Monday, December 29, 2014

December 28, 2014 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? And who are these hypocrites, I want to ask.  It’s such a generic criticism that I would like to ask can the accusers provide a list of names?  Calling someone a hypocrite is a very harsh judgment to make of another person, so shouldn’t the accuser be required to back up their claim with some proof?  It also seems to me that people ought to be consistent with that criticism and stay away from everywhere hypocrites might be found, but then we could never leave the house. 

The real problem, I think, in calling another person a hypocrite is that we can’t see inside the mind and heart of another person.  None of us consistently live up to our ideals and principles, but that doesn’t mean we are hypocrites; it merely means we are human.

But there are times when we see hypocritical behavior on the part of others, those times when we see an obvious gap between who a person claims to be and who they really are.

This morning, we are studying a passage from the book of Acts that tell us about the first two church hypocrites on record – a husband and wife by the names of Ananias and Sapphira.

1 But a man named Ananias, with his wife Sapphira, sold a piece of property,
and kept back some of the price for himself, with his wife’s full knowledge, and bringing a portion of it, he laid it at the apostles’ feet.
But Peter said, “Ananias, why has Satan filled your heart to lie to the Holy Spirit and to keep back some of the price of the land?
While it remained unsold, did it not remain your own? And after it was sold, was it not under your control? Why is it that you have conceived this deed in your heart? You have not lied to men but to God.”
And as he heard these words, Ananias fell down and breathed his last; and great fear came over all who heard of it.
The young men got up and covered him up, and after carrying him out, they buried him.
Now there elapsed an interval of about three hours, and his wife came in, not knowing what had happened.
And Peter responded to her, “Tell me whether you sold the land for such and such a price?” And she said, “Yes, that was the price.”
Then Peter said to her, “Why is it that you have agreed together to put the Spirit of the Lord to the test? Behold, the feet of those who have buried your husband are at the door, and they will carry you out as well.”
10 And immediately she fell at his feet and breathed her last, and the young men came in and found her dead, and they carried her out and buried her beside her husband.
11 And great fear came over the whole church, and over all who heard of these things.

This passage of Scripture is one that is often overlooked.  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 beautiful, idyllic picture of the early church, perhaps the greatest portrait of the church in all the New Testament. 

The first word of chapter five is the connecting word – but. Some translations use the word now, but I prefer translations that use but.  Have you had someone say something positive to you and then added, but... That conjunction takes all the air out of the positive words, doesn’t it?  Perhaps a teacher said you did well at the beginning of the semester, but…  Your boss called you in for your annual review and said you did okay in this area of your work, but…  Or maybe your spouse opened your Christmas gift, looked at it and said I appreciate your thoughtfulness, but…

The conjunction but 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. 

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, complete with the Fall.  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. Everything is wonderful and beautiful, and then it starts to go downhill.  It did not last for the same reason it did not last the first time – because of our sin. 

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 resonates with us so powerfully.  If you are simply manufacturing 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, interestingly, 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, we could say, is the original reality show.  I’m not a fan of reality TV, not because it shows the failures of people, but because they seem to enjoy the dysfunctions of people and turn it into entertainment.  There is nothing entertaining about the reality of broken and struggling lives.  There is nothing entertaining about using the failures and struggles and conflicts of people entertainment and in doing so raising 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 something for which we were not created and as something from which God desires to lift us beyond.

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 dysfunction.  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.  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 were not.  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.

People today – as always – desire authenticity, and this passage cuts to the heart of being authentic. Our culture can be very tough on those who are discovered to be less than authentic, and it’s because we have been disappointed too many times.  Too many times we’ve witnessed public figures – politicians, ministers, or others in the public eye – who serve as examples to us and we find out they were living a lie.  The disappointment causes us to turn against them. 

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 and disappointment for those who were looking for role models.

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?"

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.

In 1963 Edward Lorenz gave a presentation to the New York Academy of Sciences about his theory called the butterfly effect.  His theory postulated that when a butterfly flapped its wings it would set into motion air molecules that, in turn, would cause other air molecules to move, and could eventually influence weather patterns on the other side of the planet.  As you can imagine, this was viewed as little more than myth for many years.  How could something as insignificant as the movement of a butterfly’s wings affect something as great as a weather pattern?  By the mid 1990s, though, physics professors from several universities found that the butterfly effect was indeed a reality.

All of us have the capacity of deception and hypocrisy; all of us have the potential to influence others, either for good or ill, and if we deny this we have already started down the road of self-deception.

And in an ironic twist, don’t we sometimes practice these very same traits in the most unlikely of places – the church?  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?

So we should ask ourselves three questions, which serve as a check on our own level of honesty with ourselves –

1.  How often, when asked how we are doing, do we answer with an expression such as I’m doing great, when the reality is very different?
2.  How often do we “stretch the truth” in order to hide something we wouldn’t want others to know about us?
3.  How often do we point out the shortcomings or failures of others in order to keep the focus off of ourselves and our own shortcomings and failures?

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.

The Bible doesn’t use the brokenness and difficult realities of life as entertainment but as a tool to bring us to an honest assessment of who we are. 

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.

But we can, at least, be honest.

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