What a strange story we find in Acts 5. The church is sharing life together in the most radical and generous ways, when suddenly two people, Ananias and Sapphira, are dead, apparently struck down for their sin. Unfortunately, the story is a bit vague. Luke doesn’t actually tell us that God killed Ananias and Sapphira, or that Peter did, but only that they die when they hear Peter speak. The ancient readers of this story probably didn’t tie themselves into knots trying to get an official autopsy, so maybe we shouldn’t either.
What Luke appears to want us to see is that when greed and deceit try to infiltrate this church in Acts 5, they don’t get the chance, but are swiftly and decisively dealt with. Luke shows us two opposites: the community of radical generosity (Acts 4:32-37) and the potential trap of greed and deceit (5:1-11). One of Luke’s primary tasks in Acts is to describe the earliest Christian community, and at the end of Acts 4 he describes a radical, all-encompassing sharing of life together, including money and property, of which Barnabas is a perfect example.
And immediately when Acts 5 begins, we meet the opposite. Ananias and Sapphira want the same thing Barnabas wants – to join this new, incredible community called the Church. Except they want to join on their own terms, having God demand only what they’re comfortable giving up. So they sell their land, same as Barnabas, but only give part of the profit to the apostles and secretly keep the rest for themselves. Peter’s problem with Ananias and Sapphira isn’t that they didn’t give enough. His problem is the blatant hypocrisy and deceit. They want to look like Barnabas, all the while enjoying their secret cashflow.
That’s when the sudden and shocking thing happens. Ananias and Sapphira abruptly die when confronted for their deceit. Again, we don’t know exactly why. Luke doesn’t tell us. What we do know is this: when deceit attempts to enter the church, it doesn’t get the chance. There are echoes of Eden here in Acts 5. The goodness and purity of Adam and Eve are threatened when the serpent teaches them to hide things and tell half-truths. Now, the goodness and purity of the Jerusalem church is threatened when Ananias and Sapphira try to hide things and bring their half-truths into the community. Except this time the snake is killed before it gets the chance to poison the church.
This story is Acts’ first use of the word “church.” The calling and integrity of the Church could not be more precious, more important. To be the Church is to eradicate the poison before it gets to us. The Church, the community that belongs to Christ, must protect itself from the poisons of ego, greed, and deceit at all costs.
Let’s be clear. Acts 5 is not giving us permission to hate and eradicate everyone that breaks a rule. Nor is it giving us permission to launch a crusade against every sin we see in the world. The only sin Peter wants to eradicate is the sin that has come to his front door. To be the Church is not to be concerned with the wrongs of some other church or nation or religion, but only to confront the greed and deceit that’s trying to walk through our own front doors. It’s hard to see greed and half-truths when they’re our own. But the Church’s calling is an alarmingly urgent one: to be the one community in this world possessed by love, fellowship and radical generosity, and free of ego, greed and deceit. That’s what Jesus is calling us to be. What are we willing to do to live up to it?