Obstacle as Gospel Opportunity: Another Look at Widows and Table Waiters in Acts

There is something to be gained by reading the section in Acts 4.32-6.7 together. I propose that 4.32-35 is an entry into the section and that 6.1-7 both concludes the section even as it provides a hinge into the following section.

This segment begins in chapter four where “the apostles were giving testimony to the Lord Jesus” and there “was not a needy person among them.” Barnabas is an example of one who was in tune with the Spirit (4.36) while Ananias and Saphira remind us that was not true for everyone (5.1ff.). The generosity of some like Barnabas strengthened the assembly by helping those in need. Likewise, to support the widows is to strengthen the congregation in Jerusalem. It is a strong possibility that the need presented in chapter six is related to the need in chapter four. Indeed, as Barnabas is a specific example of one who gave, the widows are a specific example of those who are in need. It is not likely an accident that selling possessions to care for the needy is stated alongside giving testimony about Jesus (4.32-33). This provides an entry or the front porch into the rest of the section.

The episode with Ananias and Saphira provide examples of situations that could derail the gospel. Yet the church continues to grow not only by caring for others but by ministry of the word. It is worth mentioning that the apostles themselves were almost killed on account of teaching in the name of Jesus. It was Gamaliel, a Pharisee of some influence, who spoke on their behalf to the council and their lives were saved. This is yet another obstacle that could have hindered the spread of the gospel. Perhaps we are to hear the words “we will devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word” (6.4) as a response to the request from the council in 5.40 “they ordered them not to speak in the name of Jesus.” Since the apostles obviously plan to continue the ministry of the word, it is a possibility they considered participation in suffering as part of their ministry.

When we finally arrive to 6.1-7, we find that the complaint of the widows resulted in the demonstration of both the ministry of caring for the needy and the ministry of the word of God. Both remain an important part of the narrative as the gospel continues to thrive and the church continues to grow.

I propose we can see the segment like this;

4.32-35 – An introduction to the joint ministries of caring for the needy and the apostle’s ministry of the gospel.

4.36-37 – An example of one from the Spirit filled congregation caring for the needy in the congregation.

5.1-11 – An example of a potential hindrance to the Spirit filled congregation as they care for the needy.

5.12-16 – An example of the apostles and their insistence to participate in the ministry of the word.

5.17-42 – An example of a potential hindrance to the apostles and their participation in the ministry of the word.

6.1-7 – A demonstration that both the ministry of caring for the needy and the apostle’s ministry of the word continue to bear fruit.


Complaint and Hospitality

Acts 6.1-7: A Written Sermon

At the start of this text, things are good. Disciples are increasing and the word is spreading. At the end of this text, things are good. Disciples are increasing and the word is spreading, things continue to be good.

That tells us that whatever happens in between the beginning and end of this text doesn’t stop disciples from increasing and doesn’t stop the word from spreading. It might surprise us then to discover that what happens in between is a complaint.

Complaining? Grumbling? Disagreement? Is that supposed to happen at church? Isn’t the church supposed to be a grumble free zone? Should we be telling attenders to leave complaints outside? We already have a prominent “No Skateboarding” sign, should we add a sign that says “No Complaining?”

We are told what this complaint is about. It is about food. Some are being left out during the daily distribution of food. No wonder a complaint is made.

But no one holds up a sign that says “no complaining.” Instead, the complaint is heard and not only is it heard, it is treated with dignity. It becomes important enough that everyone pitches in and they decide to call seven people specifically to serve as table waiters. They call people to make sure no one gets left out at dinnertime again.

These aren’t adolescents coming home from school and rummaging through a pantry full of things they do not want and claiming “there’s nothing to eat.”

No, these are widows who are likely without income or assistance and likely not getting anything to eat. So, the church calls seven people to wait on tables. We get the feeling this is an important part of the church’s story because we get the names of the seven. These are not just seven anonymous bodies called to perform a necessary task because they are the only ones available.

We may tend to think of things like waiting on tables as something necessary but less important than other work. But the New Testament tends to measure things differently. We may tend to value jobs by the level of compensation they offer but the New Testament appears to consider some other factors.

So, in this text we find serving to be something important. Serving becomes a priority. As soon as the need becomes known, the church begins to take care of it. We do not know how many people were being considered as table waiter, but we do know the seven who were chosen had rather impressive qualifications… these table waiters are to be “full of the Spirit” and “full of wisdom” and of “good reputation.” If nothing else, we discover that waiting on tables is not menial activity.

Maybe we overlook the significance of those who serve. Maybe we should see the whole table gathering differently. There is something valuable going on here… it is much more than physical sustenance. It is more than vitamins and minerals and nutrients. It is more than proteins and carbohydrates and antioxidants. There is something going on here that causes the church to grow.

Maybe we should think differently of those who grow food, think differently of those who harvest food, think differently of those who prepare food… maybe we should think of those who serve food differently. Maybe we should think differently of those who sit with us at table. Gathering at table around food is a bigger event than when we first imagined.

I am currently enrolled in a class and we were given an assignment to write a paper on this very text. We were to write 7500 words, for those curious that comes out to 28 pages double spaced. While involved in this project, I read this text over and over. I read it in different rooms. I read it in the car. I read it in a different language. Upstairs, downstairs, I read it standing on my head. I read it as if I was an apostle and as if I were a complainer. I read it as a widow and as a priest. I read it as if I was auditioning to be a table waiter.

Have you ever been involved in a project that no matter what else you were doing, you were still working on that project? It was that kind of project. And what became very obvious was that everyone mentioned in the text is very important. Overlooking others is not an option.

The idea of serving at table is not a new phenomenon with Acts. In the Gospel we find a scene at a table. In this scene the apostles are arguing over “who is the greatest?” Jesus interrupts to say “I am here at the table with you as one who serves.” We realize that those called to serve at table are following in the steps of Jesus.

In the Gospel we have a scene where Jesus introduces “serving” in a conversation about being the greatest. Here in Acts we have a scene where the church hears a complaint and responds by making serving a priority. We can’t help but notice how important serving becomes in potentially divisive situations. We cannot help but notice here the priority given to serve those who have been overlooked.

From the beginning, God desired to dwell among his people. That started way back in Genesis. God called a people to show the world the ways of God. A people to show the world what it looks like when God dwells among them. What began so long ago grew to include a gathering in Jerusalem where some were being overlooked. This grants importance to that gathering. This is a gathering that is taking seriously God’s plan by hearing a complaint and by serving those in need. The church is God’s plan to show the world what it is like for God to live here.

This text reminds us that serving is to be a priority. It also reminds us that love is more than polite agreement. Speaking up on behalf of others is also evidence of love. The text brings with it a complaint but the world takes notice of the way the church responds and the church grows. Overlooked widows, Greeks and Jews, priests and apostles, and table servers are all equal in this episode because they are all equal at God’s table.

We are reminded that complaints do not stop the work of the church. Instead it seems things that are not going well become opportunities for the ways of God to be demonstrated in the world.



Preaching Acts

One of the first things about Acts that stands out is the way it moves. It is undeniable that the narrative begins in Jerusalem and concludes in Rome. In between these two geographical locations the gospel is carried on foot, by ship, and even chariot as a convert rides toward Africa. At one point, the Holy Spirit seemingly picks Philip up at one place in order to drop him off at another. Yet, Acts is not moving only to get from one place to another. Movement becomes an important part of Acts on account of the message that is carried along. This is evident as the first verse (1.1) conveys that a prior account was about the beginnings of what Jesus taught and the final verse is about the teachings of Jesus continuing unhindered (28.31).

Wherever the text goes, the reader discovers what appears to be a challenge or barrier to the gospel. This collection of stories suggests that the good news of Jesus is able to overcome any obstacle. Perhaps we find this at the very beginning as they are “down an apostle.” Acts tells us how this is resolved and proceeds to tell how a language barrier was unable to prevent the news of Pentecost. Eventually imprisonment of apostles, floggings, the Ananias and Saphira episode, and the murder of Stephen are reported. Later, countless obstacles emerge including a violent Pharisee, a storm, shipwreck, and snakebite. Yet, the Holy Spirit continues to make a way for the Good News to move through the empire.

Blinded by the Light

Blinded by the Light: a Sermon on Acts 9.1-18

I was 14 years old, living in upstate NY, trying to navigate a world of many questions and few answers. The fact is, teen boys don’t always have the right answers. But to their credit, they are at least looking. And I was trying to connect the world of eighth grade with the world I was reading about in the Bible. It wasn’t easy and I was not always right. But I do remember when I first heard on the radio the song “Blinded By the Light.” It was catchy and I was certain it was about Saul on the road to Damascus.

Bruce Springsteen wrote this song and I recognize now that he probably didn’t have Acts 9 in mind when he wrote that lyric but I still think about Saul whenever I hear it. The song begins “Madmen, Drummers, Bummers…” and Acts 9 comes with a madman (Saul) and bummers (persecution and murderous threats). Perhaps Ananias was a drummer (playing with the Straight Street Band).

Acts 9 starts out with Saul “breathing murderous threats against the Lord’s disciples.” He is on his way to Damascus to find those who belong to “the Way” in order to bring them back as prisoners.

This is the same Saul who was there at the stoning of Stephen. We do not know if he was an instigator or a collaborator but we do know he was in agreement with what happened that day. Because afterward he becomes violent and begins breathing “murderous threats.” That happens in v.1. It is important to highlight that just 18 verses later he “was baptized.” What happened? Acts 9 says he met someone on the road. And we are told that it was Jesus.

Acts is full of surprises. Nearly every chapter seems to present a surprise of some sort. But who saw this coming? Just when we were ready to hear more about Philip running around in the desert welcoming unlikely and unexpected people into the kingdom, here comes Saul with his murderous threats. We are not prepared for the one who is hunting disciples to be turned so quickly or so convincingly.

In the bigger picture we can see this episode as the latest in a series of attempts to stop the gospel of Jesus. Can a cross or even death stop the gospel? Can the fact that listeners do not share a language with the speaker stop the gospel? Can prison or beatings stop the gospel? Can corruption in the church? Can unworthy people? Can continental boundaries? Can the gospel be stopped by one willing to use violence and murderous threats? There is something about this gospel that propels it through most any barrier – there is something about meeting Jesus.

Acts is full of episodes where people meet Jesus. It is worth pointing out that only once, right here in chapter 9, is someone converted by being blinded by the light. It is helpful to know that Jesus does not meet everyone on the same street. Jesus does not work on every one of us in the same way. You are not less spiritual because you were not blinded while traveling the road to Damascus. We want to be clear that God may perform the same work in each of us but God is under no obligation to do it in the same way twice.

Do not measure your kingdom value by your conversion experience. Do not be manipulated into thinking that those who can share with pinpoint accuracy when and where conversion occurred are more spiritual than you. Do not believe that a television preacher who saw a 60 foot Jesus is better at following Jesus than you are. Rejoice that God is calling you. Rejoice that you have met Jesus. Rejoice that God is so interested in you that He has made plans for you.

Sometimes we read a text like this and want to use it as a bully stick. Read it to someone who is speaking against Jesus and say “maybe this will teach you for messing with Jesus… punk.” But Ananias does not show up and say to Saul “don’t mess with Jesus, next time could be worse.”

Other times we might read a text like this and wish our experience was similar. Such an experience might give us validation. A stronger incentive to do something for God. We would know without a doubt that God does have a plan for us. If all conversions were like this, it would be easier to tell who has been converted.

While it is fact that Acts loves to talk about conversion, it does not share many conversion stories that look alike… and there is certainly nothing else like this.

Here is what we know. The way of God will never include opposing Jesus. The ways of God will never include murderous threats. The ways of God may include strange and miraculous ways, like blinding the sighted or opening eye of the blind. The ways of God may include locating the least likely candidate, even the greatest opponent, and turn them toward Jesus.

Let us picture conversion for what it is. It is heading in one direction and then running into Jesus. It is like a crash in the intersection. It is a change of direction. Conversion suggests we are no longer heading the same way we once were. There are new plans. Things that once seemed so urgent are no longer urgent, and new things suddenly become priority.

It is possible you are hiding your true direction and desires from others. But you are not hiding from God. And God has a specific direction for you. The plan is no different than it was for a man who once breathed murderous threats and then one day was blinded by a light – God’s plan for you is to follow Jesus.

Acts 4.32-5.11: a Written Sermon

“Mission Accountable” – a Sermon from Mike Walters

I once heard Stuart Briscoe say that this story by itself was enough to keep him from ever claiming to have a “New Testament” church!  What pastor is prepared to answer the question,  “How many people died during the offering Sunday?” Passing the offering plates and asking,  “Where’s the rest?” That’s not exactly seeker sensitive.

Along with  politics, music, and flavors of ice cream, “church” is one of those topics about which everyone has an opinion.  Some have mostly contempt for the church.  Their attitude mirrors that of the. British poet Robert Southey, who said, “I could believe in Christ if He did not insist on dragging behind Him His leprous bride.”  Others, ironically some of whom are in the church, separate the church from Christ, seeing the church as a dispensable “add on” to the faith, an optional, even unnecessary aspect of the Christ event.

There was a troubling heresy in the early church known as docetism.  It comes from a Greek word meaning to “seem.”  What docetism argued was that anything material was evil, so that when Christ walked upon this earth, he only seemed to have a body. A sinless Jesus couldn’t have really been a human being.  These days, when I hear people talking about the faith apart from the church, about Christ apart from His body, then I know that docetism is still among us.

The book of Acts aggressively challenges any thinking that would disembody Christ by separating Jesus and His church.  No, they are inseparably and eternally linked.  John Calvin rightly said, “If God is our father, then the church is our mother.”  Contrary to what many people imagine, the primary concern of scripture is NOT the spiritual state of individuals, their holiness, or even their salvation.  The focus is God’s people, His “ekklesia,” God’s new community.  A community that is visible and tangible, which provides a new way of living and thinking for all those who enter into it.  It is Christ’s body, and it is that community that serves as the critical link between Jesus and the mission He began in this world and which He asked us, His people, to continue.

Back in Acts 1, Jesus clearly commissions the church to be his evangelists, to bear witness to the truth of His resurrection and of His kingdom come among us.  What we see in the book of Acts then,  is not just a bunch of stories of heroic apostles facing all sorts of dangers only to be delivered at the last moment by some intervention of the Holy Spirit.  What we see mostly is a community of believers faithfully living out the missional witness to which they have been called.  Even in Paul’s journeys, the primary concern there is always with the establishment and nurturing of churches.

This opening snapshot of the church in 4:32-35, demonstrates that God intends for the mission to be performed and sustained by His people who gather together into the covenant community bearing His name.   Will Willimon observed that when we read that the company of believers were “one in heart and mind” we’re not surprised.. We are used to hearing such pious, even unrealistic claims made about Christian congregations.  Drive around and read church signs: “One big happy family.” No one is going to put on their church signs: “We fight like cats and dogs!”  Does anyone take those signs seriously?  But then he wondered what are we to do with, “no one claimed that any of their possessions was their own, but they shared everything they had.”  You read that and you recognize that we’re not talking about church business as usual.

In Acts, Luke carefully shows us that the church’s witness in the world is twofold. Yes, it involves the external witness of the proclamation of the gospel, but it also involves the internal witness of the Christian community.  Both of these are concrete expressions of God’s grace and both are critically important in minding the mission in the book of Acts.  Obviously, the proclamation of the good news is strategically important in the church’s mission.  And Luke chronicles the lengths to which God is prepared to go in the Book of Acts to protect the proclamation of the word.  Apostles will be sprung from prison, there will be earthquakes and shipwrecks, and all sorts of interventions so that the word may be proclaimed.  Just prior to this text, the apostles have been threatened and essentially told to “shut up” and knock off the preaching. But, God is granting the church courage and steadfastness in the proclamation of the good news. The authorities can’t shut them up.  The external witness is vital.

But what I want us to see is that in the very same way, Acts also shows us how seriously God takes this business of the internal witness of the community.  God wants His people to live in such a way that it attracts the attention of people outside the church.   In Acts, salvation begins with a conversion experience, and it may even be accompanied with signs and wonders, but sustaining that conversion experience, enabling that conversion to become salt and light in the world requires the formation of a people.  A people who are decidedly different from any other people in the culture. More than any other church activity in Acts, what marks that early church off from the rest of the culture is the way it cares for its poorest members.  That practice bears an unmistakable witness to the claim that these are truly God’s people.. Luke says that Gods’ grace was powerfully at work in these people. The KJV says simply that “Great grace was upon them all.”  The reality and power of God’s grace upon this church enables it to live out its public life in such a way that captures the attention of outsiders.  This sharing of goods is not the result of any command, or obligation laid upon them.  No, it is a response to the great grace that was upon them all.  You know that in order for people to let go of anything, but especially money and possessions—-they must have taken hold of something else.  That’s the case here. The sharing of goods occurs as an outgrowth of the  “great grace upon them all” and the result is a brand new kind of community that gets the attention of the culture.

It’s the Spirit at work! In Acts 2, the Spirit enabled the same Peter who had denied knowing Jesus, to bear powerful witness to Jesus in front of the whole city of Jerusalem.  In Acts 3 that same wonder working power of the Spirit makes a lame man walk.  And now here, this gracious Spirit has inspired a man named Barnabas to sell his field and to give the proceeds to the Apostles.  In the power of the Spirit, this church takes care of its own, and in so doing, it bears an unmistakable likeness to the Jesus they claim to represent.

I was interested to note that this text from Acts  is the lectionary text for the Sunday after Easter.  What has this to do with Easter?  It’s all about money!   Well, in Luke’s mind, everything in this text is connected to this church’s belief in the resurrection of the Lord Jesus.  It is the resurrection that makes true generosity and counter-cultural living possible.  Because Jesus is alive, everything is different, including our values and our attitudes about money.  Karl Marx claimed that nearly every human attitude and action could be traced to economic sources.  Luke isn’t a Marxist, but he is a realist.  He knows that there’s a real good chance that where our possessions are, our hearts will be there also.  In fact, a surprisingly large amount of Acts deals with economic issues within the Christian community.

I think Luke is on to something. Nowhere is the authenticity of the Christian community more evidenced than in how its members view possessions.  Nowhere is the witness of the church more vulnerable than at the point of the church’s willingness to provide for its weakest members.  It’s a powerful witness to the reality of the gospel.  In Australia, where the church is not generally well thought of,  one group there is nevertheless constantly affirmed by the unbelieving culture and that is the Salvation Army–the Salvos as they are called there. The internal witness of the church gets the world’s attention!  Why do you think that the work of World Hope International has captured the imagination and affirmation of so many?  Because it’s easy to see that there is an authenticity in the care of world’s little ones that cannot be assigned to anything other than the reality of the Kingdom of God.  When I read of local churches caring for their people in tangible ways, then I know that Acts 1:8 is being incarnated among us.  It’s more than proclamation, it’s also incarnation. It’s living out the kingdom of God in front of our neighbors.  Bill Hybels is famous for saying, “Church is a beautiful thing when it works right.”  It is, and, it is a powerful witness.  “No needy persons among them.”  What would that look like in your church?  What kind of witness would that be?

And I’m not implying that this is simple to do.  All of you already know that the church isn’t some idyllic gathering where everyone sits around sipping tea, eating finger sandwiches and talking about the latest trends on religious televison.  No, the church is real, with real people. And that means that the church can be “messy.”  It’s not perfect, but I’ll tell you what it is—it is God’s chosen instrument in the world to accomplish His purposes.  And, first and foremost is God’s intention for the church to bear witness to the reality of a living Jesus, simply by living as Jesus lived.  Treating others the way Jesus treated them.  As they say, “it’s not rocket science.”  That’s what this early church did.  It wasn’t heroic, or spectacular, but it clearly lived in a way that showed that they were different.  It’s the Spirit! We see the same power which raised Jesus on Easter, and which thrust multi-lingual apostles into the streets at Pentecost, and empowered one who was lame, now empower a community of believers to release the tight grip of their personal possessions.

But, not completely.   Acts 5:1-11 is surely one of the most unsettling stories we have in scripture.  It probably shouldn’t surprise us that the first crisis to hit the young Christian community involves money.  If anyone thinks that the material question is a small issue, this incident proves otherwise.  It is literally a matter of life and death.  What’s this about?  Ananias and Sapphira probably saw the selfless act of Barnabas, noted the admiration it evoked from the people, perhaps saw his standing the community begin to rise, and they thought, “we’d like that too.”  So, they sell off a field and instead of giving all of the money from the proceeds to the apostles, they secretly agree to keep back part of the money for themselves.  Nothing particularly wrong with that, except that Peter knows the truth.   And he confronts Ananias about it. Peter’s rebuke of Ananias centers around, not that he kept back part of the money, but that he did so in such a way that the community was deceived, and even worse, that he attempted to deceive the Holy Spirit. And upon hearing the charge of lying to God, Ananias drops dead, as does Sapphira a few hours later when the same deceitful scenario unfolds.  Listen carefully to what is being said here: in lying to the church, Ananias and Sapphira  have lied to God.  Let that sink in for a moment.  This man and woman weren’t simply lying to the church, they were lying to God.  You still think Church isn’t serious business?  In Acts 9, on the road to Damascus, Saul of Tarsus and his murderous persecution of the church is stopped literally in his tracks by the words of Jesus saying, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?”  Apparently,  God’s just a bit touchy about this business of His church.  He takes it real personal.

Ananias and Sapphira were possessed by a ‘divided heart,’ their decision making process was caught between dual loyalties. James would say they were “doubleminded.”  They wanted to be part of the community, but  they also  wanted the security of their own hands.  They wanted to have their cake and eat it too. This is in stark contrast to the ways of the church who are described as being of one heart and one mind.  What this story shows us is that there is an ongoing battle between Satan and the Holy Spirit for the heart of the community.  We see Barnabas demonstrate the possession of the Spirit, while Ananias and Sapphira demonstrate a heart dominated by evil.  Maybe more than all the other evangelists, Luke seems to be acutely aware of how money gets between people and God. Only Luke tells the story of the Rich Fool, the man who put all of his hope in his possessions.  Luke is convinced that Jesus’ words about the inability to serve both God and money are true.

Let me “meddle” here a bit and suggest some ways in which we might apply this passage.   First off, this text is hard on Americans.  We have such a strong sense of individualism.  That can be a strength in some cases, but it’s tough on community.  The idea of putting the group, the community, ahead of the individual is hard on us.  But without community, its just so easy to revert back to the pre-conversion attitudes and values.  And it seems to me that the failure of authentic community is what accounts for so many American “Christians” living lives that do not bear witness to much of anything other than the fact that they claim to know that they are going to heaven when they die.  Other than that, there is absolutely no difference between them and their unbelieving neighbors.  It is within the parameters of the community of faith that we can be possessed by the Spirit of generosity allowing us to turn loose of those things which otherwise would bind and control us in ways that are counter to the Kingdom of our Lord Jesus Christ.

This is part and parcel part of the church’s commission to be witnesses for Jesus. Robert Wall said, “The most eloquent testimony to the reality of the resurrection is not an empty tomb or a well-orchestrated Easter pageant, but rather a group of people whose life together is so radically different, so completely changed from the way the world builds a community, that there can be no explanation other than that Jesus is alive!”

The question for today’s church is this: Why don’t we look more resurrected?  Why don’t people look at us and our corporate lives and exclaim, “Wow, Jesus must really be alive?” Perhaps it’s because we have neglected this internal witness of the community.  Maybe it’s because so many of us are trying to serve both God and money.  The paradoxical insight of the gospel about money is that we will never have enough, no matter how much we have; the only way to have “enough” is to give it away.   That’s what Barnabas discovered.

The death of Ananias and Sapphira may seem surreal to us, but in a true sense their death sentence was already contained in their own decision to cut themselves off from the community by means of greed and deception.  The dropping dead part was simply making real and outwardly evident the cancerous spiritual condition of their hearts.

I suspect that some may be thinking: “I didn’t come to hear another sermon about money. Why can’t we talk about spiritual things?  Things that are really important?”  Luke would insist that we are.  Luke would say that in getting to the matter of money, we are revealing our hearts, and we are determining, with some degree of certainty, how well the mission might progress. Some years ago now, I met the Romanian dissident Josef Tson.  Josef was a Baptist pastor who had been arrested, imprisoned, even tortured by the Communists government of Romania until they finally exiled him from the country.  He was a visionary Christian leader and upon the fall of the Communist government in 1990 immediately returned to Romania to continue his ministry.  I met with him and a group of pastors one day in Rochester, NY and Josef was responding to questions by the different clergy who were present.  One asked this: “If you wanted to start a vital spiritual renewal in America what would you preach?”  We all anticipated his answer but were shocked when he said it.  “I’d preaching tithing.”  When asked why, Josef Tson said, “Because if you can’t get them to turn loose of 10% of their money, you’ll never get them to let go of the really important things.”

Beyond the way that  money and possession tend to reveal the true intentions of our hearts, I’m also fascinated with Peter’s approach here as the spiritual leader of this community.  I wonder how many churches would actually confront Ananias and Sapphira the way Peter did here?  More likely, “Look, they are our biggest givers, go along!”  But, Peter knows that there is no price tag that can be put upon the integrity and the witness of God’s people.  Being the church isn’t easy.  It’s serious business.

There’s one more thing about this text that sobers me, mostly because it reminds me of me.  What Ananias and Sapphira were doing here was essentially “playing church.”  They were making a good show of being devoted, of being supportive when, in fact, they were outwardly imitating Barnabas for all the wrong reasons.  Ananias and Sapphira wanted people to THINK they were fully committed when they weren’t.  How easily we do that!  We talk the talk.  We do all the right things, say all the right things, in such a way that anyone around us would say, “that Walters guy is all in, all his chips are in the center of the table.”  But then, I know how often  I have hedged my bet.  This text says that those actions may fool the people around us, but they don’t fool God, and God takes that very seriously because He knows that our deception will invariably take a toll on the health and vitality of this community that He loves.. I never think about this without recalling M.Scott Peck.  In his haunting book, People of the Lie, he wrote that the “est place to find really evil people is at church. It’s a good place to hide out.”  Ananias and Sapphira  were hiding out. Karl Barth observed that “church is where people go to make their last stand against God” And, Eugene Peterson reminds us that “religion is one of the best covers for sin of almost all kinds.  Pride, anger, lust, and greed are vermin that flourish under the floorboards of religion.  Those of us, who are identified with institutions or vocations in religion can’t be too vigilant.  The devil does some of his best work behind stained glass.”

So, what we have here in this odd narrative is a cautionary tale.  A reminder that church is exceedingly risky business. I think its significant that in the ending of this story, Luke uses the word “church” for the very first time.  Here, in struggling with money, the community first experiences itself as a the disciplined community of truthfulness.  I wonder if there could be a “Barnabas” here, someone with a huge future for God, but who might need to let go of something precious?  I also wonder if there may be some who have been playing the game— who have outwardly done and said all the right things, but inwardly your still trying to control it all.  Such an approach to Christian faith is walk on the edge of an abyss.


The ancient Didache, one of the earliest teaching texts of the church, begins with these words, “two ways there are, one of life and one of death, and there is a great difference between the two ways.’  Barnabas and Ananias and Sapphira personify this.  One is totally committed to the church and goes on to be a powerful instrument of God. introduces the converted Saul to the church. salvages John Mark, who wrote the second gospel, and so on.  Ananias and Sapphira are primal examples of church discipline and accountability, poignant testimonies as to the dangers of “playing church.”   We are called to mission, and that mission is accountable.







Preaching the Activity of God

Luke wants us to see a bigger picture. He finds events to be significant, but he does not consider all events equal. Luke is aware that things are taking place. He does not ignore them; he prefers to mention them as part of his historical monologue. Yet, he never makes them more important than they are intended to be. He desires that we acknowledge the content of what goes on around us, but does not wish for us to make it the main subject. Luke reminds us that we are participating in history. So he writes about this God who intervenes in history. He wants us to know that everything that occurs is part of this bigger story about God.

The Gospel reveals that Caesar decreed and the Acts that Herod gave a speech. But both Luke and Acts want us to know that political intervention is weak and short-lived in comparison to the intervention of God. In fact, these things appear to take place in order to halt the work of God in history. Instead, they become part of a series of events that are deemed powerless in comparison to the Gospel news.

The Gospel is a book that encourages the reader to pack for Jerusalem. The Acts is a book that tells the reader that what happens in Jerusalem does not stay in Jerusalem. Jerusalem seems to be important for Luke on account of the significant events that happen there. The undeniable intervention of God that is evident at crucifixion, resurrection, and Pentecost.

In a sense, Gabriel’s words to Mary could be seen as a text for both volumes as we see them proven again and again. “Nothing will be impossible with God.” In Acts, this is evidenced by the structure as the word continues to move and spread and the church continues to grow despite the barriers presented along the way.

At 6.7; 9.31; 12.24; 16.5; 19.20; and 28.31 we find summaries that remind us that the Good News of God will not be stopped by barriers of any kind. Simply, we may suggest the following; we encounter a language barrier, apostles are jailed twice, there is evidence of an imperfect church, and neglect of the Greek widows. Still, “The word of God kept on spreading; and the number of the disciples continued to increase greatly in Jerusalem, and a great many of the priests were becoming obedient to the faith.”

There is a death by stoning, murderous threats, ethnic barriers, even magic, yet “the church throughout all Judea and Galilee and Samaria enjoyed peace, being built up; and going on in the fear of the Lord and in the comfort of the Holy Spirit, it continued to increase.” Then dietary restrictions, political power, death by sword, and an unbelieving church, but “the word of the Lord continued to grow and to be multiplied.”

The barriers continue as we find geographical barriers, lobbying, thrown in jail again, magic, economic barriers. Still we are told that “the word of the Lord was growing mightily and prevailing.” Finally, we encounter yet another arrest, a dangerous voyage, shipwreck, snakebite, trial, and disagreement but the book ends with “preaching the kingdom of God and teaching concerning the Lord Jesus Christ with all openness, unhindered.”

It is important to see that all along the way, the content never becomes the story. The people never become the story. Luke wants us to be aware of things going on around us. Even more, he wants us to be aware of the bigger story that God invaded the planet in history and nothing can stop His news.

Acts sets a precedent that nothing is able to stand in the way of the good news that God has intervened in history. Acts does not list every potential barrier but does bring up a number of them. These include every major barrier of the first century; language, geography, ethnicity, politics, magic, other religions and philosophies, even imprisonment and death. These have not disappeared and other barriers have emerged. But our preaching can still reflect the bigger story that nothing is able to stop the activity of God.

The Activity of God in History

Acts is an account that insists on the activity of God in history. Acts is convinced that the Spirit is able to overcome any barrier, no matter how impossible. So whether we encounter a beggar at the temple gate or hungry widows, Stephen’s death or Peter’s imprisonment – none of these things are exempt from the Spirit’s activity. Whether the scene is an upper room in Jerusalem or a road in the desert, a prison in Caesarea Maritima or a ship sailing in dangerous waters – the Spirit is not absent from any of these places. Even catastrophe cannot limit the work of the Spirit or stop the spread of the good news.

I cannot read Acts without getting the impression that conflict, persecution, and catastrophe are opportunities. This is counter intuitive. We would like to believe that peace, comfort, and worry free moments are the times that we can best organize effectively and therefore prosper. Acts may suggest that times of comfort and prosperity bring with them a lack of urgency and intensity and priority. Without apology, Acts continues to present challenging situations. Without exception, Acts reports that the good news continued to spread. Acts leaves us with the impression that our writings, stories, and growth are strengthened during less fortunate situations.

There is a temptation for preachers to preach about a language miracle, or healing, or call to ministry, or prayer, or persecution or any other situation that arises in the narrative. We certainly do not want to ignore these contexts, but neither do we want to miss the message being pushed forward by the narrative. Why would we want to focus on the barrier and make it the main point of the story? I propose that it would be no different than preaching a sermon about surviving shipwreck or snakebite. In every chapter, rather than focusing on the barrier, our focus should be on the Holy Spirit who overcomes the barrier.

Preaching Acts is proclamation of the ongoing activity of God. Acts sets a precedent. Our barriers may be different, but there is an implication that the Spirit may be at work in any conversation, in any location, and during any activity. Acts insists that despite a host of barriers, the result continued to be “preaching the kingdom of God and teaching concerning the Lord Jesus Christ with all openness, unhindered.” Acts insists on the activity of God in history. It is no different for us.