The Foundation for a Common Hope

Click here to listen to the full service

Acts 5:1-11

Luke 4:1-4

Click here to listen to the meditations only

When I was younger in the faith, I spent a bit of time doing what many folks younger in the faith do: I went through the Bible looking for the parts they don’t tell you about in Sunday School.  And that’s when I first read the story of Ananias and Sapphira. 

At the time I thought it was one of the most disturbing stories I had ever read – terrifying, even, what with people dropping dead in a church meeting.  I still think it is a disturbing story, now for different reasons, and apparently I am not the only one.  In years in the church I have never heard it preached, and most recommended Bible commentaries don’t comment much on it at all.  The sermons on the internet that deal with it focus almost exclusively on Ananias’ and Sapphira’s deaths.  They ignore other elements that equally provoke thought and disturb. 

Now when elements in a Bible story that provoke thought and disturb, or the story itself, are so ignored, it almost always means the Bible story deserves a second look.  For instance, Ananias’ and Sapphira’s story’s placement in the Acts larger narrative instructs as well as shocks. The story raises the complex and oh-so-contemprary issue of The Lie.  And, it is a story that involves the Holy Spirit.  It is because of these other elements, not just the deaths, that I preach on it this morning, in our preaching series context of a common hope.

First, ler’s look at the story’s placement in the larger narrative of Acts. It comes after Luke’s description of the beginning of the church. In the beginning, the members were of one heart and soul in their beliefs and in their life together.  All their resources were held in common, the apostles gave their witness to the resurrection with great power, and great grace was upon everyone.  No one wanted for anything, because those who had private resources sold them and brought the proceeds to the apostles for redistribution, as did Barnabas the “son of encouragement”.  It was truly the beloved, and loving, community, the hope of return to which inspires the church to this day.

But in this beloved and lovng community are also Ananias and Sapphira.

They also agree to sell a piece of property, but give only a part of the proceeds to the apostles for distribution.  They keep the rest for themselves.  And here is the crux of the story:  they tell the apostles they are giving them the whole amount. They lie.

Have you noticed how so few people lie nowadays?  They fib, prevaricate, misspeak, misunderstand, deceive, mislead, tell whoppers, are disingenuous, tell white lies, fudge or fuzz the truth, skirt the issue, deviate from the truth, slander, libel, trump-up charges, pad a resume or expense account, present and spread fake news, but they don’t lie. Actually to call someone a liar or something a lie is apparently almost too strong, too judgmental on what seems to be a social rather than a moral scale.  Even in the media, even in government, no one lies.  No one is even an alleged liar.  To say, “They lie.” seems say too much.

But Peter, of course, being Peter, has no such care for social niceties.  He clearly expresses the enormity of what Ananias and Sapphira have done.  It has nothing to do with the fact that they kept back part of the proceeds – they could just as well have kept back the whole amount, or not sold the property at all. But they lied, and said they had given the whole.  And by that lie, as Peter points out, they have done so much more.  They have listened to Satan – the one who works against Jesus and the Holy Spirit, the one who is the tempter in the wilderness against Jesus’ own integrity and self-understanding and against the Holy Spirit’s leading.  Even though the community will be affected, their lie to the community pales in comparison to the fact that they have lied to God, in particular to the Holy Spirit who guides and sustains them all.  And they have put the Holy Spirit to the test. The Lie is an attempt to undermine the Spirit’s presence and its power to guide, protect, and inspire in the face of The Lie’s creation of mistrust and confusion.

Finally, their lie will come back on Ananias and Sapphira.  For whatever reason, and debate rages, the lie is a prelude to their deaths.  And interestingly enough, at the end of the story, the beloved community, which began as “the whole group of those who believed”, has become “the church”, the ekklesia, the people called out and gathered to be God’s people. They are now distinct from those who surround them, because they know The Lie is within them as well as without – and now they will have to make choices.  And great fear has come upon them, and everyone who hears the story of Ananias and Sapphira.  The church in Acts is still the beloved community, but now they know that the dangers to their mutuality and mission can come from within as well as without. Distrust and betrayal are now possibilities even among the beloved.  And they know that these dangers from within begin with The Lie.

The noted moral philosopher, peace activist, and ethicist Sissela Bok, in her landmark book Lying:  Moral Choice in Public and Private Life, notes that now, it is even hard to decide what a lie is.  So she focuses on what she defines as “’clear-cut lies’.  These are lies where the intention to mislead is obvious, where the liar knows that what they are communicating is not what they believe, and where they have not deluded themselves into believing their own deceits.” Bok defines a lie as “any intentionally deceptive message that is stated.” – which statement can include such media as Morse code, sign language, signal flags, and so on.  Note the emphasis on intention and statement.  It is not the truth or falsity of what a person says that settles the question of whether or not that person is lying – it is whether or not they intend their statement to be a lie. 

The presence of intention points up the great paradox of The Lie.  We more often than not lie with good intent.  As Bok notes, we lie to excuse ourselves or to get ourselves out of something without causing offense.  We lie to protect and advance our standing and our place in the world.  We lie to save ourselves and others in a crisis.  We lie to expose liars.  We lie to enemies to defeat them.  We lie to protect our children, peers, and clients.  We lie for the public good, and we lie to people for their own good, especially if they are very ill or dying, or if we have power over them.  All we want to do is make life easier for ourselves and others.  All we want to do is help.  Everybody lies.  And no one drops down dead.

It’s true that the results of their lie were extreme for Ananias and Sapphira.  But every lie bears a cost, to both the liar and the ones lied to.  Bok makes the connection between deception and violence as the two forms of deliberate assault on human beings.  Both coerce, but The Lie is the more subtle – it works on belief as well as action.  A lie forces because it intends someone to believe something that is not true.  Iago did not need to kill Othello; he only had to lie to him, and have him believe it, to destroy him.  Bok also notes that lying almost always accompanies every other form of wrongdoing and harm:  murder, theft, bribery, and so on almost require that one lie.  Lying almost always accompanies many other forms of human misery as well.  Sam Harris is a neuroscientist, philosopher, writer and podcast host.  He is famous also for being one of “the Four Horsemen of Atheism”. I do not agree with all of his ideas, and, in his book Lying, he has some ideas that I do agree with.  He connects lies with the perpetuation of addiction and of domestic violence, and with the self-sabotage of family relationships, careers, and reputations.  He notes that as human beings, we often act in ways that are guaranteed to make us unhappy, and calls lying “the royal road to chaos”. In particular he notes that “white lies” are the ones that most tempt us, and “tend to be the only lies that good people tell while imagining that they are being good in the process.” He also suggests that the lies we tell for the good of others presume that we are the best judges of how much other people should understand about their own lives.  This is an arrogant position that disrespects those we claim to care about.

In any case, Bok and Harris both note that lying always requires a reason, a justification:  one has to convince oneself to lie, and if found out one needs to convince others that the lie was necessary.

These costs of lying are different for those deceived and for the liar, but they often are great costs for both.  For the deceived, when we find out we have been lied to, for whatever reason, none of us likes it.  Even in small things, we may be angry, or feel betrayed. Suspicion is now part of the relationship – if someone will lie to us in small things, why wouldn’t they lie to us in big things too.  If it is a big lie, we may mourn the choices we were unable to make or the things we would have done differently had we known the truth, or we may lose faith in the persons or institutions that we once believed in.  If a single person or a small group of persons is lied to, a number of people may still be hurt by the lie, as when a public health official is lied to about the purity of a city’s water system. 

While these costs to those lied to may be more obvious, there are costs to the liar as well.  Liars know that they lie – they intend to lie, and to have that lie believed.  A liar then has to regard those they have lied to with caution.  They have to remember what lies they have told to specific people and be careful not to get mixed up.  Once they have lied, it becomes easier to tell more lies.  This ups the risk of getting caught, and if they are caught, the damage to their credibility and reputation far outweighs any benefits they may have obtained from the lie. And while liars may take into account the effect their lie may have on an individual, they do not always realize the ways that these effects may spread to affect whole communities in negative ways, including the communities of which they are a part. 

We in our time know the costs of The Lie, both as we are lied to by people and institutions we have trusted, and as we are caught up in the temptation to lie if only to make our lives a little easier.  And yet it is all too easy to imagine our society, our communities, our lives, sliding into a state where words cannot ever be trusted again. Technology makes this seem more likely. But even more there is in our time an aversion to truthtelling.  It is too difficult.  It takes too much time and effort, or it is not as effective for what we want as is the violence of lying.  Even in the church, we often lie, especially white lie, because to have a telling-the-truth-in-love-and-mutuality conversation with someone seems too intrusive or fraught or complicated – when in fact by not having that conversation we may deny that person a chance to learn more about themselves and us, in ways that might help, heal, or reconcile them with us, or with others, or with themselves. 

A common hope seems more and more like an unreachable ideal — certainly in society, and even in the church, certainly if The Lie becomes entrenched and is not exposed and rooted out for what it is. The Lie is a cheat:  against the community, against the individual, even against the liar.  It sets up a false goal of superficiality and complacency rather than the love and justice that God intends for human beings and creation.  Fortunately, while the Spirit may be put to the test, that does not mean that the Spirit cannot pass the test, and then do even more. 

Sissela Bok wrote her book first in 1979, another time of big and small lies in the country and in the world, and her book has gone through two more editions since.  She notes that, due to people who exposed and rejected lies, some things have changed.  Doctors used to lie routinely to their patients as to the state of their health and the probabilities of procedures; indeed, given interpretations of patient confidentiality, they often found themselves lying to one patient while preserving the confidentiality of another.  Now there are prohibitions for lying and requirements for informed consent.  Scientific researchers and behavioral researchers often did not inform their subjects as to what actually was being done to them or the true aims of the research; now there are privacy mandates and requirements for informed consent. Exposures of the lies of government and other institutions have brought about more healthy skepticism, and more demands for institutional accountability:  fact checkers and investigative reporting are now integrated into public life.  Recently Standing Rock, Black Lives Matter, Flint Michigan, Women’s Marches, and demonstrations for immigration reform have put on notice the status quoof lies and violence against people and creation. Both Bok and Harris also suggest that if people still insist on lying, there should be a sort of agreed-upon “just lie” theory, rather like a “just war” theory. It would begin with the questioning of the necessity for lying at all, and go on to mitigate as many negative effects of The Lie as possible.  But perhaps Harris the atheist has the most thought-provoking  idea for the beloved community and a common hope:  It would promote the benefits of telling the truth most – if not all – of the time.  So there’s nothing to keep track of.  We don’t have to justify ourselves.  We as honest persons for others and other honest people for us become a refuge:  we mean what we say, we won’t say one thing to others’ faces and another behind their backs, both our constructive criticism and our praise can be relied on.  We can honestly change our minds, and we can be open about our doubts and fears.  We will avoid many forms of suffering and embarrassment.  While there may be discomfort, it will be short-lived, because we can be kind in telling the truth to others:  we don’t want to offend or hurt them, we just want them to have the same knowledge we have and would want in the same situation. Through telling the truth we can also learn new ways we want to grow and learn.

The American author and humorist Mark Twain wrote:  “When in doubt, tell the truth.  It will confound your enemies and astound your friends.”  While The Lie sets us up for misery, there is humor and joy in telling the truth.  In the beloved community, telling the truth is a foundation for a common hope.  It is a foundation for love, joy, peace, justice, kindness, and compassion in that common hope.  It sets us up for a common hope for right relationship with God, self, and all the neighbors.  It removes obstacles to the Holy Spirit’s work, and is a big part of our cooperation with that Spirit and its work.  The story of Ananias and Sapphira is the story of the Fall in the beloved community of the church, the story of the shaking of the common hope.  When we as members and restorers of the beloved community, and our common hope, tell the truth, we reverse that story, and bring back the mutuality and trust and hope intended for God’s people and for creation.  Amen.

—Rev. Victoria Hart Gaskell, Chapel Associate for Methodist Students

Tags:

Leave a Reply