Acts of the Apostles 5:12-16

There is a “seam” in the first reading, Acts of the Apostles 5:12-16, for the Second Sunday of Easter:

 12 Now many signs and wonders were done among the people through the apostles. And they were all together in Solomon's Portico. 13 None of the rest dared to join them, but the people held them in high esteem. 14 Yet more than ever believers were added to the Lord, great numbers of both men and women, 15 so that they even carried out the sick into the streets, and laid them on cots and mats, in order that Peter's shadow might fall on some of them as he came by. 16 A great number of people would also gather from the towns around Jerusalem, bringing the sick and those tormented by unclean spirits, and they were all cured.


The “seam” is between verse 13 and verse 14, where you can see how Luke “sewed” together two of his sources. In verse 13, “none of the rest dared to join them,” but in verse 14, “more than ever believers were added to the Lord.” What happened to cause this rapid change of mind and behavior? Like all historians, Luke does not, perhaps cannot, give us the whole story, but in this instance we are not given a particular event. What intervened to change people’s minds? In verse 12, we are told that the apostles did "many signs and wonders among the people," but this occurs prior to verse 13. We do not know what happened between verses 13 and 14, but maybe it was just a matter of time, literally. If we go back and we look at Acts 5:1-11, we might be able to gain some clues.

The first portion of Acts 5 tells the account of the married couple Ananias and Sapphira. It is an odd and challenging story about a couple who dedicate the proceeds from the sale of a property to the Church, but misreport the amount of the sale price and hold some money back, for reasons which are not explained, but which are often thought explicable as a means to hedge their bets if this “Church thing” does not work out. Separately, three hours apart, Ananias and Sapphira come before Peter and lie about how much money they gained from the sale of the property; separately, because they have lied to the Holy Spirit and God says Acts, they fall down dead in front of Peter. This is not a passage usually read on stewardship Sunday. The response of the early Church seems appropriate: “And great fear seized the whole church and all who heard of these things” (5:11).  It also makes sense of the first “seam”:  “none of the rest dared to join them” (5:13).  The kind of power on display in Acts 5:1-11 with the deaths of Ananias and Sapphira is fearful and terrible. This is something you had better think about seriously. Are you all in or are you hedging your bets?

Verse 14, then, “yet more than ever believers were added to the Lord,” seems out of place. Why does Luke stitch the story together here? Why did he not add some other event or some detail that explained why people now wanted to join this Church after the deaths of Ananias and Sapphira? Or is it that nothing specific happened except the ongoing power of the Holy Spirit, explained in verses 15-16 as manifesting itself specifically through Peter in healings of the sick and possessed? Is it that Luke wanted to draw attention to the fact that the Holy Spirit, which would not be mocked by Ananaias and Sapphira, was the same powerful source for healing and the giving of new life?

I have always had a hard time figuring out why Ananias and Sapphira had to die, why their sins were so grave that they were called to account for them eternally right then and there; is it an allegory for their spiritual death?  Admittedly this is not the reading for this Second Sunday of Easter, but it is essential to understand today’s first reading. It seems that Luke wanted to draw attention to the reality of the Holy Spirit in the midst of the Church, that the Church's power came not from Peter himself, or any other apostle, but from the Holy Spirit working in, through and on behalf of the Church. Ananias and Sapphira died, according to Luke, not because they did not join and belong to the Church, but because they did not take seriously what it meant to belong to the Church and treated it as yet another human institution which they could game. People came to the Church even after this news spread, with fear and trembling, because they saw God’s power active in Peter and God’s saving power has the ability to heal all those who are sick, even to death, as Easter itself promises us. But God’s power must be treated with the respect it deserves, especially by those within the Church, who are sometimes tempted to deny the reality of the Holy Spirit, like Ananias and Sapphira, and make that denial plain by their actions. Do we need a greater sense today of the "great fear" that  "seized the whole church and all who heard of these things” (5:11)? When we respect the power of the Holy Spirit working through the Church, more than ever people will respond to the Holy Spirit.

John W. Martens

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