Thursday, 14 April 2016

Acts 5 - If it be of God, you cannot overthrow it

Francken Death of Sapphira.jpg
Death of Ananias and Saphira
Francken, c1544-1618
Today's section of Acts opens with the confronting story of Ananias and Saphhira (verses 1-11).  Particularly since it is referred to in St Benedict's Rule (Chapter 57), it is worth considering St John Chrysostom's explanation of their sin as perjury and sacrilege.

The remainder of the chapter looks at:
  • the miracles performed by the apostles, to the point where even being in the shadow of St Peter was thought to be sufficient to heal people (verses 12-16);
  • the arrest of Peter by the authorities, and his freeing from prison by an angel (verses 17-20);
  • the resumption of his preaching (verses 21-32);
  • the consideration of them by the Council and the advice on discernment of spirits by Gamaliel (33-42).
The death of Anaias and Sapphira:
1 But there was a man called Ananias who, with his wife Sapphira, sold an estate, 2 and kept back some of the money, with his wife’s knowledge, only bringing a part of it to lay at the feet of the apostles. 3 Whereupon Peter said, Ananias, how is it that Satan has taken possession of thy heart, bidding thee defraud the Holy Spirit by keeping back some of the money that was paid thee for the land? 4 Unsold, the property was thine; after the sale, the money was at thy disposal; what has put it into thy heart so to act? It is God, not man, thou hast defrauded. 5 At these words, Ananias fell down and died; and a great fear came upon all those who heard it. 6 So the young men rose and took him up, and carried him out to burial. 7 It was about three hours later that his wife came in, knowing nothing of what had happened; 8 and Peter said to her, Tell me, woman, was it for so much that you sold the estate? Yes, she said, for so much. 9 Then Peter said to her, What is this conspiracy between you, to put the Spirit of the Lord to the test? Even now I hear at the door the footsteps of those who have been burying thy husband; they will carry thee out too. 10 And all at once she fell at his feet and died; so that when the young men came in they found her a corpse, and carried her out to bury her with her husband. 11 Great fear came upon the church and upon all who heard the story. 
Vir autem quidam nomine Ananias, cum Saphira uxore suo vendidit agrum, 2 et fraudavit de pretio agri, conscia uxore sua: et afferens partem quamdam, ad pedes Apostolorum posuit. 3 Dixit autem Petrus: Anania, cur tentavit Satanas cor tuum, mentiri te Spiritui Sancto, et fraudare de pretio agri? 4 nonne manens tibi manebat, et venundatum in tua erat potestate? quare posuisti in corde tuo hanc rem? non es mentitus hominibus, sed Deo. 5 Audiens autem Ananias hæc verba, cecidit, et expiravit. Et factus est timor magnus super omnes qui audierunt. 6 Surgentes autem juvenes amoverunt eum, et efferentes sepelierunt. 7 Factum est autem quasi horarum trium spatium, et uxor ipsius, nesciens quod factum fuerat, introivit. 8 Dixit autem ei Petrus: Dic mihi mulier, si tanti agrum vendidistis? At illa dixit: Etiam tanti. 9 Petrus autem ad eam: Quid utique convenit vobis tentare Spiritum Domini? Ecce pedes eorum qui sepelierunt virum tuum ad ostium, et efferent te. 10 Confestim cecidit ante pedes ejus, et expiravit. Intrantes autem juvenes invenerunt illam mortuam: et extulerunt, et sepelierunt ad virum suum. 11 Et factus est timor magnus in universa ecclesia, et in omnes qui audierunt hæc.
Chrysostom (Sermon 12): ...And the wife of Ananias was privy to the thing done: therefore he examines her. But perhaps some one will say that he dealt very harshly with her.

What do you mean? What harshness? If for gathering sticks a man is to be stoned, much rather ought he for sacrilege; for this money was become sacred. He that has chosen to sell his goods and distribute them, and then withdraws them, is guilty of sacrilege...

We neither obliged you to sell, the Apostle says, nor to give your money when you had sold; of your own free choice you did it; why have you then stolen from the sacred treasury? Why, he says, has Satan filled your heart? Acts 5:3 Well, if Satan did the thing, why is the man made guilty of it? For admitting the influence of the devil, and being filled with it.

You will say, they ought to have corrected him. But he would not have received correction; for he that has seen such things as he had seen, and is none the better, would certainly be none the better for anything else that could be done; the matter was not one to be simply passed over: like a gangrene, it must be cut out, that it might not infect the rest of the body. As it is, both the man himself is benefitted in regard that he is not left to advance further in wickedness, and the rest, in that they are made more earnest; otherwise the contrary would have ensued...

How many, since Ananias and Sapphira, have dared the same with them? How is it then, say you, that they have not met with the same fate? Not because it was allowed in them, but because they are reserved for a greater punishment. For those who often sin and are not punished, have greater reason to fear and dread than if they were punished. For the vengeance is increased for them by their present impunity and the long-suffering of God. Then let us not look to this, that we are not punished; but let us consider whether we have not sinned: if sinning we are not punished, we have the more reason to tremble...

Many like things are done now as were done before the Flood, yet no flood has been sent: because there is a hell threatened, and vengeance. Many sin as the people did in Sodom, yet no rain of fire has been poured down; because a river of fire is prepared... And what is the reason of this? God sets you a time, in which to wash yourself clean; but if you persist, at last He will send down the vengeance. You have seen the fate of liars. Consider what is the fate of false swearers, consider, and desist. It is impossible a swearer should not forswear himself, whether he will or not; and no perjurer can be saved. One false oath suffices to finish all, to draw down upon us the whole measure of vengeance. Let us then take heed to ourselves, that we may escape the punishment due to this offense, and be deemed worthy of the loving kindness of God, through the grace and mercies of His only-begotten Son, with Whom to the Father and the Holy Ghost be glory, power, and honor, now and ever, and world without end. Amen.

The miracle of the shadow:
12 And there were many signs and miracles done by the apostles before the people. They used to gather with one accord in Solomon’s porch. 13 No one else dared to join them, although the people held them in high honour, 14 and the number of those who believed in the Lord, both men and women, still increased; 15 they even used to bring sick folk into the streets, and lay them down there on beds and pallets, in the hope that even the shadow of Peter, as he passed by, might fall upon one of them here and there, and so they would be healed of their infirmities. 16 From neighbouring cities, too, the common people flocked to Jerusalem, bringing with them the sick and those who were troubled by unclean spirits; and all of them were cured.
The reaction of the Jewish authorities and the rescue of Peter by an angel:
17 This roused the high priest and those who thought with him, that is, the party of the Sadducees. 18 Full of indignation, they arrested the apostles and shut them up in the common gaol. 19 But, in the night, an angel of the Lord came and opened the prison doors, and led them out; 20 Go, he said, and take your stand in the temple; preach fully to the people the message of true life.
 The resumption of preaching:
21 So, at his word, they went into the temple at dawn, and began preaching. Meanwhile the high priest and his followers met, and summoned the Council, with all the elders of the Jewish people; and they sent to the prison-house to have them brought in. 22 When they came to look in the prison, the officers could not find them there; so they went back and reported, 23 We found the prison-house locked up with all due care, and the guards at their posts before the door; but when we opened it there was no one to be found within. 24 At hearing this, the temple superintendent and the chief priests were at a loss to know what had become of them; 25 until an eye-witness told them, The men you put in prison are standing in the temple, teaching the people there. 26 So the superintendent and his officers went and fetched them, using no violence, because they were afraid of being stoned by the people; 27 and they brought them in and bade them stand before the Council, where the high priest questioned them. 28 We warned you in set terms, he said, not to preach in this man’s name, and you have filled all Jerusalem with your preaching; you are determined to lay this man’s death at our door. 29 Peter and the other apostles answered, God has more right to be obeyed than men. 30 It was the God of our fathers that raised up Jesus, the man you hung on a gibbet to die. 31 It is God that has raised him up to his own right hand, as the prince and Saviour who is to bring Israel repentance, and remission of sins. 32 Of this, we are witnesses; we and the Holy Spirit God gives to all those who obey him.
Consideration by the Council and the advice of Gamaliel:
33 On hearing this they were cut to the quick, and designed to kill them. 34 But now one of the Pharisees in the Council, a lawyer named Gamaliel, who was held in esteem by all the people, rose and bade them send the apostles out for a little; 35 then he said to them, Men of Israel, think well what you mean to do with these men. 36 There was Theodas, who appeared in days gone by and claimed to be someone of importance, and was supported by about four hundred men; he was killed, and all his followers were dispersed, and came to nothing. 37 And after him Judas the Galilean appeared in the days of the registration; he persuaded the people to rebel under his leadership, but he too perished, and all his followers were scattered. 38 And my advice is still the same; have nothing to do with these men, let them be. If this is man’s design or man’s undertaking, it will be overthrown; 39 if it is God’s, you will have no power to overthrow it. You would not willingly be found fighting against God. And they fell in with his opinion; 40 so they sent for the apostles and, after scourging them, let them go with a warning that they were not on any account to preach in the name of Jesus. 41 And they left the presence of the Council, rejoicing that they had been found worthy to suffer indignity for the sake of Jesus’ name. 42 And every day, both in the temple and from house to house, their teaching and their preaching was continually of Jesus Christ.
Chrysostom notes (Homily 14): This Gamaliel was Paul's teacher. And one may well wonder, how, being so right-minded in his judgment, and withal learned in the law, he did not yet believe. But it cannot be that he should have continued in unbelief to the end. Indeed it appears plainly from the words he here speaks... For if, says he, it be of man, what needs any ado on your part? But if it be of God, for all your ado you will not be able to overcome it. The argument is unanswerable. And they were persuaded by him.

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