The Early Church (May 3, 2020)
Acts 4: 32 - 5:11
The Early Church
So we continue our story of the church with the church growing after Pentecost. Of course we had faithful people who were converted on Pentecost, and for a few days afterwards. And most of those, I believe, went back home to their residences, but some of them stayed in Jerusalem and completely changed who they were as a result of coming to know Jesus. One of the things of the church did in Jerusalem was that they began to try and live out what Jesus was calling them to do. We see this call in Matthew chapter 25: to feed the hungry, to give water to the thirsty, to clothe the naked, to heal the sick, to visit the imprisoned. The early church is doing this. And the way that they deem best to do this is to have everyone give to the common purse, and then have the common purse distribute to those in need; at the very least the beginning keeping that within the church, but we of course extended that beyond the walls of the church.
What we see in our reading here today are two different givers. We have Barnabas and then we have the family of Ananias and Sappira. Barnabas is the same person, tradition holds, as the person who would join Paul on his first missionary journey later in the book, and is mentioned here as a representative of someone who is faithful and doing what they’re supposed to be doing. He is sharing everything in common. What we see is that Barnabas owns a field, and he decides to sell that field, and when he sells it he takes all the proceeds and gives them to the Apostles to distribute. Importantly, if he is indeed the same person who will later go with Paul, it is this decision that allows him to leave on missionary capacity for years at a time like he does.
Meanwhile Ananias and Sappira are a kind of foil to Barnabas. They also sell a field, but what they do is they take some of the proceeds of the field and put it away. They don’t give everything to the church like Barnabas did. They put a little bit away. Maybe they’re following the Financial Peace University script. We don’t know why they do this; it’s not said why they did this, so we’ll give him the benefit of the doubt that they’re following sound financial advice and putting a little bit away for a rainy day.
However, what we see them do is tell the Church that this was all they got for the field. Again, why they do this isn’t known. But they do this. Let’s assume that what was actually expected within this church was to give everything that you had to that common purse. Then they maybe wanted to hold something back, but not have the Church know that they are holding it back. In other words, all were agreeing with the sermon from Peter or James or John or whoever that we needed to share everything we had it in one purse and ensure that no one was in need, but in practice they may not have been acting out the sermon. It required a significant level of faith in order to truly give everything to God. That would still require a lot of faith.
Of course, they are found out by the Apostles, they are rebuked by the Apostles, and ultimately they are both killed for this action. The Scripture records that God kills them for this action; but there’s something that I really want to know, something that I really think is very important that maybe you missed (I certainly missed it for several readings): they are not punished for withholding some of their money, but rather they are punished for lying about it. That’s what Peter actually yells at them for. And as we think toward trying to learn a lesson from this period within the early church, I think it is important to remember exactly what gets classified as a sin and what doesn’t.
In the church today we have a desire to get back to the earliest Church. I think the basic thinking is that the closer we get to Jesus in the actions of the church, and trying to emulate those actions, then the more pure that we can get and the closer we can get to what we’re supposed to be and who we're supposed to be. This desire to get back to the early church and to worship the way that they worshipped has been the foundation and underlying desire of most of the divides in Christianity over the years; with the one that leaves believing that they have discovered a way to get closer to the “original church,” and the one that is left viewed as being stubborn at best, and heretical and bound for hell at worst.
But when you get in and you examine what the early church was like, it is almost nothing like us. The early church meets at homes, often the homes of the richest people in the congregation. But in homes; there were no church buildings with beautiful stained glass and organs and pianos, or even fog machines and guitars and praise bands. There was none of that; it was homes, and all the people would come into the homes, and these rich people would accept the shame and humiliation of having the poorest and the slaves come in and dine with them in their homes. Communion was every week; and it was a full meal, not just a little piece of bread and a little bit of grape juice or wine but a full full meal. And this early church, as we see here, holds things in a common purse and shares with everyone; the rich, the poor, the slave, the free. It didn’t matter how much you put in, you got what you needed. Sometimes it will be more than you put in, sometimes it would be far less than you put in, but everyone puts for the common good. And if we look way back to the earliest, earliest churches, what we see here is that people like Barnabas exist, who sell their property and give all of it to a common purse for someone else to distribute.
Some of that is mildly interesting to me. It is similar to a lion in a zoo enclosure. It’s a safe thing to look at from a distance, and it’s interesting to look at from a distance, but it doesn’t really raise our blood pressure or raise our anxiety because there’s a big glass window in the way. And if you’re at the Kansas City zoo at least, then you have air-conditioning. But some of it, some of it, is highly uncomfortable to modern ears; especially American modern ears. In fact, some of it is downright offensive to modern ears.
However, similarly to how I believe that the list of spiritual gifts that Paul mentioned that I read out last week wasn’t an exhaustive list of the Spirit’s gifts, but rather new spiritual gifts appear as the church needs different things in different times and places; I do think that the church takes different forms at different times and different places for what is needed to reach that time and place. Sometimes the church is in a house, sometimes it is in a beautiful building with gorgeous stained glass. Sometimes it’s in a shopping mall, sometimes is an old grocery store. Sometimes it has people chanting in four-part harmony with no musical instruments allowed, sometimes it has an organ and a piano and that is beautiful music. Sometimes it has a fog machine and a praise band and a whole different set of things. They all are different things, and that makes the church look different, but that speaks to different generations in different times and different places, and they’re all the church, and they’re all Spirit led.
But I think that we would be remiss if we don’t recognize that previous forms of the church can teach us things. It strikes me as I study the Scriptures, and as I study the early church and the modern church, that a lot of the features that I just listed from the early church are not just not a part of the church today, they’re actually written off as evil today. If I told you that someone was advocating for these things to be done right now, there are a lot of people in this country that would write that person off as the antichrist. But all I would be doing is describing what the church of the Apostles was doing; what Peter was advising to do. These things were once a part of the church; they were once advocated for by the one to whom Jesus handed the keys of the church. They can’t be evil. That doesn’t mean that they are proper for today. We can debate that, but this is not a call for a new system for our world. Rather this is a call to recognize that the system we have isn’t the only possibility. The system isn’t our God; our God is our God, Jesus is our God. . Whatever we do, we must ensure that the goal of God is achieved: that no one is in need. That doesn’t mean that we can’t have those who have extra, but that no one is in need. God is worried about the floor, not the ceiling. And that is what the church must fight for. That is what the early church fought for in their day, and that is what we must fight for in our day.
Do not confuse different with evil. That is a mistake that is repeated throughout history, and it has fueled hate and allowed violence throughout history. Don’t spread that idea that different is evil. Different is different. That doesn’t have to mean that you change what you are, but it’s not necessarily evil.
Ananias and Sappira were not killed because of withholding some of their funds, they were killed for lying to the Spirit. Again, I do think the expectation of the early church was to give everything, all of your possessions. That certainly has not continued to be the expectation of the church today. I do wonder if they actually would’ve been punished for withholding some, but they had said “you know I just can’t give you everything, but here is half of my field.” I wonder if they would’ve been welcome, maybe not brought into membership because they hadn’t met the expectation, but not be punished if that makes sense. But they lied; they lied, I believe, to avoid being judged. And I fear that sometimes we hide what we think people will criticize us for because of that same reason. And while I don’t think that God‘s going to put any of us to death, I do wonder sometimes what people feel judged for.
When we preach this message, when we read this message in our daily devotions, we oftentimes focus on the gift and the giving of everything. And I think it’s just because that is the most challenging thing in the passage for us in 21st-century American to hear. But I really do not think that the lesson is in the sharing of a common purse and the giving of everything. I believe that the lesson is in what drives Ananias and Sappira to lie; both within them and within the church. And those two ideas lead to two lessons for us.
First, we need to be open with where we need help, and if we feel like we shouldn’t be doing something then we need to be comfortable asking for help with growing in that area. Maybe not announcing it to the entire church during joys and concerns, but going up to the person next to us in the pews or to the pastor and just saying “hey, I really need some help here. I really don’t feel like I should be doing XYZ; what do you think, and can you help me? Can you help me be accountable?” There’s been times where I’ve said that the church needs to be a 12 step program for sinner (12 step programs actually came out of the church). And that is what we do when the spirit is telling us we have a problem, we have to be willing to go to someone for help. This is the first lesson.
The second lesson is that we really need to be concerned about whether there is a person like Ananias in our church. We need to be concerned about why people fear judgment from a church that was called to judge not. How do we respond when people come to us for help? How can we respond lovingly while we’re helping someone fix a problem? How can we do that? That is something to pray upon as a church. These are the two things I want you to focus on: one outside yourself and one inside yourself. How do you treat others as a Christian who come to you? And is there something you need to come to others about? Let the Spirit speak to you this week. Amen.