The description of the early church that is found in the opening chapters of the Book of Acts almost sounds like paradise revisited. Two events had powerfully affected that little community of human beings. First, they had witnessed the resurrection of Jesus. Second, they had received the outpouring of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost.
The impact of all this was very simple: perfect love had cast out fear. That little group of people had discovered that God's love is bigger than anything else in the entire universe. God's goodness is bigger than human badness. His power to forgive and restore is greater than all human power to disrupt. Therefore, there was a generosity. There was a trust. There was an openness to each other. It was almost like Eden had been before the Fall.
Of course, if love has the power to cast out fear, fear has the power to cast out love. I'm never less loving than when I am most afraid. Fear has a way of focusing our attention solely on ourselves to the exclusion of any other concern. We're never more dangerous than when we are in the grip of panic. But if the love of God says to us there is sufficiency for all situationsif that love is diffusedfear gets cast out, and the possibility of being generous, the possibility of being open and giving, becomes a reality.
Perfection is not a prerequisite.
This had happened in the early church. We are told that they had all things in common. They shared with each other openly and freely because there was nothing to be afraid of. Early on in the Book of Acts, we see a remarkable statement: there wasn't a needy person in the whole community, because those who found themselves in abundance very freely gave to those who had need. They lived together in great joy.
Still, not everyone in that community was at a high level of spiritual maturity. In Acts 5:111, the writer illustrates this point. What he does is contrast the actions of a man called Joseph, surnamed Barnabas, and a couple named Ananias and Sapphira.
Joseph must have been a wealthy man. When he heard one day that there were some people in the community with great economic need, he went and sold a piece of property in his native Cyprus. He came with all the proceeds of that sale and gave it to the apostles, saying: Dispense this as you find the need arising.
It was an electrifying event of generosity. It was a sign that Barnabas really understood that there was enough to go around. The whole community was absolutely thrilled at this outpouring of generosity.
The action must have fallen very positively on Ananias and Sapphira. In fact, they must have gone away from the place where everything had happened, saying, "You know, that's wonderful what Barnabas did. We have more than we need. We would like to do the same thing that Barnabas has done." So they proceeded to sell a piece of their property, but between the intention to follow that example and the actual living out of the deed, they began to experience some internal conflict.
The writer Elizabeth O'Connor has reminded us that none of us is a single self, but we are rather made up of many selves. She speaks of the "parliament of personhood," that is, all the different aspects making up our totality. I'm using my imagination, but I would guess that after their heroic and generous self had said, "We want to sell property and give just like Barnabas did," other selves rose up inside Ananias and Sapphira and began to set this whole issue in conflict.
I can just imagine that a fearful self stood up and said, "How do you know that you're going to be able to take care of yourself when you get old if you give away your nest egg? It's all well and good to talk about a Father in heaven who will provide. I would feel better with some money in the bank where I have complete control over it."
Or maybe the critical self stood up and said, "How do you know that these poor people are not just lazy and irresponsible? Why should I have to sacrifice just to make up for their folly?"
Maybe a distrustful self got up and said, "Are you sure about the apostles who are going to administer this? Could it be that they will be playing favorites or lining their own pockets?"
Negative forces are suddenly working against living out the decision that they had made. Is anybody a stranger to that candid internal dialogue? Every time you make a significant decision to change something about your behavior, you're going to find out that you have many selves within.
Just after Christmas, when I got on the scale and looked at the numbers, a self in me said that I needed to do something to get rid of the "Christmas fat." I had every intention of doing that, but between stepping off the scale and beginning the task of getting rid of those ten pounds, I found I had other voices in me crying out with very different messages. When you try to change significantly, you're going to find out about your many selves.
Ananias and Sapphira found themselves in internal conflict, and the great tragedy is how they proceeded to deal with this inner difficulty. They could have gone to the church and said quite honestly: "Look, we have discovered something in this experience about ourselves that we didn't know. We saw what Barnabas did, and we were excited by it, but when we tried to emulate him, we found we're not as trusting. We don't have as much faith in the future, in the community, and in God as he did. Therefore, we find that we're not able to be as generous as he was. We're going to give only part of our money. Will you as a church help us to grow in our generosity?"
If that had been the case, I'm confident the church would have embraced them and said, "Of course we will help you grow," and everything would have turned out very differently.
What Ananias and Sapphira did, however, was something much more tragic. They decided to try to cover up the internal conflict. They decided to try and appear to be at one place in their spiritual development when, in fact, they were at another. They sold their property. Then they paid off the fearful self, the critical self, and the distrustful self by stashing some of it away. But then they came to the church and acted as if their gift was exactly the same as Barnabas'. That is, they paraded themselves as being at a high level of spiritual development when they were really only at a beginner's level.
It's a sign of the transparency of that community that when Ananias and Sapphira came into their midst to palm off this deception, those who were reality-based recognized it. When Peter confronted Ananias with the fact that he knew Ananias was not telling the truth, the shock of it was so great that Ananias keeled over dead. As you heard in the story, a few hours later Sapphira had the same experience.
Notice carefully that the issue is not that they had to give all of their money. That's not it at all. The problem was that they claimed to be at one place when really they were somewhere else, and they had cut themselves off from the energies of growth.
This God who has given us life and wants to call us into wholeness, is a God who is willing to work through a processa God who is willing to work step-by-step toward our perfection. God never demands that we be perfect in order for him to love us; he offers his love as a way for us to grow step-by-step toward perfection.
If Ananias and Sapphira had only realized that walking is acceptable before you're able to run, and that running is acceptable before you can flyif they had just understood that they would be accepted if they honestly acknowledged where they werethe church would have received their provisional steps. The church would have accepted the fact that they weren't where Barnabas was, and they would have helped them to grow toward that. The tragedy of Ananias and Sapphira is that they were not honest. Their tragedy was refusing to acknowledge where they were. It cut them off from the grace of God, who is willing to accept any of us, at any point, and to help us grow toward the goal of perfection. If we try to act like we're already there, we cut ourselves off from the energy to grow.
I used to wonder why Jesus Christ was so harsh with the sin of hypocrisy. How could he be so tender with prostitutes and tax collectors, and yet so harsh with the Pharisees? I now realize that Jesus saw hypocrisy as a deadly spiritual condition. If you're not willing to admit where you are, if you're not willing to let the grace of God accept you at any point and help you grow, then you've cut yourself off from the one way that God grows us toward his ultimate goal. Perfection is the goal toward which we strive. It is the standard by which we measure our progress. It is never a prerequisite for God's loving us or entering our lives.
A friend of mine, John Rogers, used to teach at the Virginia Episcopal Seminary. Late one cold night he got a call from the bus station in Washington. It was a young man who had grown up in a parish that John had served years before. He had once been an acolytean assistant to the clergyand his family had been very active in the church. The young man told Rogers that he'd gotten into the drug culture. He had lost touch with his family and was out of work, out of money. Could Rogers, his former rector, give him some help that night? Acting with compassion, Rogers told the young man to stay right where he was.
Rogers got into his car, drove through the snowy streets, found the lademaciated in body, broken in spiritand took him home. As the young man ate supper, Rogers tried to get some kind of understanding of his condition. He asked the lad if he had ever asked Jesus Christ to be a help to him in his troubles, and the young man said no. It had been too long since he had even thought about those things.
Then he brightened, and said, "You know, when I get myself together and start coming back to church, I am going to ask Christ to help me."
"My friend," Rogers said, "it will never happen that way. If you think that you have to get yourself together on your own and then come to Christ, you will never do it. You're going to have to come to Christ as you are at this moment, and then he will give you the strength to start getting things together."
Perfection is not a prerequisite for God having anything to do with us. God's love is a gift that comes to us as freely as the gift of birth. Accepting honestly where we are and asking Christ into that situation is the only hope we have of growing toward perfection.
If only Ananias and Sapphira had realized that walking before they were able to run was acceptable! If only they had been willing to say, "We wish that we were able to give it all, but the truth is, we find ourselves at another level of growth. Will you help us to grow step-by-step?" Had that been their pattern, I'm sure the church, embodying this God who always works through process, would have embraced them, forgiven them, and given them the grace to take the next step forward.
We have to admit where we really are.
It is very important that we have our high moments of idealism, when we glimpse something that represents where we want to be. It is very important to let our ideal selfthat heroic self, that generous selfcatch a glimpse of where it is we eventually want to go. But it's just as important, after having been inspired, that we be honest enough to admit where we are and humble enough to let the patient, redeeming God do his worknot instantaneously, but step-by-step as we make our way toward the goal.
God's way is not to create everything at once. It's first the seed, then the blade, and then the flower. First the sperm and egg, then the fetus, then the infant, and then the adult, moving right on through all the stages of life. God always takes us a step at a time. If we're honest enough to ask him in to where we are, there's absolutely no limit to where he can take us. It is a process of step-by-step growth.
An Italian peasant woman happened to bump into a monk who lived in a monastery high on a hill above her village. Since she bumped into him in the middle of the road, she said, "Father, I've always wanted to ask somebody what you men of God do up there on the top of the mountain that looks to me to be so close to heaven. I've always wondered about the life of holiness that you lead up there."
This old man, a wise and honest interpreter, said, "What do we men of God do up there on the holy mountain? I'll tell you, my dear. We fall down; we get up. We fall down; we get up. We fall down; we get up."
That is the way of all Christian growth. It doesn't happen all at once. But it does happen when we glimpse what we have not yet achieved, and we want it so badly that we honestly say, "Here's where I am. I'm not going to try to get myself together and then ask God to move me toward the goal. I'm going to ask God to come into this moment. It's the only hope of ever making it to that high range of development."
If you will give God just the slightest entrance into your honest situation, just a mere crack of the door, that will be the beginning of growth.
Once there was a wise, old sailor dying in a Navy hospital. The young Catholic priest was sent to do the last rites over him, because the nurses sensed that he was very close to the end. The young priest said to the old man, rather traditionally, "My son, are you sorry for all your sins?"
He was astonished to hear the old sailor say, "To be honest with you, Padre, I'm not. I rather enjoyed all of that whiskey I drunk. I rather liked all those Jezebels in all the ports of the world. I know it's probably not what you're supposed to say, but if I'm going to be honest, Padre, I have to tell you that I'm not sorry."
Many priests would probably have turned in anger and said, "Well, you old reprobate, if that's the way you feel, then go to the hell you so richly deserve for your arrogance!" But this young man understood the doctrine of patient grace. The old man had been honest, so the young priest said, "Well, let me ask you another question. Are you sorry that you're not sorry?"
There was a long pause, and the priest saw tears beginning to form in the eyes of the old sailor.
Finally he said with great conviction, "You know, Padre, I can say that. I am sorry that I'm not sorry."
And it was enough. He was absolved.
The tiniest crack in the door into honest acknowledgement is the real beginning of growth toward grace. Please know there's nothing you can do to make God love you any more than he already loves you. There's nothing you can do to make God stop loving you. What you can do is offer your honest self and your condition to that everlasting mercy. Step-by-step is the way we're saved.
The late John Claypool served as rector of St. Luke's Episcopal Church in Birmingham, Alabama, and professor of homiletics at the McAfee School of Theology at Mercer University in Atlanta.