authenticity, community, and falling down dead
Ever hear that story in the New Testament about God striking two people dead?
Yes. You heard me right: the New Testament, that section of the Bible all about how God is love.
That story about Ananias and Sapphira who sold a piece of land they owned to help out their church but in giving the proceeds over, they lied about just how much of that sale they were actually giving, and Peter, somehow finding out, called them out on it, whereupon they both dropped dead on the spot.
Yup, you didn’t mishear it. That’s how it goes.
It’s definitely a story that’ll give us a nosebleed.
Which is maybe why it’s not in the lectionary.
Which is maybe why a lot of preachers avoid this story;
it’s too Old Testament,
So better avoid it, right?!
Ah, but where’s the fun in that?!
It’s much more fun to dive in and be a community that isn’t scared of hard texts and questions,
who choose to venture into uncomfortable places because we know life itself is uncomfortable,
and who know that if we want to learn and grow, it takes stepping into the places we’d rather not go.
So, with that in mind, let’s go get a nosebleed.
So before we get into it, who here has heard this story before? Who hasn’t heard it?
So since it’s a mixed bag, let’s unpack it a bit and see where it all leads us.
The story is found in the Book of Acts, this book which has stories about what happened after Jesus’ resurrection, letting us know what the disciples did, all of it geared to tell us what it meant to be a church that lived out Jesus’ teachings.
That's helpful to know because just before we hear this story, Luke, the author of the Book, has described what that kind of church looked like:
Everyone was on the same page.
Everyone was sharing.
Everyone had a place.
Everyone had enough and all needs were met.
It’s pretty amazing isn’t it?
And almost too amazing!
It’s usually around this point where someone goes:
‘Phhhbbt, no way. Everyone’s united?! There’s no need?! People are sharing?!’
I mean, can we blame them? It does seems kind of ridiculous. It seems too slick, too perfect, so far removed from our experience it can't possibly be true.
Anyone have this reaction? I do too.
It’s an interesting reaction for us to have because why? Why is this so strange to hear? Is it really that hard to believe? Do we really not have room for this?
That's an important question because the thing is: what Luke is describing is exactly what Jesus was trying to create:
a community of people who,
through being transformed by grace,
have begun to see the world and each other in a new way;
they see each other and themselves as worthy of love,
they see each other and themselves as equals,
and because of that they strive to meet the needs of each other,
through it all, embodying a different kind of world,
a world Jesus called the Kingdom of God,
this community where it seems as if heaven is touching earth.
So while it may sound ridiculous, let’s not brush it off because that’s where our faith leads us.
That’s the kind of community we’re trying to create here.
As the church, we have to trust and hope that that kind of community world can be created.
Are you with me?
Now it’s easy for us to go ‘Ok. Cool. Fine. But lets get to the part where people drop dead!’
But let’s sit here for a bit because I think this part of the story is huge. There’s a reason Luke puts this description of the church right before the story of Ananias and Sapphira. So let’s unpack this kind of community some more because I think it has everything to do with the part we all want to get to.
So here’s this amazing community we’re being told about and the question for us isn’t ‘is it true?’
but, as people trying to get there and be that, it’s ‘how do we create that?’ It's 'what’s it take to be a person in that church?' and 'whats it take to be that kind of community?'
What do we think? What does it take?
But more practically, what's it take?
It takes authenticity.
It takes a lot of:
‘This is who I am …’
‘This is where Im at …’
‘This is what I need …’
‘This is what I have …’
And to do that,
be to truly honest and authentic,
it take a lot of vulnerability.
It takes a lot of:
courage and trust.
If we want to be that kind of community,
this community of grace,
we need to be a community of authenticity and vulnerability.
It takes a community where there’s no shame or judgement, just real people being real together.
Which makes sense when you think about it.
That’s what happens when we live into the faith and spirituality of Jesus:
If God accepts us for who we are as we are,
and if God is willing to work with us to become who we know we can be,
and that shapes how we see others,
then we can be honest about who we are and where we’re at, can’t we?
We can say we don't have it all together.
We can say we’re struggling and broken.
We can say we’re in need of this or that.
And we can say this to not only God, but also to ourselves and each other.
And we can do that because of love and grace. We trust that the love and grace which exists here and amongst us creates the compassion and solidarity which allow us to all be seen, heard, and taken care of.
Being a place of grace means being able to be a place of vulnerability and authenticity.
Which is maybe why this whole thing is hard to believe and hear because this is just so counter-cultural for us. We’re told that vulnerability is weakness and who we are isn’t good enough, so pretend pretend pretend.
And here’s Jesus saying something else entirely: vulnerability is strength, who you are is good enough, so honesty honesty honesty.
And while these things are definitely hard, here’s a church doing exactly that:
being vulnerable and authentic,
coming together with all they are and all their haves, needs, and wants and wounds,
forming this beautiful, improbable, and amazing community of grace.
It's amazing and beautiful and hopeful and it's exactly where the thing you all want to get to takes place.
So, Ananias and Sapphira.
We assume they are members of this community.
They've seen their friend Bartholomew sell some land he owns and give it all to the church,
they've seen the difference it makes and needs it meets,
they've seen how it inspire others to share their own gifts of money, voices, presence, and skills,
and they've seen the difference that makes and they need that meets,
and so they go and sell some land they own to do their part.
But for whatever reason, and we're not told this, they keep some of the profit for themselves
and give the rest to to the church, giving it to Peter, with the implication being that
- and this is where shit hits the fan -
this is the full amount. This is all the money we got for the land.
Now this is the part where Peter gets mad.
Now let's take a sec to remember who Peter is because that helps explain why he's mad.
Peter is one of the original followers of Jesus,
the guy who worked so hard to figure out what Jesus is about,
the guy who became Jesus’ second hand man,
the guy who was part of the inner circle,
and he's the guy who denied it all.
Peter’s the one who said to people 3 different people 3 different times,
‘No. I don't know Jesus.
No. I’m not one of his followers.
No, thats not who I am.’
Peter’s not mad because they didn’t give all the money to the church.
He’s mad because they pretended to give it all.
He’s mad because they weren’t able to be vulnerable and authentic.
He’s mad because he knows something about inauthenticity.
He knows what happens inside us when we don’t embrace who we really are.
He knows what happens when our friends and our community see us pretending to be someone we're not, pushing them away, saying ‘No, I’m not one of you guys.’
Peter knows the kind of death it brings.
He knows the death of stifling of who we really truly are and of who we’ve worked so hard to embrace,
this pushing back against the person grace and love allows us to be,
this stifling which not only hurts us,
but also the community we’re a part of.
Peter knew that refusing to be vulnerable and authentic will kill who you truly are.
Peter knew the thing that destroys us as a community of grace is pretending.
Maybe that’s what Luke is trying to describe here and maybe that’s why Ananias and Sapphira fall down dead.
They chose not to be vulnerable and authentic.
They chose not to trust in the grace of others.
They chose to lie and pretend,
interrupting the grace that held them together and held the church together.
Maybe Luke’s talking about a kind of death that is much scarier than a literal death:
a soulful death,
the death of what God is trying to do within and around us,
the death of the new life that’s growing inside us.
So maybe that’s our take away.
As people who,
like those people 2000 years ago,
are striving to create and be a community of grace,
a community where heaven touches earth,
where we live out what Jesus taught,
we need to be people of authenticity and vulnerability.
People who are authentic and vulnerable and say to themselves and one another:
This is who I am …’
‘This is where Im at …’
‘This is what I need …’
‘This is what I have …’
People who trust and live in grace.
And like we said, that’s hard.
That means working against everything we’ve been taught.
But the good news on that front is that being authentic and vulnerable isn’t something we are or aren’t, it’s not a quality some people naturally have and others don’t, it is, as Brene Brown says, it's something we practice.
Authenticity and vulnerability is a choice.
It’s choosing to be honest.
It’s choosing to be raw and open.
It’s choosing to show our humanity
- our wounds, needs and failures,
our hopes, successes, and dreams -
and trusting that there is grace for us
just as we are and where we’re at.
And so as we continue to strive to be the church, lets let this story be a cautionary tale.
May we be a community which practices grace, authenticity and vulnerability, knowing and trusting that life done any other way, in comparison to this, isn't really life at all.