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Ananias & Sapphira

World Day of Prayer Address: St Luke’s Church Dookie Acts 4:32 - 5:11

In the third reading tonight, from the Acts of the Apostles,

we heard a censored story, that is, only the nice bit

of a longer and not so nice story.

The bit we heard went, essentially, as follows:

 

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.....

There was not a needy person among them,

          for as many as owned lands or houses sold them

          and brought the proceeds of what was sold.

          They laid it at the apostles’ feet,

          and it was distributed to each as any had need.

 

Great, lovely, wonderful.

It warms the heart and fits in with our theme,

we are all to be one as they were one. Hurrah.

If they could achieve this, so can we.

 

But the story is truncated, the nasty ending left off.

Because in fact a Christian called Ananias and his wife Sapphira

slyly and secretly withheld some of their property,

and lied to Peter and to God,

claiming that they had contributed everything to the Church,

whereas in fact they hadn’t.

 

For so lying they were punished, zapped by the Spirit of God,

Ananias fell dead first, and then so did his wife.

 

This piece is disturbing, not least because of the disproportion

between the crime committed and its drastic punishment,

but it is also interesting for what it suggests about the early Church.

 

The story plainly shows that right at the very beginning of its life,

all was not in fact unity, sweetness and light in the early Church.

 

What is more though,

the story links up interestingly, a chapter or two later,

with another incident which also indicates

that the sweet communal communism of the early Church

was probably as much sour as it was sweet.

 

We are told in chapter six

that the Greek widows in the early Church

claimed that the Hebrew widows

were being given more than they were, in the daily distribution.

So much so that special deacons had to be appointed

to ensure that the distribution of food was fair and equitable.

 

Little wonder then, that after this, as far as we can tell,

the Church’s experiment with communism,

that is, with the holding of everything in common, ceased,

for we hear no more of it in either the bible

or the history of the early Church.

 

As in the twentieth century,

so too in the first century, it seems,

communism failed at the bar of human nature and human sin.

Noble in conception possibly, but in practice unworkable.

 

So what are we to make of this?

Well, to start with it offers us reassurance.

Biblical times were much like our times.

Human nature and human sin don’t change.

Disunity in the Church has been a part of its life from the beginning.

 

The fact that Christians in Dookie are disunited,

in the sense that they are split into a variety of denominations

doesn’t mark us off as especially wicked or bad.

 

It also reminds us that total, organic and complete unity

in the sense of oneness or sameness

is unattainable, perhaps even undesirable.

 

After all, the theme of today’s service is not

“In Christ we are One Body”

it is rather “In Christ we are many members, yet one Body”

 

This image of “one body” is St Paul’s

as we heard in our First Lesson tonight.

 

And so our ideal is not unity in the sense of oneness,

but rather unity in diversity.

Difference as well as sameness.

 

Indeed, when you really think about it,

the word “unity” becomes redundant

if everyone or everything is the same.

 

Unity, properly understood,

is the bringing together and holding together of difference

unity is not uniformity, it is not sameness,

it is not the ironing out of difference,

rather it is the harmonising of differences,

 

Harmony cannot and does not exist if only the same note is played,

harmony rather is different notes chiming together

to make sweet and creative music

sometimes dissonant music,

but always creative music.

Unity then is difference in harmony.

Unity is harmonious difference,

it is not sameness or uniformity.

 

To achieve unity between what is different,

depends above all else

upon allowing what is different to be different,

upon valuing difference,

upon allowing those who are different their validity,

allowing what is different and other, the right to be.

 

I consider myself to be very much at unity, for example,

with Uniting Church Christians,

because although I differ from most of them

on some quite important matters,

to do mostly with style

but also, possibly, the doctrine of the Eucharist,

I acknowledge, nonetheless the validity of their difference.

I am happy for them to be them,

I consider them saved as much as I am

that their truth is but a different perspective upon my truth.

I have no desire or wish to dragoon them into Anglicanism.

 

It is the same with Roman Catholics.

I differ from them on some quite important matters,

to do a little with style, possibly,

but certainly on authority,

I acknowledge, nonetheless the validity of their difference.

I am happy for them to be them,

I consider them saved as much as I am

that their truth is but a different perspective upon my truth.

I have no desire or wish to dragoon them into Anglicanism.

 

In fact, real unity depends more than on anything else

upon “allowing the other to be”,

granting validity to what is other.

 

Those members of the Christian faith, however,

who regard me as damned,

who allow my understanding and expression of the faith no validity

who feel compelled to convert me

because I am considered unsaved, or not born again,

are in no real sense at unity with me at all.

Serious dialogue with them is futile.

 

Sympathetic atheists on the other hand

who acknowledge my Christianity as reasonable,

who are prepared to grant it validity,

are far more at unity with me than such Christians.

 

In my life and ministry, humour has always been important.

I use it a great deal as a tension breaker,

as a barrier breaker, as a pomposity deflater.

However humour, seriously considered

is important for much more than that.

 

At the heart of most humour

lies above all else a sense of irony.

The best humour nearly always involves incongruity,

the bringing together or holding together of unlikely opposites, or differences.

When brought together they jar,

they don’t sit comfortably together, and that is funny.

 

But to enjoy this, to be able to participate in this,

means the granting of validity to opposites,

to paradox, to difference.....

To bring opposites, or things that are very different, together,

even if only to laugh at them,

requires an ability to see and appreciate both,

to see two sides not one.

And so is a very good guard

against the one-track mind that leads to fanaticism.

If we can’t laugh at our faith as well as love it,

we are in danger of fanaticism, of being a cause of disunity.

 

 

Now if I was a professional, albeit Christian humourist,

talking to a mob of Dookie Christians,

I would hold up for laughter

the incongruity in a post-Christian society

of the small band of practising Dookie Christians

meeting to worship their one God each Sunday

not together, but in three tiny little bands

in three different and expensive-to-maintain buildings,

and paying for three ministers or priests to come out and do their bit.

 

It is the raw material for a thousand jokes.

It is a joke. It’s daft. It is laughable, ironic, incongruous, absurd.

 

Surely, surely a way can be found, must be found

to allow and validate our differences

to respect and even encourage them

and yet to unite and worship together

for economy, strength, solidarity and witness.

 

I fear that if we don’t find a way to do this,

certainly the Anglicans and Uniting Churchers,

then both our little church communities

will soon drop dead like Ananias and Sapphira.

 

 

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