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Who are you performing for?

Acts: The Final Chapter  •  Sermon  •  Submitted   •  Presented   •  31:28
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Death comes to the paradise of the new church in Jerusalem - what can we learn from the scary story of judgement on Ananias and Sapphira?

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Ever had to put on a performance to impress someone? When we came back to Scotland in 2004, part of my job for Amazon was to rent an office for our software team and I had never done anything even remotely like that before. I remember visiting one office building after another with our broker, meeting all these suited sales agents with glossy brochures, walking around and trying not to look like a complete idiot. Talking about construction methods and seating density and square footage and break options and all manner of things I knew absolutely zero about, desperately trying not to say anything completely stupid so I wouldn’t be unmasked as an impostor. Putting on a performance to fit in, to feel like I belonged there, I had a right to be there. To look like I actually had a clue what I was doing.
I think there are lots of times in life where we find ourselves putting on a performance, covering up who we really are - almost always driven by trying to impress people - or at least to fit in, not be rejected. Today we’re going to talk about what happens when this putting on a performance thing crashes into church.
Last week, Pat helped us explore the amazing community that resulted from believing in, and living out the truth of resurrection: a community which cared for, and shared with, one another to such an extent that there were no needy people among them. An awesome community of radically transformed people that was changing its world. This week, unfortunately, we’ll see there’s trouble in paradise.
If you’re not familiar with today’s bible passage, the tale of Ananias and Sapphira, I need to give you a bit of a trigger warning before we read. We’ve seen the power of God heal people, spark opposition, create a revolutionary community - today we see it kill people. What we’re about to read is uncomfortable - it seems hard to reconcile with how we picture God - so hard that we’d prefer to cut it out of the bible and bin it or just explain it away than take a close look at it.
But Luke, our author, gives us this story right next to that picture of the happy family paradise of the early church. We need to talk about, and think about what this means for us. Nita is reading for us this week from the book of Acts in the bible, the first section of chapter 5. Ready to go?
Acts 5:1–11 NIV
Now a man named Ananias, together with his wife Sapphira, also sold a piece of property. With his wife’s full knowledge he kept back part of the money for himself, but brought the rest and put it at the apostles’ feet. Then Peter said, “Ananias, how is it that Satan has so filled your heart that you have lied to the Holy Spirit and have kept for yourself some of the money you received for the land? Didn’t it belong to you before it was sold? And after it was sold, wasn’t the money at your disposal? What made you think of doing such a thing? You have not lied just to human beings but to God.” When Ananias heard this, he fell down and died. And great fear seized all who heard what had happened. Then some young men came forward, wrapped up his body, and carried him out and buried him. About three hours later his wife came in, not knowing what had happened. Peter asked her, “Tell me, is this the price you and Ananias got for the land?” “Yes,” she said, “that is the price.” Peter said to her, “How could you conspire to test the Spirit of the Lord? Listen! The feet of the men who buried your husband are at the door, and they will carry you out also.” At that moment she fell down at his feet and died. Then the young men came in and, finding her dead, carried her out and buried her beside her husband. Great fear seized the whole church and all who heard about these events.
So why exactly did two people end up dead in one day? Why is God so miffed that they kept back some of the money for themselves? That’s our first big question here. Let’s start with some wrong answers before we think about what might be the right one. Here’s our first wrong answer:

1. They’re dead because they didn’t give enough to church.

Let me start with this one. Did God kill them because they didn’t give enough? Is today’s big message “hand over your money”?
Well, as a church we are basically 100% funded by you. And what we do does cost a bunch of money: buildings, staff, trainees, stuff. And yes, we would love more money so we could do more - because there’s plenty more we want to do - but we need quite a bit even to keep the wheels on. Pop to hopecityedinburgh.org/support-us if you would like to give - but that is not what this passage is about.
They’re not dead because their offering was insufficient, inadequate. And God is not threatening any of you this morning, stalking you with a scythe, death-style, pointing at your credit cards.
We’ve talked in the past about what Christians call “stewardship” - where we acknowledge that everything we have really belongs to God since he gave it to us, or made us able to earn it - and that means really we’re just looking after it for him. It is true, at bottom, that everything we own does belong to God and so he has a right to demand it back.
But what we heard int hat story wasn’t God showing up highwayman style with the cry “stand and deliver, your money or your life” - he doesn’t demand it all on pain of death or the church would be rather better funded!
That’s not what’s going on here - and I can prove it: last week we read this:
Acts 4:34–35 NIV
that there were no needy persons among them. For 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.
Notice it’s “from time to time” - as in this sort of thing kept happening. Not “and then everyone who owned anything sold it quick.” There are plenty of people in this young church who haven’t sold a thing yet - and they’re not all struck dead. In fact, if you look back at verse 4 which we read this morning, Peter goes to pains to point out that there wasn’t an obligation to sell property, or to give all of the resulting money:
Acts 5:4 NIV
Didn’t it belong to you before it was sold? And after it was sold, wasn’t the money at your disposal? What made you think of doing such a thing? You have not lied just to human beings but to God.”
Peter’s point there is that the property was under Ananias’ control - he could have kept it or sold it; and then the money resulting was under Ananias’ control - he could have kept it or given it. That’s not the issue here.
So it would be totally wrong to understand God’s judgement here falling on Ananias and Sapphira simply because God demands everything they have right now - and they didn’t pony up. There’d be a much higher body count if that was what was going on. Instead we see Ananias and Sapphira, who at least brought something to the apostles’ feet dead where there are plenty who have brought absolutely nothing still breathing.
So what is their problem? Here’s another wrong answer:

2. They’re dead because God keeps his church perfectly pure

When I began thinking about this passage, I wondered if it’d be right to see this as God upholding and enforcing the absolute holiness of his people as they enter this new chapter, keeping this new community of the Spirit who have this amazing new life together perfectly pure.
Is it just that anyone who messes up the absolute perfection and purity of this new people ends up dead? That they are such a holy community, people who lie can’t stay? Well, no. In the very next chapter, we’ll find one part of the church complaining against another part because of what looks very much like racism - Acts 6:1
Acts 6:1 NIV
In those days when the number of disciples was increasing, the Hellenistic Jews among them complained against the Hebraic Jews because their widows were being overlooked in the daily distribution of food.
People are being left out rather than cared for just because of where they come from. That’s no perfectly pure church - but no-one winds up dead. And if you were to read any of the ancient letters to different churches which are included in our bibles, you’d see there’s plenty of mess in almost every church - like there is here, too, but the body-count is nowhere near the problem count. So we can’t really read this as God demanding and ensuring absolute purity for his church.
Just as well - if church was only for perfectly pure people, there’d be no church. No church there in Jerusalem, no church here in Edinburgh. I’d be dead already. I’m not saying it’s good or even ok that church is not perfectly pure - it’s bad. But God doesn’t fix it by striking down all the baddies - if he did, there’d be no-one left.
Two wrong answers. It’s not that God demands everything - plenty of people haven’t given everything but still live. It’s not that God keeps his church perfectly pure - pretty sure this wasn’t the only thing wrong in this new, suddenly huge Jerusalem church.
So why are these two particularly the focus of God’s immediate and severe justice? What is it about them that he particularly stands against? Why is this nearly the only place we see God stepping in an acting in terminal judgement within the church? They just kept back some money… it’s just a few quid... or was it something deeper?
Remember last week Pat was helping us explore God’s new resurrection community, filled with love and generosity? And right before today’s passage, the last thing we’d read was the story of Barnabas selling a field and giving all the money for those in need? Today’s passage is the counterpoint, the exact opposite, of Barnabas’ genuine generosity. It’s not genuine, it’s fake. It’s not generosity, it’s selfishness.
See, think about whats going on within them - why would they lie? Imagine them planning out their words, thinking how they’re going to spin it “Yeah, we sold that field, that beautiful, lovely field. Yeah it really hurt - but we knew it was the right thing to do. I don’t know how we’ll manage but.. but we just really wanted to give it all to the poor. What can I say? We’re just that sort of people I guess.”
Did they really, even for a moment, think they were going to take God in? Could they be putting on this act, performing this way for him, hoping to convince him, to win his favour? I don’t think so. I don’t think anyone who takes God seriously could imagine they could pull the wool over his eyes - it’s a pretty dumb idea, obviously not going to work with a God who knows and sees everything. Like a toddler closing their eyes and thinking you can’t see them.
I don’t think that’s actually what’s going on - trying to mislead God - because from what Peter says here, it looks like they thought they were just performing for people, just lying to men. Peter has to correct them in Acts 5:4
Acts 5:4 NIV
Didn’t it belong to you before it was sold? And after it was sold, wasn’t the money at your disposal? What made you think of doing such a thing? You have not lied just to human beings but to God.”
They are not just lying to people - and I think the implication is that’s all they thought they were doing - but they’re lying to the Holy Spirit, to God - whether they believed it or realised it or admitted it or not. And that’s why they wind up dead. Here’s what I think is behind this exceptional act of judgement:

3. They’re dead because God hates a fake

God hates a fake. Particularly a fake within his precious community, the one he bought with the blood of his own son. Fakes are toxic for the church - and toxic for her mission too. Did you know that the top two negative ways Christians are described in the UK are “narrow minded” and then “hypocritical” - or fake? But it’s not just the world around us which hates fakes - God hates a hypocrite too. He shows us that here with this extraordinary judgement. He’s dead set against it - if you’ll forgive the phrase.
I want us to think about why they faked it - because I think that can help us avoid falling into that same trap.
See they faked it for the church - yes, like Peter pointed out to them, that was faking it towards God too - but they set out to fake it for the church. They put on that “oh, we’re giving it all away” performance for the church. Why? To impress people, to create a reputation, to get ranked, to get admitted into the Barnabas tier of church coolness. Oooh I see you’re a Barnabas-tier church member - here, let me escort you to the VIP seating area.
Does that ever happen anymore? Oh yes. The draw to put on a performance for other people, to wheedle your way into the inner circle even if you have to fake it to make it, is hugely powerful. We all long to be a part of something, to belong, to be on the inside. It’s wired into us humans - we need to be honest about that. So what can we do?
First, if you’re putting on a performance for people - and I think most of us are doing this somewhere, knowingly covering something up - when I put on a performance, today’s passage tells me I’m looking the wrong direction. It’s like I’m on the stage in a theatre, eyes so fixed on the crowd I’m ignoring the royal box. Because God is truly among his people. God is always in our audience.
Faking it is not just lying to people, it’s lying to God - a deadly serious business. Maybe we can get away with faking it for people, maybe we’re getting away with it now - but God sees straight through and he isn’t impressed. In fact, he hates it.
When we accept God is always in our audience, we know we can’t fake it - he sees straight through. I think you see that realisation of just how completely God sees through it, and how he is dead set against it, strike this early church in our reading today:
Acts 5:11 NIV
Great fear seized the whole church and all who heard about these events.
There’s great fear inside the church - this is no place for pretending - and great fear outside the church too. You couldn’t fake it in that church. If you wanted to join those church folk, you had better be ready to be seen through. And that is scary - because being seen through means nothing can cover up all our failures and faults. All the ones I can hide from you - but I can’t hide from God.
Great fear isn’t the whole story, though. Think about Jesus. when he’s toe to toe with the Pharisees, the Jewish religious elite who, from the outside at least, tick all the boxes. He calls them out as fakes, tearing strips off of them: “You Pharisees clean the outside of the cup and dish, but inside you are full of greed and wickedness.” “Woe to you, you hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of the bones of the dead and everything unclean. In the same way, on the outside you appear to people as righteous but on the inside you are full of hypocrisy and wickedness.” He calls them names: “children of hell”, “blind fools”, “snakes”, “brood of vipers”.
Jesus is harsh with hypocrites - but think of how gentle and gracious and kind he is when he meets people who are getting life wrong - even vastly wrong - but they don’t trumpet they’re getting it right. He doesn’t smite them, strike them down - or just steer clear of them - instead he seeks them out, talks gently with them, eats with them, invites them towards life and grace.
Yes, God hates a fake - but Jesus is the friend of sinners - like me. Jesus teaches us to pray “our father” - because he invites us to become God’s children. To have that as our identity, our position. We don’t have to earn the right through putting on a perfect performance and it will do us no good at all to fake it, which is the best we could manage ourselves. Instead, Jesus has already done it - a real, perfect performance. Not one misstep, not one fault. In Jesus’ famous story of the Prodigal Son, when the wayward son finally returns, having blown it all, he plans to plead with his father “let me be your slave,” earning his way - but instead he welcomed as son, nothing to prove, nothing to earn, no performance required.
So first, let’s be conscious God is always in our audience. He hates a fake, but in grace, invites sinners home. This is liberation.
Second, let’s be super clear on what it takes to fit in here at church, on who it is that belongs on the inside.
See, rather than helping one another fight this temptation, as a church we can so easily turn up the pressure to fake it instead. Each time just one of us fakes it, we’re feeding the flames. Every time we fake it, we’re driving someone else to fake it too. Every time we put on a performance and make it look like we’re making the grade, we create that pressure for others to have to put on a performance as well to look like they make the grade too. God’s probably not going to strike you down today for faking it towards the church, but it is still toxic - perhaps that’s why God judges it so severely in today’s passage.
It’s all too easy to turn into a bunch of shiny happy people holding hands, each one of us putting on a performance like life’s alright and we’re all good, like we’re ticking all the boxes and we’re making the grade. But that is not what defines God’s new community: it’s not a club for nice people, for do-good-ers. Quite the opposite. God’s new community is a hospital for broken people, for struggling people. For people who know we aren’t making the grade, who know we’re in a mess.
So instead of feeding the fake, feed the real story here at Hope City. Each time you’re real about your brokenness and failures you create the climate for others to be real about their brokenness and failures too. Hope City, let’s be real with one another. And each time someone dares to uncover their heart to you, and show you even just a little of their struggle and temptation, remind them they belong here, that God’s grace is sufficient, and that this is the true “inside” of Hope City: we are a community of grace.
This is big stuff. This is personal stuff. So I want to give you a minute just now to reflect on what we’ve talked about this morning. Some questions you might want to ask yourself on the screen.
Where am I putting on a performance?
Who can I bless by being honest?
How can I remember God is always in my audience?
Let me pray...
Hope City is a community of grace - and that means we can be a community of truth rather than a bunch of fakes. We’re built on the wonderful truth that although God sees us as we truly are and we can cover nothing from him, in grace he welcomes us through Jesus. Let’s sing.
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