“They Will Carry You Out” Scripture - Acts 5:1-11 Rev. Eric Brotheridge
I shall not be moved. Unless, of course, I knowingly, intentionally, deviously, unharmoniously, deceptively, selfishly, withhold a bit from the communal coffers. And, the God who sees all, will rip the very breath out of my body which will collapse to the ground, dead. And then I will be moved. Picked up. Wrapped up, carried out and buried by the nearest available young men. My partner in crime comes in three hours later. Rinse. Repeat. Two dead. And great fear seized the whole church and all who heard of these things. Who’s next to the altar? Hallelujah!
This past week I attended…online…the Festival of Homiletics. The Festival of Homiletics is the premier festival to learn about the art and craft of preaching. Attending lectures which made for some really good sermons and seeing sermons which made for some pretty dull lectures. But, for the most part, outstanding preaching. And I heard over the past five afternoons, “Honor the text.” Honor the text. In other words, give the scripture reading its due. Anchor the text in its historical and cultural setting.
Luke wrote today’s reading in the latter third of the first century. He writes about the time period right after Jesus was crucified and resurrected, maybe year 35 of the common era or after the birth of Christ. The reader has been told time and time again in the first few chapters of Acts that the church was of one mind and all together. Just prior to Ananias and Sapphira’s skullduggery we learn of a foreigner, Barnabas, who sold a field that belonged to him and laid all the proceeds at the apostles’ feet.
Honor the text. Research additional sources for other interpretations to get a sense if your own interpretation is in the ballpark. Check. Ananias and Sapphira knowingly withhold some money from the proceeds THEY lay at the apostles’ feet. Somehow Peter knows whats going on. He calls them out. First Ananias. Then Sapphira. God takes care of the rest. Ananias and Sapphira breathe out their entire life force and expire. How’s that for a euphemism? But, wait, I’m showing my hand.
Honor the text. Maybe Ananias and Sapphira didn’t really steal and thus lie to the Holy Spirit. Kept back. Translated from the Greek enosphisato. Hmm. Scholars pretty much agree it basically means skullduggery or embezzlement. No doubt. They lied. Death penalty. Instant. No chance for explanation. Do not pass go. Your jail cell is waiting for you to take your eternal rest.
Honor the text. I’ll take the advice of the church father Augustine who said if the plain sense of the scripture reading doesn’t make sense then maybe something else is going on.
Where do I start? Maybe the story is symbolic. Luke uses the same word enosphisato that is used in the Greek translation of the book of Joshua. That author tells the tale of how the tribes of Israel had just entered the promised land after the walls of Jericho came tumbling down. A character named Achan, against God’s command to not pillage, saw in the plunder “a beautiful robe from Babylonia (he checked the label), two hundred shekels of silver and a bar of gold weighing fifty shekels.” Joshua calls him out. Achan is stoned by the people and buried under the very stones that killed him.
Honor the text. So Luke is mirroring the early church with the early entrance of the Israelites into the Promised Land. And just as the entrance into the Promised Land is tainted by deception so is the beginning of the beloved community tainted by deception. And God will not have it. Okay. That satisfies. NOT. Because Ananias and Sapphira are still without breath, dead, by the will of God.
Honor the text. Many other commentators notice the parallels between the first couple of Acts and the first couple of Genesis. This is interesting. Both couples get into trouble. Interestingly, where Genesis shows us a he said/she said pointing of fingers before God, Luke has the interrogation occur individually. But that’s where the similarity between the couples’ stories ends. And, unlike Adam and Eve, Ananias and Sapphira are dead. The first couple is treated far better in Genesis by God. Sure the snake is cursed to slither and Eve’s pain is increased in childbirth…but remember, the Lord God made garments of skins for the man and for his wife and clothed them before sending them east of Eden.
Some might be saying that I am making a mountain out of a molehill. Move on. The point is that the unity of the early church was threatened. The virus, excuse me, Ananias and Sapphira were dealt with. Life goes on.
NO! The unity of the early church may be the point because that is what the early church would like us to focus on but the fact remains: Ananias and Sapphira are still dead. And, let me be honest, anyone who thinks Ananias and Sapphira got what was coming to them does not read the same gospels that I read. And this is why I get so upset with the glossing over of this story and the “it happens” of these two person’s deaths.
Again, I am not denying their lying. But guess what? I would suggest that their sin is but the mildest of horrors that unfolds in this scripture.
Horror number one. They are given no opportunity for an explanation or for repentance. How’s this for a trail? “Ananias,” Peter asked, “why has Satan filled your heart to lie to the Holy Spirit and to keep back part of the proceeds of the land? While it remained unsold, did it not remain your own? And after it was sold, were not the proceeds at your disposal? How is it that you have contrived this deed in your heart? You did not lie to us but to God!” Sapphira gets slightly better. Peter said to her, “Tell me whether you and your husband sold the land for such and such a price.” And she said, “Yes, that was the price.” Then Peter said to her, “How is it that you have agreed together to put the Spirit of the Lord to the test? Look, the feet of those who have buried your husband are at the door, and they will carry you out.”
“You did not lie to us but to God!” “Look, the feet of those who have buried your husband are at the door, and they will carry you out.” Is it any wonder Ananias and Sapphira died immediately? Not from the horror of their skullduggery but from the horror of how they were treated? How they were treated by the early church? Sure, they thought they could pull a fast one – haven’t we all at one or two times in our own lives? – but they realized real quick that the early church pulled an even faster one on them.
And the horror continues…Who removes the bodies? The young men. The next generation of leaders. What are they learning from Peter, the current leader of the church, and from the other apostles? Peter, so hard to get rid of that part of you that denies and denies and denies. People seem to die when you deny the very humanity of who someone is, Peter.
And the horror continues…And great fear seized the whole church and all who heard of these things. A leader who denies and ignores the humanity right in front of him, cultivating another generation of followers who dispose of the dead bodies and a people in fear and awe of the whole mess. For two thousand years this has been the model of church for so many people. An acceptance of death and creating fear is no way to be church.
It is time for some good news. I know there are some of my listeners who grew up in the fear of the Lord and have had the courage to die to that way of faith. It is not easy. I know there are others hungry to hear the good news of unconditional love. Perhaps holding a little bit back, for whatever reason, knowing that if all of you did show up at a particular church you would be shown the door faster than the exhalation of your last breath. Just like the church two thousand years ago. Just like much of the church for two thousand more years. We are in an interesting time. An intersecting time. Where old ways fade away. And room for the possibility of new interpretations, new metaphors and new ways of seeing and believing ways to be created. A new way. A Way that serves life.
They will carry you out. Wrapped in a burial linen? Or, imagine, young men, young women, young people carrying you out on their shoulders into new life.