Acts 4:32-37 (NRSV)
Now the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common. With great power the apostles gave their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all. There was not a needy person among them, for as many as owned lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold. They laid it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need. There was a Levite, a native of Cyprus, Joseph, to whom the apostles gave the name Barnabas (which means ‘son of encouragement’). He sold a field that belonged to him, then brought the money, and laid it at the apostles’ feet.
Answering the call to Christian community isn’t easy. As many familiar with Acts will recall, the hopeful account of the early church’s united spiritual and economic life at the end of Chapter 4 is quickly followed by a darker counterpart. Ananias and Sapphira also sell a piece of property, but secretly keep back part of the proceeds. When Peter challenges their deception, each dies suddenly. In the space of sixteen verses, we move from a portrait of a community in which the joyful story of the resurrection prompts mutual trust and support to one “seized” by “great fear” (Acts 5:11) as they contemplate the combined consequences of human frailty and divine judgment.
What went wrong? Peter suggests that the problem was not so much Ananias and Sapphira’s unwillingness to fully invest, economically as well as spiritually, in the community as their attempt to deceive both the apostles and God (who, the story reminds us, cannot be deceived). It’s not clear why they lied: to achieve a reputation for being “all in” that they didn’t deserve? to avoid admitting their fear that the community wouldn’t survive, or wouldn’t support them when needed?
Whatever the couple’s motives, the paired stories challenge us to embrace not only trust and generosity in response to God’s gifts to us but also honesty with each other about the ways in which we fall short of responding as fully and freely as we could to God’s grace. The vision of God’s kingdom on earth at the end of Acts 4 is clear, compelling, and, to those of us who have more possessions than many of those around us, probably a bit frightening. The story of Ananias and Sapphira reminds us that we should, at the very least, be honest with each other about that fear.
Lord, we confess that we are often more like Ananias and Sapphira than like Barnabas. Help us to be honest with each other and with you about the fears that keep us from doing all that we can to build a world in which all have what they need. Help us to overcome those fears, and to follow ever more closely your will for us and your world. In Jesus’ name we pray. Amen.