Acts 5:1-11 (Common English Bible)
Pretenders of sharing
5 However, a man named Ananias, along with his wife Sapphira, sold a piece of property. 2 With his wife’s knowledge, he withheld some of the proceeds from the sale. He brought the rest and placed it in the care and under the authority of the apostles. 3 Peter asked, “Ananias, how is it that Satan has influenced you to lie to the Holy Spirit by withholding some of the proceeds from the sale of your land? 4 Wasn’t that property yours to keep? After you sold it, wasn’t the money yours to do with whatever you wanted? What made you think of such a thing? You haven’t lied to other people but to God!”5 When Ananias heard these words, he dropped dead. Everyone who heard this conversation was terrified. 6 Some young men stood up, wrapped up his body, carried him out, and buried him.
7 About three hours later, his wife entered, but she didn’t know what had happened to her husband. 8 Peter asked her, “Tell me, did you and your husband receive this price for the field?”
She responded, “Yes, that’s the amount.”
9 He replied, “How could you scheme with each other to challenge the Lord’s Spirit? Look! The feet of those who buried your husband are at the door. They will carry you out too.” 10 At that very moment, she dropped dead at his feet. When the young men entered and found her dead, they carried her out and buried her with her husband. 11 Trepidation and dread seized the whole church and all who heard what had happened.
Thoughts on the passage:
The Methodist Church grew exponentially in the late 1700s and early 1800s in the United States. Its growth outpaced not only other churches but growth of the population as a whole. Growing from about 50,000 followers in 1790 to over 500,000 in 1830. What allowed for this rapid growth? Obviously there are many factors that contributed to the growth of the church but one of them is clear, a focus on frontier rather than fortress.
During the explosive growth of Methodists the focus was placed on going where the people were and bringing Christ to them. In 1830 it was estimated that 1/3 of all Methodist Episcopal (precursor of UMC) congregations did not have buildings. Instead they met in homes, barns, bars, and really wherever people could be gathered. This is also not completely surprising because many Methodist congregations were founded before the communities they were in. Horse-riding pastors were travelling westward with the covered wagons and bring the gospel out to the people.
The growth of the Methodist Church is not just about what it did, it is also about what others did not do. While the Methodists were moving with the people, many other churches were remaining in established communities and even established areas. States and territories were generally seen as belong to one denomination or another and so other churches stayed out of them. More established churches tended to the people they already had in the big buildings they already owned. While the population moved west, many of these churches stayed in the east, only starting congregations once towns and often cities had been established and there was a clear need for them to build a new church.
Life is risky on the frontiers. The life expectancy for Methodist preachers was low. I am sure that not every effort to start a new church was met with success. There were costs to the way the church grew. At the same time those costs yielded results and far more than from those who stayed safe in their established fortresses.
The passage from Acts frames this distinction between frontiers and fortresses even though it does not name it in that way. The early church was a risky place and followers of Jesus were being asked to give everything they had to make it succeed. One couple was not ready to do that, Ananias and Sapphira. People were being asked to sell what they had and give it to the churches and so they did. Unlike everyone else however, they did not give everything over but keep some of it back. They hedged their bet. They compounded this by lying about what they were doing. Rather than expressing their doubts about selling everything for the good of the community or sharing their concerns, they simply lied about it. Their lies and their lack of trust contrasted with the rest of the early Christians.
So are we all in or are we holding back? This is not meant to challenge us to go sell our houses and live together in a commune. I am not convinced that is the best way to advance the kingdom of God. That does not mean we cannot get caught in our own fortress mentality both as individuals and as a church. It is natural to want to be protective, but it is also easy to become over-protective. Do we believe that God is protecting us too? Do we leave room for God in our plans? The fortress mentality closes ourselves out to the calling of God to move out into the world, to take risks, to step forth in faith. Ananias and Sapphira could not do that. I believe we can.
Choosing frontier over fortress in our own life means that we remember that the person in control is not us but God. Instead of worrying about trying to control everything we give it back to God and we let go and trust. For me that means not always trying to rely on my own powers, my own money, my own intelligence to solve everything. Instead I need to let go and let God be in control. God is better at it than me anyway. Usually if we ask ourselves what is the worst that can happen we will realize it is not that bad.
Our church actually made the choice of frontier over fortress fifty years ago. We took a leap of faith and stepped away from the safe familiar shelter of our downtown building and moved out to the edge of town, to a swamp. In doing so we were ready for growth, not just in the church but also in the community around us. It was a leap of faith and it is one that was gotten us to where we are today. What is the next frontier? I don’t know that we need to be talking about selling our building now and moving somewhere else, but I do know we need to be thinking about how we can be continuing to reach people as their lives change. Maybe the next frontier is to worship on a day other than Sunday. Maybe the next frontier is to build an online community to connect people from all over. Maybe the next frontier is to open up our building to offer activities, services, or events for the community. I don’t know the answer, but I do know that if we hold up in our fortress we will be ignoring God’s clear call to go forth and make disciples. We will also be ignoring the clear message of scripture to trust not in ourselves, but in God for strength and security.
Questions to Ponder:
What does going all in for God mean for you today?
Do you tend to be someone who jumps out ahead without worrying about the details or someone who is cautious and plans it all out head of time?
What frontier is God calling you to? What frontier is God calling our church to?
Prayer: God of the wilderness, you often call us from places of comfort and security out into the wildness of faith. Give us the courage to step forth from our fortresses and places of safety and trust instead in you. Help us to know that through it all, in the storms and the calm, you are there with us. AMEN