If today's scripture text doesn't scare the daylights out of you, then you're not paying attention. Here's what happened. A wonderful spirit of giving had broken out in the early church of Jerusalem. People were selling off property and giving it to the church. And we're told that, as a result of this generosity, there was not a needy person among them. A man named Joseph from Cyprus sold one of his fields. He then brought all the money he made on this sale and laid it at the feet of the apostles. They were so impressed with Joseph that they changed his name to Barnabas which means "son of encouragement."
This is what giving does. It changes our lives. We don't give because the church has needs; we give because we need to give. You do enough giving and you might as well change your name because it will transform your life. It will make you one who is no longer worried about not having enough but who is now focused on being a son or daughter of encouragement.
Another man in the church named Ananias also got caught up in the spirit of giving--kind of. He wanted to do exactly what Joseph did, but when Ananias sold his field and took a good, hard look at all that money, he decided to hold back some of it and just tell the church he was giving them everything. The text also tells us that his wife, Sapphira, agreed to this lie.
Now, I cannot for the life of me imagine that Ananias sat Sapphira down and said to her, "Here's an idea, Sweetheart, let's lie to God." No, I'm thinking he set all that money down on the kitchen table, stared at it, and said, "You know, Honey, we've got some big bills coming up. There are braces for our son and tuition for our daughter. There's your mother in the nursing home and there's that little trip to the Greek Islands we were planning. I just don't know if we can give all of this away." Then he thought some more about all the pressure to look and act just like Barnabas. So maybe Ananias said to his wife, "Let's keep some of this and just tell Peter that we're giving them the whole wad. And in a sense we are. I mean, if God helps those who help themselves, then he'll be happy that I'm helping him help me." And Sapphira said, "Okay, Honey."
Actually, there is no verse in the
Bible that says God helps those who help themselves. We would love to find such a verse because it would justify our preoccupation with ourselves. But it's not there because the Gospel says just the opposite. God helps those who cast their whole lives upon his faithfulness.
When Ananias mimicked Barnabas and laid his money down at the feet of the apostles, rather than getting a new name, what Ananias got was a rebuke from Peter. "How is it that you have contrived this deed in your heart? You did not lie to us but to God!" Then we are told, "Now when Ananias heard these words, he fell down and died." The young men of the church carried him away and buried him.
You cannot lie especially to the Sprit-filled church without lying to God. Peter didn't care that Ananias did not give all the money from the land sale to the church. He even told Ananias that since he owned the property, it was already his, and he could have kept all the money. No, the problem wasn't that he held money back, but that he lied about it all. Ananias lost his life in a lie--a lie to God. We lie to God when we take our place among those who call Jesus Savior, yet put our trust in a little stash that we have kept for ourselves, just in case.
It is so tempting to keep just a little something for the rainy day, isn't it? My grandmother used to save all of her money in the various teacups she had lying around the house. In one cup she would save money to buy the kids' clothes. In another cup she would save money to buy herself a little something. But the money in the teapot was reserved for the rainy day. She never wanted to dip into that pot, because as she always would say, "You just never know." It was the great motto of anyone who survived the Great Depression. You just never know when you may need that little stash.
Now my grandmother wasn't doing that to hold anything back from God. Till the day she died, she gave God ten percent of what she always thought was his money anyway. But I think about her little teapot often. We are all very worried about that rainy day. We've got a stash set aside just in case. Even if it's only enough to fit in a teapot, I believe that's the money God wants the most because it is your stash that is your true Savior. This is not to say that you have to give all of your savings to the church, but you do have to give it to God to realize that you are only a steward of God's money or your savings will become your idol.
According to our economists, most of us are not counting on our reserves of money. These days most of us are counting on our credit cards for salvation, which is even more dangerous. Many members of today's churches are tithing ten percent, but they are giving it to Visa rather than to God. Do you really think that going into ...debt is going to save you? No, it's only a slow way to end up right where Ananias did. Having lost the life he wanted to gain another possession. Soon your possessions will possess you with more interest than you'll ever be able to pay.
Well, ...debt is only one way to keep a stash from God. Others hold back their expectations, relationships, jobs, or their ability to work hard. "God, you can have everything but my children. I have my own big dreams for them." "God, just don't take my career away." "God, just don't take my home or my good health." Again, you cannot take your place in the congregation of disciples who call Jesus Lord and Savior and hold back anything.
What does it cost to call Jesus Lord? How much does he want? Everything. That is the only way he can save you from counting on things that will eventually take your life away.
Three hours later, after Ananias died, his wife, Sapphira, came into the church and Peter asked her, "Tell me whether you and your husband sold the property for such and such a price." She looked at the figure and said, "Yes, that was the price." And Peter said, "How is it that you have agreed together to put the Lord to the test? Look, the feet of those who buried your husband are at the door and they will carry you out as well." We are told, "Immediately, she fell down at his feet and died."
I am struck by that verse that says Sapphira died at the apostle's feet. Where they had first placed only a portion of their money, she lays down her whole life as her husband did. This was what God wanted all along. Only he didn't want them dead. He wanted them as living sacrifices, wholly trusting in the Lord. We are not told that either God or Peter killed these two. Maybe they just died of heart attacks or of shame, but we don't know because we're not told, and because we're not told, it means it isn't important. What is important is that they illustrate Jesus' point. Those who tried to save their lives will lose them. Ananias and Sapphira lost their lives trying to save them.
Are you scared yet? You ought to be because the church was. Twice we are told in this passage that, "Great fear seized the whole church." Maybe they were afraid, as we should be, knowing that they had all held something back. It's time to tell the truth. Aren't we a lot more like Ananias and Sapphira than we are Barnabas? Haven't we all held something back from God? Remember, the thing that got Ananias and Sapphira in trouble was that they lied saying that they had given more than they did. Maybe this is a good time to start confessing our limits. God has always been so tender with repentant sinners who confessed their failure in belief. That is because when we confess our failures, even our failures in faith, we open our lives to be transformed by the power of the Holy Spirit.
I'm not telling you that you have got to muster up the courage to give God everything. I'm telling you that if you're like me you don't have that much courage. But if we confess our sins, he who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness. Who does the cleansing? Not us. It's all the courage we can find to confess our fear and doubt that tempts us to hoard our lives. But if we confess, the promise is that the Holy Spirit will fill us--so full that there's no room left in us for doubt.
Maybe that was why "great fear'' seized the whole church. Maybe the great fear was more like the sense of awe that comes from realizing we are in the Lord's hands and that he loves us too much to let us live with little fears. So as we confess our little fears, we discover the awesome fear of being transformed into a people who trust God.
Let us pray.
Lord God, all that we have we know belongs to you already. So we would commit to you not only our treasure but also our fear that in your hands it might be transformed miraculously into new life. Amen.