In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Today’s account of the fate of Ananias and Sapphira, my beloved in Christ, is arguably the most frightening story in the New Testament. Even as I stood and listened to it this morning, I wondered to myself: How can I preach on this text? It’s truly, absolutely frightening. I find it scarier than anything in the Old Testament, probably because it’s in the New Testament.
About 50 years ago, when I was in my 20s, I unwittingly read this story one morning, simply because it was the next part to read. It disturbed me so badly that I had to go into several months, perhaps even a year, of psychotherapy. I’m not kidding you about this. It sent me right off course. It raised all sorts of fears that I didn’t even know I had. We’re scarcely surprised by St. Luke’s comment at the end of the story: “Great fear came on all the Church, on all those who heard these things.” This story has struck fear in Christian hearts ever since, if they read it with understanding.
It is difficult to exaggerate the sobering effects of this account. In Luke’s long, bright story of the grace of the Holy Spirit in the Church, this story stands out like a sunspot. And like a sunspot it tends to escape our notice, but there it is, five chapters into the Acts of the Apostles. We should study it for much the same reason that astrophysicists study sunspots: because, whether we reflect on them or not, they do affect the atmosphere in which we live.
Now to a superficial Christian—and I am confident there are none of them here today—the sin of Ananias and Sapphira may strike them as rather small and inconsequential. It consisted in dishonesty. Several years ago in this parish, counseling a man, I said, “Are you not afraid that hell is going to open its jaws and swallow you?” He told me I had no business talking to him like that. He should have been very afraid. He said, “Obviously you do not believe in the mercy of God.” “It’s precisely because I believe in the mercy of God that I believe you should be afraid, because you are spitting in his face and thwarting his mercy.” He thought that sins, deliberate sins, were inconsequential. He actually said to me, “There’s always the sacrament of confession.” I said, “I’m only a priest! I’m not a magician! I can wave my hand all day long, but if there’s no profound repentance in your heart, I can’t do anything for you.”
This couple made a pretense of giving the Lord an entire gift, whereas they’d actually given him only a partial gift. In fact, they need not have made a gift at all. St. Peter comments on the irony of the circumstances. “While the property remained, was it not your own? And after it was sold, was it not in your own control?” The superficial reading in this story might turn this argument against St. Peter. It might reason that, since the property in question actually belonged to Ananias and Sapphira, it was no terrible fault for them to have lied about it, certainly no sin deserving of such swift and dreadful punishment.
And yet, there that story stands, an affront to such a self-justification. It stands as perhaps the New Testament’s clearest evidence that God does not see things the way men are disposed to see them. That is to say, the Christian reader is challenged to deal with it. The punishment received by Ananias and Sapphira, no matter what a worldly mind might think of it, was real. It was sudden, it was abrupt, and it was final. Its severity is too frightening to ignore. I don’t know about you, but I simply cannot get this biblical story out of my mind. In a sense, I feel it would be very dangerous to try to do so.
I propose to reflect on this account of Ananias and Sapphira with you this morning along three lines. The first is their resistance to the Holy Spirit. This was, in fact, the explicit concern of St. Peter when he asked Ananias, “Ananias, why has Satan filled your heart to lie to the Holy Spirit?” Peter repeated this question to Sapphira, “How is it that you agreed together to test the Spirit of the Lord?” In all the New Testament, this may be our clearest illustration of what Jesus called blasphemy against the Holy Spirit, that radical state of spiritual depravity from which there is no return, which puts the offender forever outside the realm of the divine mercy. I take that to be the sin of the thief who hung beside our Lord, and to whom the Lord said not a word. He had already received every last grace he was going to receive. His heart was hardened, and he was going to die in his sins.
The Old Testament does not even speak of this sin, and I suspect it’s because blasphemy against the Holy Spirit until the Holy Spirit had been completely revealed. Once the Holy Spirit was poured out on the earth at Pentecost, however, we find the apostles constantly warning against this sin. Thus St. Stephen accused his murderers, “O stiff-necked and uncircumcised in heart and spirit, you always resist the Holy Spirit.” Especially grievous in this respect was Simon the sorcerer, who had attempted to buy the Holy Spirit. Luke describes the scene:
And when Simon saw that through the laying-on of the holy apostles’ hands the Holy Spirit was given, he offered them money.
Notice in today’s account, it’s also about money.
He offered them money, saying, “Give me this power also, that anyone on whom I lay hands may receive the Holy Spirit.”
St. Peter responded in a line reminiscent of his answer to Ananias and Sapphira: “Your money perish with you.”
On the other hand, I suspect that the full measure of blasphemy against the Holy Spirit is possible only to Christians, only in the Church. By that I mean this ultimate offense, the repudiation of God’s ultimate gift, is possible only when the gift has been received. The traditional discipline of the Church has always regarded the intentional sins of Christians as radically different from the sins of pagans. I’ve said this to you before. Sins committed by Christians are radically different from the sins of others. So often when total strangers call me on the phone and ask me to baptize their child, and I ask all the appropriate questions, and I get all the inappropriate answers. I say, “Why in the world do you want me to baptize your child? You have no plans to raise that child as a Christian. You have no plans to do that, and yet that child is required by his baptism to live as a Christian.” The only thing I do when I baptize that child is put him in greater danger of eternal damnation, and I say that to them. Of course, usually they have some comments. [Laughter]
This argument is made in the epistle to the Hebrews.
If we sin willfully (that’s the important adverb) after we have received the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins, but a certain fearful expectation of judgment and fiery indignation which shall devour the adversaries. Anyone who has rejected Moses’ law dies without mercy on the testimony of two or three witnesses. Of how much worse punishment do you suppose will he be thought worthy who has trampled the Son of God underfoot, counted the blood of the covenant by which he was sanctified a common thing, and insulted the Spirit of grace?
Hebrews made this argument, we recall (it’s in chapter [ten]), just after citing Jeremiah 31 on the outpouring of the Holy Spirit into the human conscience.
From these biblical testimonies, it is clear that these deliberate sins, willful sins committed by Christians are far more serious than sins committed by those outside the Church. The gravity of deliberate sins committed by Christians is determined by the greater grace that they have received. This is the reason for the stern warning in the epistle to the Hebrews, that hope of repentance is severely diminished. The word Hebrews used is “impossible.” It’s severely diminished for those who have become partakers of the Holy Spirit.
My brothers and sisters, we Christians must be convinced of this. All of us fall daily, through weakness or surprise. Any one of us. The Bible says seven times a day; it’s more than that for most of us. But they’re talking about just people. We’re not talking about sins of weakness in which we become entrapped. In cases like this, the mercy of God catches us even before we hit the ground. But deliberate sins are not in this category. Every intentional sin, thought-out sin, meditated sin, planned sin, sin by which the conscience is deliberately defiled, is a step in the direction of blasphemy against the Holy Spirit.
When do you reach that point? Don’t go there! Don’t walk in that direction. If I’m approaching a high-tension wire, at what point will the electricity arc over and burn me to a crisp? Not a good question—just stay away from the thing! [Laughter]
A second line of reflection is this: the sin of Ananias and Sapphira included a self-seeking and rapacious attitude toward material things. In this respect, it’s instructive to observe the vocabulary Luke uses to describe their sin. Peter questions Ananias today: “Ananias, why has Satan filled your heart to lie to the Holy Spirit and misappropriate for yourself the price of the land?” The Greek word for “misappropriate” here is nosphisein. This verb is found in the Greek Bible only four times, so it’s not a common word. It’s found only one other time in the New Testament, but it is found back in Joshua 7:1 to describe the sin of Achan. Let me just read Joshua 7:1.
But the children of Israel committed a great trespass and misappropriated, enosphisanton, the condemned things, for Achan the son of Carmi, the son of Zabdi, the son of Zerah, of the tribe of Judah, took the condemned things, so the anger of the Lord burned against the children of Israel.
By using this identical verb to describe this sin of Ananias and Sapphira, Luke likens their offense to that of ancient Achan in Joshua 7. Let’s recall the circumstances of that offense. It has to do with the fall of Jericho. Remember that the fall of Jericho did not happen because the Israelites were great warriors; they just had poor trumpeters. [Laughter] Remember, Israel’s non-union trumpeters walk around the city seven times and the walls fall down. That must be every child’s favorite Bible story; at least it was for my children. When the Lord delivered the city of Jericho into the hands of Joshua and the invading Israelites, he specifically forbade the Israelites to seize any of the property of that city for their own use. For the Israelites, all the property of Jericho was condemned; they were to take none of it.
But Achan ben Carmi adopted what I call a broad and liberal view of the prohibition. He decided since everything was condemned anyway, he might as well have some of it. He had been explicitly forbidden to do this. His sin consisted in taking the spoils from Jericho from his family’s use. The Israelites, after all, did nothing to bring down the walls of Jericho except play the trumpet. It was the Lord’s work, and the Israelites were to respect that fact by not taking spoils from the city for their own use. The Israelites were to receive what the Lord gave them, but they were not to exploit the gift. Achan was rapacious, and his rapacious spirit, repeated in the case of Ananias and Sapphira, was punished by death. The physical death symbolized what had already taken place in their souls. You see, we die before we die. A rapacious attitude toward material things, because it blinds man to the commands of God, is mortal to his spirit.
Our third line of reflection is this: the sin of Ananias and Sapphira was a conspiracy. Peter inquired of Sapphira, “How is it that you have conspired, synephonesthe, to test the Spirit of the Lord?” You have conspired. Now, conspiracy is an advanced state of sin. It is bad enough when men soil their consciences by lying to God in their hearts. There is an added malice when they agree together to violate the law. This sin is particularly malicious when they exploit for this purpose the social institutions that are proper to human existence.
For example, a board of trustees in charge, say, of an oil company conspired together to cut costs in safety. The board of trustees in a bank or a lending corporation band together, and they do not call to mind the judgment of God, and they forget what Isaiah and Micah and Amos had to say back in the eighth century about those who exploit the poor in order to become richer. A group of people in the government, any branch of the government, get together and they conspire and they put the law of God out of their deliberations, whether that be a Supreme Court or a Senate or a Cabinet meeting. A group of bishops get together, and they conspire to do something of which the apostles would blush. See, this sort of sin is particularly malicious, because people exploit for this purpose the social institutions that are absolutely necessary to human existence. Sin reaches its full potential when it takes on a social and institutional form.
Among human institutions, of course, the most basic is marriage. So if I have likened Ananias and Sapphira to Achan, we should liken them also to Adam and Eve, because our first parents did not sin simply as individuals; they conspired. Their offense was conspiratorial. They formed a pact of infidelity to God. That was not the last time a married couple decided, “We’ll do it our way and leave God out of it.” That was not the last time that happened. Right from the beginning, therefore, they polluted the institution of the family. Adam and Eve bonded together in an attempt to keep God out of their common life. They had a marriage to enjoy, and the Lord was cramping their style.
Ananias and Sapphira repeated that conspiracy. It’s far, far too common, I’m afraid, to find repetitions in the world today. I apologize to you, my brothers and sisters, that this has not been a more encouraging message, but it’s one I really had to share with you.
From this story of Ananias and Sapphira, we should take away at least three lessons: the utter seriousness of God in giving us the Holy Spirit, because that is a share in his life, something that was not offered in the Old Testament, not offered outside the Church: a participation in his own life. If we accept that participation, and then spit in his face, we run the gravest risk. There is the danger of rapacious attitude toward things of the world, but you already know enough about this. The Scriptures are full of warnings about the dangers of wealth and especially about the desire for wealth. And finally the great danger of using institutions, especially families, as the settings of conspiracy against God.
What makes these things all so grave is the brightness of the light. What makes the sunspots so dark is the brightness of the sun, and what makes these sins so terrible is the infinite mercy of God.