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Today we’re wrapping up the series we started in August called Inspiration: Living Everyday Holy. And in that series, we’ve had one pretty simple aim in mind, which is to help you become more attuned to the movement of the Holy Spirit in your own lives, so that we might become empowered as a community (by the way, this is a part of our mission as a community: to empower people to serve –God and one another).

But of course it’s very difficult to become attuned to the Holy Spirit if we don’t even know what we’re looking for.  After all, what is a spirit in the first place?  And what makes something holy? In the weeks past I’ve already spent a great deal of time addressing the topic, and we’ve still only scratched the surface; but in an effort to make this as clear and simple as possible, I’ll say that spirits and spirituality are a way of naming our dynamic environmental ‘connections,’ and holiness is about a particular ‘direction’ or orientation that our connections lead us. So what we’re talking about here today are the things you connect to, and the ‘direction’ those connections take you.  In short, all of this is about ‘connection’ and ‘direction.’

So again today, we’re going to talk a little bit about ‘spirits’ but instead of picturing something like a translucent sheet with eye-holes, or an angry, red half-goat man with horns when you hear about spiritual entities, it might be more helpful to think in terms of a ‘pathogenic’ phenomenon (the term ‘pathogen’ is itself comes from the combination of two ancient Greek words, which mean the origin and production of passion or dis-ease). In the same way that we talk about colds, or say the mysteriously enchanting music video for Gangnam Style ‘went viral,’ the ancients would have said the affected people are either being spiritually inspired or possessed –something that makes even us, in the 21st century, tilt our heads, nod and go ‘hmm.’ But both expressions are referring to the nature of the connection or relationship that we have with the video. It’s power to compel or move or affect entire groups of people is the thing we’re trying to name –I mean how else could you explain the fact that people have sat down to watch a man, singing in a language most of its viewers don’t understand (and when you look up a translation, it doesn’t help a lot), and dance like he’s riding a horse in random places, almost 3 Billion times? There’s clearly a force at work here that we can’t quite wrap our minds around. Therefore, talking about spirits, here, refers to a particular way people and communities are connected.

And similarly, when we use the word ‘holy’ we’re talking about spirits or connections moving in a particular direction.  As we shared last week, the Holy Spirit, is the particular spirit that moves toward healing and blessing. [Hold up Bible] Most of us have probably seen –I hope- a book like this before.  Can someone read what’s on the cover?  It says “Holy Bible.” Does anyone know what those words mean?  They mean ‘Holy’ book/s.  It’s bound together like it’s one book, but it’s actually a collection of 66 distinct writings, from at least four different genres, penned by I can’t even guess how many people, over a span of about a thousand years. And in here we have poetry and songs, a particular type of philosophy, personal letters, theological histories, stories of all kinds, and even a book or two that still defy classification –like the final book, Revelation (which is just a weird thing). So within this library we’re calling ‘holy,’ there is a whole lot of diversity, and even some tension. But they go together because a common spirit runs through all of them –and it’s the Holy Spirit. And when we read the books in relationship to one another, we see there’s a particular momentum contained within.  These are stories and writings that are going somewhere; they’re headed in a particular direction.  And the place these works are taking us to is a state of deeper intimacy with God and God’s people.  And it’s good –good in a way that nothing else is good.  There we’ll find healing, and a new heaven and a new earth; and new life; and the restoration of all things, and redemption, and reconciliation.

In the first week of the series, I said a few words about ‘atonement’ which is the process of coming together. Richard Rohr encourages us to pronounce it ‘at-one-ment,’ and that’s the direction that the Holy moves.  It moves toward unity.  So, in the Old Testament, when they talked about a sacrifice of atonement, what they were doing was making a peace-offering with God.  There was a recognition that some sort of relational rift had developed between human beings and God –their hearts had started going in different directions. Sin had moved them out of alignment.  And so a pilgrimage had to be made to the temple, so that you could symbolically and literally journey back into God’s presence, and there a gift was offered on the alter, on your behalf.

Of course we think this is kind of an archaic thing to do, but of course this is still how we make peace today, isn’t it?  Husbands, if you are still a husband, you know about this.  At one point in time, you’ve done something selfish and inconsiderate –don’t even try and deny it- which caused a rift between you and your beloved.  So it’s now your responsibility to make a peace offering, perhaps in the form of flowers or a special night out, or jewelry, and you do a little penance, where you grovel and name all the things you did wrong, perhaps even including some things that you don’t really think were actually your fault at all, so you’re not really sorry about them in the least; but you say you are anyway because you know that’s what it will take to get you back to where you want to be. Then you go on and list the things you’re going to do in the future to improve your devotion.

If you felt an elbow in your ribs, or heard any kind of a throat-clearing noise at any point when those things were being mentioned, then you’ll know it’s time.  It’s time for a peace-offering, and if you’re still wincing, you’ll know it needs to happen soon and it needs to be big.  Now is the time for atonement –for at-one-ment- because relationships, like all living things, disintegrate when they’re neglected.  So whether you’ve done anything wrong or not, a gift can be a powerful sign of the state of our hearts, and their desire to be cherished, and to move again toward being one.

And we can see this movement toward atonement play out in the larger narrative of the Bible, as slaves are freed and empowered to become a unified people who are guided by a holy law that moves them closer to peace within their own nation, and as they grow into their calling to bless the other nations.  And then later in the story, Jesus comes along to announce that the kingdom of God is not a mere political entity, but it’s something new. Something the world had never so fully realized before. Here the spirit that gives them unity is agape –it’s love –it’s the kind of compassion that inspires us to give of ourselves, back to God, and on to others. It’s the kind of spirit that not only transforms communities, but it also transforms people.  Just look at what happened to the Apostle Peter, whom we’ve been reading about throughout this whole year.  He started out, when Jesus first met him, as a common fisherman, named Simon. And as we watch him grow and mature in the gospel narratives, we see that this commoner becomes wise, and Jesus gives him a new name, and he starts to do some pretty incredible things, like walk on water and cast out evil spirits.  But even by the time each of the gospel stories end, he’s still a coward; and he might even be a traitor.  And if we never heard about Peter again after the resurrection, he would have been remembered only as an utter failure.

But in this story we’re reading called The Acts of the Apostles, we can hardly recognize the same old Pete any longer.  Not for a moment is he bumbling or cowardly. Where he was once uneducated, he has now begun to preach with great wisdom and authority, joining company with the prophets of old.  Before, he was an ordinary guy; but now he can invoke miracles of healing, with only the name of Jesus.  And when he’s arrested and tried, he becomes inspired and turns the whole case on its head –so that he left all of the wise and the powerful baffled.

And here we pick up our story again.  We’re in the book of Acts, toward the end of the 4th chapter, and we’re about to see community like it’s never existed before (and may not have been repeated since), which is then followed by what’s probably the weirdest, most troubling story in the whole story. I’d encourage you to pay attention to the movement.

This is what it says:

32 The community of believers was one in heart and mind. None of them would say, “This is mine!” about any of their possessions, but held everything in common. 33 The apostles continued to bear powerful witness to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and an abundance of grace was at work among them all. 34 There were no needy persons among them. Those who owned properties or houses would sell them, bring the proceeds from the sales, 35 and place them in the care and under the authority of the apostles. Then it was distributed to anyone who was in need.

36 Joseph, whom the apostles nicknamed Barnabas (that is, “one who encourages”), was a Levite from Cyprus. 37 He owned a field, sold it, brought the money, and placed it in the care and under the authority of the apostles.

Now, very quickly, that sounds pretty perfect, doesn’t it?  Atonement here is pretty much depicted here as being complete, at least for this little group.  Their hearts and minds and property are all one –they’re all shared in common.  There’s no poverty, there’s not selfishness –sounds just like America, right? Here we have a living picture of the kingdom of God or heaven that Jesus spoke of: it looks like total sharing. Enter act 2:

However, a man named Ananias, along with his wife Sapphira, sold a piece of property. 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. 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? 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!” When Ananias heard these words, he dropped dead. Everyone who heard this conversation was terrified. Some young men stood up, wrapped up his body, carried him out, and buried him.

About three hours later, his wife entered, but she didn’t know what had happened to her husband. Peter asked her, “Tell me, did you and your husband receive this price for the field?”

She responded, “Yes, that’s the amount.”

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.

In case you tuned out for a minute, let me re-cap the craziness that you just heard about.  Here a married couple sold a piece of property, gave a bunch of the money to the church, and in response the church leader yelled at them and they both died. Let that sink in for a moment.  Then let it sink in that this same church leader actually told them: ‘wasn’t it your property to keep and do with what you wanted? What evil spirit made you think of selling it and giving some of it to the church?’ That has to be the worst stewardship campaign sermon ever, right?

For most of us, we’d think that Ananias and Saphira were good people, wouldn’t we?  They did the thing they were supposed to do. They sold property they owned, they cashed in on an investment and they gave all but some of it to the church community.  So we’d expect the story to conclude with a  round of high-fives for everybody, right? Peter should have said here is ‘thanks for your generous gift,’ because, as even he acknowledges, they didn’t have to give anything at all. But they did. And isn’t giving something far, far better than not giving anything at all?

Peter apparently doesn’t think so! And he seems to have what we might call fairly strong feelings about this.  In fact, he says that somehow their gift was actually a lie –a trick- against God and the Holy Spirit and the community –so they pretty much ticked off the whole trinity with their offering. “What made you think of such a thing” Ananias?

Then, boom, the guy drops dead.

What? And if that isn’t insane enough, three hours later his wife walks in, and apparently without even saying ‘hi’ Peter asks her, “Tell me, did you and your husband receive this price for the field?” She says yeah, and then just as the guys who buried her husband come back, she drops dead too! In case it wasn’t clear the first time around that it was their gift that killed them! And act 2 concludes with the line “trepidation and dread seized the whole church and all who heard what had happened.”

Fear and trepidation?  No kidding! Where are the lawyers making sorcery-charges now, because this stuff is bananas! Think about it: in the gospels, when it came to stuff like adultery, unjust tax-collections, and even his own murder, Jesus was like ‘Father forgive them!’  But here some people come to church with an offering that maybe wasn’t quite what Peter was hoping for, and the couple who gave the gift end up dead on the floor. What in the world is going on here?

Which, by the way, is precisely what you’re supposed to be asking yourself, and the people around you, as you read this.  This story is supposed to be shocking.  It’s supposed to make you uneasy and wonder why you’re unconsciously clutching your wallet when you hear it.  Because the Bible doesn’t just tell you what to do in each and every given situation –that’d just be taking you back to slavery.  But instead the movement of the Holy Spirit is toward empowering you for connection and atonement, so it’s inviting you to relate to what’s going on behind the scenes.  How do you experience this story on the level just below the surface of the words?  When you hear about this gift that returned death, how do you identify the lie, and the offense against God? When Peter asks Ananias “what made you think of such a thing?” how do you imagine responding to that same question?

Before I go any further, we need to finish the story.  This is what happens in the third act.  It says this.

Responses to the church

12 The apostles performed many signs and wonders among the people. They would come together regularly at Solomon’s Porch. 13 No one from outside the church dared to join them, even though the people spoke highly of them. 14 Indeed, more and more believers in the Lord, large numbers of both men and women, were added to the church. 15 As a result, they would even bring the sick out into the main streets and lay them on cots and mats so that at least Peter’s shadow could fall on some of them as he passed by. 16 Even large numbers of persons from towns around Jerusalem would gather, bringing the sick and those harassed by unclean spirits. Everyone was healed.

Isn’t that last line beautiful?  “Everyone was healed.” I hear that line and I try and imagine a hospital, where even the oncology ward gets to discharge all of its patients, never to return. It’s a beautiful picture, but also haunting.  Haunting because of course, we live in a world where healing, and being of one heart and one mind, and of sharing everything so that nobody’s poor, are not our predominant reality. In fact, I live in a world where someone I love is dying from cancer, and where we’re afraid to have the most important conversations because the minds of our culture are so violently divided, and where, if we share, it’s always half-hearted and out of a sense of obligation rather than out of a spirit of hope or joy.

So we have to ask ourselves what happened?  Why is there so much poverty in the world?  Why do so many suffer alone without healing?  What happened to that beautiful community in Jerusalem where all that sharing and healing were happening?  How come we can’t seem to live anything like that today?

When we ask those questions, suddenly Peter’s anger in the story becomes a little less crazy, doesn’t it?  Here we can quickly see that the one thing holding back God’s great work of unifying atonement, and the end of poverty, is not the bad guys out there doing all the bad things, but it’s simply the act of withholding itself.  Full, life-giving sharing is disrupted because there are gifts that go ungiven.  And we know from experience that withholding is contagious. This is why everyone’s so mad at Joel Osteen right now.  There was that huge church building that needed sharing, so that those displaced by the flooding might have a place to sleep, but it was initially withheld; and it looks like his reasons for withholding were dishonest.  And if Christians –particularly those who are most visible, aren’t sharing in accordance with their calling, then what does that say about the faith itself?

So even in real life we find that the combination of withholding with dishonesty is lethal. The combination allows us to think we’re good because we’re giving, and yet, we’re not wholly moving with the Holy Spirit. It’s like holding on to our previous life, while also trying to move forward.

It’s like watching my daughter try to go across the monkey bars. She doesn’t have any problem holding on to one bar, and she’s even figured out how to swing her body and move one arm to that next bar. But when it comes to letting go of that first bar with her remaining hand, she gets too scared to do it.  So she gets caught between two bars, unable to gain anymore forward momentum.  And at this point, every time, she’ll yell for me and go “help!  Daddy, I’m stuck!”

So I tell her, you just have to move this hand up to the other bar.  She tells me she’s scared, and again she asks for help.  So I tell her to hold on with that one hand, while I pry her fingers from the bar behind her –and she screams: “NOOOOOOO!”

But true and full giving and sharing require courage.  And they require vulnerability.  And it requires that you let go.  You have to let go of the things that at one time gave you comfort. You have to let go of the things that bring you a cheap sense of fleeting happiness, so you’re free to grab on to that next and better thing.  You have to risk falling.

But that’s what it takes.  That’s where the Holy Spirit leads us –it leads us out of the safety of the things we know, out into something new. Like those who joined this new Jesus-inspired community, you have to let go of your personal life to dive fully into the communal life. And there you’ll have to risk being fully known and seen.  And you’ll have to risk knowing and seeing the un-pleasantries of other people too.  No longer will the sharing be just the nice stuff, but there will be the messy stuff too.

But, brothers and sisters, that’s where the healing comes in: where we share not only our gifts, but where we share our needs and our failures and our insecurities too.  When we bring the parts of ourselves that we’re not so proud of, out into the light –that’s where others and the Holy Spirit can breathe into us and inspire us to be more empowered. There is no healing when the wounds and infirmities are covered over and hidden.

Therefore, when we withhold from sharing, we’re also withholding healing, and we’re withholding ourselves from being healed.  So in the days and weeks to come, may we have the courage to let go of fear and ego so that we might offer up who we are and what we have to God.

Let’s pray.