Now the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common.
There was not a needy person among them, for as many as owned lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold.Acts 4:32, 34
I am thrilled to share another guest post from my daughter, Katie Laurence, who just completed her second year of studies at Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary in Berkeley, California. Here she is comparing and contrasting the stories of Barnabas with Ananias and Sapphira from the Book of Acts, and pondering what their stories teach us about being the church today.
Intro to Acts
How familiar are you with the Book of Acts in the Bible? Depending on what church you go to, you might have been hearing readings from Acts on the Sundays after Easter, but you might still not know too much about it. I know I didn’t for most of my life!
Acts is a sequel to the Gospel of Luke (probably written by the same author) that tells the story of the early church after Jesus ascended into heaven. It’s filled with stories of people becoming followers of Christ, and the early church facing challenges as they figure out how to be a church. Part of why I love Acts is because we’re still figuring out how to be a church today!
Intro to Our Bible Story
Now, I want to look with you at one story in Acts you might never have read before. In this story, we hear about how the first Christians lived in community together, and specifically how they dealt with wealth and possessions. Then, we get a positive example (Barnabas) and a negative example (Ananias and Sapphira) of members of the community giving to the church. After Ananias and Sapphira lie, they each fall down and die quite dramatically and suddenly. I was so surprised when they each died the first time I read this story!
If you’d like, I invite you to take a moment to read Acts 4:32-Acts 5:11 for yourself before we look at it together more closely.
“Holding Everything in Common”
Acts 2:43-47 is a popular Bible passage that describes the early church community, including how they held all things in common and sold their possessions to distribute the money to everyone who needed it. This must have been an important part of the church’s identity, because the author returns to it again in our passage for today.
The early church community lived in very close relationship with each other. Because of their faithful commitment to the church, they were able to give generously to the church and trust they would be supported in turn if they needed it. People who owned land sold it to fund the church, and people who needed food and other resources received it from the church. Barnabas is one of the church members who sold land and gave all of the money from the sale to the church.
Justice, Charity, and Mutual Aid
When something is unjust and not allowing people to live the abundant life that Jesus Christ wills for us, there are a few different, helpful ways to respond. One is justice: changing the system that is causing people to be in need. For the early church, this would be directly challenging the Roman Empire that was oppressing them and causing so many people to be hungry.
Another approach is charity: those with resources to spare giving to those in need, but not changing anything about the system that is causing people to be in need. For the early church, this would be feeding the hungry in their area (which they did!) without trying to confront the Roman Empire.
A third approach is mutual aid: forming a community that meets each other’s needs while also living in opposition to and outside the systems that cause people to be in need. For the early church, this looked like our passage in Acts: everyone in the community supported everyone else in the community, and the church lived in direct contrast to the Roman Empire’s oppressive systems and ways of life. This community lived Christ-like instead of Empire-like.
Why Did Ananias and Sapphira Die?
Now we get to the story of Ananias and Sapphira. Why did they die? Peter indicates it was because they sinned against the early church community and therefore the Holy Spirit and God. But what was this sin of theirs that apparently resulted in their deaths? At first, it might seem like their sin was not giving all of their possessions and wealth to the community to be held in common. (Punishing this seems extreme to most of us modern church goers!) But when we look closer, we see that they weren’t required to share all of their wealth and possessions with the church.
Peter says, “Ananias, why has Satan filled your heart to lie to the Holy Spirit and to keep back part of the proceeds of the land? While it remained unsold, did it not remain your own? And after it was sold, were not the proceeds at your disposal?” (Acts 5:3-4).
Ananias and Sapphira were lying to their church community. They sold a piece of property, then gave some of the money from that sale to the church. That would have been fine, according to Peter. The sin came in when they lied and claimed that they had given all of the proceeds from the property sale to the church. When they lied to the church, they also lied to the Holy Spirit. Did they die because of this lie, or did they happen to die at the moment of their lies? I don’t know.
Why Was Their Lie So Terrible?
I thought a lot about this story and how it comes after the description of a faithful church community that openly shares and supports one another. The final verse of this passage, after Ananias and Sapphira die, mentions “the whole church” (Acts 5:11). This is the first time the author of Luke and Acts uses the word “church” (ekklesia in Greek)! So what happened in this passage that made this Christian community become the church?
The early church faced many challenges. This story is sandwiched between stories of Christians being imprisoned! This community was new and under threat, and Ananias and Sapphira saw this. They lied and saved this secret wealth as a Plan B for themselves. They weren’t sure that things would work out with this whole “church” thing. In a community that relied upon Christ-like vulnerability and mutual aid during a time of persecution, Ananias and Sapphira had one foot out the door.
This couple were dishonest about their intentions and dedication to the church community, even while they were benefiting from the communal meals and mutual aid of the church. They acted like they were all-in with the community and had less wealth than they actually did, because they wanted to protect themselves more than they cared about the church. They were not able to overcome their fear, and this held them back from following Christ with their whole hearts. How much pain must they have felt, torn apart by fear!
The church could only become the church when it had boundaries to help protect itself from people like Ananias and Sapphira, who were a danger to the community because of their fear and lies.
What Is God Saying to the Church Today?
I said earlier that the church in Acts is trying to figure out how to be a church, and that we also face challenges as we try to figure out how to be a church today. “How to be church” is a question that’s never answered, but that we must keep asking throughout our lives as Christians. When I read this Bible story about the early church, I read a challenge for those of us who are part of the church today.
Most of us are not in a position to sell everything we have, give it to the church, and live off of a communal fund as a congregation, “holding all things in common.” That’s okay, because our context is so different from the early church! But how can we live into this passage’s vision for the church?
How can we build church communities of care? One lesson from this text is to have faith in God, who is at work in our church community, and therefore to have faith in our communities. Another is how important trust and accountability is when we live in intentional relationship with each other through the Holy Spirit. We are responsible for each other and the good of our community. Another lesson is how hard it is to escape the pain of fear, like Ananias and Sapphira were unable to do.
If We Weren’t Afraid, What Could We Do Together?
If we were more like Barnabas and the other early church members and less like Ananias and Sapphira, what would we do together as a community? If we overcame fear and had more faith in our communities, and if we built more accountability and trust in our communities, what would the Holy Spirit do through us? I’m imagining community gardens, mutual aid congregations, communal meals, churches that offer housing or rent money to those in their congregation who need it… What are you imagining? And what is your church community already doing?