Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Being Honest About Ourselves

Being Honest About Ourselves

What is the most common criticism leveled at churches? That churches are full of hypocrites. Who hasn’t heard this criticism? This morning, we are studying a passage from the book of Acts that actually tells us about the first two church hypocrites on record – husband and wife by the names of Ananias and Sapphira.

This is a generally overlooked passage of Scripture. It’s overlooked, I think, because there are some very uncomfortable truths contained in this passage, and we’ll study a few of those truths this morning, all of which fall under the theme of Being Honest About Ourselves.

This passage cannot be separated from the final verses of chapter four. It helps to understand that the earliest versions of Scripture were not divided into chapters and verses. The beginning of chapter five separates the story of Ananias and Sapphira from the end of chapter four, but this is all one story; you cannot separate this great vision of the church in chapter four from the sin and the fate of Ananias and Sapphira in chapter five.

The end of chapter four provides us with a utopian description of the early church. In those verses we see that people were giving freely of their possessions and there were no needs among them, there was great power in the church, the church was of one heart and soul, and the church was growing. It’s a fantastic picture of the early church, perhaps the greatest portrait of the church in all the New Testament. And then it starts to go downhill.

The first word of chapter five is the connecting word - but. The NIV, which we read this morning, uses now, but I prefer other translations that use but. Have you had someone – a boss or parent, perhaps – that said something very positive to you and then said, but... That conjunction takes all the air out of the positive words, doesn’t it? That single word looms large in this story. Things are going along great in the church but...; there is great power in the church ...but. The people are of one heart and soul...but. That one word gives us this great sense of foreboding.

It’s an interesting question to wonder why this story is connected with this beautiful description of the early church. After reading of this idyllic church situation, we immediately read this unpleasant episode involving Ananias and Sapphira.

This is the Bible in its total, unflinching honesty. The incredible honesty of the Bible is, I believe, one of the reasons why the Bible is so trustworthy. If you are simply creating a story you don’t include all the bad parts about the people in the story, but the Bible is absolutely unflinching in its presentation of people; even the people of God. As one author says, in that perfect church there were some imperfect people (Wind and Fire: Living Out the Book of Acts, Waco, Texas: Word Books, 1984, p. 65). Some imperfect people? More correctly – all were imperfect people.

The Bible never seeks to hide the sins and the failures of people – especially God’s people. The Bible is not at all afraid to describe the reality of people’s lives – that we are frail, that we are prideful, and that we are sinful, and the Bible presents us with this mirror because we are not to forget this.

The Bible is the original reality show. If you watch reality TV shows, that’s certainly your prerogative, but I think they are one of the great failures of our country, and here is why I believe so – it’s because they glory in the disfunctions of people, they play upon the failures and struggles and conflicts of people and turn it into entertainment that raises the brokenness of humanity rather than raising the hope for humanity. The Bible is a different reality. The Bible is very plain about who we are as people, but it presents that reality as a tragedy and as something from which God desires to save us. The Bible also presents that reality as a reminder and a warning that sin is always seeking to ensnare us and destroy our lives.

The failures of people, even the people of God, are presented to us very starkly and honestly by the Bible. The Bible is very honest about who we are and asks us to be honest with ourselves about who we are.

For everyone who suffers under the illusion that churches aren’t full of difficulty we can say those people haven’t read the New Testament very closely. Read through the letters of Paul and you will find great conflict and disfunction. Read through the book of Acts and you will find the same. Read through almost every book of the New Testament and you will find the gory details of the difficulties, failures, and sins of people - especially God’s people - on full display.

Is it perfect here? Far from it. Has it ever been perfect here? No. Will it ever be perfect here? No. Let us never suffer under the illusion that things are perfect or that we are perfect. Instead, let us confess our imperfections and subsequent need of the grace of God to heal our imperfect and sinful lives. The early church was clearly not perfect, and neither are we. The honesty of the Bible is a very big, very sharp needle that punctures any illusion we may have of being perfect.

So, follow along with me now in chapter five as we go through the story of Ananias and Sapphira. As we begin, Luke has just written of Barnabas, who sold a piece of property and gave the money to the church. Ananias and Sapphira also sell a piece of land but do so with an attitude very different from that of Barnabas.

Luke says that Ananias and Sapphira sell their property but kept back some of the price for themselves. Ananias brings the money to the apostles and Peter immediately confronts Ananias and accuses him of lying to the Holy Spirit, because they kept some of the money back for themselves.

Ananias and Sapphira were not wrong because they kept some of the money for themselves; Peter even says this in verse 4 - While it remained unsold, did it not remain your own? And after it was sold, was it not under your control? It wasn’t a question of how much they were giving; it was that Ananias and Sapphira had conspired together to present themselves as being something they weren’t. That is the textbook definition of a hypocrite - presenting yourself as being what you are not. Ananias and Sapphira wanted people to believe they were giving all of the money from the sale of their land. Ananias and Sapphira were pretending to be generous; they sought to deceive people into thinking they were something they were not; they were pretending to be as generous and committed as the others, but they were not.

John Claypool makes an interesting point about this passage. He says, if they had just said: "Here is where we would like to be - with Barnabas' kind of trust and generosity. But we find we are not there yet.... All we can do now is give part of the proceeds. Would you help us grow toward what we would like to become?"'

The problem is not just the sin in the lives of Ananias and Sapphira; actually, God assumes we will sin and the Bible often shows him being very easy on sinners. In fact, much of Acts shows the power of God healing people who were only marginally connected with the church, if connected at all. And yet here are two people who give to the church and they die.

But Ananias and Sapphira came before the church and sought to deceive the church; they broke their covenant with the body of Christ and God takes that very seriously. We cannot take lightly what it means to live together as the body of Christ. But we often do take that very lightly. We too easily break that sense of one heart and soul that is spoken of in 4:32, we too easily forget that we have responsibility to and for one another, and when we do forget we bring dishonor to the name of Jesus.

The similarities between this event and the fall in the Garden of Eden are really striking. This is, really, a New Testament version of the Garden. The picture of the church at the end of chapter 4 is about as close to a restoration of the Garden of Eden as was possible. But just as in the Garden, it was not to last. It did not last for the same reason it did not last the first time - because of our sin.

Peter called out the sin in the lives of Ananias and Sapphira, not because they were sinful, but because they were dishonest about who they were. Phony spirituality is a deadly disease that can spread throughout the church.

All of us have the capacity of deception and hypocrisy; if we deny this we have already started down the road of self-deception.

And in all honesty, don’t we sometimes practice these very same traits? Maybe in a small way such as when someone asks how are you doing and we say I’m doing great because we wouldn’t dare allow our carefully constructed facade to crumble under the truth that we’re really not doing great? Are we tempted to let someone think we have been more sacrificial or more holy than we really are? How often have we “stretched the truth” to cover up something we have done? How often do we point out the sins of others as a way of diverting attention from our own failures and sins?

What really matters – the appearance of spirituality or the reality of spirituality? Ananias and Sapphira chose the appearance, rather than the reality, of spirituality. They wanted to look as good as Barnabas without paying the price as did Barnabas.

And finally, this story serves as another warning, and it is this – when a church is at its best the threat to undermine it is the greatest. An ineffective church is not a threat to anyone, but a church that is doing what the church was doing in Acts – that is a church that is going to experience a great threat and great temptation.

There is nothing more satisfying to the enemies of God than a crippled church. Take some time today, or this week, and read through the book of Acts and see the threats that were constantly coming against the early church. Those threats were evidence of the power of the church.

May we be as the early church – honest about who we are but honest as well about the power of God that will overcome our sins and give us the strength to withstand the threats that would seek to weaken us.

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