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Scary stories

The last thing I wrote on here was about Kingdom life being contagious, stronger than death, more aggressive than corruption and decay. Nowhere do I see this more joyously evidenced than in the book of Acts – the sequel to Luke's account of Jesus' life, about the church in its earliest days. Jesus' followers are rapidly growing in number; some of their most fervent opponents are joining them; they are finding new ways of living in loving community; they are witnessing miracles of healing and resurrection and they are catching themselves doing things they 'shouldn't' be able to do, like walking out of locked prisons and communicating in languages they have never learned. It's as exciting a read as any adventure novel, and it provides a (for me) really helpful bridge between the events of the gospels and the theology of the letters.

But there's a handful of episodes in there which are a bit 'gulp'. One in particular stands out; it's about a couple, Ananias and Sapphira, who literally fall down dead because (or, at least, so it seems) they only give some of their money to the church leaders:
      But a man named Ananias, with his wife Sapphira, sold a piece of property, and with his wife's knowledge he kept back for himself some of the proceeds and brought only a part of it and laid it at the apostles' feet. But Peter said, “Ananias, why has Satan filled your heart to lie to the Holy Spirit and to keep back for yourself part of the proceeds of the land? While it remained unsold, did it not remain your own? And after it was sold, was it not at your disposal? Why is it that you have contrived this deed in your heart? You have not lied to man but to God.” When Ananias heard these words, he fell down and breathed his last. And great fear came upon all who heard of it. The young men rose and wrapped him up and carried him out and buried him.
      After an interval of about three hours his wife came in, not knowing what had happened. And Peter said to her, “Tell me whether you sold the land for so much.” And she said, “Yes, for so much.” But Peter said to her, “How is it that you have agreed together to test the Spirit of the Lord? Behold, the feet of those who have buried your husband are at the door, and they will carry you out.” Immediately she fell down at his feet and breathed her last. When the young men came in they found her dead, and they carried her out and buried her beside her husband. And great fear came upon the whole church and upon all who heard of these things. (Acts 5:1-11)
In a certain light, this story reads like something straight out of The Godfather. Picture the scene: an impeccably tuxedoed Marlon Brando reclines in a grand leather desk chair in the semi-darkness, nonchalantly cradling a playful tabby cat, while a couple of faithful cronies hover, premonitory, on the periphery. A diminutive, nervous-looking chap – evidently ill-at-ease in his ill-fitting, ill-matched attempt at smart attire – flinchingly approaches, cap in wringing hands. He explains to the Don that he has sold part of his business, and wants to give him the proceeds as a mark of 'friendship' ... which of course is a euphemism for the obligatory purchase of protection. The mafia boss is curious to know how much. "Thirty thousand, Don Corleone." Only, Don Corleone has his contacts; he knew long before this snivelling flatterer came to his house (on the day of his daughter's wedding, no less) that the sale had taken place, and had in fact fetched thirty three thousand. He fixes his eyes on his shuffling guest. "Friends, Ananias, do not lie to one another. Lets be frank here. You never wanted my friendship." He gestures to Michael and turns his back. "Please, no, wait ... I can get the rest ... I ... At least, my wife ... she knew nothing, I swear ..." But it is too late; pistols have been pulled and trained; the Corleones have a reputation to maintain.

There's another story, though – a current one, playing out in the real world even as I write – which for me calls to mind the couple's offense and fate. I don't know all the facts for sure; I'll admit I'm filling in the gaps with guesswork, much of which I hope and pray is wrong...

A presidential candidate can see that the church has a lot of influence [1]. He is well aware that it would further his political agenda to get popular with its membership and leadership. He has sufficient sense of their telos, their raison d'etre, to signal a degree of muddled sympathy, but it's not really for him ... or, at least, it's secondary to his personal ambition. Still, it's easy enough to tell them what they want to hear, and offer them positions and opportunities, and promise them a generous replenishment of the power some of them are so anxious about losing if he gets elected.

It's not necessarily a new story – whilst many find it more frightening than usual, given the wider stated goals and beliefs of the candidate in question, the watching world is well-used to this particular contest venturing onto religious grounds. But that doesn't make it any less shocking ... at least, not for those like me who believe that church really is more than just a human institution. To attempt to deal with the community of God's people on purely worldly terms, in order to satisfy some personal human agenda, requires, I think, to disbelieve (or substantially dismiss) the reality of the Kingdom, of which God is the King. He can't be bought, nor deceived ... nor is He known to look kindly on pride and ambition (e.g. 1 John 2:15-17, Philippians 2:3). The campaign for the Christian vote plays a dangerous and ludicrous game ... which, I suggest, is not dissimilar to the one that Ananias and Sapphira played, to their great harm.

I don't know what the couple hoped to gain from their appearance of conformity and generosity – or what damage they might have occasioned had they continued unnoticed – but the fact that they saw fit to lie about a gift that they were under no obligation to give indicates that they were more interested in ingratiating themselves to the church than in participating in it. They were willing to part with some cash but were content to appear to be truthful, humble and surrendered to God rather than seek to be actually so. Their aims and terms were not those of the community; they had some end of their own in mind, which (I suggest) they hoped might be bolstered or secured somehow by the backing of the newly-emerging power base. But they came up against more than they bargained for.

More, indeed, than many readers bargain for. Granted perhaps they threatened the purpose and existence of the fledgling church – but instantaneous demise?! Even the (reputedly far more 'scary') Old Testament promises that "The Lord is merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love" (Psalm 103:8). Why in this instance did the punishment need to be so immediate, so irreversibly decisive?

I don't pretend to know. But I do wonder about that word 'punishment' under the circumstances. Not that their actions weren't deserving of judgement ... but there seems, to me, something more, and more complex, going on in the wider context. God was powerfully present with the early church in remarkable, not-often-since repeated ways ... "they even carried out the sick into the streets and laid them on cots and mats, that as Peter came by at least his shadow might fall on some of them" (Acts 5:15). If I might make an analogy: for the first few weeks/months of life a newborn baby is protected by its mother's immune system, having inherited her antibodies in the last trimester of pregnancy. This seems not dissimilar to the way in which death, sickness and decay, having ever been incompatible with the character of God [2], were routinely expulsed from the infant body of believers, whose being was born out of His divine parenthood. So I wonder if perhaps the deaths of Ananias and Sapphira weren't as straightforward a matter as 'just deserts', but an extension of the same phenomenon. What they stood for was so at odds with what God is about, and what He made His church to be – so incongruous with Kingdom life and self-surrendering, Jesus-centred community – that they were altogether unable to stand in the face of it.

Not that that makes it any less frightening. Not that I want to make it less frightening. I suspect we Christians can be a little too quick to unfrighten ourselves of the difficult bits.

Back to the present, and our would-be statesman: am I suggesting that a similar fate awaits him? That it's only a matter of time before he drops down from the podium mid-speech, reducing rallying cries of "USA! USA!" and "Trump that Bitch!" to awe-filled silence? Well, if I'm right in my suspicions of his deceit and priorities, then I do fear for him, and pity his position in the long run. But as for his immediate personal safety ... I'm not anywhere near so much scared for that as I am for the health, life and integrity of the church. At two thousand years old and counting, she's no baby anymore, and whilst I believe that God still can and does intervene in power, I also believe that He has equipped us with experience and discernment and expects us to use it – and that He has revealed His own character and priorities in Jesus, and expects us to follow.

And I'm scared because many of my brothers and sisters in America seem to be choosing this man's narratives of reinstated greatness, and protection from outsiders, over the Jesus story of self-surrender, service, compassion and inclusion. Rachel Held Evans astutely observes that the prospects of power, protection and prestige currently being dangled before evangelical US voters are strikingly aligned with the temptations that Jesus uncompromisingly resisted when tempted by Satan in the desert (see Matthew 4:1-11). Whatever noble, high-minded designs one devises for the exercise of power, the very pursuit of it – not to mention the negotiations and compromises some are apparently willing to make – will always sit profoundly uncomfortably alongside the example and teaching of Jesus (e.g. Matthew 20:25-28, Philippians 2:1-11).

Recent polls indicate that nearly four-fifths of self-identifying white evangelicals (who make up nearly one-fifth of all voters) plan to vote for him. Some of this growing support is begrudging, deriving more from an aversion to his opponent than from an affinity with him or his politics. But there are enthusiasts among the number, willing to openly advocate for his candidacy as being 'good for Christians' ... in the sense (it typically transpires) of giving said white evangelicals a firmer grip on the reins of power ... never mind the cost to "the poor, the oppressed, the marginalized, the hated minorities" and all the other people that Jesus routinely prioritised and loved (see, e.g., Luke 4:16-19), and who are seemingly deemed "acceptable collateral damage" in this present bid for power (see, again, Rachel Held Evans).

In short: today, when people try to leverage the church for their own ends, they don't typically die in the attempt. God trusts and equips the community of Jesus' followers to recognise and reject the intrusion of incompatible agendas ourselves. Only, right now, it feels like this is conspicuously not happening; parts of the church are emerging apparently willing to compromise on Christ-likeness for the sake of position. (Incidentally, for all that I deplore their lean, I no doubt blind myself to plentiful like-natured compromises and betrayals of my own). And there's a very real chance this willingness might help promote a dangerously racist, sexist, ignorant demagogue to probably the most influential job in the world. How's that for a scary story...

[1] "White evangelical Protestants make up one-fifth of all registered voters in the U.S. and roughly one-third of all voters who say they identify with or lean toward the Republican Party." (Survey by the Pew Research Center, July 13, 2016)

[2] A topic I explored quite recently with reference to Leviticus.

[Thumbnail image cc from Gage Skidmore on Flickr].


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