Sin, judgement and death!
Or, how not to preach about it …
I wouldn’t normally write on this topic or these texts (God’s apparent judgement on those who withhold or defraud), do read them before continuing. I also wouldn’t normally expect to hear a sermon on these texts, or not one defending a straight reading of them anyway, thank God! But that is what happened, there was much eye-rolling and head-shaking from my partner and me during the sermon …
Our preacher could have done so much better, so this is for him, though I guess he won’t see it. I’m not going to attack, or identify, him, tempting as it is. I don’t believe that helps either, it just creates more bad karma.
The sermon began with, and mainly focused on, Joshua 7. I am a big fan of the Hebrew Scriptures (though not of violence) and generally encourage reading and preaching on them, Christianity has deeper and older roots than the ‘New Testament’. However, for the Christian preacher, who preaches in the light of the New Testament, or even Jesus (hopefully), Acts 5 really ought to be the starting point. Whatever happened in Joshua, and Biblical ‘history’ is inherently questionable. It doesn’t, or shouldn’t, provide a basis for the divine judgement and death of Ananias and Sapphira in Acts 5. It is not the way of Jesus, nor did Jesus tell us to harmonise scripture texts, as if they all have the same message and there is no development. We should be discriminating if we are reading them seriously, or not too seriously!
The only judgement Jesus ever practised was whipping the money changers, not because he had a problem with commerce but because it was exploitative. It is well-recorded that he forgave everybody, including the Romans who crucified him — ‘Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing’ (Luke 23.34). Herod receives no judgement and does not experience God’s wrath for his ethnic infanticide (Matthew 2), nor does his son for beheading John the Baptist (Mark 6). Jesus’ own follower, Peter, argued with him and a rebuke was enough (Mark 8.33) and denied him later. It is also (shockingly) Peter who warns Ananias and Sapphira just before their deaths. In fact he threatens, or foretells, Sapphira’s demise. What changed in the meantime?
The narrative suggests that not much time had passed between these two events in Peter’s life. However, the tone of the narrative has changed, there is a lot of blame in the book of Acts. One of these other incidents results in a fatal divine judgement.
On an appointed day Herod* put on his royal robes, took his seat on the platform, and delivered a public address to them. The people kept shouting, “The voice of a god, and not of a mortal!” And immediately, because he had not given the glory to God, an angel of the Lord struck him down, and he was eaten by worms and died. (Acts 12.21–23) *Herod Agrippa, grandson of Herod the Great.
We have moved into a much more dangerous, threatening and unsafe environment — Herod is punished for what he has not done. Rather than smooth this away on the basis of acts of divine judgement in the Hebrew Scriptures or preservation of divine honour, I want to say that this is not the way of Jesus, even if Acts is the story written about his early followers. Of course, we should remind ourselves not to take it too seriously, the description of angelic intervention is authorial speculation at best.
Nor should we take the awful fates of Ananias and Sapphira too seriously (i.e. actual divine punishment), other people did much worse things in the Bible and lived to tell the tale. We should take violence and threats of violence (and death, including horrific divine judgement) seriously, and reject them, asking ourselves ‘What Would Jesus Do?’
What we have to do is make choices, unless we abdicate all responsibility, and take sides. Failing to do so led to the Holocaust, apartheid, the slave trade, global racism, misogyny, homophobia, prejudice and all kinds of intolerance. Preachers need to be careful to avoid sowing the seeds of these when they preach, not plant them into the fertile soil of the hearts and minds of those who listen to them intently and do not or cannot challenge them. This is so much more important than being ‘precise’ about texts.