Saturday, March 3, 2018

“Greed, Deception, Death”

                 On the church liturgical calendar, we are in the season of “Lent,” a six-week period of spiritual preparation, leading up to the celebration of Easter and the Resurrection of Christ.  This spiritual preparation includes prayer, confession, repentance, atonement, and self-denial. The focus is on our mortality and our need for forgiveness and healing.  We believe that this six-week focus will help us to re-calibrate our lives and more closely align ourselves with the ministry and example of Jesus Christ—before we celebrate his Easter Resurrection.

During this Lenten season, our worship themes and proclamations are focusing on “Reclaiming Sin:  A Biblical Guide.”  I believe that popular culture has largely abandoned the concept of sin.  Instead, of taking responsibility for our sinful actions, popular culture encourages us to try and explain away sin as not really our fault.  In this series, we are reflecting upon stories of persons in the Bible who sinned; the consequences of that sin, and whether they received forgiveness and reconciliation with God.  We will discover that recognizing and acknowledging sin is a first and essential step towards eventually achieving forgiveness, healing, and reconciliation. 

I believe that it is important that we begin by defining what “sin” actually is.  For our focus during Lent, we have defined as the rupture of relationships.  Each of us lives in an interconnected web of relationships which include our relationship with the Divine, our relationships with other persons, our relationship with Creation, and our relationship with ourselves.  Let me provide some examples of how sin can occur in each of these four types of relationship.

            1.  Relationship with the Divine.  God seeks to be in a loving relationship with each individual person.  In our relationship with the Divine, we must put God at the center of our lives.  We sin when we displace God and seek to put ourselves at the center, pushing God to the margin of our lives.

            2.  Relationship with Others.  God intends for us to be in community with other people.  We have a responsibility to care for others, insuring that they have a fair share of resources and opportunities to flourish in their lives.  We sin when we privilege our interests and ourselves over the common good.  For instance, greed is sinful because it subverts the common good so that we can have more stuff.  This ruptures our relationship with others. 

            3.  Relationship with the Environment, God’s Good Creation.  We humans are created in the image of God, which entails special privileges and responsibilities.  One of our most important responsibilities is to be good stewards of God’s Creation.  As stewards, we have a special relationship with the Creation, and we have a special responsibility to care for it.  When we fail to be good stewards of Creation by polluting or degrading the environment, then we are guilty of a two-fold rupture.  First, our relationship with Creation is broken and this is sinful.  But, secondly, since we are created in the image of God, our relationship with God is damaged, as well.

            4.  Relationship with Ourselves.  We have a special relationship with ourselves.  When we fail to take care of our physical bodies; or, when we fail to be true to ourselves in what we say or what we do, then we rupture our relationship with ourselves and this is also sinful.

            This Sunday, March 4th, our scriptural focus will be the story of Ananias and Sapphira from the Acts of the Apostles 5:1-11.   Ananias and Sapphira were a married couple, who became some of the first Christian converts and joined the Church in Jerusalem.  They were fairly affluent because they were landowners.  Although not required by the Apostles, many of the early converts to Christianity sold all of their possessions and donated the proceeds to the church.  In effect, many of the first Christians elected to live together in a commune, sharing all of their material resources together, as any had need.  For instance, just before the story of Ananias and Sapphira, the writer of Acts includes the story of Barnabas, who “sold a field that belonged to him, then brought the money, and laid it at the apostles’ feet” (Acts 4:37).

            Ananias and Sapphira belonged to the same social class as Barnabas.  However, unlike Barnabas, they did not give the full proceeds from a sale of property to the Apostles.  Instead, they held back some money, while giving the remainder of the sale to the church.  Yet, in donating their money to the church, they claimed that it was the entire amount of the property’s sale price.  That is, they lied to the members of this early Christian commune about how much they earned from the sale of their property. 

After some time, the Apostle Peter discovers their deception and confronts Ananias.  In this confrontation, Peter points out that Ananias and Sapphira were not required to sell their property; neither were they required to give the proceeds from the sale to the church.  Instead, the offering to the community of faith should have been free and un-coerced.  Yet, Ananias and Sapphira gave the contribution grudgingly.  And, they lied about how much money they had from the sale.  Then, Peter tells Ananias, “You did not lie to us but to God!” (Acts 5:4d). Peter’s harsh judgment terrifies Ananias and he falls down, dead.

Several hours later, Sapphira returns to the commune.  She is unaware that her husband has died.  Peter asks Sapphira about the sale of the property, giving her a chance to confess her sin and set the record straight.  Instead, Sapphira decides to continue the deception—not realizing that Peter already knows the truth about the sale price.  Once again, when Peter confronts her about the deception, Sapphira drops dead on the spot.

Whenever I read the story of Ananias and Sapphira, I find it very easy to get sidetracked by their sudden deaths at the feet of Peter.  What sort of power did Peter wield over the early church?  Were Ananias and Sapphira just so overcome by guilt and fear that they simply collapsed and died?  While it is easy to get sidetracked by their deaths, I believe that it is important to set aside the how of their deaths occurred and focus on what the story of Ananias and Sapphira can tell us about sin and discipleship.

Remembering that we have defined sin as the rupturing and damaging of various relationships, Ananias and Sapphira damaged two different relationships when they held back some of the money from their land sale.  First, the couple were greedy.  As we observed above, greed is sinful because it subverts the common good in our relationships with others.  We are greedy when we decide to privilege our desires and pleasures over the legitimate needs of other persons.  As noted above, from a Christian perspective each of us has a responsibility to insure that others have a fair share of resources and opportunities so that they can flourish.  When we hoard money and possessions, after our own basic needs have been met, then we are greedy.  This is exactly what Ananias and Sapphira did, when they held back some of the sale proceeds from the community.  In so doing, they fractured their relationship with other members of the church, and this was sinful.

As bad as their greed was, their second sin was even worse.  As Peter points out, Ananias and Sapphira also tried to deceive God and their fellow Christians.  They lied to Peter and the others about the actual sale price of the property.  Trust is an essential component in our relationships with God and other people.  If I cannot trust someone, then it is hard to be in a mutual relationship of love and support—until trust is built up.  In their deceit, the greedy couple undermined the trust and thereby ruptured their relationship with the Divine and the other members of their community.

The story of Ananias and Sapphira has some important lessons to teach twenty-first century Christians about our relationships with the Divine and others.  This story should cause us to pause and wonder whether we are guilty of the same sort of greed and deceit that informed their decisions.  Are we, perhaps, not generous enough towards others who are struggling just to have the basic necessities in life?  In what ways do we sometimes try to deceive God?  And, what can we learn about our own contributions to the church or to charities?  Ananias and Sapphira gave out of a sense of duty and obligation, rather than giving out of love and joy.  In so doing, they prevented themselves from experiencing the Presence of the Divine in their act of giving.

      If you live in the Lincoln area and do not have a place of worship, then I invite you to come and join us at Christ United Methodist Church this Sunday, March 4th, as we explore what we can learn from the story of Ananias and Sapphira.  Christ UMC is located at 4530 “A” Street in Lincoln, Nebraska.  Our two traditional Worship Services are at 8:30 and 11:00 on Sunday morning. 

Come, join us.  Everyone is welcome and accepted because God loves us all.

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