Acts 8:4-25 Holy Spirit, Come with Power January 10, 2010
Technology can be a wonderful thing. We don’t even need computers anymore to communicate right now with people all around the world.
If I had our cell phone here with me this morning, I could easily text a message to a friend or a family member back in Iowa. There are plenty of us here this morning who within seconds right now could take out our electronic device of choice and send a message to someone who’s not even in the same time zone as we are. Geographical distance is no longer a barrier to instant communication.
Christine and I regularly use Skype to talk face to face with her brother and his family who live in Indonesia—almost as far away as you can possibly get without leaving the planet. It’s a great thing!
And it doesn’t stop there.
Facebook, Twitter, and instant messaging are all ways of communicating with vast networks of people from sea to shining sea and beyond at my convenience.
We are better connected today than at any other point in human history. I have no doubts that if any of us really had something meaningful and important to share—that we could easily spread our message to hundreds and even thousands of people with very little effort and virtually zero cost.
So, since communication has never been easier, cheaper, or faster in the history of humanity, have you ever wondered why we’re not saying more important things?
We’re communicating more; but I might argue that it’s meaning less. J
It’s so easy to do that many of us are in the routine of ‘multi-tasking’…I can’t tell you how often I’ve come into the office and in an effort to get a lot done I’ll have the phone to my ear listening to voicemail messages while I pull up my email as well as the websites I use to research sermons, the software I need to write my thoughts–and it’s not uncommon for me to “communicate” with five or six people if not at the same time, then at least within a minute or two of sitting down at the desk.
*We’ve gotten used to looking at life a sentence or two at a time.
A fragment here and a fragment there is just about all we have time to handle anymore.
And this fragmented way of understanding life comes over into how we read scripture and think about faith, too.
For example, a passage like the one we’re looking at today is hard to get into because there’s no ready sound-bite of meaning that’s nice and clear. Twenty-one verses is just too long for a Sunday morning. Our attention span just isn’t that long.
We’ve gotten used to hearing 12 stories at once and none of them good…as opposed to hearing one long narrative that takes work to follow! J
So let’s take some time this morning to hear what this story has to speak to us.
It says Now those who were scattered went from place to place, proclaiming the word.
And I have to wonder, what’s it mean ‘those who were scattered’?
Well—this story comes right after the stoning of Stephen; the first Christian to die because of his faith. See, at the time, a bunch of religious leaders were uneasy with the early church that was carrying on Jesus’ work and mission. They got together and they were trying to decide how to handle this bunch of subversive radicals who were threatening the status quo.
According to Acts chapter 5, these leaders looked to the past to decide what to do with this new movement called the church. They looked back to past revolutions when people would stand up and proclaim that they were somebody worth following.
They remembered people like Theudas, and Judas the Galilean—both leaders who rose up and gained followings, both people who died by the sword and whose movements scattered and died with them. They were short-lived revolutions that ran their course in time.
So that’s how the religious establishment chose to handle these followers of Jesus.
They figured it would just be a matter of time until Christianity ended like so many other movements—with it’s followers disillusioned, scattered, and its leaders dead and gone.
But that didn’t happen. Instead of losing power and scattering, this movement picked up steam. They had to organize themselves a little better. In chapter 6, we learn that the apostles chose a group of leaders to oversee the distribution of bread among the widows. They picked people who were respected and trusted in their communities.
Stephen was one of these guys and Philip was another one.
And in chapter 7 we read about the interaction between Stephen and these religious leaders who were hoping the problem would just go away.
And as you might know, Stephen ends up getting stoned to death.
While they were stoning him, a guy named Saul watched their coats and approved of the whole thing with all of his heart.
That’s how the first persecution of the church began. From that moment, Saul started tearing up this thing called church. He’d track down followers of the way and he’d haul them out from their homes and throw them in jail. He’d have them flogged. It’s a pretty important message, and it can’t be sent electronically.
Important things must be carried and spoken by flesh and blood. Important messages must be carried, not sent.
We read in the passage for this morning, that the people were scattered all throughout Judea and Samaria like it says in chapter 8 verse 1. That’s the background story.
And for reasons that go back too far and are too complex to talk much about this morning, there was bad blood between Judea and Samaria. Neither one respected the other as fully as they might. They both thought the other was second-rate.
…It was maybe something like we are with the Muslim world. They don’t like us and we don’t like them. We might tolerate each other as long as we stay in our respective places, but if and when we get together, there’s usually going to be trouble.
…Or maybe it was kind of like we are with our in-laws or co-workers…as long as we stay in our place we can co-exist, but let’s not blur the lines too much!
…Or maybe it was kind of like we are with other churches—we know there are other Christians in the world—but we’re the ones who are right—right?
The others are second-best. J
And the longer we can go without seeing them face to face–the more distance we can keep from having a real conversation, the better.
That’s kind of how it was between Judea and Samaria. And like you heard already, Philip went down to…Samaria and proclaimed the Messiah to them. The crowds…listened eagerly to what was said by Philip, hearing and seeing the signs that he did…
So there was great joy in that city (in Samaria).
I want to point out that Philip went from Judea to Samaria.
In other words, he physically crossed the border with his message and his actions.
And the Samaritans accept Philip’s ministry and his message with great joy!!
When we physically move our bodies in order to carry an important message, people notice, and usually we will be received with joy and celebration!
Even one of the greatest among them, Simon the magician—even he believes the good news and is baptized by Philip. Things seem to be going really well.
And so the leaders in Jerusalem hear about this great news and they send Peter and John—two of the movements’ primary leaders—they send them with their greetings and their blessing to pray for and support the work that was happening.
I kind of have to wonder why they didn’t just send a letter? It would have been cheaper, easier, and it would have gotten their point across, right?
Once again, if it’s really worth saying it’s got to be carried, not sent.
Peter and John are commissioned to pray that these new believers might receive the Holy Spirit, since it says, they had only been baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus.
And I think it’s really easy to jump to some conclusions here that aren’t really biblical.
It’s easy to look at what happens here and argue that believers must be baptized twice—once in water and once in the Holy Spirit.
Indeed, some traditions hold this up as the model and seek proof that the spirit has been received—speaking in tongues or prophesying or a number of other outward expressions that the Holy Spirit has properly been received on the part of the convert.
But isn’t that way of thinking something like what Simon does?
He seeks to purchase this gift with money…he seeks to gain this power so that he can control who else gets it.
How is that so different from demanding proof from ourselves or from anyone else that the Holy Spirit really is present in a situation?
Both are ways of seeking to control what God has intended to be freely given and freely received.
It’s not our job to either demand proof of the Spirit’s presence or to control what happens with it.
It’s our job to proclaim the word where we’re planted, to take it where we’re sent, and to bless the results as much as we can. Anything less is worthy only of rebuke and repentance.
Another mistake that we can easily make with this passage is to set up hierarchies of ministry with it. We can read this and tell ourselves that Philip was doing a good job, but that in order for the conversions to really take hold in the lives of these Samaritan believers, they had to have the real leaders come give the baptism, since obviously he must not have done it right.
This kind of reading lends itself to church structures where only the high and mighty can do things right.
It’s easy to get there, because we think to ourselves that if Philip would have done it right, then there would have been no need for this extra laying on of hands and giving of the Holy Spirit.
But this is a false understanding as well.
And here’s why. Like I’ve already said, there was bad blood between Judea and Samaria. I can just imagine that these new Samaritan believers might be wondering how they’d be accepted in the church that was based in Jerusalem.
I wonder if it would be like a whole bunch of new Hispanic believers being baptized into something that started in and around Washington DC.
They joined, but I’m sure they had no fantasies that they’d be freely accepted as equals.
That’s why it was so important for Peter and John–two original apostles–to physically welcome these who had been seen as second-class–as outsiders.
And of course the Spirit is going to show up when that happens!
We can’t stop the Spirit when people make the effort to cross boundaries and reach out a hand of blessing to the work that’s been started!
The challenge for this morning isn’t real complicated.
I’m not going to suggest we start boycotting email or computers or cell phones or anything like that…instead I’m just going to challenge each of us to put some meaning back into our communication. Visit someone–in person! Call someone–just to talk!
Offer them a blessing and a prayer! Tell someone something important; something meaningful…maybe even something life-changing. And then watch the Spirit work through that.