. And Rebecca’s teacher thought it would be fun if instead of doing laps around the school they went and saw the puppies. So, the 90’s being the majestic time that they were, the class just walked to our house without getting permission from anyone. Obviously they got there and there were no puppies and Rebecca said “Oh yeah, its Tuesday. Mom keeps them inside on Tuesdays.” Which is a really good lie for a seven-year-old, right? Like I don’t know if I’m that quick on my feet now. That’s some evil genius lying. But once again, the agenda note sealed her fate, and she had to go back and admit that the lie had maybe gotten away from her.

At its core, that’s what we have in our text today, it is the story of a lie that got away from the person telling it. Last week we looked at this practice in the early church where those who had wealth and property would sell that property and give the proceeds to the disciples to use to help out people in need. Ananias and Sapphira are apparently wealthy, or at least wealthy enough that they have property to sell, which they do. They make the sale, they bring the money to the disciples, but they don’t bring all of it. They keep some of the proceeds to themselves. Maybe they want a rainy day fund, who knows, we don’t get a reason in the text. And then the story gets a little murky, apparently they don’t tell anyone that they’ve kept a little bit back, they either specifically say or just let everyone believe that what they gave is what they got. We don’t know at first whether this is an active lie or a lie of omission. Somehow Peter finds out, and he confronts Ananias about it. At this point there is a definite lie, directly after which Ananias dies. Sapphira is brought in, she’s given the opportunity to tell the truth but doubles down on the lie, she says “yes, what we gave you is all we received,” and then she dies too.

This is a tough passage. Here’s how tough this passage is, the Revised Common Lectionary is resource for preaching Bible reading and study, it divides the Bible up into Old Testament, Gospel, Epistle, and Psalm readings for each week on a three-year cycle so that by the end of three years the whole Bible (with a few exceptions) has been covered. This is one of those exceptions. The folks dealing with the Lectionary leave these eleven verses out. There are some tough things going on here, there are difficult questions that come up, the big one that jumps out of course is what kills Ananias and Saphira, and more specifically did God kill them? And that leads to the question of if God killed them why, and if God will kill people what does that mean for us and then we find ourselves pretty far down the rabbit hole.

I don’t think the deaths are the important part of this passage. Let me rephrase that, I don’t think the deaths are the most important part of this passage. I don’t think what we’re supposed to take from this passage is that God is waiting to strike us down. And I think if we focus there then it will be easy for us to miss some big truths, something that may speak as much to us as Americans in 2017 as it has to anyone ever. There’s good, powerful stuff here, there are truths that we need to hear, and getting bogged down in the deaths will distract us from those things

The first one is this: Ananias and Saphira’s issue is not that they held back some of the money they got from selling their property, the issue is that they lied about it. This isn’t a number problem, this a truth problem. The community can’t function if there isn’t trust between its members, they’re still small, they’re under threat from outside forces, they need to know that everyone is being open and honest. Truth matters in community.

Truth still matters. We live in a world that rejects objective truth and embraces relativism. We make truth what we want to believe. We get the majority of our news from cable networks dependent on advertising dollars or social media platforms with algorithms designed to only show us what they know we’ll like. We are a world of half-truths and little white lies and alternative facts. Ananias and Sapphira remind us of this: truth still matters. Character and integrity are still vital to a community and they’re still vital to us as followers of Christ.

You know if we’re honest, this lie didn’t matter that much in the grand scheme of things. The amount given wasn’t changed by the fact that they held some back, the good that could be done for folks wasn’t impacted by the fact that they held some back. This lie didn’t hurt anyone, but it was still a lie. It was a lie to the community and was therefore a lie to God. Our lies don’t last. The truth still comes out. Truth still matters, no matter what we might hear otherwise.

You can’t read the story of Ananias and Saphira without the verses from chapter 4 of Acts that come before it. You can’t understand what happened here without paying attention to the story of Barnabas. You recognized Barnabas I hope. He’s going to become an important figure in Acts, he’s going to be Paul’s first traveling partner. He gives his property before Ananias and Saphira do and he becomes something of a celebrity because of it. He’s celebrated for it, and rightly so. He’s a rich man, he’s a Levite, he’s a big get for the early church. He’s the five-star recruit that buys the coach another season, he’s the first-round draft pick that goes on all the promotional material. He becomes a celebrity; the community celebrates him. He’s the movie star who says going to church is important to him so Facebook blows up with stories that say “this actor’s bold stand will restore your faith in Christianity’s future.” And Ananias and Saphira want that. I told you about my sister lying about my mom being pregnant earlier and her admission that the reason she did it was because she was jealous of the attention someone else was getting. Ananias and Saphira have the same issue, they want the celebrity that comes with generosity in this early Christian community. They want everyone to be impressed with how much they give and how freely they give it. But that’s not their reality. We don’t know why they keep part of the money back. Maybe they were just greedy. Maybe they weren’t quite as well off as they looked and they were just trying to keep up appearances. Maybe they wanted to have money to give later if more need arose. There could be any number of reasons why they held money back but the reason the lied about it is obvious: they wanted the attention, they wanted the pat on the back, they didn’t want there to be someone who had done more than they had.

The second truth of us this passage is this: trying to keep up with the Joneses will kill us if we let it. Economists talk about something called “conspicuous consumption,” that’s spending money on luxury goods and services to display economic power. Its buying things we don’t need just to show off the fact that we can, and there’s more and more research being done into how it is actually incredibly dangerous to economic systems because it leads to people spending money they don’t have on things they don’t need to keep up with their peers. In 2007, right before the recession, the average credit card debt in America was over $8000, the total consumer debt was over $2.5 trillion. Trying to keep up with the Joneses makes us lie. We lie about what we can afford so we buy it on credit and worry about it later. We want to keep up appearances so we say yes to things we know we won’t have time for and run our selves ragged. We want our lives to look the right way so we stay in relationships or at jobs that are toxic. Trying to keep up with the Joneses will kill us if we let it. The Chicago Journal of Science has declared Facebook envy a clinical condition. That’s the anger and resentment and jealousy that comes from looking at someone’s social media and convincing yourself their life is perfect and your’s is a mess. Chances are that picture is a half-truth or an alternative view as well, most likely their life isn’t that great either but even if it is we can’t linger on that. There’s always someone richer or who has more stuff or a better job or more impressive house or whatever, and we’ll drive ourselves crazy if we let what we think we lack compared to other people define us. Ananias and Saphira lied about how much they gave because they didn’t want people to know they were only giving some of what they had when others were giving everything. And the results of that lie killed them. If we don’t hear any other lesson from Ananias and Saphira we need to hear this, trying to keep up with the Joneses will kill us. If we define ourselves by our comparisons to other people we’ll never be happy, we’ll never be content, and we’ll never be at peace.

If you think about it, this is the oldest issue of human life. Think back to Eden for a minute, think back to Genesis 3. The serpent comes and he talks to Eve and to Adam and what he says is that “there’s something God has that he doesn’t want you to have. There’s something you don’t have that’s making you incomplete.” They’ve got all they need but they get convinced there’s more to have. They have all that they could imagine until something else is presented to them. And they lose all they have when they try to get it. They lose paradise trying to grab that “next thing” that will make them feel complete. That same temptation grips Ananias and Saphira and the result is the same, they lose everything reaching for this “other thing.” That temptation still grips us. That desire to keep up with other people, that desire to find the extra thing that will make us happy or content or whole is still a trap that pulls us toward destruction. The tragedy of Adam and Eve’s story is that they were already all they needed to be before they ate from the tree. The tragedy of Ananias and Saphira’s story is that they were all they needed to be before they sold their property. The tragedy in so many of our stories is we don’t realize until its too late that we are all we need to be for God just as we are. There is nothing more we can do to be of more worth or more importance to God. The truth of the gospel according to the Apostle Paul is this: while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. As we are right now, Christ died for us. In all our imperfections and shortcomings and the things we see in others that we don’t see in ourselves, Christ died for us. The things we do to try and impress other people or fill something in ourselves don’t have an impact on eternity. God loves us and desires us and wants to save us and one of the things we need saving from is the lie that we have to measure up to someone else or have to do something else to be worthy. Be who you are. Be who you were created to be. Don’t let what other people are doing consume you, you are enough right now.

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