Acts 8:4-25 January 13, 2013
Before I get into my sermon this morning, it would help me out if I could take a poll. How many people here know what a “Greased Pig Contest” is?
I remember a couple greased pig contests during the fourth of July celebrations in my hometown when I was a kid. For those of you who don’t know, the basic idea behind a greased pig contest is that, you grease a pig…and then you have a contest to see who can catch it in the shortest amount of time.
It sounds pretty simple until you actually try to catch a greased pig.
Well, the only reason I’m talking about greased pigs at all this morning is that sometimes when I’m writing a sermon, it’s like I’m trying to catch a greased pig, and this was one of those weeks! It’s like every time I thought I had a grasp on a nugget to focus on, it squeezed through my hands and took off in a different direction.
I started by just looking at a couple of verses in this passage, verses 14-17 to be exact.
I was going to preach about the Holy Spirit, and those verses are pretty interesting when you stop and look at them, because you’re almost given the impression that Philip didn’t baptise the Samaritans correctly, since Peter and John had to go finish the job.
But then I started wondering why Philip went there in the first place, so I included a little bit more of the passage.
And then I realized that “the Holy Spirit” was either too broad of a topic, or too narrow, because mission and outreach are equally important themes in this section.
After all, if Philip hadn’t gone to Samaria, there wouldn’t have been any baptisms, and therefore we wouldn’t be reading about the Holy Spirit being given to the people, either.
So I included a few more verses for the morning.
Anyways, as you can tell, by the time the bulletins were printed, I had included 25 verses in this morning’s reading. But really, I’m still not satisfied, because you can’t read these 25 verses in chapter 8 of Acts without reading chapter 7, or at least without knowing what happens in chapter 7. Chapter 7 points back to chapter 6.
You get the picture.
So with all that as an introduction, this morning we’re looking at the eighth chapter of Acts, where there’s this strange interaction involving a bunch of Samaritans and Philip, and later Peter and John.
Philip goes and preaches, but keep in mind this isn’t the apostle Philip.
There was indeed an apostle named Philip, one of the original 12 disciples of Christ.
But this wasn’t him…after all, it says in verse 1, that all “but” the apostles were scattered.
The apostles stayed in Jerusalem.
So this Philip is rather the Philip mentioned in Acts 6 verse 5. He is the second listed in the group of 7 guys who were chosen to help out in the daily distribution of food back when one group of Christians was feeling neglected by another group of Christians.
The text refers to one group as Hellenists and the other group as Hebrews.
And to understand the difference, you have to go back in history even further, to the time of the Babylonian exile.
Now, I do have an actual sermon to preach this morning, but let me paint in broad strokes.
Back around 587 BC, the city of Jerusalem was beseiged by the king of Babylon. His name was Nebudchadnezzar. What he did was carry off the inhabitants to Babylon after he sacked the city. He took all of the important people, and he probably left a small number of what he considered the riff-raff to kind of maintain some kind of presence in the city he had just conquered.
So he carried off all the movers and shakers…and a couple hundred years later, Babylon was overthrown, and a more lenient king; Cyrus of Persia, he allowed the exiles to return if they wished.
Many wished to return to Jerusalem.
Many did not wish to return to Jerusalem.
By that point, the ones who didn’t wish to return had developed their lives wherever they happened to be, you know? They had grown up speaking greek, and had become comfortable with the culture and traditions that they had gotten used to.
They were still religiously faithful Jews, but socially they were more Greek; that’s what “Hellenist” means.
The “Hebrews” that the text mentions were the ones who went back to Jerusalem and maintained a more “authentic” Hebrew lifestyle socially as well as religiously.
It’s worth noting that even back then, in the earliest chapters of church history, there were two groups that emerged, and there were tensions between them.
The Hellenists were feeling neglected, because they were in Jerusalem, which was the Hebrew’s “home turf”.
So that’s the nutshell version of what was going on in Acts chapter 6.
The apostles get wind of the conflict, and they decide to have the Hellenists appoint 7 guys to distribute the food so that they could keep preaching and teaching.
They do this, and the first two names that are listed of these 7 guys are Stephen and Philip.
That’s chapter 6 of Acts.
Then in chapter 7 it becomes obvious that Stephen isn’t just handing out bread as he was appointed to do. He works wonders and he preaches and teaches on par with the apostles themselves.
Chapter 7 is basically a summary of the last sermon he preached; and it leads to his being stoned to death while a guy named Saul stands guarding the coats and approving of the murder.
That sets the stage for today’s passage.
Stephen was stoned, persecution breaks out, and Philip had to flee Jerusalem.
These two guys were two of the seven people appointed to reconcile the conflict between the Hellenists and the Hebrews. They were supposed to simply make sure that all the widows were looked after and treated equally.
But from what I can tell, when you’re in the service of God, even actions as simple as handing out bread take on cosmic significance, and introduce unbearable tension!
In other words, a servant of Christ can never simply hand out bread, because the bread itself is a tool of both peace and conflict!
For Stephen, the bread was being used to bring together Hellenists and Hebrews.
But the action of bringing those groups together; the witness he gave to the gospel that unites rather than divides…it ends his life and begins a persecution, which Saul (who becomes Paul) spearheads by going house to house seeking to stamp Christianity out.
Because of this, many Christians were scattered. They fled Jerusalem, or they were forced to leave.
Persecution is the reason Philip the non-apostle goes to Samaria.
It wasn’t an organized outreach. It’s not like the apostles had a meeting and decided to send him with their blessing; it’s not like he took time to raise support or learn the customs and the lay of the land before he went.
It’s not like he took evangelism classes to learn the most effective way of presenting the gospel.
It’s more like he ran for his life.
And so, with Philip, for the second time, one of these people who were simply supposed to hand out bread to widows finds himself on the cutting edge of God’s outreach.
And that’s just how it is with us, too!
Don’t let yourself believe for one minute, that “mission” is for missionaries, and that the rest of us just need to support them. That’s not how it works. That’s not how it’s ever worked.
Philip is just trying to be faithful, and stay alive.
In other words, there’s no sense of etiquette here, and there’s a different kind of ‘order’ than we might like.
First the Hellenists and the Hebrews had to learn how to share their bread with each other. It would have been simpler to just stay divided.
So then Stephen was martyred, in hopes that this pesky gospel and the movement behind it could be stamped out physically. After all, life is a lot simpler when people know their place and stay there.
So then Persecution spreads these people and their message beyond the borders of what is familiar and what is comfortable…and that opens up whole new challenges and whole new problems; like what to do when someone like Philip decides to start baptizing people just because they believe in Jesus.
What a Mess!
But at the same time, what a mission!
This is a story about a whole new world exploding through the old one.
And all it takes is the faithfulness of a servant…a waiter.
So you know the rest…the apostles send in a couple big shots to clean up, and while they’re there this guy named Simon tries to buy the Holy Spirit from them.
They have to explain to him that it doesn’t work like that.
The Holy Spirit isn’t bought or given like a bill of goods. Rather it goes where it pleases, rests where it pleases, and is found in some pretty unlikely places.
It can be given, it can be received, but never at our bidding, or by our choice. We do not control the Spirit of God; but we can work with it, just as it can work with us.
…So I know I’ve thrown a lot at you this morning.
But if there’s just one thing I’d like you to take with you, it’s this.
That the mission of the church hinges on one thing that I think most of us try to avoid with our entire being, sometimes consciously, sometimes unconsciously.
The mission of the church hinges on regular Christian people; (after all, Philip wasn’t an apostle, remember? He was just a waiter; handing out bread as fairly as possible). That’s how the mission of the church started, and that’s where it continues today.
Regular Christian people doing their job.
See, in many ways, Christine and I have the easy job. We work with Christians every day. And when you’re working with Christians, preaching and teaching and leading in worship just go with the territory; and while we might catch some flak every now and then, at the end of the day we can usually reconcile with you because we’re all trying to live by the same story.
But when I look at the rest of you, I see Stephens and the Philips; Most holy and blessed mess-makers who are called and sent to be in faithful mission wherever you are.
The Christian life doesn’t begin until you’ve found yourself at your rope’s end, only to notice that the Holy Spirit has beaten you there.
So go forth this week and embrace your mission field.
Go beyond the boundaries of your comfort and offer the bread of life and reconciliation to the very people you despise. If that’s going too far at this point, start with something smaller; maybe sharing a kind word with a stranger, or keeping one off color joke or juicy bit of gossip to yourself instead of spreading it around.
In so doing, may your words and your actions find fertile soil in mission too.