3rd Sunday after Pentecost June 18, 2023
243, 398, 394, 53
Hymns from The Lutheran Hymnal (1941) unless otherwise noted
Sermon Audio: https://podcasters.spotify.com/pod/show/ministrybymail
Prayer of the Day: O Jesus, rescue us from our hypocrisy, which keeps us from seeing You as the center of all Scripture and acknowledging the present time as the time of salvation. Call us to repent of our self-righteousness so that we might look to You alone as the source of our life; for You live and reign with the Father and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.
But a certain man named Ananias, with Sapphira his wife, sold a possession. And he kept back part of the proceeds, his wife also being aware of it, and brought a certain part and laid it at the apostles’ feet. But Peter said, “Ananias, why has Satan filled your heart to lie to the Holy Spirit and keep back part of the price of the land for yourself? While it remained, was it not your own? And after it was sold, was it not in your own control? Why have you conceived this thing in your heart? You have not lied to men but to God.”
Then Ananias, hearing these words, fell down and breathed his last. So great fear came upon all those who heard these things. And the young men arose and wrapped him up, carried him out, and buried him.
Now it was about three hours later when his wife came in, not knowing what had happened. And Peter answered her, “Tell me whether you sold the land for so much?”
She said, “Yes, for so much.”
Then Peter said to her, “How is it that you have agreed together to test the Spirit of the Lord? Look, the feet of those who have buried your husband are at the door, and they will carry you out.” Then immediately she fell down at his feet and breathed her last. And the young men came in and found her dead, and carrying her out, buried her by her husband. So great fear came upon all the church and upon all who heard these things. (NKJV)
Dearly Beloved Fellow Believers,
When we teach the First Commandment we warn against idolatry, the sin of putting someone or something in the place of God. God forbids that we should have any other gods before Him. And we do need to be warned against idolatry, for it is a sin that begins subtly and deviously in the heart. Idolatry isn’t always so open and obvious. In our teaching about it we distinguish between open idolatry and secret idolatry. Open idolatry is the worship of a carved image, the worship of a false god where there is no claim or pretense of worshiping the true God. Open idolatry exists in our world today in many forms, but it is less dangerous to the believer than secret idolatry. Secret idolatry is practiced by those who outwardly worship the true God, who may attend a Christian church, call themselves Christians, have Bibles and Christian items in their homes and wear Christian jewelry. Yet in their hearts something has taken the place of God—or is threatening to take the place of God. Jesus Christ is no longer their greatest treasure. God is no longer their refuge and strength. Heaven is no longer their highest hope. Instead of thoughts of God and His love and mercy, their hearts are given to thoughts of money and the things that it can buy. Instead of thinking about how they might serve the Lord, they are thinking about vain and selfish pursuits. When they run into problems and troubles, their first thought is no longer to call on God in prayer; instead they trust in human resources and then fret and stew when those resources fail them.
Our text shows us the deadly danger of temptations to secret idolatry. This sin, if it is allowed to grow in the heart, leads to complete hypocrisy, that state in which all faith and trust in God is gone and only the pretense of true religion remains. Such was the case with the man and woman we meet here. Their case is not one that is a joy to review; their story is one of swift and terrible divine judgment, such as to make us tremble. But it is written for our learning. Also, it is set in the midst of wonderful demonstrations of the Holy Spirit’s work in the hearts of believers in those early days of the church. We will look at this lesson now and ask the Spirit to teach us and empower us to do what our theme for today admonishes to “SERVE THE LORD IN SINCERITY AND IN TRUTH.”
Sins often appear harmless, of little consequence. Consider the first sin: all Eve did was pick a piece of fruit, eat it, and give some to her husband for him to eat. Sounds perfectly innocent, doesn’t it? What could be the harm in that? The problem with it was that God had said of the fruit of that particular tree, “You shall not eat (of it)” and warned, “in the day that you eat of it you will surely die.” (Genesis 2:17) So it wasn’t an innocent act of picking fruit, eating it, and sharing it. It was an act of rebellion and defiance against God. We see the gravity of it in its consequences: sin entered the world and death passed upon all people (Romans 5:12).
Likewise, the sin of Ananias and Sapphira appeared to be harmless, and it must have been easy for them to rationalize it. What difference did it make that they gave only part of the price of the piece land that they had sold? They had still given a generous offering, hadn’t they; more than most? Yes, they had told a lie, but who was hurt by it? So they must have reasoned. What then was the problem? It wasn’t that they kept part of the money. Peter says that they had been under no compulsion or obligation to give all of it or any of it. Their sin was their attempt to deceive; and what made it so grievous was that they tried to lie to God. They had lied to the Holy Spirit, Peter says. They lied to the apostles of Jesus Christ to whom He had especially promised and given the Holy Spirit. The apostles spoke and wrote by inspiration of the Holy Spirit. Ananias and Sapphira acted as if the Holy Spirit was not working in the apostles. They acted as if God Himself could be deceived.
Peter exposes the wickedness of their scheme by saying who it was that had given them the idea. “Satan has filled your heart,” he says. Notice that Peter doesn’t just say that Satan had misled Ananias, but that Satan had filled his heart; there was no longer any room in his heart for God. So let’s take note of this that the devil is the one who is behind hypocrisy. By hypocrisy, the devil works great harm. Hypocrisy harms the one who practices it because the hypocrite in a church may still imagine that he is part of Christ’s church when in his heart he has departed from the faith. A hypocrite in a congregation harms that congregation because it has in its midst someone whose interests and sympathy are not with the Church, its work, its mission. A hypocrite in the midst of a congregation can only hinder its work as he sows seeds of worldliness and dissension in it.
Knowing that the devil is the author of hypocrisy, let us beware of the beginnings of it in our own hearts. Nurturing and practicing secret sins is a form of hypocrisy, for that is acting as if a part of one’s life can be hidden from God. Having a self-righteous attitude toward others is the beginning of hypocrisy, for the self-righteous person pretends that he does not struggle with temptation and sin as others do. That is also lying to God. The devil is behind all such behavior and all such attitudes.
As we read the story of Ananias and Sapphira we might wonder why God judged these two so swiftly and so severely. Surely there have been many others who did something like what they did but who were not struck down as they were. The answer to this question is in the narrative that leads up to this incident of divine judgment. Up to this point everything was well with the Christian congregation. It was filled with truly devout people who were filled with the Spirit and who showed the fruits of the Spirit in their lives. They showed love for one another. They gave generously of what they had to support the poor among them. The Christians were a group that were highly respected and admired in the community. Perhaps Ananias and Sapphira joined the group to get some of that respect and admiration. God made an example of them and had it written down as a warning for all times.
By striking down Ananias and Sapphira as He did, God shows that hypocrisy ends—finally, ultimately—in judgment. It won’t help anyone to pretend to be a part of a Christian church. It won’t help anyone to have only an outward connection with a Christian church. Only true faith in Jesus Christ gives us the forgiveness of our sins that He won for us. Only true faith in Him makes us a part of Christ’s church and heirs of eternal life. “The Lord knows those who are His,” the Bible says (2 Timothy 2:19).
The story of Ananias and Sapphira isn’t only an example of hypocrisy and divine judgment; it is also an encouragement to true faith and devotion to Christ, when we take it in its context. It appears in the midst of a glorious recitation of the good things that were going on among the Christians in Jerusalem. The apostles were preaching Christ with great joy and boldness. Christ was supporting their preaching with many miracles of healing. Many were coming to believe in Jesus as their Savior. The new believers were filled with zeal for the Gospel and with love for one another. The outpouring of the Holy Spirit was something real; He really was at work in the hearts of the believers, and the results were wonderful.
The same Holy Spirit, with undiminished power, is still at work among us. He is at work in the Word, humbling us to repentance and lifting us up with the Gospel. He is at work in Baptism, bringing our children to faith in Jesus Christ and making them heirs of salvation from infancy on. He is at work in Holy Communion, giving us the forgiveness of sins as we hear the words of Christ and receive His true body and blood. The Holy Spirit comforts us with the assurance that the sacrifice our Savior offered to God for us cleanses us of all our sins. For this we thank our gracious God. As we said earlier, the story of Ananias and Sapphira and the swift judgment that overtook them makes us tremble, for we too are sinners; our thoughts and motives are not pure. But Christ died also for sins such as these. We are forgiven.
With the lesson of Ananias and Sapphira the Lord reminds us that the work of the Spirit and the growth of Christ’s Church take place in the fallen and sinful world. Sin and unbelief still threaten the church and all of us in it. With this solemn word of warning the Lord teaches us to be on guard against hypocrisy, not to let it grow in ourselves. He encourages us to use the Word and Sacrament so that the Holy Spirit will work good things in us, so that we will be bold and joyful disciples of Jesus full of good works. Amen.
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All scripture quotations, unless otherwise indicated, are taken from the New King James Version®. Copyright © 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.