We are continuing to investigate the practices that make for healthy communities. On May 13, we considered one of the more difficult scripture texts: the story of Ananias and Sapphira. We also heard from Colossians 3:9-14.
To be honest, I’ve been known to pull off some corkers in the past. I remember a couple of years ago, on the day after Christmas, I preached about King Herod killing all the babies in Bethlehem. And I got some guff on Mother’s Day 2010, when the Gospel Reading was from Mark 13, and it was all about the end of the world, and wars, and rumors of war.
So if you happen to be here once or twice a year because you’re bringing mom to church and you remember stuff like that, and then today you get Ananias and Sapphira apparently being wiped out for lying in church, well, let me assure you that the whole Bible isn’t this scary.
We are looking at what it means for us to be a community – asking questions like, ‘how are we supposed to relate with and for each other in Crafton Heights, in 2012?’ Today, we are going to examine the third of four practices that have been found to be life-sustaining in communities like ours. We’ve already talked about the importance of gratitude and promise-making as spiritual practices. Today we’ll take a look at Acts chapter 5, which provides us with a clear illustration of the fact that lying can be, well, hazardous to one’s health.
Acts 4 ends with an account of a number of different people who were generous in their giving to their friends in need and to the church. We see in those passages the church described as a place characterized by honesty, generosity, growth, gentleness, and humility.
The first word of chapter 5 is “But”. And I’m here to tell you, it’s not a small ‘but’. In fact, I have often thought that I might preach a sermon series entitled “The Biggest Buts In the Bible”, and if I did, this would surely be one of them.
The Death of Ananias by Raphael (1515)
The church is a community rooted in love and gratitude and honesty and integrity. BUT Ananias, with his wife’s knowledge, pretended to bring everything to the Lord, but instead, he brought a part and claimed it was the whole. Confronted with his lie, he dropped over as dead as a doornail. Shortly thereafter, his wife Sapphira is brought in, and she confirms the lie. She, too, drops dead. And the passage ends with a pointed understatement: and great fear seized the whole church.” Yeah, no kidding! Can you imagine? I mean, what if there really was the death penalty for lying? I’d be in trouble… but then again, I’m not sure how many of you would be around for my funeral…
Before we leave this page, let’s look at what is really happening here. Peter and the others do not appear to be concerned about their personal feelings about or role in the situation. Peter is not asking, “Did you lie to me?” Rather, the question is, “Are you being honest with God? Did you lie to the Holy Spirit?”
That’s important here in Acts because Luke, the author of Acts, is developing the notion that the church is not simply another group of individuals who share a few common interests, or a voluntary organization such as the Boy Scouts of America, the Democratic Party, the Daughters of the American Revolution, or the Kiwanis Club. Luke is using this section of Acts to indicate that the church is a group of people that is called and given shape by the Lord. In fact, in verse 11, where we read, “and great fear seized the whole church…”, we should take note that Luke is introducing a new word into the Book of Acts. Before, when he talked about the people who followed Jesus, he referred to the disciples or the apostles or “the group” or simply “them”. But here, for the first time, he uses the word “church” – in the Greek, it’s ekklesia, which means “the ones who have been called out”.
The Biblical understanding is that God calls a people and gives them a new identity. He shapes and molds them towards something that they are not – at least, not yet – and helps them become what they are going to be. God does that when he names Abraham and promises to make out of him a great nation. He does that when he leads Moses to gather the slaves in Egypt. He does that when he calls the exiles home from Babylon – and all of those indications are just hints of what God is doing when God calls the church to be not just another group of people, but the visible, tangible, earthly body of Christ. It looks to me like Luke is describing what happened here with Ananias and Sapphira in the same way that Joshua described what happened to a man named Achan, who violated the clear command of God and paid for it with his life. Achan became for the early Israelite community a clear indication that God means what God says, and that there is a special responsibility to being included in the people of God.
I had a friend who, when he was trying to convince me of the truth of some statement, would swear, “Look, man – if I’m lyin’, I’m dyin’!” I think that when he said it, he thought it was cooler and more mature than saying, “Cross my heart and hope to die…” He used that phrase to mean, “look, you have to believe me!” He used it as an oath.
Psalm 81 by Cody F. Miller. Used by permission of the artist. See more at codyfmiller.com
But I believe that it is also a descriptive truth. That is to say, it’s a statement of fact. If I am lying, then I am, in fact, dying. Listen:
When we first meet God, way back in Genesis 1, how does God show who he is? How does God get business done in Genesis 1? By speech, right? Do you remember – “God said…” “and it was…” God uses words to bring life.
When John’s Gospel was trying to tell us who Jesus was, and what Jesus was about, he didn’t know exactly how to tell us that…until he said that Jesus is the “Word”. Echoing Genesis, John says that when God wants to bring life, Jesus is the speech that God uses.
And when the Biblical writers talk about The Holy Spirit, we have to remember that the word for “spirit” is the same as the word for “breath”. The Spirit of God is the “Breath” of God.
And finally, when the Bible tells you and me who we are, it says that we are created in the image of God. We are like God. And more than that, collectively, we are the church – the Body of Christ.
So then, if I, made in the image of God and called into the Body of Christ use my breath and shape my words and form my speech so as to produce an untruth – then I am acting contrary to my created nature and against the body of Christ. That, my friends, is dying.
If I am lying, then I am, in fact, dying.
As we seek to be a community that lives into the fullness of God’s call for us, then we must be faithful in practicing truth.
What is truth?
Well, I know what it is not. Truth is not the bare facts. To “tell the truth” is not necessarily the same thing as “reporting the facts.”
And, contrary to how some of my friends in the church around the world seem to feel, the truth is not a weapon that I use to prove my own righteousness. Two writers who have shaped my understanding of this concept have similar views. Christine Pohl says that truth is really “reliability”. Walter Wangerin says that truth is lived out as “dependability”. What does that mean?
I think that it means that I am telling you the truth when I am giving you an accurate portrayal of myself and the world as I see it. I am telling you the truth when you can rely or depend on what I say to be accurate, not just in its factual nature, but in all that it communicates about me and the world. I tell you the truth when I don’t leave things out, and when I don’t use facts to make you feel guilty, and when I don’t highlight certain facts while ignoring others in an attempt to build my case.
How does that look as a communal practice? I would suggest that it has two facets.
First, a part of truth telling is contained in this question: to whom are you revealing your self? That is to say, who walks with you through the reality of your life? To whom do you share not only the facts (my team lost the game last night), but the inner truth (my team lost the game last night and I feel terrible because I made the last out and everybody was mad at me)?
We become a community of truth-tellers when we are able to participate in this level of self-revelation. I used to harp on a few of you about the fact that there are very few people in this world with whom you can be real – we each have a need to be honestly and authentically ourselves. Who knows what excites, scares, worries, tempts, or distracts you? With whom are you real?
In the community of the ekklesia, that is half of the truth-telling task – being honest with someone about the depths of your being, and hiding nothing by lying. But – and it is a big but – there’s more to it than this. In addition to self-revealing truth, I need someone to be honest with me about myself. That is, I need a mirror. I can tell you about the ways that I process and experience things from the inside, but I cannot see the whole picture. I need someone else to describe for me how it looks from the outside – because my heart can lie to itself.
If you were here last week, you might be asking yourself, “Why did Dave talk about making and keeping promises before he talked about telling the truth?” Isn’t making a promise rather dependent on telling the truth?
No. Anyone can make a promise. A faithful friend keeps promises. This kind of truth-telling can only come after promise keeping. Look at it this way: before you can speak truth into my life, you have to prove that you are trustworthy. Before I can believe what you will say about me, I have to come to acknowledge that you know what you’re talking about. You can say this or that thing about me. Fine. Why should I believe you? But if in your actions of the past, you have shown yourself to a person of integrity, a person who can be relied on, then now, when you tell me the hard truth about myself, I can trust that you are, in fact, a faithful mirror.
When we talk about telling the truth to each other in the Christian community, there are certain core affirmations that we must make. The truth is always for the good of the other person. When you presume to tell me the truth about myself, it’s done so that I will be a stronger person. The truth is always concerned with either the self or the other, and not a third party. When I tell you the “facts” about who is sleeping around with whom, I’m gossiping, not sharing truth. The truth provides a pathway to better discipleship and deeper relationships within the Body of Christ – so I can never show up at your house, dump the truth all over your porch, and then walk away. If I presume to speak truth to you, then it’s got to be in a context where we have the opportunity to walk around inside it for a while and explore its implications and realities. And the truth should always lead us both to healing, reconciliation, hope and justice.
Do you hear what I’m saying, church? The truth is hard work.
And even though we are a community of believers, and a fairly small community at that, none of us can really be that invested with everyone. But each of us needs to be that invested with someone, and together, we need to be willing to walk more deeply into truth as a community.
Not long ago I saw a community nearly destroyed by the inability or unwillingness of its members to tell the truth to each other. We were in a room and one man spoke up with an idea, and he did so pretty forcefully. That’s not surprising. The people who know him know that he can state his case pretty stridently. In this situation, however, the thing that he was asking the community to do was actually going against the core values that the community had already expressed. Someone sensed this, and invited discussion. There was none. Eyes were averted. The mumbling started. The floor and the ceiling became very, very interesting. The man who started pressed for a decision. The community actually had a vote, and if you were to read any minutes that might have been kept, you’d read that the group unanimously chose to pursue this idea. In reality, there was only one person in the room who wanted to go there. But the other members of the community were more concerned with being polite or in ending the gathering on time than they were on telling the truth to this man who, frankly, was acting like a bully. It was easier for the group to simply go along, rather than help the man see what was true.
I’ve been in physical therapy for a couple of weeks. Our friend Leslie is trying to help me throw a ball without pain. I go in twice a week and she works me out. But mostly, she gives me little exercises that I can do at home with a rubber band or a can of beans in the hopes that I’ll get better at doing the things that allow a person to throw a ball.
Here are your exercises for the week. I’m not asking you to stand up and spill your guts to everyone you meet today, and I’m definitely not asking you to confront the person next to you with your understanding of all the places he or she has fallen short. But is there one person with whom you can be honest and true? One person to whom you can and should reveal a portion of yourself?
And similarly, is there someone for whom you can hold up a mirror for a bit and say, “Do you know, when you do ________, it results in ________.”?
The world is full of lies, and flattery, and deception, and falsehood. Who will bear the truth? Who will be reliable and dependable? By the grace of God, may it be we who bear his name: the church of Jesus Christ. May we live into that identity as the ekklesia – those who are called out in order that the world may have a brighter and deeper understanding of what it means to be children of a loving Creator. May the words that we say, and those that we hold in, be agents of life and health and healing. The world needs that. And we can speak that. Let us do so. Amen.
 Living Into Community: Cultivating Practices That Sustain Us (Eerdmans, 2012) p. 116.
 As For Me and My House: Crafting Your Marriage to Last (Nelson, 1990) p. 124.