Sermon: Super(Natural) Authenticity
Scripture: Acts 4:36-5:11
Date: May 15, 2016
Now we’ve been looking at the Super(Natural) Hero Devotion Chart and thinking about where we fall on the chart when it comes to the powers that the Holy Spirit gives to disciples. We’ve talked about the power of devotion and the power of proclamation (witness) and then last week the power to be bold in our faith. And that is the Super(Natural) Power of Authenticity. Because you see it doesn’t matter if you are the best proclaimer in the world, or have great boldness in your witness, if you are not authentic in your faith, you will never reach the place of total devotion. In fact, you will spend most of your life moving in the wrong direction. Jesus needs disciples who are persons of great integrity and whose witness is authentic, if we are going to be Super(Natural) Heroes who are sent out to save the world. Now the church has always wrestled with this question of integrity. This story that we’re going to think about today has it’s roots in the Old Testament. Now we know that when the Hebrew people finally moved into the promised land after many years as nomads wandering in the desert wilderness, that God gave each person a plot of land upon which to settle. About two acres in today’s measurement. But that wasn’t enough for some, and so almost immediately there were those who desired more than their share. And in the middle of the night they would go and move someone else’s boundary stone, giving themselves more land. We would call that embezzlement today. And God knew that the community could not survive with such a lack of integrity in their midst, and so in Deuteronomy God says to the people: Cursed are those who move their neighbor’s boundary stone. In the Book of Job we are told that in the midst of God’s people there are those who move boundary stones and they pasture flocks they have stolen. And why? Well other than the pure economics, Possessions, land, money are often signs of blessedness in scripture. But scripture is also clear that money can be the root of evil. And why is that? Because the quest for wealth, can cause us to move boundary stones in order to acquire more. It can challenge our ability to deal with one another with integrity. And call into question the authenticity of our witness because often the desire to acquire more conflicts with the need to give all of ourselves to God. And so the Spirit gives us the power to live our lives with integrity. And when we live our lives with integrity in all things, then the authenticity of our faith becomes our witness. We become the real thing. But lives that are lived without integrity are not only cursed, but they do great harm to the whole community of God.
With that in mind consider this:
36 Joseph, a Levite from Cyprus, whom the apostles called Barnabas (which means “son of encouragement”), 37 sold a field he owned and brought the money and put it at the apostles’ feet.
Ananias and Sapphira
5 Now a man named Ananias, together with his wife Sapphira, also sold a piece of property. 2 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.
3 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? 4 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.”
5 When Ananias heard this, he fell down and died. And great fear seized all who heard what had happened. 6 Then some young men came forward, wrapped up his body, and carried him out and buried him.
7 About three hours later his wife came in, not knowing what had happened.8 Peter asked her, “Tell me, is this the price you and Ananias got for the land?”
“Yes,” she said, “that is the price.”
9 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.”
10 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. 11 Great fear seized the whole church and all who heard about these events.
Now the story of Ananias and Saphira is one of the most troubling stories of the Bible. And I think in part that’s because for some reason, some long ago person when editing the Book of Acts, inserted a chapter break right in the middle of this story. And that to understand the troubling story of Ananias and Saphira we’ve got to remove the unfortunate chapter break and place it back in the full context in which Luke told it. If we do that, then we will see that this is not a story about tithing (or the consequences of not tithing), nor is it a story about giving to the church. In fact, it is not really a story that was meant to focus exclusively on Ananias and Saphira. This is a story about integrity and authenticity. Living a life of integrity so that people will see the power of authenticity working in us and pouring from us. This is first a story about a Supernatural Hero by the name of Joseph.
So let’s look at it. Luke begins by giving us a lot of information in just a few words. First of all he tells us that he wants us to consider this man Joseph. Now two things he tells us about Joseph – right up front. First Luke tells us that Joseph is from Cyprus. (show map) Now look at this map. Cyprus was an Island in the Mediterranean that was located about 250 miles from Jerusalem. But it apparently had a pretty sizeable Jewish colony on the Island, probably the descendants of Jews that had fled the Holy Land in advance of one of the invading armies from Babylon or Assyria or maybe even Rome. They came to be known as the Diaspora Jews. So Joseph is from Cyprus. He is a Diaspora Jew. And then the second thing that Luke tells us is that Joseph is a Levite, which means that his ancestry reaches back to the tribe of Levi, one of the original twelve tribes that settled into the promised land after Moses had led them to the border. Now earlier I said, that when the Jews settled into the promised land, each was given a plot of land to live on. Families from every one of the tribes were so gifted, except those from the tribe of Levi. Because it was from the Levites that the priests and the teachers of the law would come. And their work would be so important that they would not have to live off the land. Instead the rest of the tribes were expected to support the Levites, so they could tend to the Temple. They had not inherited any land from the original conquest. And most Levites would have had very little in the way of personal wealth and possessions. And so the fact that Joseph owned land would have been a clue that something extraordinary, even supernatural was about to happen. And we know that the Levites did not all live near the Temple. They were scattered throughout the tribes and, as in Joseph’s case, even outside the country. And so at some point, it would be their turn to travel to Jerusalem from wherever they were and perform their duties in the Temple. And so when Luke tells us that Joseph was from Cyprus and a Levite, his readers would have understood that as the story unfolds, Joseph is in Jerusalem to perform his duty in the Temple. And in the course of performing his duty, he came into contact with the Disciples who came every day to meet and pray and worship near Solomon’s Porch in the Temple Courtyard. And so while doing his priestly duties, Joseph had heard their teachings. Heard about this man Jesus, who had been crucified, but come back to life. And he saw how these Disciples loved and lived. How they pooled everything they had and took care of one another, along with the poor and the widows and the outcasts. And their message was so compelling, their witness so real, so authentic, that Joseph wanted what they had. That’s the power of authenticity. And we don’t know when, perhaps in the street following the first Pentecost when he had heard the Gospel proclaimed in Greek, which was the native language of Cyprus, or maybe in response to one of Peter’s sermons, but the Holy Spirit had come to Joseph. He had experienced his own Pentecost. And he becomes so devoted that he goes and sells his piece of property on Cyprus and comes back to Jerusalem and in the midst of one of those daily prayer meetings with who knows how many looking on in the Temple courtyard, Joseph the Levite, the Jewish priest, steps forward and lays a bag of money at the feet of the Disciples. Now there is no indication that the Disciples have any idea who Joseph is at this point, and so they ask him his name. And he tells them Joseph the Levite. And the Disciples look at his offering, and note the courage of a Levite making such an offering in the middle of the Temple, and they say to him from now on you’ll be known as Barnabus (which means son of encouragement) because you have been such an encouragement to us by your actions and your witness. You see, here’s the thing. We know that Joseph had experienced his own Pentecost because God had changed His name. Think about it. When the Spirit of God came upon Abram, God had changed his name to Abraham. After wrestling with the Spirit, Jacob’s name had been changed to Israel. Simon became Peter. And now Joseph to Barnabus. From Levite priest to Christian disciple. I believe that what Luke is describing here is Joseph’s transformation into a Supernatural Hero because in his actions we witness the power of total devotion, and the proclamation of his actions, and the boldness by which he brings his offering. And the authenticity of his witness encourages the Disciples to continue on. Barnabus the Supernatural Hero emerges.
But there’s more to the story. Because apparently in the congregation that day was a married couple by the name of Ananias and Saphira. Now remember last week I said that soon after the emergence of a Superhero in the story books, there is always the emergence of a supervillain – an arch nemesis that serves as kind of the antithesis of what the superhero stands for. Well, the actions of Ananias and Sapphira stand in sharp contrast to the integrity of Barnabus and the Authenticity of his new found faith and witness. So here is what I think we can imply happened from the way Luke tells the story. This couple is in the congregation listening to Peter and the other Disciples teach and preach, when all of a sudden this Levitical priest steps from the crowd and he lays a bag of money at the feet of the Disciples and testifies that this is the proceeds of the sale of perhaps the only thing that he personally owned as a Levite. And Ananias and Sapphira take it all in, and see the reaction of the Disciples and the crowd towards Joseph and they look at each other, and they say that’s what we want. That kind of faith. That kind of witness. We want a new name. There is power in the authenticity of our witness. It’s a compelling witness. A life changing – world changing – witness.
I love the story that I heard about a man who was a member of a very large church and also a successful car salesman in a large dealership in the city where the church was located. And last year, at the beginning of Christmas week, his general manager called him in to his office, and said to him, “The year is nearly gone, and we have way too much inventory on the lot. I need you to sell four new cars today.” Now the man had spent a lot of time praying for the General Manager, that he would find Jesus, and had invited him to church several times without success. And so he said to him, “If I sell four cars today, will you commit to come to Christmas Eve services at my church.” And the General Manager said, “you’ve got a deal.” And so the salesman went back to his office and took out the church directory he kept in his drawer and he started calling people and asking them if they had any thought of buying a new car in the near future. And if they said yes, he explained his agreement with the general manager, and encouraged them to come and talk with him that day. And sure enough, by the end of the day, four of the members of the church had come and bought a new car. So he went to the General Manager with the paper work on the four cars and he said, “what time should I pick you up for church.” And the General Manager looked at him for a moment and then reached into his drawer and pulled out the check book and he said, “I’m not going to come to church but I am prepared to write you a nice bonus check. I’ll even let you name the amount you think the bonus should be. That should come in handy this time of year. Your family will have a very Merry Christmas.” And the salesman thought about that for a moment. It would be nice to have that extra money at Christmas, but that was not the promise that he had made to the Lord, and shared with the people who bought the cars. The bonus he had in mind was for the manager to get involved with the church and find the Lord. And so he said to the manager, “No, I don’t want your check (well I really do, but not under these circumstances). Our deal was that you would come to the Christmas Eve services.” And the General Manager put the check book back in the drawer and slammed it shut. “It’s your choice, but I’m not coming to your church.” And he walked out of the office. But 15 minutes later, he came back in and said to the salesman, “I admire your integrity, and I will keep my end of the bargain and go to church. But,” he said, “if I have to go, everyone else at the dealership has to go with me.” “I’ve been praying for them to” the salesman said. “You’ve got a deal.” And so that Christmas Eve, more than 100 employees of that dealership showed up for worship. And rumor has it that in a large car dealership in a major city in the US there is hanging a picture of all the employees gathered around the altar of that church. The Power of Authenticity.
And so Ananias and Sapphira are so struck by the Authenticity of Joseph’s – now Barnabus’s – witness that they say that’s what we want, and so they too go and sell a piece of property that they have in Jerusalem with the intent of bringing all the money from the sale and laying it at the feet of the Disciples. They want to be all in like Barnabus was. They want a new name too. They started out with the best of intentions. But their piece of property is in Jerusalem where property values are very high and so they get a lot of money for it – much more than they had anticipated. And they say to each other, that’s so much money. And they begin to engage in what one preacher calls the sin of rationalization because he says, if you break down the word “rationalize” what you have are “rational lies.” And so Ananias rationalizes that: The church doesn’t need all of that. And so Luke says they “kept back” part of the money for themselves. Now here’s what we need to know about Luke’s wording here that is often gets lost in translation. The word that Luke uses that is most often translated as “kept back” is the root word of the word embezzlement. So Luke tells us that Ananias and Sapphira are guilty of embezzling from the Lord, just as those in Ancient Israel had been guilty of embezzling when they moved their neighbor’s boundary stones and so laid claim to their herds. And God had told them: Those who embezzle will be cursed. So Ananias gives in to temptation and takes a portion out of the bag for himself (after all who’s going to know) and then he takes the rest and lays it at the Disciples feet as though, like Joseph, he is giving everything to the Lord. And Peter, who certainly knows about “rational lies” immediately realizes that the amount left in the bag couldn’t possibly be all that Ananias had gotten for the land. And so Peter looked at Ananias with deep sorrow and said, “Are you sure that this is everything?” And when Ananias swears that it is, he says, “Ananias, I can’t believe that you have embezzled from God and kept a portion for yourself.” And when Ananias was confronted with the truth, he dropped dead. And Luke says that everyone was in great fear. But the better translation is awestruck. Well three hours later, Sapphira comes strolling in to where the Disciples are still teaching, obviously unaware of what has happened to Ananias, ready to have her name changed, to reap the reward for her witness. And Peter holds out the bag to her, and says, “Tell me, is this all that you got for the sale of your property.” And she says, “Yes, that’s all of it. Just like Barnabus, we’re all in.” And Peter says, “Are you sure that’s the answer you want to give. Because that was the answer that your husband gave also and these men have just returned from burying him because he couldn’t live with the guilt and shame of his embezzling from the Lord. And they are ready to carry you out also.” And at that moment Sapphira dropped dead. Now this is a hard story to wrap our heads around in part because we add facts that are not evident to it which change the meaning. For instance we assume a couple of things about the cause of death of these two. Some assume that Peter was responsible for their deaths. And the story then becomes more about Peter’s ability to exercise power over life and death. Or we claim that God struck them down to punish them for their “embezzlement.” And so this becomes a parable about what happens when Disciples don’t live in perfection, and gives rise to the idea that the church is for perfect people and if we fall short of that perfection, then we too will be cursed. Perhaps not cursed with death, but that other bad things that happen to us arise from our imperfection. But neither of those ideas are supported by scripture. In fact, Luke makes it clear that the deaths of Ananias and Sapphira are self inflicted. They are the result, not of holding back a portion of the funds, but of doing so after they had promised that they wouldn’t. Holding back on their devotion. The cause of death on their death certificate could have read: inauthenticity. You see, authenticity is not the same as perfection. The power of authenticity is the power to be real, even in the midst of our imperfection. In fact, for Disciples the struggle with our imperfections, our flaws, our weaknesses, even our sin, gives power and authenticity to our witness. One writer says that the authenticity of our witness testifies to where God lives in our lives. Dallas Willard once wrote: (Christians) do you want to know where God lives? God lives at the end of our rope. Ananias and Saphira didn’t die because they kept some of the money for themselves. They died – they were cursed – because they held back (embezzled) what they had promised to God and yet presented themselves as being all in. (Show chart) They were low devotion people who tried to pass themselves off as high devotion people, and in doing so they threatened the entire community of faith. Because then and now, there are those who are looking for inauthenticity, a lack of integrity in the witness of the church and when they find it, they use it as a weapon to try and tear down God’s Kingdom. Now we look at this story sometimes and we think, I’m glad that I’m not like Ananias and Sapphira. But be careful in thinking that. Because I suspect that there is something of Ananias in most of us. Think about the vows that we make when we become a part of the church. The bottom line is that we are like Ananias and Sapphira when we fail to keep the covenant we make with God. We stand in the midst of the community and say we will be all in with our prayers, our presence, our gifts, our service and our witness. We make that covenant with God to be all in. We have the best of intentions. But then life in this world happens. And we are tempted to embezzle from God. Are there times when, like Ananias and Sapphira, we start to focus our attention on more worldly things and we don’t have time for God. Don’t have time to pray? Or there are other places we need to be on Sunday morning. I sometimes run into people who say, “I’m a member of your church, but I don’t come very often because I’m busy on Sundays.” Then they often give me their rationale for not coming to church. And I am always tempted to say, “First of all, it’s not my church, it’s God’s church, and you need to take this up with Him. And secondly, are you really a member, if you have so little regard for the covenant you made to be present in Community with God? Or how many times do we let worldly demands, keep us from giving our best gifts to God? And the list goes on. The point is that when we fail to keep our vows, our promises, to God we, like Ananias and Sapphira, deny the power of authenticity in our witness and our faith. Now I know that is a hard word. But, make no mistake being a Supernatural Hero, a totally devoted disciple is hard. Joseph had to deny his heritage and sell everything he had in order to come. That’s why the Holy Spirit came again and again to these Disciples, to fill them again and again, whenever the world threatened to rob them of their authenticity. Because Jesus knew – Jesus knows – that evil wants to fill us up with villainous things like greed and hatred and conceit – just to name a few. And that if we are full of worldly concerns and desires there will be no room for the Spirit. Peter says to Ananias, “Has Satan so filled up your heart that there is no room for the Holy Spirit?” The power of authenticity is the power to drive the world out, so that the Holy Spirit can fill us. An authentic life is a Spirit filled life.
Which leads to the final thing I think we can learn from this story, and that is that living a life that is empowered by authenticity has got to be our choice to make. We choose whether to live our life with integrity or not. Joseph, turned Barnabus, chose to empty himself completely and the authenticity of his witness became a great blessing. He became a Super(Natural) Hero. A Super(Natural) Disciple. But Ananias and Sapphira chose to hold on to the things of the world, and “hold (themselves) back” from God, and they paid the price for their choice. And instead of embracing the life of a Super(Natural) Hero they became Villains reviled throughout the ages. And friends, you and I are faced with the same choice every day that we walk this earth. Ultimately it’s the choice of where we want to be on this chart, at a place of low or half hearted or fragmented devotion. Or do we want to be all in. Surrendering all of the world, so that the Spirit can fill us with the things of God. Witnessing with the power of authenticity, having our names changed to Christian, and making a difference in this world. What will you choose?