Christ is risen.
The word of the day is “fear.” We may have a rosy picture of the life of the first believers who were filled with the Holy Spirit, bold in the proclamation of the Gospel, united in a common life, and fearless in the face of arrest, imprisonment, and death. Yet, in today’s reading of Acts 5:1-11, we hear a note of sobering realism as Luke reports the first instance of sinfulness in the community. Caught cheating and lying, a couple falls dead at the feet of the apostles. Luke summarizes the somber response of the faithful, “So great fear came upon all the church and upon all who heard these things” (OSB 5:11). The Crucifixion and Resurrection of Christ have demonstrated the infinite and all-powerful love of God. But today we learn what we should fear amid the fearlessness of this season.
At this point in his record of the church’s growth, Luke reports a remarkable sense of unity and sharing among the believers. He summarizes, “Now the multitude of those who believed were of one heart and one soul; neither did anyone say that any of the things they possessed was his own, but they all had things in common” (OSB Acts 4:32). But this very unity provided a perfect opportunity for the devil. Just as the serpent appeared amid the bliss of the Garden of Paradise, the devil invaded the blessed New Paradise of the mutual life of the first believers.
Satan Takes the Opportunity
Satan arrived at the height of the church’s devotion and caring for one another. Believing the Lord’s teaching on God’s providence, believers began to sell their lands and houses to share the proceeds with those in need (4:34-35). Among these was Barnabas, a Levite from Cyrene, who sold his land and laid the earnings at the apostles’ feet (OSB 4:36).
Luke does not divulge the motivation of Ananias and Sapphira, but they must have been impressed with the generosity of Barnabas and others. In response, they sold “a possession,” and Ananias brought the income for what they had sold and “laid it at the apostles’ feet” (OSB vs. 1). Peter’s response was surprising. He perceived that the couple had deceitfully kept back some of the proceeds of the sale for themselves. Accordingly, the apostle accused him of cheating and of lying. The reason? Peter charged that Satan had filled his heart. By the prompting of Satan, Ananias had lied to the Holy Spirit (OSB vs. 3).
A Breach of Trust
Upon these words, the liar fell dead before everyone’s eyes. The community of believers was so shocked that fear overtook them. Now why was this sin so grievous that it was deserving of death? It was a breach of trust in the community. It sowed doubt and suspicion of the motives of those who were sharing all they had. Thus, it undermined the work of the Holy Spirit to bind the community together in faith and love. Therefore, it was an affront to the Christ who died to forgive sin and restore the New Paradise in which there is perfect love and harmony.
When Sapphira entered the assembly without knowing what had just happened to her husband, she also lied. Again, Peter’s reply was stunning. He asked, “How is that you have agreed together [with your husband] to test the Spirit of the Lord?” (OSB 5:9). The lie that they had given all the proceeds of a sale to the community was not only hypocritical. It was not only a test of the leadership of the apostles. It was a test of the Holy Spirit. How powerful was the Holy Spirit in fostering faith and love when another Adam and Eve could so deceitfully defy His work? Had the devil won another victory and destroyed another Paradise?
The response was immediate and decisive. This breach of trust had to be healed. The offenders would have to be cast out of the garden. And the community would have to learn fear, fear of sinning against the righteousness of God and the Holy Spirit.
For Reflection: Church Order
Our study has brought up two interrelated topics. The first is church order. Some unrepentant sins threaten the foundation of the faith and the concord of the common life of the church. St. Paul found such an appalling sin among the Corinthians. He ordered that the offending man be “delivered to Satan” (NKJV 1 Corinthians 5:5) for the salvation of His soul and the good of the whole Body of Christ. Accordingly, Paul decreed, “Do you not know that a little leaven leavens the whole lump? Therefore, purge out the old leaven, that you may be a new lump since you truly are unleavened” (1 Corinthians 5:5-6). Likewise, Among the circle of first believers, the violation of the trust of the community was a threat, which had to be purged. But note that Peter was not the executioner of Ananias and Sapphira. Luke puts it, “They “breathed their last” (OSB vs. 5:5 and 5:10). We might say that the Spirit withdrew the breath of life from them.
The second topic is fear. In the new reality of the Crucifixion/Resurrection, we need not fear the scourges that have plagued the human race since the Lord ejected Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden. Accordingly, the apostles were fearless before the threats of censure, disapproval, slander, exile, beating, prison, and even torture. Likewise, those who are in Christ can face everything that would harm their earthly life, including physical, emotional, and social perils.
Yet, there is something to fear. The Lord said, “And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. But rather fear Him who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell” (NKJV Matthew 10:28). In the same vein, “St. John Chrysostom wrote, “There is only one thing… to fear, only one real temptation, and that is sin” (Ford 2016, 46).
Willful sin remains an affront to the holy God. It alienates us from God again as if Christ had not reconciled us to our Creator. So, it puts us in danger of losing the blessings of eternal life that are given to us by belief and baptism (NKJV Mark 16:16). And because we are members of one another, sin affects the whole Body of Christ. Some sins are especially contagious and contaminate the entire community of faith. Therefore, we need not fear anything in this world. But we do need to fear sin and its effect on our fellow believers and us.
Ford, David C. 2016. St. John Chrysostom: Letters to St. Olympia St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press.