There are a couple of funny moments in Acts 3-5, but more than that, there are just some great examples of interesting storytelling. If you’re like most people, you probably got turned off to the Bible a long time ago. You read a translation that made everything sound stuffy and foreign and inaccessible, and you read parts that just sounded boring or weird or irrelevant or monstrous. And those parts are all there; you weren’t imagining them.
I need to confess that maybe Acts appeals to me so much because I grew up with a Saturday morning ritual of watching the Bugs Bunny-Road Runner hour of cartoons. MUCH of Acts seems to be written for Hanna-Barbera to animate; my favorite story (much later in the book) literally sounds like it was made for Sylvester and Tweety or Wile E. Coyote. But throughout there are moments that seem like they should be animated in that style.
That said, it’s more complex than a Saturday morning cartoon, so while I hope the funny parts entice you to take another look, you should read it slowly to get the richness of the characters while you’re there. As I promised, I’ll flag a couple of the parts in Acts 3-5 that strike me as funny, but then I’ll circle back to a couple other parts that just struck me as interesting.
Maybe the funniest thing about Acts 5:1-11 is that pastors don’t use it for stewardship Sunday (as best I can tell, churches that use a common set of readings (called a “lectionary”) don’t *ever* read it. Probably just as well.
So for those unfamiliar with this story, at the end of chapter 4, the author of Acts talks again about how the believers all lived together and held everything in common, and nobody lacked for anything because believers would see what they had and give it all to the apostles to dole out according to need. (For the sake of my friends who are still enthralled with a consumer- and ownership-driven society, all I can say is that this clearly did not last long in the history of the church, or else the author wouldn’t have described it twice.)
So one couple – Ananias and Sapphira – decided to hedge their bets. They sold a piece of property and took the proceeds to Peter and the apostles, but they squirreled some away, just in case. We don’t know how Peter knew that this happened, but he did, and he confronts Ananias with his deceit, and ANANIAS DROPS DEAD ON THE SPOT. In Monty Python-esque manner, young men in the church come in, determine he is dead, and wrap him up to carry him out to bury him, which they do.
As the burial team is returning, about three hours later, Sapphira shows up, and Peter asks her whether they had turned over all the proceeds of the sale of their property. Not knowing what happened, she sticks with the cover story and says “Of course. All of it.” To which Peter says, “Why did you and your husband decide to put the Lord’s Spirit to the test? The men who buried your husband are at the door right now, and they will carry you out too!” At once she falls at his feet and dies, and the burial team walk in, sigh, check to see if she’s dead, and drag her out to bury her next to her husband.
In the most legit verse of the Bible, maybe, the story ends “The whole church and all the others who heard of this were terrified.” In fact, the bridge section after this story talks about how the apostles were rock stars except nobody who wasn’t willing to be all-in would hang out with them. I can imagine.
Anyway, it seems to me that giving would go up significantly if this was the Stewardship Sunday reading. But maybe that’s just me.
The other funny piece in Acts 3-5 is actually part of an ongoing theme in Acts about prisons. Frequently, early believers would get thrown in prison. In Acts 4, it’s already happening for the second time in the book. But this time, an angel frees Peter and the other apostles and tells them to go back to the Temple to teach. Which they do. This sets up a typically Hanna-Barbera moment when the chief priests who threw the guys in jail call for them to come before the court, and the guards come trudging in to explain that the jail was all locked up and the guards were all there, but when they went inside, nobody was there! And right after that, another guy runs in and says they are back at the Temple teaching the people. If you close your eyes, you can imagine the oafish dog-like villainous bruisers that populate H-B cartoons acting this bit out.
OK, but the storytelling. Acts 3 has the healing of a lame beggar, and at this point you’re probably numb to healings because Jesus does them in every gospel. But there are different moments in this one. The guy is a beggar, and just like today’s panhandlers he knows the game; if you don’t get eye contact, you’re not getting anything else. If you DO get eye contact, then maybe you’ll get something. So the author spells it right out: Peter and John “look straight at him,” and Peter says “Look at us!” Then he explains that they don’t have any cash but that he can heal the guy instead, and does it, helping him up to his feet.
There’s a humanness to the fact that the guy not only walks, but jumps. There’s also a humanness to the fact that (5:11) the man “held on to Peter and John.” I might not want to let go of those guys, either.
There’s also humanness to the villains that usually gets lost. Sure, the chief priests are mad that the apostles are stealing their audience and offended that they are having such success without any establishment credentials. But this first time, they don’t do anything but warn the apostles, not necessarily for fear of the crowds that followed them, but because “the people were all praising God for what had happened.” Which is something the priests wanted to see more of, just as it is for the apostles, and for God.
You’ll also see that more-than-cartoonish humanity in the villains when they bring the apostles in for their second warning. That’s when an older member of their group, Gamaliel, pulls them into conference and points out that human messianic movements wither away; if this one sticks, he warns, it may really be God they’re fighting against. It’s an insight that *does* get preached on a fair bit. (Incidentally, I love how the author says the other priests obeyed his warning *but still beat the crap out of the apostles*. Gee, thanks, guys.)
A postscript to head off a comment at the pass. Going back to the Ananias story, it isn’t holding on to stuff that kills Ananias and Sapphira; it’s lying about it. I still think it would make an effective stewardship reading.
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