Lying to God
A number of years ago, a man by the name of Matthew Richardson was invited to give a series of lecture on Global Economic in Beijing.
Now Matthew Richardson is a leading authority on international markets so would have been well suited for the lectures.
The problem was, Matthew Richardson is actually a fairly common name, and the person that somehow got asked was a fourth year engineering student.
Now, you might think that the engineering student, realising that he essentially knew nothing at all about global economics, would have politely declined the invite pointing out the obvious error in the invite going to him.
But not this engineering student who was full of confidence.
Thinking a trip to China would be a great opportunity he decided he could bluff his way through.
And so in preparation he borrowed an a-level textbook titled An Introduction to Global Financial Markets and quickly read up.
Upon arrival in China, it became apparent that the Chinese organisers didn’t know what the actual expert looked like, because he was never asked any questions. And so it wasn’t long before he found himself on stage ready to give the lecture.
With the benefit of a translator which gave him time to read and speak, he managed to get through the first lecture quite convincingly. Apparently, he even managed to get some compliments in the lunch break about some of the insights he gave.
He also got through the second and third lecture as well.
Unfortunately, he knew that he couldn’t keep it up because he was getting close to the end of the book and he still had a number of lectures to give.
And so with a few lectures to go, he did a runner. He booked another hotel, and the next day found his way to the airport and left without speaking with the organisers.
Eventually the truth became known and the organisers were left feeling shocked and humiliated. It was an innocent mistake on their behalf but they had been taken advantage of.
While this story is on a large scale, we all have at some time been taken advantage of. Maybe a salesperson who lied about what they were actually selling. Maybe a friend who made a promise with no intention of ever keeping it. Or maybe you’ve been scammed or robbed unwittingly while you were trying to help.
It always leaves you with a sour taste.
It’s because we crave authenticity but we live in a society that is far from authentic.
As we continue to go through the opening chapters of Acts, we come to a section that shows the best and the worst of the church.
We get a picture of it when all works as it should, but not everyone is authentic.
The tricky part is, as I’m sure you’re all aware, weeding out the authentic from those who aren’t authentic can be really really hard.
Well my aim this morning is to first consider the importance of being authentic, but also to look at what it means to be authentic. Sometimes it can be hard to actually differentiate.
Just like in the case of the Matthew Richardson giving a lecture on global economics, it can be easy to mistake confidence with authenticity.
Well, the context for this exploration is the end of and the start of which looks at the community of believers during these early years of the church.
You might recall that I briefly looked at this community back at the end of chapter 2. At this time, we got a bit of a picture of some of the activities that they got up to including learning, having fellowship together and taking part in what we call communion.
But for our purposes this morning it was verses 44 and 45 which become relevant. These verses say:
All the believers were together and had everything in common. They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need.
Now in case we think that hyperbole is being used here, chapter 4 gives us a better picture of how this actually worked in practice.
In this chapter, it begins by describing the believers as being in one heart and mind, which extended to their possessions as well.
It is half way through verse 34 that we see the first real powerful demonstration of this in practice. You see, it tells us that “from time to time those who owned land or houses sold them, brought the money from the sales and put it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to anyone who had need.”
Now it is important to realise that this is not some sort of cult where they were forced into giving up their possessions. Indeed, as we will see shortly when we get into chapter 5, it was completely up to them if they wanted to keep any of their own possessions for themselves. What makes this community so remarkable is that what they are giving up is a free choice made as a result of the love of Jesus in their lives.
When Jesus enters your life, amazing things start to happen and you can begin to see the most remarkable transitions happening.
Joseph - Barnabas
Joseph - Barnabas
Well in verse 36 we are introduced to someone who actually does sell a piece of land that he owns and lays the proceeds at the feet of the apostles.
The name of the man is Joseph, but we tend to know him as Barnabas, with the meaning of his name being spelt out for us, being “son of encouragement”.
This man becomes quite well known later in the book of Acts, most notably as the travel companion of Paul on his first missionary journey.
But here we see Barnabas essentially being the model of how this community is operating.
And when it is good, it is very good. I said when we were looking at chapter 2, that I believe this is essentially a foretaste of what heaven will be like, and I truly believe it. There’s a lot we don’t exactly know about what heaven will be like, but with sin out of the way and everyone looking out for each other, I believe this picture starts to head in the right way.
So I want to offer this as the picture of an authentic Christian. I’m not suggesting he is perfect or anything like that, but he is genuine and has the community at heart.
Well, something that you notice right throughout the bible is that the authors are not concerned about painting the picture with rose coloured glasses, in fact we constantly see God’s people at both their best and their worst.
The picture we get today is no exception. While the picture of the community is indeed a beautiful one, one which I’ll stand by my comment that it is a foretaste to heaven - but it’s not heaven yet! As wonderful as it is to have people working together, unfortunately, this side of the return of Christ we are inevitably going to see the system fail due to the sinfulness of humanity.
Ananias and Sapphira
Ananias and Sapphira
Well chapter 5 starts by introducing us to a couple and by the end of the first verse, if you didn’t know better, you might think that we’re about to hear of another example of this community working well.
Unfortunately, verse 2 lets us in on the fact that what we’re about to see is what happens when people who lack basic integrity get involved.
Now the thing is, what we learn in verse 2 seems pretty harmless. You see, what it tells us is that after selling the property they kept some of the money for themselves and brought the remainder for the community.
To be honest, there is actually nothing wrong with this. It was their property to begin with and so they are entitled to deal with it in the way they feel best.
The problem was not that they kept some for themselves, but the deception involved.
What they have done is to essentially act as if they are being like everyone else and in particular get the praise because of their great generosity, when in fact they are not being nearly as generous as it would seem.
This is the problem with fake people. On the surface it seems so wonderful, but you only have to dig a little bit to find alternate agendas.
I know politicians can be easy targets on this one but certainly at times they can be a good example of putting on a show of authenticity when in fact their real agenda is hidden.
Why this is a problem
Why this is a problem
Before we look at Peter’s response, I think it is worth digging just a bit deeper about why this is such a problem.
You see, this deception about the land could easily be dismissed as a simple white lie. The truth is, we’ve become accustomed to this way of operating. I would go as far to say that there is an unwritten and unspoken code which we seem to operate by which says that at times telling a small lie is actually necessary.
But I would argue that this conclusion we’ve come up with along the way is actually one based on the fact that other people are going to lie in the first place. In other words, if you know that someone else isn’t going to play by the rules, then it’s best you don’t either.
But as we move towards a community built on God’s standards, this can never work. Because once we take away this level of integrity, everything starts to fall over. What can easily be dismissed as a little white lie, actually can be the catalyst for much worse, and it has no place in God’s kingdom.
Well in verse 3 we see Peter’s response to this matter. It doesn’t tell us precisely how Peter found out about the deception, although from the context of the passage it would seem quite clear that it was revealed to him by the Holy Spirit.
And so Peter calls it for what it is. He doesn’t mince words by trying to tip toe around the fact that it might seem a small deal, rather he describes the matter as Satan having filled his heart so that he has lied to the Holy Spirit.
Note that it’s not just a lie to the apostles or to the other Christians, but a lie to the Holy Spirit.
Now we could get technical and say that any lie is a lie to the Holy Spirit, but in this case, this particular lie has been designed to gain traction in the new community, while benefiting themselves, so it has a particular affect against the Holy Spirit.
Peter then goes on to say what I’ve said already, that the land was theirs and they could have done what they wanted to with it, but they’ve gone and decided to lie about it.
The Death of Ananias and Sapphira
The Death of Ananias and Sapphira
Now what happens next seems really quite shocking. It seems particularly shocking because even though I’ve spoken about the domino affect it could have on the community, it actually still doesn’t feel too bad.
Well, Ananias, who had come by himself with the money then falls down dead. Just like that. We’re not told exactly what it was that killed him, in many ways, it doesn’t really matter, because what is clear is that the death was a result of the deception.
It almost seems worse when Sapphira then also comes in three hours later (see verse 7) and after questioning from Peter, the same thing happens.
In both cases they fall down dead, and we’re told that some of the young men come forward, wrap up the body and carry them out to be buried.
It begs a serious question - why in the world are they dying for this?
I think if this was an Old Testament story, it might seem easier to accept.
Well, to understand this, it is important to understand the significance of this point in God’s unfolding plan. This new community is just being initiated and it is important that it is established in the appropriate way.
As a rough analogy it is like a teacher who gets a new class. What you find with good teachers, they are make a point to set the expectations really early, and sometimes this means making an example of unacceptable behaviour.
Now I don’t want to get too precise about this because God can respond however he wishes to respond to any situation, but it does explain why we see such an extreme reaction here, whereas you can probably all think of far worse offences that would seem to go unpunished.
The point of this passage is not to consider how we might be punished should we fail to live up to how we should be in God’s kingdom, rather the passage can show us more what is expected. In other words, the punishment is more specific to the time, but the expectation of behaviour has a timelessness that we can learn from now.
So let’s consider that now. I started by suggesting that we all crave authenticity. As we’ve seen in this passage, being authentic is important to God. There is an expectation that if you are part of God’s kingdom that you live like it.
This means that you live with the selflessness that Christ demonstrated for us. As much as we naturally want to look out for ourselves, that is not how the community of God works.
It is important because when we start looking out for ourselves, we fail to listen to what is important to God. We may as well say to God that we know better than him.
Can we ever look out for ourselves?
Can we ever look out for ourselves?
But there is a question that is raised from this. Is there ever a time that it is appropriate to look out for ourselves?
Well, the answer is yes and no.
I say yes, but only in that there is some practicalities where God has designed us to provide some of our needs.
I’ve heard people describe extreme examples where they don’t make any decisions without asking God, to the point that even when they go to the sock draw, they ask which one they wear - and somehow they end up wearing odd socks.
The point being, obviously we can take this too far. If you don’t look after yourself at all, then you end up being no use to anyone.
But to the question of whether it’s ever appropriate to look after ourselves, I would also answer no in that when we put God first, everything else will work out. But this is when we do it sensibly, recognising the way that God works in our lives.
So let’s now consider what it looks like in practice.
There are actually quite a number of different ways in which we can take advantage of the church for our own benefits. We see some extreme cases of this, such as people abusing people for their own benefit, or stealing from the church.
However, even apart from these extreme cases, I think there are a lot of other more subtle ways that we can all be guilty of.
For example, when you become part of the church for long enough, you start to learn the language. You know the way to speak so that people think you are spiritual.
You know that if you add phrases such as, ‘if God wills it’, or ‘let me pray about it’, or ‘it’s only in God’s strength’, then it makes you sound like you’re spiritually mature.
Now all those things to say are really good, but only if you mean it. When you start saying it with the purpose of sounding good, well, to be honest, that is very similar to Ananias and Sapphira who gave money so they could look good.
We also need to be honest with everything we say.
Sometimes it can be easy to say you’ll do something to someone because you know that’s what they want to hear - but if you have no intention of doing it, then you are lying to them.
The same thing when you offer to pray for someone. This is part of that Christian talk that we can become good at.
But if you say you’ll pray for someone, then you should. If you don’t think you will, then don’t offer. Or one good method, which I think is actually a really good idea, if someone needs prayer, then why not pray with them in the moment. You don’t have to wait, you can pray with them right where they are - this way you won’t promise to pray and then forget.
The community that we see in the book of Acts is such an amazing one. I’ve said a few times now that it really is a foretaste to heaven, and even today, when we do it well, we too can have this foretaste of heaven.
I’m sure that many, maybe even all of you have at times enjoyed this type of community when it is done really well.
But to do it well, we can’t live our own way. We can’t make it about ourselves, but instead we have to always look to God and act with integrity and authenticity.