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Fall Quarter: Love for One Another
Unit 3: Godly Love Among Believers
Sunday school lesson for the week of Nov. 22, 2020
By Dr. D. Craig Rikard
Background Scripture: Acts 4:32-5:11
All the believers were one in heart and mind. No one claimed that any of their possessions was their own but, they shared everything they had. (Acts 4:32)
- To help us understand the expectations, beliefs, experiences of the early church.
- To ask us to question the issue of selfishness, and the theological issues of sin and punishment.
- To consider the question of how the church treats obvious sin and creates a very poor witness for Christ. Do we have a course of action? Should we?
The second coming of Jesus must always be viewed as a major expectation of the early believers and church. Many, if not a majority, took Jesus literally about “seeing his return.” Thus, they expected Jesus at any moment. They expected him daily. I doubt there was any belief in the early church that Jesus would return in a year, much less thousands of years later. We read Scripture in 2020, 2,000 years later. Thus, it is difficult for us to imagine being a member of the church, which had no formal bible and depended almost solely on the epistles of the apostles, especially Paul. Consequently, it sounds drastic to us to “sell everything, throw it in a pot, and distribute according to need.” There was no need to worry about money and possessions. Upon Jesus’ return they were useless. However, it is important to remember care for the poor and suffering was a major concern of Jesus’. Therefore, the sharing of possessions had always been a moral concern of Judaism, and especially Jesus. However now, the entire church was united in participating in community sharing and helping another.
Also, Paul is often criticized as chauvinistic man and a supporter of slavery. If judged by us in 2020, he was both. However, we must remember that the role of women was part of an oppressive system, as was slavery. Paul saw no need to rid the culture or attack these institutions. Why? Jesus was coming at any time and would establish a kingdom of justice and mercy. Also, why invite conflict with the government and the power structures? There was already enough conflict just over their existence. As time passed without Jesus’ coming, the entire idea of “shared money and property” became difficult, and issues regarding marriage, women and slavery began to challenge Christianity. However, Paul listened to the Holy Spirit and actually elevated the status of women. The scripture: “In Christ, there is no male or female” is attributed to Paul. This is a very radical change in the importance of women and culture’s treatment of women. It still sounds as if women were never treated as equals. Looking backward from today, they weren’t. Yet, from the role and status of women in the first century to Paul’s later letters, women receive growing respect. Slavery remained for a long span of time, especially through the indentured servant system.
Our lesson is related to this expectation of the second coming of Jesus.
Luke is one of few Gentiles who has writings accepted as inspired scripture. His gospel is often called the gospel of compassion, or the gospel of the Holy Spirit. He is a physician with a loving heart. He was a close companion of Paul and witnessed much of the history of the early church and especially the ministry of Paul and the disciples. Therefore, he offers us what is considered the only historical book in the N.T. That is, it has the intent of telling the story as it unfolded. Over the years, his book of Acts has helped the early church understand who they are in Christ, those who paid highly for the church’s life, and is especially important to us in 2020 in remembering who we are and from where we’ve come.
The story our lesson focuses upon today is unsettling, and honestly, can be hard to embrace. The deaths of two who held back on their sharing seems a rather severe reaction to the sin of selfishness. Read verses 32-35.
How does the second coming of Jesus effect the beliefs and actions of the church we attend? Or does it? Do you believe the church today has a clear understanding of our history and our calling? If so, why, and if not, why? Does your church have a united heart and mind to tend to the needs of the poor and suffering?
In Acts 5:1, the narrative of Ananias and Sapphira begins. True, it is a story of selfishness, yet, it is also a story of deception. Though we should not rank sin – sin is sin – it is also important to acknowledge that one sin may lead to a multitude of sins that follow. As an example, I may speak harshly and hatefully to an individual, and certainly my words cut and wound them. However, if I speak that way in front of others, I have hurt and embarrassed that person, I have spoken mean-spirited words that help no one near, and I have hurt my witness that I am a follower of Jesus. My action effects many who look to me and other Christians in their own search of faith. So, one word was a sin, the same word spoken publicly is a sin with far greater effect.
On the surface it appears that Peter and the leadership of the early church are angry and confront Ananias over his selfishness. His holding back of money from the sale of property will impact many that are in need. Yet, it seems that Peter and the leadership are just as angry over Ananias’ attempt to deceive as he attempts to keep a portion for himself. Keeping the money was selfish for Ananias, but as a Christian he had lied to the Holy Spirit, for he lied to the church. If his actions go without confrontation, the body of Christ, who depend upon the witness and teaching of the disciples and the leadership of the early church, will over time make such behavior acceptable.
Ananias’ behavior reveals a flaw in his understanding of God. He actually believed he had the power to hide his selfishness from God. Perhaps he believed God didn’t really mind or care. He is committing a grave sin. He is making God in his image, violating the Ten Commandments that read, “Thou shalt have no graven images or likenesses.” Ananias is creating an image of God that is not all powerful or all knowing.
When Peter accused him of attempting to lie to God in the presence of the early church, Ananias immediately dies. In 5b Luke states that “fear” seized the church. Luke, the physician, does not write that God made Ananias die. There is a great probability that Ananias had a heart condition and the exposure of his sin to the Christian community created a fatal heart attack. However, this doesn’t explain his wife’s immediate death. We must leave the cause of their deaths to the wisdom of God.
We must ask, “How would the early church respond if God did nothing?” “How seriously would they take sin and accountability?” If there is no consequence, a door is opened to commit almost any sin without worry. Remember, the early church has no bible. They depend upon the apostles’ teaching, the collective faith of the church, and their own personal relationship with Christ. The immediate death of Ananias creates a “fear of God” throughout the community. The fear of God does not mean God is unloving and harsh in judgement. It means to respect and acknowledge the holiness of God.
Can you describe the ways a Christian today might still participate in dishonesty and deception? What do you think caused Ananias’ death? What would occur today in the mindset and heart of the church if sins that hurt the community are not acknowledged?
In verse 7, Sapphira did not receive the news for several hours. She entered the community about three hours later. She was unaware of his death and that he had already been buried. Peter immediately gives her an opportunity to be honest and godly. Instead she lied, revealing that she and Ananias conspired to be selfish. The accusation here is slightly different. She is accused of “testing” the Spirit. The easiest manner in which to understand testing God is to imagine knowing an act is a sin, and knowing God will be displeased, yet do it anyway. I know that sounds like a shallow explanation, but essentially that is what Ananias and Sapphira did. They dared to put God’s holiness to the test in order to benefit in some way. They are asking, “if we deceive the church, will God overlook it, or count our generous gift more than enough to earn God’s acceptance?”
Sadly, Sapphira dies immediately following Peter’s confrontation, as did Ananias. Let us seriously consider the fact that within a very limited time she learns her husband is dead and buried after being exposed for holding back on his giving and lying to the church and the Holy Spirit. Furthermore, can we even imagine how forceful Peter could be when angry? Remember, he is compulsive and has just emerged from the shame of denying Jesus and abandoning him. The resurrected Christ had given him forgiveness, restoration, and a new beginning. Still, he wasn’t the most patient man. His compulsiveness and impatience were parts of his personality. I don’t think I would want to stand before him after attempting to test the Holy Spirit.
Again, her death, like the death of Ananias, is difficult to understand. It sounds like a harsh judgement for her action. It sounds like she and Ananias “reported” the amount of their gift after making a major sacrifice in selling their property for the church. Without doubt, their deception was rooted in the desire to achieve great respect, status, and influence within the faith community. There also were most likely other dynamics at work in this experience which Luke did not record. We must take the narrative as it is and place the experience within the context of the first Christians, still steeped in Judaism, living under the government of the powerful Roman empire and again, the expectation of Jesus’ immanent return.
In conclusion, we leave this narrative learning that sin is always serious and always creates destructive consequences. Though the deaths unsettle us, the important truth that God is loving and “holy” is ageless and applies to us today as it did the early church. God is indeed changeless.
Almighty God, we are deeply thankful for your steadfast love and for the power of the Holy Spirit who empowers us to find and be our better self. Thank you for eyes to see the value and need of another, the ears to hear their cries, and all gifts that help us to encourage others. May we become witnesses of Jesus’ love in an often cold world. Empower us to see all that is before us as holy ground, upon which all your children live. Help us to acknowledge the incredible connection we share with your children in every time and place. In Jesus’ name, Amen.
Dr. D. Craig Rikard is a South Georgia pastor. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.