Sunday, March 27, 2011

"The Death of Sapphira," Francis Eduard Picot


I have for a long time been interested in an early American religious movement--born in France and then sprouting up in England to grow alongside Quakerism, they would eventually come to stay in what came to be called the United States. I’m talking about the Shakers. That was their nickname; their full official name was the United Society of Believers in Christ’s Second Appearing. They were preoccupied, in a sense, with the end of time and the visible reappearing of Jesus on the earth to clean up the messes into which humanity has gotten itself.

They were called Shakers because in their sometimes charismatic worship services some of them in a worship room, maybe all present on some occasions, would “shake” all over, a reaction to which they attributed the presence of God’s Spirit having come over them or having overcome them. Theologically speaking, the Shakers came to hold a view that no other group embraced.

One of the early Shaker leaders was Ann Lee. In time, she became THE leader, the one and only leader, in the United States. That alone was impressive from a feminist or womanist perspective, but there was something much more memorable about having a woman head a religious movement before the colonists won independence from Great Britain. When she was the leader of the Movement, those who shared her views called her Mother Ann Lee, and she came to believe that God had given her this position of leadership in a religious movement because she was the feminine side of God. Jesus embodied God’s maleness, and she believed that she embodied the femaleness of God. It was progressive to believe that God had any gender characteristics other than stereotypically male ones, but those were the Shaker claims.

The movement grew dramatically for a while, but eventually the movement would fizzle out, and we know very specifically the reason why. Mother Ann who had been married and divorced came to believe that the only proper behavior for God’s faithful people required embracing celibacy. If a husband and wife joined a Shaker community, they had to give up their marital relationship and become sister and brother to each other. In fact, the women lived in dormitories on one side of the community, and the men in dormitories on the other side of the community. The children who came into the community and who would be the Shaker leaders of the next generation were either the children of married couples who came into a Shaker commune and gave their children to the whole community so that all women were their mothers and all men their fathers or children from orphanages whom they, as whole communities, adopted.

They initially settled in New York, and then some moved to Maine; then they expanded into Kentucky and Ohio during the Great Awakening as religious movements began to move from the east coast across the frontier and onto the west coast. Eventually, they would be found in scattered places. The closest Shaker communities to Silverside were right up the road in what is now called Center City Philadelphia. One of those Shaker communities became the first predominantly African American Shaker community, and it was headed by an African American preaching female, Rebecca Cox Jackson.

The Shakers were a thrifty, hard-working people amazingly organized and exceptionally clean in regard to personal hygiene, their clothing, and their living quarters. Mother Ann said, “Cleanliness is next to godliness.” That wasn’t original with her; originally, an ancient Hebrew poet came up with the saying, but Mother Ann saw that it was applied in every Shaker community. They were good business persons, and unlike the Amish who had a little bit in common with the Shakers, the Shakers enjoyed and took advantage of the latest technologies to help them earn money manufacturing brooms, chairs and other pieces of furniture, along with food items such as fruit preserves.

All Shaker communities required those who joined them to donate all their money and earthly goods to the community as a whole. The little pledge card our Board of Finance sends you each year is nothing in comparison to what the Shakers demanded of those who wanted to join them! Each member of the community, then, had a say in how community funds were expended and invested. Could you share all your goods and live day by day with every member and friend of Silverside Church?

Many of you associate the word “Oneida” with silver, and that is an accurate connection; but early on there was so much more to Oneida than silver. There was an Oneida community that had some practices similar to the Shaker communities, but not so much commonality in the theology department.

The founder of the Oneida Community was John Humphrey Noyes. His father, whose first name also was John, was a congressperson, and the congressman’s wife, the younger John’s mother, Polly, was the religious center of the family. She stressed in what she taught her children about religion that they should “fear the Lord,” as she believed the Bible demands.

Despite his mother’s efforts, John did not grow up with a particular interest in anything religious. In 1826, he became a freshman at Dartmouth and happened to attended some revival services led by a famous evangelist of the day, Charles Finney. Though his mother was thrilled to hear the news, the revival sermons did nothing for John at the time; if anything, they caused his lack of interest in religion to grow into cynicism.

Five years later, a Dartmouth degree under Noyes’s belt, Evangelist Finney came through where he was living, and his mother pled with him to attend as many of the four scheduled services as he could. Just to please his mother, he agreed.

Same ole, same ole. Finney’s preaching, again, did nothing for Noyes though many hearers were driven to deeper religious experiences and decisions about the direction of their lives as a result of the revival. At the end of the fourth night of preaching, all John Noyes had to show for his participation in that revival was a really bad cold. While he was sick in bed, it occurred to him that one of these days he was going to die so he decided he needed to embrace the faith in order to ensure his place in God’s abode for eternity. Many people then and now get involved in a church or a religious movement for that reason and that reason alone.

Surprising himself and delighting his mother, his simple realization that he didn’t want to go to hell in case there was one turned into a genuine fervor for the Christian religion. Noyes headed to New Haven to study at Yale Divinity School. He had committed himself to a ministerial vocation and needed the tools to carry through on that commitment.

Not all seminaries want students to think for themselves; they want cookie-cutter graduates who will go out and spend a lifetime preaching theology the way it was taught at the seminary from which they graduated. As Noyes studied, however, he found himself disagreeing with his theology professors. Noyes believed that when a new believer embraced God and committed self to a lifetime of serving God, at that moment the believer experienced what Noyes called “complete release from sin.” As a result of his theology, he couldn’t find any religious group willing to ordain him so there he was with theological degree in hand and no job in the ministry.

Undaunted, he took up the ministry of writing, and in his first major published article, he denounced marriage. Those who were in favor of an early version of the Defense of Marriage bill, blasted him. Then he gave readers another reason to hate him. He wrote an article declaring himself a kind of prophet, claiming that God had sent him for a particular ministry--namely, to help Christians learn how to live together in Christian communities. He said that in a commune, which in his view was what the New Testament called for as the ideal way for people of faith to live, all men were married to all the women, and visa versa; therefore, any woman could have sex with any man she wanted to have sex with, and any man could have sex with anyone woman he chose. There could be no release, however. I’m glad there’s no sermon talkback today as I don’t wish to discuss that element of his communal plan.

They supported themselves by becoming an agricultural as well as an industrial community, and that is where the manufacture of silver entered the picture. Some historians of the religiosocial group that never did become very large say that the community was at a financial low when they became involved in selling silver, which saved them.

Members of the Oneida community were persecuted for their beliefs. Even so, the community would last for many years before it became strictly a business undertaking.


The story on which we focus today from the book of Acts starts off with the idealistic claim that a number of people have long since challenged. The writer of the book of Acts wanted those who read his account of the development of the early Christian community to believe that those folks trying to hold the struggling Jesus Movement together after Jesus was executed lived under idyllic, joyful circumstances where unity ran high, and problems were rare. The verse, in particular, that really stands out, is Acts chapter 4, verse 32: “Now the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common” (NRSV).

Wow! Now that is something that had not taken place during Jesus’ life. Perhaps, the Romans who ruled over the Jews wouldn’t have permitted it, which is probable; or, perhaps, not enough Jews were up for such communal living. The claim for such unity is also hyperbole; and it reflects wishful thinking. The whole group, every last one of them, was of one heart and one soul. Everyone agreed, at least on the big issues, and there were no conflicts in terms of how to spend the money that had come under communal control. It’s wishful thinking, I’m telling you. Here’s the truth: there was no time in the past and there has been no time throughout history and there does not exist in the modern world unity of all Christians--either in individual Christian communities or in Christendom as a whole.

Christians have been disagreeing with each other and fighting among themselves as long as there have been Christians. Jesus’ closest male followers argued among themselves, and there were only twelve of them! Around the big question, the most important organizational question to be answered after Jesus was no longer with them, “Who is now in charge?”, there were bitter differences. Some said Peter, and they won out, more or less. Some said Mary Magdalene, and she had some faithful followers; but she was not taken in the end by most of the early Christians as more capable than Peter--even though, when Jesus came upon tough times, Peter had deserted Jesus while Mary and stood with him regardless of the potential consequences to her. She was willing to die because she would not deny that Jesus was her rabbi.

From there the church moved on to bitter theological debate after bitter theological debate. There was no uniformity of thought in the church anywhere in the world, not even as a rule in small groups who banded together to become a church committed to the teachings of Jesus as best they would be understood and interpreted. In churches where there is a body of doctrine, often stated in the form of a creed, that everyone is expected to believe, there is usually a handful who don’t believe what they are expressing when they are speaking or singing the creed.

Many people since the time of the first struggles of the Jesus Movement after Jesus’ death at the hands of Rome have looked back to a time when they have been taught that the church was at its best. And why not? It was much closer to Jesus both temporally and geographically. Assuming, therefore, greater understanding of what Jesus said than we today can decipher, they could agree on the essentials and operate in unity. Maybe they could have, but they didn’t; and they/we never have.

Some of this has to do with setting up organizations that are doomed to fail at some point because they are built around the assumption that all adherents are in agreement at least on the pivotal issues. If people have been given or have taken the initiative to think for themselves, this has never worked. It’s impossible for more than two or three people to agree on intangibles, and spiritual truths one and all fall into the category we have to call “intangibles.” Faith is intangible. Belief is intangible. Compassion is intangible. There are no norms for quantification.

The only hope for success in any kind of a spiritually based community is an appreciation of diversity, but these experiments largely have been tossed too because how can you hold yourself together as an organization without some few matters on which all participants must believe? That is the question to which some participants are ultimately driven. It takes a special breed to be able to believe something opposite than what another member of your group believes and still hold her in a position of fullest respect and on the same level with you despite differing beliefs.

No offense at all to those positive thinkers who believe that there is something worthwhile to Christian Unity Sunday and/or Worldwide Communion Sunday. There is no Christian unity in any church I know of so how can there be a Christian Unity Sunday to celebrate what isn’t? Similarly, the widely divergent views held within Christendom on the meaning of communion or Lord’s Supper or eucharist make a Sunday to celebrate it kind of pointless. For example, a person who believes that anyone who wants to be in good with God now and in the future must take communion regularly, at every possible opportunity cannot be completely comfortable with someone who thinks the elements of the Lord’s Supper are symbolic reminders of spiritual truths and that it’s a nice reminder if you get around to it; but nothing is lost if you skip out on communion one or two times or the rest of your life.

We so often in Jesus Movement communities let wishful thinking guide our theological formulations and the way we set up our churches organizationally. Many churches including this one used to have little check lists about what people who wanted to join the church were kinda sorta supposed to believe. This church wised up and tossed those after realizing that plenty of the longstanding members and almost all of the newcomers do not buy into what amounts to a little creed. Therefore, if you want to be a part of Silverside Church, we don’t ask you what you believe about God or the Bible or Glen Beck; we ask you if you are willing to join us on the journey of seeking truth. Of necessity, we’re going to come out at different places, and ideas about what is right will not be uniformly embraced. Diversity is the only way to avoid heated theological conflict.

I respect your view, and I learn from hearing you express it; but I don’t agree with you. I can’t agree with you, but I love that I can be in a church where many of us can truly respect our differences in belief and still fully respect each other unless somebody wants to change some of the words to an old hymn.

You respect my view, and I hope you hear and feel my struggle and my sincerity when I tell you what I’m thinking. But you don’t agree with me; you can’t agree with me. Still, you think it’s grand that I get to think for myself and move to my own theological formulations.

According to Professor Stephen Prothero at Boston University School of Theology,

The new data provided by research funded by the Pew trust provides further evidence for the death of denominationalism in American life and for the enduring power of the ideal of religious tolerance. Once upon a time, Baptists and Lutherans and Disciples of Christ fought bitterly over such matters as when to baptize Christians and just how Jesus was present at the Eucharist. But that stuff is so last century. Today even the distinctions between Jews and Buddhists, or between Hindus and Christians, are starting to blur, not least because most Americans have almost no idea what these traditions stand for....At their best, Judaism and Christianity and Hinduism and Buddhism call us to rethink the world and then challenge us to remake it--and to remake ourselves. But the truths of one religion often clash with those of others, or contradict each other outright....Absent a chain of memory that ties us to these religions' ancient truths, these visions are lost, and we are left to our own devices, searching for God with as much confusion as we search, in love, for the next new thing.

President John Adams wrote: “The divinity of Jesus is made a convenient cover for absurdity. Nowhere in the Gospels do we find a precept for Creeds, Confessions, Oaths, Doctrines, and whole cartloads of other foolish trumpery that we find in Christianity.”


The book of Acts has long been taken by many, certainly not all, scholars as volume two of the Gospel of Luke and written by the same author. The books of Acts, or Acts of the Apostles, seems to be a fascinating collection of narratives explaining what happened to Jesus’ followers after his execution and how the Apostle Paul came into the picture and what influence he played in the establishment of the Jesus’ Movement into a religion separate from Judaism and, as a matter of act, into the second great expression of monotheism in the history of world religions. A number of scholars saw Acts as having at least a slightly greater interest in passing along a document that was more “historical” than were the Gospels, which are blatantly theological in their outlook and intent. More recent evaluations of Acts suggest that Acts is no more historical than any or all of the Gospels and that the so called history being presented is as much theologically influenced as is any portrayal of Jesus in a Gospel. In other words, the writer or writers of Acts are interested in glamorizing the work of Peter and Paul in particular, even when that means taking a few liberties with facts. If the Jesus Movement began as a rather unified entity after the Romans put Jesus to death, that unity didn’t last long, and by the time Peter and Paul are out there there are conflicts between them and between their respective groups of followers. That certainly wasn’t the only rift going on.

Another interpretive possibility for the book of Acts is seeing Peter as a symbol for the early sect forming around the teachings of Jesus but still clearly a part of Judaism. Paul, then, would be a symbol for the church taking shape in the Greek world. And people who relate to Peter and Paul represent groups of people within the sect or the church trying to figure out how to function in a confusing, yeah a complex, time when the prospects of danger for the faithful was on the increase.

For our purposes today, I’m taking the latter option, and the main reason is that I’ve never read of a scholar who proposed that Acts be read in just this manner so in part my, maybe somewhat unique, reading of the book of Acts can help us find the lessons most readily applicable to to moderns.

In this sermon that closes out my series on lying--and between my sermon series on lying and the daily newspaper accounts of lying politicians, I’m sick of lying and am delighted to be moving on to a new series next week--we have a story where Peter is lied to by two members of the Movement. Remember, now, my interpretive model. This isn’t about the man Peter. By this point in time, at least in the book of Acts, Peter represents the whole Jesus Movement trying to save itself and survive after losing its central figure to execution. The two people who lie to Peter; a husband and a wife, Ananias and Sapphira; aren’t really two historic individuals at least as the story is told. They are symbols for certain kinds of people within the Jesus Movement who are willing to say, yes, they will join the commune and give everything they have to the community for communal management and use; but who hold back something for themselves. We have to assume that this is backup money they are holding onto in case the Movement fails, and there was a greater chance it would fail than succeed. All they had to do was to look at what happened to Jesus as a reminder of what could easily happen to them as well.

The writer of the book of Acts wrote, remember?

The community of believers was of one heart and mind, and no one claimed that any of his possessions was his own, but they had everything in common. With great power the apostles bore witness to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great favor was accorded them all. There was no needy person among them, for those who owned property or houses would sell them, bring the proceeds of the sale, and put them at the feet of the apostles, and they were distributed to each according to need.

Isn’t that beautiful? Isn’t that wonderful? We’re talking perfection or near perfection. People were so generous and caring about the poor that they sold their homes and brought the profits the commune so that no one would be in need. Jesus had said, “The poor you will always have with you,” and we’ve never known of a time when at least most of the nations of the world lacked a significant number of poor people. Yet, shortly after Jesus’ death, here was one group of Jesus’ followers, and we have to remember that this was only one Christian commune among several, where there were no poor folk, no needy people. In the commune, poverty had been wiped out because everybody who joined the commune gave all their money and their property to the community for care, investment, and distribution.

Oops. Trouble in paradise. When we’re dealing with institutions, there will almost always be trouble in paradise, eventually.

A man named Ananias and his wife Sapphira, not historic figures but representatives of types of people in the communal Jesus Movement, owned a piece of property about which they had not told the community when they joined. Claiming to have given the commune all that had in terms of worldly goods, they kept quiet about a piece of property.

One day that property sold, and how they explained that they still had property undeclared at the time of admission to the commune, we don’t know. They are still aren’t forthcoming, however, because though they have to fess up about the property that they owned after all, they still don’t give all they made on the sale to the Christian community. Ananias holds back some of the profit, and he makes sure that his wife knows what he’s doing.

Now, Peter, the symbol for the communal Jesus Movement, confronts Ananias, who represents anyone who’d withhold money and lie to the commune about it, and things get really ugly. The institution accuses the withholding member of lying not only to the commune but to the Spirit of God Godself. This has long been a technique used by leadership of religious groups; they claim for themselves special status with God to the extent that anyone who wrongs them or the institution is wronging God. The story doesn’t tell you this, my dear friends, but I will. God is not tied to any one religion or all religions bound together. God is more than all that all the great religions can put together or offer, and to have a difference of opinion with an institutional leader is not to offend God.

If Ananias and Sapphira lied, they didn’t lie to God; and God wasn’t offended. If they wanted to be a part of the commune and pledged to support the commune with all they had, then they should have done so; but if they didn’t do what they were expected to the commune could throw them out. The commune didn’t speak for God; nor did God speak for the commune as much as the members might have wanted that or wished for it.

The commune confronts the errant member, and he drops dead on the spot--meaning he became of no use to the commune because people living in community have to tell each other the truth. I can’t tell you how many preachers love to preach on this text when pledges are being collected in their churches; the central message of all those sermons is: you hold out on God, and you die. It’s very effective in many churches too. If someone were to preach that in the Silverside pulpit you congregants would laugh because it would sound to your ears like a joke. You don’t give all you can give to this place so you die. Pause. Laughter among the Silverside members and friends.

To stress the message, same thing happens to Sapphira who, when confronted, has no idea that her husband is dead and already buried. She is accused in the same way by the institution, and she too dies--that is she too is found to be of no use to the commune because she is a liar who can’t be trusted. This is not the story of some human whose life is taken away by divine anger for holding back finances from the Christian community.

Scholar of early Christianity, Daniel Maguerat, has discovered that cell groups with ties that paralleled family ties were common. They were bound together by some ideal, and all members of those cell groups supposedly lived by belief in that ideal. Maguerat says there were four characteristics common to all of these cell groups: 1) loyalty to the group; 2) allegiance to communal convictions over what people outside the group believed; 3) voluntary obligation to provide for the physical needs of each member; and 4) a consciousness of sharing the same destiny. All for one and one for all, you know.

Despite the context of perfection the writer of Acts wants to lean to, the truth is that not everyone who said she or he wanted to give all worldly goods to support a Christian commune, which the person claimed a desire to join. It’s really not about the money; it’s about integrity. If you lie about what you will do to support the community, you both hurt the community and you die in a sense to the community because trust is shattered. The complicated or unpleasant or uneasy truth is much better for the community than lies that shatter trust.


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