Acts 5:1–11

Now a man named Ananias, together with his wife Sapphira, also sold a piece of property. With his wife’s full knowledge he kept back part of the money for himself, but brought the rest and put it at the apostles’ feet.

Then Peter said, “Ananias, how is it that Satan has so filled your heart that you have lied to the Holy Spirit and have kept for yourself some of the money you received for the land? Didn’t it belong to you before it was sold? And after it was sold, wasn’t the money at your disposal? What made you think of doing such a thing? You have not lied just to human beings but to God.”

When Ananias heard this, he fell down and died. And great fear seized all who heard what had happened. Then some young men came forward, wrapped up his body, and carried him out and buried him.

About three hours later his wife came in, not knowing what had happened. Peter asked her, “Tell me, is this the price you and Ananias got for the land?”

“Yes,” she said, “that is the price.”

Peter said to her, “How could you conspire to test the Spirit of the Lord? Listen! The feet of those who buried your husband are at the door, and they will carry you out also.”

At that moment she fell down at his feet and died. Then the young men came in and, finding her dead, carried her out and buried her beside her husband. Great fear seized the whole church and all who heard about these events.

Earlier this summer CNN reported about a motorcycle accident that ended in death and controversy. A motorcyclist rode without a helmet in a ride to protest mandatory helmet laws. He represented his local chapter of American Bikers Aimed Towards Education (ABATE). He was thrown over his handlebars in an accident and later died at the hospital. Experts analyzed the data from the crash and determined that he would have survived if he had been wearing a helmet.

ABATE members mourned the tragic loss, but praised the man’s determination to stand up for personal freedoms, saying he “rode for freedom and risked his all for freedom.” Members of the Governors Highway Safety Association called the incident tragic and sad, encouraging all motorcyclists to wear helmets. There were strong feelings on both sides.

But no one expressed surprise.

Somehow, no matter how tragic or sudden a death is, if it makes logical sense, we can sleep at night. When my 85-year-old grandparents passed away, we mourned, but we did not blame God for the loss. When a celebrity succumbs to the deadly grip of drugs, we cry, we lay out flowers, but we do not ask, “why?” When a convicted felon receives the death penalty for murder, we may or may not question the sentence, but when the lethal injection begins, we just shake our heads and shrug and say, “Sad world we live in.”

But there are other deaths that cause our heads to spin, our hearts to stop beating, and our faith to begin to swirl down the drain of suffering. When a young person is stricken with a terminal illness. When someone is murdered. When people die in war zones. When children starve to death. Then we reach up to the sky and pound our chests and scream at the all-knowing Parent in the sky and say, WHY? Don’t you love us? Don’t you have a plan?

Ananias and Sapphira is a death story that does not seem logical to me. They lie to God and the church and they are struck down in some sort of anti-miracle of Peter. Sapphira’s death is even premeditated. Your husband died, now you’re gonna die. What? Are you serious? There are many other examples of sin in the Bible where the sinner does not fall down dead. There are plenty of examples in present day where the sinners do not fall down dead. There are a few examples in my life today where I have sinned and not fallen down dead. So, why Ananias and Sapphira? Where was grace for them? Why didn’t they get a second chance? Why couldn’t they just confess, believe, and be saved?

There is a reason why this is one of the most difficult passages in scripture. It seems like Peter got ticked, he called down God’s wrath, and God cooperated with his plan. And if you study this passage, you don’t get much closer to a logical explanation. We don’t have many details. It might be easier to understand if Ananias lied to God AND he was a pedophile. Or maybe Sapphira kicked dogs and cooked cats while Ananias painted racist propaganda. That would make the story more palatable. Then we would just keep on reading Acts with great peace and encouragement. I’m not that bad. Hooray for me.

The part of the story that gets under our skin is the fact that we are exactly like Ananias and Sapphira. We hold back things from God. We lie to God and the church, saying that we have nothing left to give. But we feel a sense of peace about our reluctance because we believe that God’s grace will cover our shortcomings. We will keep on living, attending church, giving what feels right, and then we’ll die a natural death.

Then we read our story in Acts and it doesn’t end that way. The church confronts us and we die. What do we do with that?

It reminds me of the scene in Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, where Ebenezer Scrooge is peering over the edge of his own grave. He begs the third spirit for another chance to change his life. We peer over the edge of the graves of Ananias and Sapphira. We get spooked. We say, “Um, not me, Lord.” And we pull out our checkbooks, just to be sure. Is that the appropriate response to this gruesome story? Is it a fairy tale to get us to mind our manners?

Some commentators suggest that Ananias and Sapphira sought glory and recognition without real sacrifice. That’s why they were killed. But I do that too. I am not satisfied with that answer.

Some commentators suggest that Luke contrasts Barnabas and his sacrificial giving with the selfishness of Ananias and Sapphira in order to teach the church that Barnabas’s generous gifts brought consolation to the church, while the selfish gift of Ananias and Sapphira brought fear. That still doesn’t make their deaths any more logical to me.

Some say that this is a parallel story to other Original Sin stories, such as the fall of Adam and Eve, the golden calf at Mount Sinai, and the stoning death of Achan. These stories interrupt parts of the narrative where things are idyllic, God is present, and the community is healthy. The sin comes in, death follows, and Eden vanishes.

That perspective may give the stories more literary heft. They may make more sense in the long perspective, but nothing can make them feel logical or even fair. No amount of biblical scholarship can explain away every tough story of God’s wrath. If it could, then God would be called “Science” because God would always be predictable. God would make sense all the time. We could set our watches by the miracles.

God is faithful, God is loving, God is just; but God is not predictable.

So what do we do with a God that doesn’t always make sense? What do we do with a God who will not heal a friend I prayed for last week, but will strike down a church-attending couple?

When Job asks this question, God says: who are you to question my awesome ways?

This answer is sufficient and it should be sufficient. And for some believers, this is enough to stop asking why. Trust God, whose ways are higher than our ways.

But when it seems like God ways are wrong, illogical, ill-timed, or even unloving, I do not go to Job 40-41. The idea that God can crush me doesn’t minister to me in my time of faith crisis.

Instead, I go to John 11.

There is this beautiful moment where Jesus has lost his dear friend, Lazarus. The death seems senseless. People there ask our question, “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?” (John 11:37). Two thousand years ago, Jesus’s friends asked our question. “Couldn’t you have done something about this?” The fact that people in the presence of Jesus could have the same question knocks me off my chair. I am comforted by this simple fact alone, but it gets better.

Jesus is weeping. His friends are weeping. And that is where we find ourselves — outside the tomb, weeping with Jesus, saying, “Why didn’t you do something? If only you had come sooner…”

In that moment, Lazarus’s sisters, Mary and Martha, ask the question. They stand at tomb and shake their heads and ask, “Why?” This death makes no logical sense. It is in that moment that I find comfort. That is where we are, on the precipice of a miracle, on the outer reaches of “all things new,” at the banks of “prosper you and not harm you.” That is where we wait for God to move.

He tells us that things will be okay. He says, “I am the resurrection and the life. Anyone who believes in me will live, even though they die; and whoever lives by believing in me will never die. Do you believe this?”

And we say, “Yes, Lord. We believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, who was to come into the world.”

The astounding part of that place is that even though Jesus knows about the victorious resurrection that is coming, he still pauses to weep with the sisters and friends. And he weeps with us.

And he weeps for Ananias and Sapphira.

Acts 3:1–10

One day Peter and John were going up to the temple at the time of prayer—at three in the afternoon. Now a man who was lame from birth was being carried to the temple gate called Beautiful, where he was put every day to beg from those going into the temple courts. When he saw Peter and John about to enter, he asked them for money. Peter looked straight at him, as did John. Then Peter said, “Look at us!” So the man gave them his attention, expecting to get something from them.

Then Peter said, “Silver or gold I do not have, but what I do have I give you. In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, walk.” Taking him by the right hand, he helped him up, and instantly the man’s feet and ankles became strong. He jumped to his feet and began to walk. Then he went with them into the temple courts, walking and jumping, and praising God. When all the people saw him walking and praising God, they recognized him as the same man who used to sit begging at the temple gate called Beautiful, and they were filled with wonder and amazement at what had happened to him.

Tough Love

I was a junior in high school when our youth group went on a strategic neighborhood prayer walk. We went door to door, every day for a week, asking people for their prayer requests. Then we would meet at night to pray for each request. It was awkward some times, but we felt we were really connecting with the community.

One of the evenings we were greeted at the door by two little girls. We asked them if we could speak to a parent. Their father came to the door in his wheelchair.

“Hello there, we’re from the church down the road and we’d like to know if you have any prayer requests today. We will write them down and pray for them this evening.” He looked at us with the same skeptical face that you do when religious people bother you at home. Through clenched teeth he said,

“Nope, we’re just fine.”

“Are you sure? Is there anything we can ask God to do for you?”

He scowled and dared us, “You could ask God to make my damn legs work again.”

“Sure, God can do anything. Sure thing. We’ll pray for you. Here’s some literature about our church. Have a blessed day.” I felt sick about the whole experience, but another member of my team felt a different leading.

“I think we should go back and pray for healing. I think God wants us to go knock on his door and pray for him right there. Lay hands on him.” “Lay-hands-on” is a reference to an early church practice of praying and imparting blessings by putting one’s hands on the person for whom one is praying. But I felt unsettled about this.

So we trekked through the neighborhood, back to the man’s house. At the time, I would have described him as that Angry Man. That was how he treated us, but as I look back, I wonder if he was angry or just shaking his head at us and our naive attempt at evangelistic prayer. I wouldn’t blame him.

He answered the door with his girls. His face fell. Here we go again.

“We’d like to pray for you. Here and Now.”

I still can’t believe he brought us into his home. We were a ragtag handful of teenagers with one small-group-leader-mom, hoping to bring down some modern-day, instantaneous healing on this guy. I was mortified on his behalf. We prayed. We said, “Amen.” That was it. We left, dragging our enthusiasm behind us.

It was a risky move. I knew it at age 16. But I was still mad at God that he didn’t just come through for us. Yeah, people are dumb, but God, you could have shown up. That would have been really cool of you.

Healing is tough. Entire faith communities exist around this spiritual phenomenon. It’s supposed to work this way: If you have faith, you pray, and your brothers and sisters lay on hands, you will be healed! Unless…

  • you didn’t have enough faith
  • or God isn’t ready to heal you yet because you haven’t learned the intended lesson
  • or your endurance through suffering is bringing him glory
  • or his divine cosmic plan depends on your infirmity
  • or he is planning to give you “ultimate healing” which means you die and go to heaven and get your new body
  • or you need to go get prayer from a faith healer
  • or God doesn’t do miracles like that anymore
  • or God doesn’t do miracles like that for westerners who have modern medicine
  • or he was just in a bad mood that day.

So, how is it supposed to work again?

When I was a kid, healing stories gave me faith and hope. As a child I heard the same ones over and over again. Every Sunday School curriculum includes these sweet stories of restoration and healing. You don’t run into too many six-year-olds who know the ugly stories of death and annihilation. Ehud and Eglon, anyone? You are supposed to tell a six-year-old about the Feeding of the Five Thousand and the Healing of the Blind Man and the Resurrection of Lazarus. Miracles are so great! Anything can happen! God feels so close.

The ugly stuff comes later.

Now that I am an adult and have lived through some trials, the miracle stories are some of the most disturbing parts of the Bible to me. Miracles aren’t the world I know. Supernatural, instantaneous healing seems far more distant than suffering and agony. Even divine retribution (as in the coming story of Ananias and Sapphira) makes more sense. Sinners deserve death. That part is easy. The tough question is, why does God choose some sinners for supernatural healing while leaving others in pain? Why doesn’t God heal my friend with cerebral palsy? Why did the most effective teacher in my school have to die of breast cancer? Why did the lame beggar find healing, but millions of people die of hunger without any miraculous intervention?

I know Luke didn’t put this story in his account for the sake of making other sick people feel miserable, so there must be something more to find.

Every Bit as Miraculous

My friend has cerebral palsy. She has been around enough churches and among enough denominations that she has experienced every version of healing prayer you can think of. She grew weary of hearing that she would be healed if she had enough faith. From faith healing to naturopathy, she has experienced it all. And she still suffers.

I asked her about this passage. I confessed my own skepticism and hopelessness and she seemed genuinely surprised.

“Why does the story make you feel that way?”

“Because no one ever gets healed around me. What’s the point? Is it some cosmic tease?”

“For someone who suffers daily, these stories offer hope. I may never be instantaneously healed, but it could happen. On the other hand, I feel like God is healing me slowly, every day, and that is every bit as miraculous.”

What kind of story is this?

What if this isn’t a story about healing?

If we look at this as a story about healing, we end up with the question, “why not me, God?” But is it a healing story—or is it a common-people story? A story about the good news? A story for me and you? Peter healed a lame beggar, a man outside the temple gate, who felt just as alienated as we feel.

Luke wrote Acts to chronicle the progress and power of the early church. The location of this miracle is critical to Luke’s overall theme that the good news is for everyone. This healing, the first recorded miracle of Peter, takes place at the outer gates of the temple at the gate called Beautiful. God’s presence is at the outer gate, no longer confined to the Holy of Holies or the inner sanctum of the temple. The Holy Spirit is busting out, taking to the streets. This Jesus is for everyone, even for a lame beggar on the outskirts of the center of worship. Luke says that the separation of a Holy God from his unholy people ends now, and here’s proof!

This is not a healing story. This is a “Who-do-you-know?” story, as in, “do you know this guy? Because I think he can get you in. He’s a pretty big deal around here. People just say his name and stuff starts happening. I’m not sure there’s ever been anyone like him.”

And that name is Jesus Christ of Nazereth.

That name is powerful. In a culture where elite names open doors or change circumstances, Peter invokes the name of Jesus to heal this man. Luke is establishing that Jesus was no ordinary prophet. His Spirit did not die when he ascended. He is only beginning his work of restoration. This name is going to change things. For everyone. Peter invokes the name of Jesus and a man is miraculously changed forever. His life will never be the same.

This story is about the name of Jesus and his reach which is stretching to the outer limits of humanity to collect us all in his pocket and take us home.

This is not a healing story. This is a beggar’s story.

What about sincerely being awed by the fact that God healed anyone at all? How great for that guy! If God only healed one person on earth and it was “Lame Beggar at the Gate,” I guess I’m really happy for him. His life might have been really hard and awful and God healed him. That is worth celebrating whether God intervenes supernaturally in anyone’s life ever again.

I hope he does intervene in the lives of my friends and family, but if he doesn’t, we’ll always have Lame Beggar at the Gate.

But it still hurts.

When we suffer, we may never see any supernatural healing on this earth. (Are we allowed to say that in church?) Jesus came to suffer with us, not remove suffering from our experience. He cries the tears with us, he draws the excruciating breaths with us, and he limps along with us. A companion in the journey, a redeemer to make it all worth it.

Jesus also came to make all things new. The trouble is, his “new” is so “new” we may not recognize it. When Jesus heals something, what does it look like? Watching my friend with cerebral palsy experience healing day by day is “new” to me. It’s miraculous. It’s healing.

Seeing my friend’s autistic son develop his spoken language and begin expressing thoughts, feelings, creativity, and prayers is “new” to me. I’ve never seen anything like that before. It’s healing.

Watching my children progress through their own grief and suffering as adoptees is “new”. Their healing is miraculous. God is collecting their tears and bandaging their wounds and setting them right.

But is this enough? I don’t know. I have experienced many supernatural things, but I’m still waiting to see a lame person walk. I know there are many among us in our community who have experienced miracles. Perhaps if we continue to rejoice in our stories, we will discover the miraculous is more common than we imagined.