Bodies in the Hallway

Our pastor is working through the book of Acts with us on Sunday evenings. Last night we looked at Acts 5 and the not-so-pleasant experience of Ananias and Sapphira. This couple lied to the church and tried to lie to God. Their judgment was swift–they both fell dead at the feet of those they were trying to deceive.

Normally a study of this incident ends with verse 11 (NIV): "Great fear seized the whole church and all who heard about these events." However, our pastor kept going until the end of verse 16. The disciples continued to preach and perform miracles throughout the community in spite of the nasty experience with Ananias and Sapphira. But this fear of God associated with their deaths held back some other people from getting too close to the believers. "No one else dared joined them, even though they were highly regarded by the people" –Acts 5:13, NIV. We speculated that perhaps Ananias and Sapphira weren't true believers at all, only hangers-on who liked the camaraderie of the young church and tried to fit in but didn't have the relationship with Christ that would have made the actions that ended in their deaths improbable, considering the spirit of unity and generosity that existed in the church at that time (Acts 2:42-47; 4:32-37). Others who might have been tempted to be hangers-on took note and stayed away!

However, Acts 5:14 (NIV) tells us that those who were sincerely attracted to Christ responded in droves in spite of the incident with Ananias and Sapphira. "Nevertheless, more and more men and women believed in the Lord and were added to their number."

The church was in its infant stages. God made sure that nothing tainted its purity. He protected it so that its influence in the world would be a positive one during these critical beginning stages. He blessed it. People came to faith and signs and wonders were common occurrences: "As a result, people brought the sick into the streets and laid them on beds and mats so that at least Peter's shadow might fall on some of them as he passed by. Crowds gathered also from the towns around Jerusalem, bringing their sick and those tormented by evil spirits, and all of them were healed" –Acts 5:15, 16, NIV.

Our pastor made reference to Hebrews 12 and as this idea of the relationship between purity in the church and evidences of God's blessing percolated in my head, I looked up the reference. Verses 1 to 12 speak to us about persevering in our struggle against sin and understanding the reason behind God's discipline. ". . .God disciplines us for our good, that we may share in his holiness. No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on,  however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it. Therefore, strengthen your feeble arms and weak knees. Make level paths for your feet,' so that the lame may not be disabled, but rather healed" –Hebrews 12:10b-13, NIV. The writer's particular choice of words in these final phrases grabbed my attention. Why the health reference when the context is that of discipline and holiness?

We could easily equate the choice of words to the simple fact that the church is a body and the weaker members of the body need to work at the spiritual disciplines that will make them strong. We all have areas of our lives where we need to submit to God's discipline in our lives so that he can produce in us the fruits of righteousness that he desires. But is there another question that comes it my mind. Could the writer of the Hebrews be referring to physical healing as well? How does this passage connect with the passage in Acts? What is the relationship between purity in the church and God's blessing people outside the church through believers?

What happened in Acts 5 is not very good evangelism. People dropping dead when they lie doesn't encourage those on the "outside" to considering joining those on the "inside". On the other hand, a pure church is a powerful church and it appears that those who were serious about a relationship with Christ were not deterred by dead bodies in the hallway. And the disciples were granted power to influence their world through their words and their touch because the church was holy.

Church discipline is rarely practiced these days. Sin within the body is rarely confronted and corrected. The result is a weak church both inside and outside, few conversions, and even fewer true miracles. Paul brings in this connection between purity in the church and the physical health of its members in his letter to the Corinthians. He gives the church a pattern for carrying out the Lord's Supper and then tells them: "Therefore, whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of sinning against the body and blood of the Lord. A man ought to examine himself before he eats the bread and drinks the cup. For anyone who eats and drinks without recognizing the body of the Lord eats and drinks judgment on himself. That is why many among you are weak and sickly, and a number of you have fallen asleep. But if we judged ourselves, we would not come under judgment. When we are judged by the Lord we are being disciplined so that we will not be condemned with the world" –1 Corinthians 11:27-32, NIV. We often apply this passage to those who are not believers, but the context helps us to understand that it applies to the church. I don't think Paul is saying that all illness is the result of sin–after all he had his own physical "thorn" that had nothing to do with some fault on his part. But some sickness and death is apparently related.

Scary? Perhaps. But maybe that's a good thing. God is still concerned with purity in his church. We may not recognize the judgment that falls on us and on others when we don't pay attention to his discipline or our part in maintaining it. Hopefully we won't wait until there are bodies in the hallway before we do pay attention.

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