“God Sends Us Out!”
July 26, 2015 – Acts 8:4-8, 12, 14-17
Did you ever have something unexpected happen? Let’s say, you’re going about your everyday business, everything perfectly normal. When, something out of the ordinary happens. Comes out of left field. Knocks your socks off! Could be called a miracle, even!
That’s what happened in our Scripture passage from Acts chapter 8 today. Something certainly out of the ordinary happened to the Samaritans!
I’m continuing with my Summer Sermon Series from the book of Acts, Postcards from the Early Church. But before I continue, I’d like to thank everyone for the opportunity to take a week to go to a church conference, the New Wilmington Mission Conference in western Pennsylvania. I hope everyone enjoyed Pastor Gordon as he preached and led the service last week in my absence. The mission conference was a marvelous opportunity to see what God is doing around the world in mission and outreach. Reaching out to people with the Good News of Jesus Christ. Surprise! It’s just what the apostle Philip was doing, in our Scripture reading today.
It’s only a number of months after that first Pentecost. The apostles have been preaching and teaching up a storm. The fellowship of new believers in the risen Messiah has been growing by leaps and bounds! When—we have the super-deacon Stephen get hauled up before the authorities. You remember, just like a radio serial. “When last we left our intrepid heroes . . . !” Only, things went from bad to worse for Stephen. Some things he said about God really got the authorities mad. They thought he was saying blasphemous words, so they stoned him to death. And, God rest his soul. Stephen was the first martyr of the Church.
You might have guessed that Jerusalem was no longer a safe place to stay for many early believers in the risen Jesus. The apostles and other church leaders left town in a hurry!
The early believers in the risen Messiah were ALL Jewish. Everyone in the first church in Jerusalem was Jewish! The first few months were like a greenhouse; this growing church was spreading like a wild fire! But the sudden death of Stephen brought the rapidly growing situation in Jerusalem to an abrupt end.
Which brings us to Philip, one of the apostles. His task is a continuation of sending. The Greek—the original language definition for apostle is ‘one sent on a mission.’ So, Philip is doing his job! Doing what Jesus told him to do.
One problem: Philip was not preaching to Jews. This is unheard of, at this point.
Preaching to Jews? Acts 8 says clearly that Philip—one of the Jewish apostles—went to Samaria, an area some ways north of Jerusalem. There’s a problem: no self-respecting, kosher-keeping Jew would willingly go to Samaria!
Let me tell you a little about the Samaritans, a tribe of people forcibly brought to Israel several centuries before. As John Petty says in his Lectionary blog, “Samaritans and Jews were all-but-enemies. Centuries of insults and provocations had made each group so disgusted with the other that Jews travelling to Galilee or Judea would usually opt to take the longer route through the area across the Jordan River rather than set foot in Samaria.
“The Samaritans shared some aspects of faith with the Judeans. Their sacred book was the Pentateuch, and, in their minds, they worshipped Yahweh. They rejected, however, the focus on Jerusalem that was integral to the Judeans’ Jewish faith. As far as the [Jewish people] were concerned, the Samaritans were some form of ‘half-breed’ and their theology was heretical.”
I think you all can see where the problem lies. Jews hated Samaritans! Samaritans hated Jews! A racial issue! A huge barrier in relationship stood between them!
Just a minute. Let’s step back. Barriers between people? Misunderstood and marginalized people? Differences in religion, even heretical viewpoints? Sounds like a mission field to me!
This past week at the mission conference, I heard about mission outreaches that crossed all kinds of barriers. Differences in language, religion, culture, and viewpoint. Differences in urban people going to rural places, Christian worldview meeting Buddhist or Hindu or Moslem worldview. Wide differences in cultural views and assumptions. And—that’s just on the missionaries’ side.
So, when we consider the apostle Philip crossing a barrier of hatred and disdain and religious difference to reach the Samaritan people with the knowledge and understanding of the risen Messiah, we know for sure this was missionary activity. Listen to verses 5 and 6:
“5 Philip went down to a city in Samaria and proclaimed the Messiah there. 6 When the crowds heard Philip and saw the signs he performed, they all paid close attention to what he said.” This verse mentions “signs.” I think I know what those signs were. In the very next verse, Dr. Luke explains: “7 For with shrieks, impure spirits came out of many, and many who were paralyzed or lame were healed.”
I don’t have time to go into the topic of evil, or impure, spirits at this time. I’ve been preaching a midweek bible study for the past few weeks on Angels: Elect and Evil. I’m going to do a “coming attractions spiel.” If you’re available this coming Wednesday at 11:00 am, step on down to this very room! If the weather is hot and toasty outside, come on in. We have air conditioning. This week will be the final session, on demons. Or as they are sometimes referred to, evil spirits.
Let’s move on—to Philip and his effective evangelism. He reached out with the Good News, to this despised and disdained group of people. Guess what? Many believed! Continuing with Acts 8: “12 When they believed Philip as he proclaimed the good news of the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ, they were baptized, both men and women.”
But, wait! There’s more! Apostles Peter and John show up, wondering what is going on.
What did Peter and John think of the Samaritans? Dr. Luke doesn’t tell us, but I suspect they had similar feelings to their fellow countrymen.
I have another question for you: What do you think about crossing barriers today? What about outreach right here, right now? What about an Indian church, culturally different from St. Luke’s ? Oh, wait! The dancing classes St. Luke’s Church hosts during the week come from a Catholic Indian church. What about a language barrier, where a different group of people uses a completely different alphabet? Oh, wait! What about Love Sharing Disciple Church? Our Korean friends who worship in the sanctuary here at 12:30 pm.
Do you think Jesus included everyone in His invitation to come to Him? Or, did He say, “Oh, everyone is invited, except for people with physical problems.” That would put my friend and church elder Bob out of the picture, because he has a withered arm, withered from birth. Or, did Jesus say, “Everyone is invited, except for people with disabilities.” No! Remember my friend Pastor Joe, who was at my commissioning service? He’s blind.
Jesus loved Samaritans just as much as Jews. Remember the woman at the well from John 4? Yup, she was Samaritan. And a woman of loose morals. No self-respecting Jewish man would even talk to her. The Rabbi Jesus crossed lots of barriers to bring her to faith! What about the Good Samaritan? Jesus made a Samaritan the star of one of His best-loved parables! And, here’s the kicker. Jesus’ last words, just before He was taken up into heaven, Acts 1:8b. “and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”
Did you all hear? It doesn’t matter whether the Jews despised the Samaritans. God would help the Jews to love the Samaritans. They still needed to introduce Samaritans to Jesus.
Did you all hear? The apostles needed to go to the ends of the earth. Praise God! That’s just what they did. Did you all hear? It doesn’t matter what kind of barrier you and I are need to cross, God is there to help. We can overcome language differences, culture or worldview problems, religious differences. Remember John 3:16? For God so loved the world that He gave His only-begotten Son.” For you, for me. For everyone.
God loves the whole world. What part of “whole world” do we not understand?
Peter and John were finally convinced. God does not divide or isolate persons one from another. Instead, Peter and John prayed and laid hands on the Samaritan believers. What happened? The Holy Spirit came upon the Samaritans. The Holy Spirit came with power to the Samaritan believers as well as the Jewish believers.
God is all about mission. Outreach. God is a sending God. It doesn’t matter if we are moved to reach out to our neighbor across the alley, to our community with the Maine Township Food Pantry, to the poor and marginalized of Chicago with Bundled Blessings diaper pantry, or to a mission outreach halfway around the world with Dana and Carolyn Belton, with SIM Ministries in Zambia.
In this way, we are following the command of Jesus—to go to our Jerusalem, our Judea, our Samaria, and to the uttermost parts of the earth. We have that opportunity, too. We can reach out, say ‘hello’ to someone who looks different—sounds different—worships differently. I have accepted this challenge! This opportunity. This challenge. God would like you to accept it, too!