Doing the Work
Sometimes, I have even been the people who I aspire to be… for a while.
Today, we are finishing a short summer sermon series titled That’s In the Bible?! We’ve spent the last handful of weeks hearing stories that we don’t usually hear in church: stories that are weird or uncomfortable or just plain hard to preach on.
Next week, we’ll go back to the lectionary. We’ll start our annual journey through the edited version of the Biblical story. We will hear about how God planted a garden and about the fruit of a certain tree. We will hear about covenants and calls and prophets. We will hear about life and death and resurrection. We will hear about the birth of the church… and the fruits of the spirit.
But today we are hearing a story about Ananias and Sapphira.
Way back in July—when we were talking about being the church, when we were talking about sharing earthly and spiritual resources—we heard about the early church. You see, in those days, no one claimed personal ownership of what they had. They shared with everyone. If I had an extra pair of shoes, and you needed shoes, well… be my guest.
And there was this man named Joseph. And he had a field. And he sold the field. And he gave the money to the church, to be given to anyone who needed it. And they honored him. They talked about him. They told this story about how he had a field and sold the field and gave the money to the church to be given to anyone who needed it. They called him Barnabas, which means son of encouragement.
Ananias and Sapphira owned a piece of property. And they sold it for, let’s say, ten thousand dollars. In cash. And there it was, in tens and twenties, sitting on the table. And they said to each other, “That’s a lot of money. Let’s take some of it to the church. We’ll give them eight thousand dollars. And we’ll keep two thousand dollars.”
And that’s what they did. And that would have been fine. Except…
Ananias went to the church—Ananias went to Peter himself—and said, “You know that land we had? We sold it for eight thousand dollars. Here it is.” And that just wasn’t true.
And Peter said, “That’s just not true. Look. When you owned the land, it was yours. And when you sold the land, the money was yours. You could have just kept it. But instead, you came here, and claimed to be doing more than you were doing. You lied to us. And you lied to God.”
And Ananias fell down and died.
And about three hours later, Sapphira showed up, and she hadn’t heard about Ananias.
Peter said to her, “I heard that you sold your land for eight thousand dollars.” And Sapphira said, “Yeah, that’s right, and we’re giving it all to the church!” And Peter said, “Oh, you were in on it, too.”
And Sapphira fell down and died.
And everyone in the church got very nervous.
It is an open secret that every pastor wants to preach on this story during stewardship season. Because it’s easy to read it and think that Ananias and Sapphira pledged the proceeds from the sale of their land to the church. And that they promised ten thousand dollars, and that they only paid eight thousand dollars, and that they died because of that.
And so the lesson is: fulfill your pledges, because God will strike you dead if you don’t.
But that is not what is happening here. The story does not say that Ananias and Sapphira promised all of the money to the church. They could have kept the land; and that would have been fine. And they could have sold the land and kept the money; and that would have been fine. And they could have sold the land and kept some of the money; and that would have been fine.
No… the problem is that they took some of the money to the church and said, “Here is all the money. Aren’t we amazing and generous? Shouldn’t we be lauded and honored, like that Barnabas guy?”
The problem… the thing that they did that they should not have done… the sin… was that they claimed to be doing more than they were doing. They claimed to be giving everything, when they were just giving some.
Ananias and Sapphira claimed to be something they were not. And that’s a little weird, because who they actually were was fine. They could have kept the land. They could have kept the money. They could have kept twenty percent of the money. They could have been honest about it. And that would have been okay.
But they did the thing that we—and by we, I mean people—so often do. They took the shortcut. They made the claim without doing the work. They said that they were the kind of people who gave everything without, y’know, giving everything.
And, it’s true, aspiration is a thing. I have said, “I am the kind of person who goes to the gym.” I have said, “I am the kind of person who eats healthy foods in reasonable quantities.” I have said, “I am the kind of person who only spends money on things that I actually need.”
And I have said those things in the hopes of being those people. And, sometimes, I have even been those people… for a while.
But here’s the thing. If I am going to say, “I’m the kind of person who goes to the gym,” then I have to go to the gym sometimes. If I’m going to say, “I’m the kind of person who eats healthy foods in reasonable quantities,” then I have to eat a spinach salad now and again. And if I’m going to say, “I’m the kind of person who only spends money on things that I actually need,” then… well, then I need to change some spending habits.
Part of aspiring to something is doing the work.
Believe me, I know how tempting it can be to take the shortcut. I know how tempting it can be to make the claim and leave the work aside. I know how tempting it can be to say and not do.
But that’s not us. That is not who we are. Because we know that we make big, bold, wild, dangerous, grace-filled, aspirational statements. We know that we put up big, bold, wild, dangerous, grace-filled, aspirational banners. We know that we have a big, bold, wild, dangerous, grace-filled, aspirational statement of identity and purpose. We know that we have taken on big, bold, wild, dangerous, grace-filled, aspirational covenants.
And we know that saying those words means doing the work.
We spent a good chunk of this summer on a sermon series about being the church; about protecting the environment, caring for the poor, forgiving often, rejecting racism, fighting for the powerless, sharing earthly and spiritual resources, embracing diversity, loving God, and enjoying this life.
And we have posters in our church that tell us who we are: a community that worships and welcomes and serves and grows.
And we have a plaque in our hallway that proclaims a vision for a church that welcomes and celebrates all people, regardless of race, ethnicity, culture, faith, socio-economic status, sexual orientation, gender identity, marital or family status, age, or ability.
And next week, we are going to welcome some young people into church membership. And they are going to make the promises that we all made when we joined this congregation: to renounce the powers of evil and seek freedom in Christ, to be a disciples and follow, to resist oppression and evil, to show love and justice, and to be witnesses to the work and word of Jesus Christ.
And we know that all of those words are not the end, but the beginning. And we know that in many ways we are doing the work. And we know that in many ways we can do more; we can be better.
So this year, our Board of Mission has picked a couple of areas to work on, a couple of our ideals to bake into our community a little bit more: justice and care for people of every race and every sexual orientation and every gender identity.
And there are going to be times when that’s going to be hard. There are going to be times when that’s going to be uncomfortable. There are going to be times when we don’t like it.
If Ananias and Sapphira had done the work, I think they would have been happier. I mean, obviously… but I also mean that even if they hadn’t fallen down and died, they would have been happier, they would have been wholer, they would have been holier.
Because being a Christian—being a church—isn’t about the words. It is about the work. It is about the freedom and joy of following Christ… even as that takes us on big bold wild dangerous grace-filled adventures.
And by doing this work—by making our words more and more of reality—we, too, will find ever-greater grace in Christ, ever-greater love in God, and ever-greater community in the Spirit.