Our stewardship motto for this year is going to be: “Give or Die!” Not really, but if we based it on Acts 5 we could choose that route if we wanted. I warned you that this was going to be a bit of a disturbing chapter. We have two main stories in this chapter, the first is the death of these two disciples who lied to the apostles about how much profit they took in from the selling of their land. I think the key verses for deciphering what happened as result of this event can be found in vs. 11 and vs. 13. Great fear seized the whole church, I assume this includes the disciples who were not directly involved in the death of the two, and as vs. 13 states: “none of the rest dared to join them”. Ananias and Sapphira without a doubt lied to the disciples, and for all intents and purposes lied to God. The punishment was immediate and real. We don’t know the backstory, we just know that they sold their land for more than what they said, they had a chance to tell the truth, they chose not to, and so they died. Interestingly enough we don’t read that God killed them, we don’t read that the people gathered around them laid a hand on them to facilitate their death, we just read that they fell down and died. The image above is Raphael’s depiction of this biblical scene. There is so much going on in that painting, do you see the woman being helped by the disciples, do you see the keys in Peter’s hand, do you see another woman counting her money, could that be Sapphira?
An event takes place in the life of the church that marks it as this type of a church. This is a church that holds each other accountable…to the extreme! What a huge swing that is from today’s church where we really don’t hold each other accountable in any way, shape, or form. We may talk behind someone’s back if they are doing something of which we disapprove, but we would never consider approaching them and calling them out for their sin. Who are we to judge? That’s the most common response we would give and that we hear from others. Oh for a church that would hold each other accountable in love and grace. I say this as the primary offender, by the way. The pastor, that’s me, probably has more insight into the life of people than most, and yet for some reason I feel ill equipped to confront a member of the church with a sin that might be a very visible and obvious part of their life. At the root of this reticence has to be the distance that there is between members of the church. We do not all live together, we do not share everything in common, I am not selling my house and my cars and giving the proceeds to the single mom who just needs to be with her kids. We are not a church in the same sense of the word that they were in the 1st century. Am I making excuses for our inadequacies? Probably, but I hope we are also thinking about possibilities that we may find in our lives to reach out to the ones we love, our brothers and sisters in Christ, with encouraging insights into how we can all walk more like Jesus.
We move from the dirty laundry of the early church to the disciples healing and even their shadows having a salutatory effect. But at vs. 17 we see the religious leaders of the day have had enough. The Sadducees had already had their run in with Peter and his crew and had already thrown him into prison overnight back in chapter 4. Enough is enough. The text says that they were filled with jealousy because all the people were following them. There is nothing worse than jealousy in religion. If you are upset because more people are going to someone else’s church then your perspective is a bit skewed. Why would we not celebrate when a church increases in number? Why would we not celebrate if more laborers are coming into the field? But the Sadducees had the power and were terrified of losing it or of Rome coming in and blaming them for whatever trouble these followers of Jesus might stir up. Time to put a wrap on it, so let’s put them back in prison. Here we have one of the many jailbreaks that take place at the hand of an angel of the Lord.
Let’s look at one phrase that I have used repeated in my ministry to try to understand what God’s guidance and direction might be at a certain time in my life. When I am faced with decisions that might be either personal or in relationship to the church I try to follow God’s guidance by going through the first door that might be opened. From there I see what other doors and opportunities might be opened and then I go through those doors. Gamaliel says the following in vs. 38-39 in regards to Jesus and his followers: “So in the present case, I tell you, keep away from these men and let them alone; because if this plan or this undertaking is of human origin, it will fail; but if it is of God, you will not be able to overthrow them—in that case you may even be found fighting against God!” This is so true. If what we plan for the church is just our plan and we have not bathed it in prayer or asked for God’s intervention in a powerful way, it will fail. But if it is of God, then God will bless it.
I have found throughout my ministry that those programs and activities that we are involved in will be blessed if we ask for God’s intervention. When we step out in faith and get involved in something we should know fairly soon if it is of God or not. I can tell you of two times when this was evident in my ministry. The first was in Florida, where we had a preschool that we thought was God’s desire and intention. It ran for a number of years but at a certain point it became obvious that it was losing money big time and conflict and strife were the primary defining aspects of this ministry. We shut it down, it failed, it was not of God. It was obvious to the session and to everyone in that room that this was not of God. The second example was in Russia, where we stepped out in faith to open a second soup kitchen targeting moms and their children. We only had half the money we needed, but we were convinced that this was of God. The council decided to move forward in faith. The next morning the German Embassy called me and promised the remaining funds. Both have to do with money, and unfortunately, I do believe that funds are a great barometer for whether God is blessing a ministry or not. If the Holy Spirit is moving then I have experienced that people know it and are more apt to give and get on board with something that is of God. Is that a bad thing to say? I hope not. Well, the wise words of Gamaliel have held true, the Christian movement has certainly been of God, even, at times, in spite of us.