Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Acts 5

Regular readers know that for the last couple of years, I have been facilitating a Lectio Divina group at my church on Sundays before the service.

I tell you, it has been an incredible gift. Every week we get together and read the gospel lesson for the day, and then prayerfully invite God to speak to us through it. And every week something extraordinary happens. The Holy Spirit shows up and we all more or less sit in awe and thanksgiving at the miracle of God's love.

I am finding that Lectio has impacted me in other ways... specifically in my ability to grapple with difficult passages in the bible.

Today, for example, at bible study, we were reading Acts 5. This is a brutal chapter about Ananias and his wife Sapphira dropping dead when it is discovered that they withheld on their donation to the Christian community. (I joked that this should be our Stewardship scripture passage this year... but my priest said no, darn it.)

It is a challenging passage, to be sure. But after a couple of years of regular Lectio, I have learned to resist the temptation to judge a scripture, and instead, let it speak to me. Engage with it. Grapple with it, yes, but in an open minded way. When I do this, crazy stuff can happen.

I always approach bible stories from the perspective that God is Love. That means that in stories where God appears to behave badly, I assume that I am not getting the whole picture. In the case of Ananias, though, it doesn't ever say that God struck him down. Nor does it say that Peter cursed him and he died. It simply states that when Ananias was confronted with the fact that he was holding back from God, he died.

I can put myself in his place. I know that there have been moments in my life when I was confronted with the contrast between Jesus' sacrifice and my own shittiness. Last year on Good Friday I spent the whole three hour service in such a state of distress that by the time I got to the confession with my parish priest, I was beside myself.

Let's imagine that Ananias and his wife were actually around when Jesus got executed. Let's imagine that they truly loved God... that they understood the power of Jesus' death and resurrection. But somehow, in the midst of their lives, they lost their connection to God just long enough to let petty fear get into their hearts. Fear of economic loss. Fear of the instability that happens when you give up everything. And that fear caused them to hold back on their donation, just as it does for me, sometimes.

When Peter confronts Ananias, in the blazing moment of realization, I can imagine being so grief stricken as to simply


The Jews believed that when you encountered God, the energy was so great you couldn't survive it. You were annihilated on the spot. Is it possible that Ananias and Sapphira saw God in that moment? That, perhaps, it was not only the moment of their deaths, but also the moment of their redemption? I pray for his and Sapphira's souls that that was true.

In Lectio Divina, we invite God to speak to us through the scriptures. We open ourselves to how the scripture relates to our own lives. Today, I began to think about ways that I have been letting fear creep in and distract me from God.

Maybe this story speaks something totally different for you. That is the beauty of this living word, this gift from God.

Act 5:1

Now a man named Ananias, together with his wife Sapphira, also sold a piece of property.

Act 5:2

With his wife's full knowledge he kept back part of the money for himself, but brought the rest and put it at the apostles' feet.

Act 5:3

Then Peter said, “Ananias, how is it that Satan has so filled your heart that you have lied to the Holy Spirit and have kept for yourself some of the money you received for the land?

Act 5:4

Didn't it belong to you before it was sold? And after it was sold, wasn't the money at your disposal? What made you think of doing such a thing? You have not lied to men but to God.”

Act 5:5

When Ananias heard this, he fell down and died. And great fear seized all who heard what had happened.

Act 5:6

Then the young men came forward, wrapped up his body, and carried him out and buried him.

Act 5:7

About three hours later his wife came in, not knowing what had happened.

Act 5:8

Peter asked her, “Tell me, is this the price you and Ananias got for the land?”

“Yes,” she said, “that is the price.”

Act 5:9

Peter said to her, “How could you agree to test the Spirit of the Lord? Look! The feet of the men who buried your husband are at the door, and they will carry you out also.”

Act 5:10

At that moment she fell down at his feet and died. Then the young men came in and, finding her dead, carried her out and buried her beside her husband.


John Michael Keba said...

"I always approach bible stories from the perspective that God is Love. That means that in stories where God appears to behave badly, I assume that I am not getting the whole picture."

Thank you for this, Rachel. Lately it seems that just about everyone I read is sure of one thing: if the Holy Spirit had a 21st century liberal arts degree, the Bible would be so much more acceptable to them.

John Michael Keba said...

It might even be as meaningful as all those other scriptures they skimmed through for their 3 credit comparative religion class

Rachel Nguyen said...

Ha! Don't forget that said degree had to come from a nice Northeastern liberal college, like Harvard. Or, even worse, Harvard Divinity School.


Seriously, though, your comment brings up some great issues. For example, is it always the case that studying the historical context of the Good Book necessarily changes the 'truth' of it? My humble belief is that exploring the historical context in no way diminishes it's truth.

And not only that, to simply poo poo the stories that challenge one's sensibilities is spiritually lazy and potentially even dangerous.

Deb said...

Great question. And we've jokingly suggested it as a stewardship verse as well!

I have two thoughts for this passage...

One is simply that Ananias was well known to the local church as being a grand-stander. "Look at me" might have been his middle name. This was an over-the-top moment and Peter was in a place where he had to confront. And "somehow" Ananias was struck down for his life of selfish conceit and me-first-ness. And if that don't getcha a personal owie, what will?

The other thought stream I ponder is that Peter was simply shown by God what was in Ananias' wallet. (A great sermon title: "What's in YOUR wallet?") By some supernatural means, he knew. And God did the rest. Toying with God - living a false front is among the things that "God hates" so while yes, "God is love" God is also holy. A little personal take-your-shoes-off moment.

Haven't developed these, killed the Greek or anything else. Just my thoughts...


Rachel Nguyen said...

Interesting thoughts, Deb! And yes, I agree that God is Holy and sometimes kicks butt. It really struck me, though, that the text doesn't explicitly say that God was the one who killed them.

John Michael Keba said...


I see "historical context" used in three ways: a) to genuinely make a passage come alive by fleshing out its background; b) as a way of dismissing difficult passages like the one here; c) as a reason allowing Christians to ignore those moral injunctions no longer accepted by modern pagan society. The first way adds nothing to the "truth"; the other two deliberately shun the "truth."

Personally, when it comes to all things purely human, I think Ecclesiastes 1:2-11 puts "historical context" into spiritual context: it's the same old play over and over again, only with different scenery, different props, and different names on the program card. All human days are old days, tried and invariably not-so-true. The only new day is the Gospel Day, and one must choose and struggle to live in it.

But I also have to say, Rachel, that I have pretty much stopped worrying overmuch about God seeming to behave badly, in either the Old or New Testament. One night, I came across an offhand comment by an Orthodox bishop in a commentary on the Parables: he simply let slip what he considered to be the most terrifying passage in the enitre Bible - Matthew 25:31-46, the separation of the sheep from the goats.

In one blinding and, yes, terrifying moment, all the "difficult" passages were placed in sharp perspective for me: the destruction of Ai; Elija cutting the throats of the priests of Baal; the passage you have brought up; pick a passage, any passage, Rachel, it does not matter. Forget all the dramatic stuff - I don't have to sin dramatically, at all. God is Love, yes, but that Love is waiting for me up the street in the person of my sick neighbor, and if I choose to spurn that Love in this life, It will lovingly honor my choice in the next.

Rachel Nguyen said...

Hi John,

I have to agree with your assessment on the ways that the historical context of bible stories are used.

But for me, even your first example of the historical context is not valuable Lectio Divina. In that instance, it is really about the text itself revealing God's truth. It is interesting that in our LD group, the same text can reveal very different things for each of us.

Very interesting about the Orthodox Bishop. And your comment about love waiting for us up the street hits home for me today, thank you.

the reverend mommy said...

I am using this text for Stewardship Sunday. Can't wait. I'm going to call it "Heart Failure" and use a parallel story of "The Grinch Who Stole Christmas" and how his heart was two sizes too small.

Our hearts ARE too small -- we think too small and we care too small. If we live into the overwhelmingly generous grace that is offered us, we too would bubble over with generosity.

Essentially this story IS about radical generosity.

Rev Nancy Fitz said...

I'm teaching this text this week as we work thru the book of Acts in June-July. My co-teacher and I have been reading and playing with ideas. One was, that Ananias (hence us) was equally responsible to God and community. That he had/has the choice of what to give, but lying about it, for whatever unnamed reason, hurts his relationship with community. And in our anabaptist background, community is the place we find God. thanks for the good discussion.

Rachel Nguyen said...

Rev Mommy,

Indeed, the text is about radical giving. And I love that Peter says:

"What made you think of doing such a thing? You have not lied to men but to God."

Rev Nancy, your point that his lying to God hurts his relationship with the community is a good one. I think when we turn away from God, we are not able to truly 'love our neighbor'.

I am grateful to everyone for your comments.