Peter, Ananias, and Sapphira

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There in a lonely field, unsold,
The graves were only hours old
Where Ananias and his wife
Lay dead, because the breath of life,
Once freely given by their God,
As freely ceased, and thus the rod
Of wrath and justice fell upon
Their sad deceit. The light of dawn
Had not yet lit the dismal field,
Nor any crowing cock revealed
The immanence of day. Beside
The simple graves, where he had cried
Through half the night, there, on a stone,
Sat Peter, staring, numb, alone.
All night the scene ran through his head.
Again, and then again, the dread
Look on his face, and awful sound
As Ananias hit the ground,
And died at once, because he lied
To man and God. For what? Some pride?
Some suicidal passion for
A little cash, a little more?
To spend on what now from the grave?
"O, Ananias, why? Why crave
What you already owned?" All night
The scene filled Peter's mind, and fight
Against it, as he might, it came
Again: "We sold a field, and claim
Now in the presence of our Christ,
This is the sum, now sacrificed
For love of Jesus and the poor.
Take this we pray and may it cure
Some sickness of the flesh or soul."

But even while he spoke, the whole
Deceit was opened to the mind
Of Peter by the Lord: "I find
Your liberality smells more
Of hell than our sweet Christ. Before
You sold this field, was it not yours?
And afterward the same? How lures
This money then your soul to lie
To man and God? What will you buy
With money you have got by such
A foolish scheme? However much
In all the world, will it recoup
The cost of making God a dupe?"
Before he could say any more,
The man collapsed. And on the floor
The cunning seller of his land
Was dead, his money in his hand.
And Peter stood as speechless as
A corpse before the God who has
The right to give and take the breath
Of life and set the time for death.
This was not his design, nor did
He know that God, so swift, would rid
The church of such a sin. And while
He trembled there, with brazen guile
Sapphira, Ananias' wife,
Appeared. And Peter thought, "This life
As well, O Lord, will you require?"
She smiled and said, "It's my desire
Just like my husband's, that the sum
Which, by the grace of God, has come
Into our hands by selling one
Of our large fields, be giv'n, and none
Of it be kept for us. Praise be
To God, who is for us the key
To wealth and happiness." The look
On Peter's face perplexed and shook
Sapphira for an instant. Then
She smiled, as Peter asked, "And when
You sold it, was it for this price
That you bring here?" She said, "Precise,
And to the penny, like our love
For Christ and what we're dreaming of
As you take this and bless the poor.
We trust you, Peter. It is sure:
A man of God does not deceive."
She wondered at his tears. "I grieve,"
He said, "to ask, Why this accord,
To test the Spirit of the Lord,
Between you and your husband, when
The world would have been yours? Or can
You buy eternal life, unpriced,
When you have made a fool of Christ?
The feet of those who buried your
Accomplice come. And it is sure,
As you were one in lying breath,
God says, 'You will be one in death.'
One mercy now remains: How brief
Today your widowhood and grief!"

All through the night, again and then
Again, he cringed and saw the men
First carry Ananias to
The grave, and then Sapphira, through
The fading light of day—like two
Limp flowers cut from where they grew,
And tossed away. But then, as day
Began to break, and night gave way
To early morning gray, a sound
Pierced Peter's mind, and turned around
The way he saw the world. A bird,
A crowing cock. And when he heard
The voice of this old friend, the night
Came back to him when he, in spite
Of all his boasts, fell like a leaf
Before a breeze, and his belief
Denied. "I do not know the man!"
He said. "Oh, yes, you're from his clan."
The servants of the priest declared.
"We've seen you with him. You're just scared
To tell the truth." "I do not know
The man," he said again. "You show
That you're from Galilee by how
You speak." And so he took a vow
And, with a curse, said one more time,
"I do not know this man." The crime
That he committed in those lies,
Now rose, before his weary eyes,
A thousand times more heinous than
Sapphira's lies, or of the man
Who put her to it. Peter sat
There trembling, weak, and stunned now at
The difference. "Lord, why?" he cried?
"My sin is worse. Three times I lied
While you were suffering for me.
I do not know why this should be:
That they should die and I should live,
Or how you wrath and mercy give."
He lifted up his hands and said,
"O Lord, why did I not drop dead?"

And then the Lord replied, "It's true,
My friend, your sin was worse, and you
Deserved the countenance of wrath
Far more than these two here. Your path
Led straight to hell, and if I would
Have let you go, no power could
Have kept you from the flames. I did
Not owe you this, nor is it hid
From open sight that you, my friend,
Are saved by grace, and in the end
Are chosen unconstrained by good
Or evil deeds that would or could
Be made the root of my decrees.
In heaven and on earth I please
The counsel of my wisdom first.
For centuries my name has burst
The chains laid on my will by man,
When he presumes to shape my plan
Around his self-defining will-
A futile thing, for I fulfill
The purposes I formed before
The world was made. Do not make war
Against my freedom, Peter. All
That I have ever done to call
And carry you is free. Receive
This gift and tremble as you grieve
Beside these graves. If it were not
For grace, this would have been your lot.
They fell before your feet depraved,
That you might know how you were saved."

Then, speechless, Peter rose and set
His face to follow Christ, and let
Each breath and trace of faith display
The way that sovereign grace holds sway.

And now as we light candle two,
May Christ illumine me and you,
To see that we deserve no good
From him, and sovereign justice would
Be served, if all of us fell dead
At Jesus' feet. But if, instead,
We live and stand before his throne,
Let thanks be given for grace alone.
And let the one who doubts say this:
"It is my everlasting bliss
To know that God elects not by
Our works, but his decree, and I
Dare not use my iniquity
To prove that he rejected me.
O precious promise, sweet command:
Trust Christ alone, and you will stand."