Thanks be to God? A sermon based on Acts 4:32-5:11
Did you mean it? I just read about the capital punishment of two individuals, said “This is the Word of the Lord,” and you responded “Thanks be to God. Did you mean it? This story doesn’t end with happily ever after. No, rather we have two dead bodies on our hands. Their obituary would read, Sunday, July 21, Ananias and Sapphira, struck dead by God.” That’s a pretty rough obituary. I hope that my obituary would read something like “Joe Ellis died valiantly, rescuing his family from a sinking ship.” Not, “Joe Ellis is dead on account of his sin, thanks be to God.”
So we have two dead bodies with us here today, Ananias and Sapphira, in light of this can we really say, “Thanks be to God?” This is one of those stories that I am often not at all thankful for. Its one of those stories that I’d like to sweep under the Christian rug, covering it up with some of the more beautiful stories of redemption and grace, like the prodigal son. You know, a story about someone who threw his life away but was welcomed back into the Father’s love. But here we are, we’ve pulled back the rug and exposed the shameful story of Ananias and Sapphira.
And now that its out in the open, we might as well deal with it. We’ll deal with it in three ways. First we will just review the story, just to make sure we get the facts right, then we will talk about why we can say “Thanks be to God” after this story, and mean it. Last we can talk about how we avoid the fate of Ananias and Sapphira through the spiritual practices of confession, secrecy and vulnerability.
Did you notice how wonderful things sounded in the church at the beginning of the passage? Just reading those verses would leave you with the impression that the early church was a picture perfect community, maybe a little communist, but good communism. Everyone in the congregation is choosing to share their belongings. Throughout the congregation people are just selling their possessions and giving it to the Apostles, saying, “I heard there was a need. I hope this can help.” And the crowning achievement is Barnabas, who sold his whole field and gave all the money to the apostles! People were impressed with Barnabas’ piety and sacrifice.
And so are Ananias and Sapphira. The villains of this story. Ananias and the Grinch, Scrooge and Sapphira. But wait, we can’t do that to them. In dealing with these guys, let’s avoid the temptation to either totally victimize them, or to totally villainize them. We like to hear about total scoundrels way more than we like to hear about someone who sorta kinda fudged the truth. We’d rather hear a long extended diabolical laugh than we’d like to hear about a fuzzy accountant. But let’s imagine that Ananias and Sapphira are just like you and me. I certainly recognize myself in those two. I remember forgetting my wallet at home but acting like I put something in the offering just so I won’t look like a cheap skate.
At the beginning of chapter five, it says that the couple had a conversation about what to do with this property that they had. “Let’s give it to the church!” Good start. But then, what if Ananias said, “Sapphira, let’s just give a portion of the money to the church. We have other bills to pay.” So far so good, that’s totally legitimate.” But then imagine Ananias continued in this way, “you know, Barnabas sold his field for $10,000. Ours is worth $20,000. Let’s just give half of the sale price, but we’ll say that we gave the full price of the field, like Barnabas. I mean we’re both giving $10,000. We’re giving the price of a field, right?” and then Sapphira says, “You’re right honey, the people should know that we’re giving just as much as Barnabas. We’ll just tell them that this is the price of the field.” Is that just almost sort of believable? Maybe they rehearsed that sort of logic enough times so that they really started to believe its truth. We can deceive ourselves pretty easily. This is the full price of the field, Barnabas’ field.
Of course, we don’t know what their conversation looked like, this is just one possibility. So Ananias comes to Peter, and says “here you go, I sold the field. Here is the money we got from it.” Peter sees right through Ananias. He says, “Ananias, why has Satan filled your heart!” And this is the important part, Peter doesn’t care about how much Ananias decided to give. Peter does not judge Ananias saying he should’ve given more. In fact, Peter says, “The field, and the money from the field was yours to do with what you wanted. You had that freedom! No pressure.” Ananias sinned by trying to make people believe that he gave all the money from the field he sold. Ananias sinned by trying to get people to believe that he was more generous than he actually was. And Peter said its not just that you were lying to us, you were lying to God. At this, Ananias fell over dead.
Three hours later, Sapphira enters the scene. Peter asks, “was this the full price, she says “yes,” and then Peter says “why are you testing God to see how easily he’ll look the other way? Look the men who buried your husband are now going to bury you.” And she fell dead. Thanks be to God. Right?
How in the world can we be thankful for this story? How can we thank God for striking dead these two church members? There is no one in our congregation about whom I’d say “Thanks be to God” at their funeral.”
So, before going forward, I just want to make sure its super clear that Ananias and Sapphira did not die because they didn’t give all the money from the sale. They dropped dead because they were trying to give the impression that they were more generous than they actually were. They dropped dead because they were putting on a mask that was trying to make them look a little bit more religiously glamorous.
And let me tell you something, this is a deadly virus in the life of the church. A religious mask is sort of like a spiritual ebola virus. From the outside everything looks fine, but inside your innards are melting and rotting away. When I talk about a religious mask, I’m talking about anything you say or do in order to make you look more religious to those around you. Jesus was a fierce opponent of religious masks. He’d shatter those masks whenever he’d see them.
He’d call out, “Do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the churches in order to be seen by others.” or again, “Do not fast like the hypocrites, for the love to twist their faces to show others that they are fasting.” Jesus talked about those who clean the outside of the cup, but insides are full of greed and self indulgence.” He’d say, “Outside you look beautiful, but the inside is full of filth. On the outside you look righteous to others, but the inside is full of hypocrisy and lawlessness.”
When He walked the Earth, Jesus saw that the religion of His God had become filled with all kinds of hypocrisy, he saw all sorts of religious masks, hiding people who were decaying inside. People pretended that they were doing all kinds of righteous works for their God, but inwardly, they wanted the satisfaction of impressing others. Such ambitions are not godly at all, but in fact they are quite deadly.
So why is putting on a religious mask so deadly? Its deadly because when you make yourself seem more godly than you actually are, you’re basically telling yourself, “I’m not good enough. If people saw me as I really am, they wouldn’t accept me. So I’ve got to act like I’ve got things together in order to belong to this church.” But here’s the thing, if we keep masking and hiding the sickness in our lives, like any virus, it will spread and grow if left unchecked. And so our mask gets bigger and bigger to hide the growing infection.
This is the scary thing. The mask doesn’t just stay on your face, it can creep around the church. Because the purpose of the mask is to impress others, to make others see a pretty glamorous Christian. To make others think, “if only I could look like that.” It tells other people, you should really have a mask on too. If you want to measure up, you better put on a mask like mine.” And so the mask starts with one person, and then another person catches it, and then another does the same, and pretty soon you’ve got a whole church walking around with plastered on smiles. Looking good on the outside, but feeling totally different on the inside. It might look like a beautiful church, but the inside tells a very different story.
And very soon we’ll find the mask separating us from our God. Because God wants our masks. He wants us to live without a mask so that we might be healed. And so we don’t want to come to God, because we know that if we did, he would take off our mask and we would be exposed. And so we stay away from God, and continue to die.
Its deadly! The story of Ananias and Sapphira isn’t a unique one. We all carry around masks that we put on because we fear that we’d be rejected if we pulled them off and people saw us how we are. The only difference between the mask of Ananias and Sapphira and us is that their mask killed them really fast.
But the same thing happens when we put on our religious mask, or any other mask for that matter. When we put on a mask it’s just as deadly. It may not happen as fast as with Ananias and Sapphira, but when we start acting for show, we lose touch with ourselves, with our friends, and with our God. We don’t feel like people know the real me. And so the real me begins to die.
The problem is that after you’ve been wearing a mask for a long time it begins to stick to your face. You begin to realize that you can’t breathe with the mask on, but at the same time, you can’t pry it off! Don’t panic. There are a few ways of taking off the mask. The first way to take off the mask is through the practice of secrecy. The practice of secrecy is when you don’t tell others when you do something for the glory of God. And it’s really hard, especially for Michelle and I who are supposed to report these sort of things to council. But, as much as we can, we need to do acts of kindness secretly. Your flesh is going to rage against it. Everything inside you is going to scream, “Look at me! Look at how godly I am!” But to that you’ll respond, “No, my Father who sees in secret will reward me.” Imagine if Ananias and Sapphira didn’t tell anyone about the money they gave to the church. We might not have any idea who they are, and we wouldn’t have this tragic story in our bibles. This week, practice taking off your religious mask by secretly doing an act of kindness or mercy.
Another way to take off your religious mask is through Confession. What if when Peter asked Sapphira if this was the whole price of the field, she had said, “No. My husband and I actually wanted to be seen as more generous than we actually were. I’ve sinned against you and I’ve sinned against God.” Imagine what sort of different story that would be! Sapphira would have received forgiveness and embrace. She would have been restored to her community, and her mask would have fallen right off. A friend of mine once told me that confession is good for your soul but bad for your reputation. That’s because through confession your mask has fallen away so that people begin see you as you really are. But they still love you! That is why it’s so important for us to confess to one another our sins. When I confess, I confess so that you can pray for the healing of my dying soul! By confessing our sins, we are saying “No, I don’t need to put on a mask and strive to look more holy, more attractive, more smart, more affluent or whatever! Christ loves me just as I am.” And then He begins to heal what you were trying to cover up in the first place.
Another way of taking off a mask is through vulnerability — sharing the parts of yourself with other that you feel like you should keep covered up. All confession of sin is vulnerable, but not all vulnerability is confession of sin. Imagine if instead of lying, Ananias and Sapphira said, “we want to give more, but things have been really tight. We want to do what Barnabas did and give the cost of a whole field, but we just can’t afford to.” That’s being vulnerable. And vulnerability has the exact opposite effect of wearing a mask. Being vulnerable not only is an act of taking your own mask off, but it’s also a way of showing others they don’t have to keep on their mask. Being vulnerable is a way of showing others, “here, it is safe to be you.” I think vulnerability is actually a spiritual gift of this congregation. My parent’s were visiting last Sunday, and they were so impressed with the level of honesty and vulnerability of people as they shared during the service. What this does is enable us to let down our guard, invite God to come in and go to work.
So we can say, “Thanks be to God.” Thanks be to God that he has no time for our religious masks. Thanks be to God that He is not fooled by the masks we wear. Thanks be to God that we can stand just as we are before Jesus, warts and all. Thanks be to God that we can’t get rid of our coverup and foundation. We say thanks be to God because we all cover ourselves with a mask, but instead we can be covered by the forgiveness of Jesus.
Picture a time when you know that you were wearing a religious mask. Maybe you want to picture something you did with the mixed intent of impressing others. Maybe you want to picture something that you’re covering up for fear of being rejected. Picture yourself in your mask. Do you have that picture in your mind? Now picture the life of that mask totally dropping dead. The mask is dead. The mask is gone. What do you look like? Now picture Jesus before you, looking at you as you truly are. And he looks at you, without the mask, naked faced before him, and He loves you. Without taking His eyes off of you, Jesus bends down, picks up the mask, and breaks it in half.