Acts 8:14-17 Rev. Tyler Amundson January 13, 2013
As we consider the words shared today may we hear Liz’s prayer from earlier reminding us of our holiness right now. May we here the words that our church is working to be on the ground providing support to the people of the world. May we remember that we are a light and we should not fear ourselves, encourage us to hear the words of Christ calling us to reach out to all people.
Over the past year I have shared in many sermons a moment where I reflect awareness that the times we live in right now seem uncertain. The world does not seem stable, cultures seem to be colliding at an increased rate, seemingly more violently, and the world feels unstable. Every time I talk about these dark things I list a series of things that encourage listeners to think back on things they are most familiar with. I do this because it is easy in our culture of wealth and affluence to easily forget the world is not yet a culture of dynamic love and support of all life. The world has not yet seen the kingdom of God which is the phrase we use to describe a hope for a world that seeks justice, loves kindness, and walk humbly with one another.
I don’t share these dark realities of our world to pretend that the world has ever been better than it is now. From my study of history and listening to the stories of wise people it is apparent to me that each generation faces its own challenges. Living in this world is challenging and it calls on hard working and dedicated people to make the world a better place. This time in history carries its own challenges and we are the people who must face those challenges.
What is most important to remember is that our lives are living history. Those who are aware of this have the possibility of changing it if they can be aware at the right time. It is my strong belief that our chances to change history are possible. That anyone can change history significantly, whether you consider yourself a small play or a major player. One of our roles in the church is to teach people that they can and will have an impact on history. We have a responsibility to train disciples able to make a difference in the world in their own way. Training disciples means helping people be aware of the world in which they live, so when opportunity to make the world better is presented, they know how to do it in a loving and hope filled way.
The story from Acts we hear today is exactly that. The disciples in this story John and Peter recognize their chance in history to make dynamic change for their time.
The gospel story today comes from Acts 8:
Phillip is going around from village to village preaching this experience that the disciples have had with Christ. The thing that is phenomenal is that Phillip is going literally everywhere including the non-Jewish world. The movement of Christ could have been easily kept to a few devout followers and kept for Jewish people, but the disciples were willing to move beyond that group.
Phillip winds up sharing the message and life of Christ with a group of Samaritan people. Samaritans at this time are considered by the Jewish people to be spiritually unclean and therefore they were shunned by most Jewish people, according to the scriptural references we have. This is one of those cultural divides that happens for one reason and continues because tradition does not seem to allow people to counter it.
The historical reality around this bias comes from the 8th century when the Israelites were exiled from Saramia and the Assyrian king populated the area with new people who intermarried with the local population. Basically, the bias was blaming the Samaritans for being half-breed people. Not wholly Hebrew and no longer having any reason to be Assyrian. This was a 700 year old cultural and racial assumption made about the Samaritans.
We know overcoming this divide was a major challenge for part of the early Christian community. This knowledge comes from more than a few scriptural points: The story I am sharing with you today, the story of the Samaritan woman in John, and the parable of the ‘Good Samaritan’ in Luke. All three make some reference to surprise that Jewish people interact with these ‘unclean’ people.
Our scripture today is from Acts, it is important to note that scholars believe the writer of Luke and Acts is the same individually. In fact it is widely noted that Acts is a continuation of the story of Luke in all its literary themes and ideas. This is important because the writer of Luke and Acts is trying to make a clear statement about Samaritan people. “They are good people and should be included in our vision of the kingdom of God.” The parable of the ‘Good Samaritan’ and this story we here today from Acts is a clear call continually work to see all people as having the capacity for holiness. These stories are both included to clearly make a point.
In our scripture today, we can be sure that Phillip’s message of Christ was passionate and excited. A new vision of God was being shared in which God was no longer an adversarial force, but a God that stood with all people. A vision of God that Christ presented to the world and now his disciples carried on because the spirit of that message was so powerful. The Samaritans accepted the message and began to form a Christian community. They had Baptisms and everything else you do if you are becoming Christian. This new Samaritan community was working very hard to be included in the new Christ centered movement.
After the Samaritan people have formed their community with the message of Phillip. The disciples in Jerusalem decide they better send John and Peter out to check out this new community. This is how it reads in Acts:
“14 When the apostles in Jerusalem heard that Samaria had accepted the word of God, they sent Peter and John to Samaria.15 When they arrived, they prayed for the new believers there that they might receive the Holy Spirit, 16 because the Holy Spirit had not yet come on any of them; they had simply been baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus. 17 Then Peter and John placed their hands on them, and they received the Holy Spirit. [i]“
Now this might sound like a normal story where Peter and John have gone and started a new community. This story is big deal because something remarkable happened here. In our tradition and even in the early traditions found in Acts there were not baptisms that lacked the Holy Spirit.[ii] When we are baptized the holy spirit, God, and Jesus are all a part of the blessing and nothing is withheld. In fact we believe no part of God is withheld to anyone at anytime. What is going on here with Peter and John imparting the Holy Spirit? Why was it withheld?
My first inclination is to think, those darn early disciples, even they were making power grabs in their church. They wanted to be the top dog, so only they could impart the Holy Spirit. Then I began to wonder about the conversation between Peter and John. What were they thinking as they came to Samaria? A place they had been told since their birth to avoid. Imagine with me that conversation for a minute as John and Peter head toward Samaria.
“So Pete, here we go again. Another new community this is pretty exciting”
“Yep, really exciting John…except I am still struggling with this whole thing. I mean Jesus taught us all about accepting all people, and I am excited about the Samaritans joining our series of communities. However, I don’t think some of our friends back there are exactly open to the idea of the Samaritans being in, I mean we all grew up being taught to hate them and think of them as unclean.”
“Pete, I totally agree. What can we do though?”
You see Peter and John would have really been struggling with this too. They would have been wondering how they could really include the new community of Samaritans. They knew animosity needed to end, and the right thing was to accept them fully, but I bet there were people who thought, “We can accept them in, but they won’t be fully people of Christ.” Peter and John knew differently and so as leaders I think they made a call.
I am sure they had a service in which they invited the Holy Spirit to come through them and to be present in the community. Peter and John knew that the new followers of Christ could not argue with the power of the Holy Spirit. They had experienced it together and knew that is was calling them to reach out to the world. I don’t know if there was some supernatural experience, but I do know that by using the image of the Holy Spirit, Peter and John created a situation whereby the Samaritans had to be accepted. The Holy Spirit was an image that could not be ignored and when present meant to the disciples that God was there. If God was there then people were to be accepted.
Peter and John I think in this story were not trying to claim overwhelming authority in their laying on of hands. I think they knew the power of symbols and by sharing the Holy Spirit with the Samaritans they powerfully began overcoming 700 plus years of animosity. You see holy hands can make a large difference when they are used at the right moment in history. John and Peter probably didn’t know for sure they would be in a place to begin this healing, but they didn’t hold back when history presented it to them.
Justice issues throughout history have been presented that require this kind of opportunity in history to make a dynamic impact. In our recent American history slavery is one of those examples. Slavery was called the “peculiar institution” and this term was well used even when slavery was continuing in the mid-1800s. People knew it was wrong and this growing sense and need to moralize slavery continued to seem so peculiar that was becoming perverse in a multitude of ways. The arguments sounded like this: It is alright own slaves because it was a better and longer life than their life in an uncivilized land. The Bible clearly demonstrates color of skin indicates superior or inferior brain function or ability. These were horrible reasons and though people lived them, I think people knew the injustice they were creating. There is something that is hard to shake when you see anyone suffering.
Bishop John Shelby Spong wrote an essay in 2004 which included this information about slavery and speaks quite clearly about how much compromise work was done to hold together the United States. He states that eventually people could no longer compromise because it became a moral issue. A new consciousness was arising that slavery could not stand as it challenged human decency and life. Bishop Spong is saddened that compromise could not allow space for the morality of humanity to come through. It is as if he wishes instead of Civil War, we could have found a way to end slavery without bloodshed. I think we all wish this. However, he notes that people became increasingly aware they needed to stand in their time in history for a change.[iii] Like Peter and John work was begun and continues to this day trying to overcome the hate and animosity created by this horrible “peculiar institution” of slavery.
Even though slavery has ended and we had a civil rights movement there is still untold racism all around us. African-Americans still make up more of our prison population than any other racial group, I didn’t even go look that up cause it is still a fact. Along with that our rhetoric toward people of Latino background, American Indians, or other racial groups continues to be seemingly biased and racist.
The work towards racial justice needs to continue and we need to be a part of it. Like Peter and John we know what is right, but we have to be willing to step into the places in history that need change. Racial justice is not the only injustice left in the world and we need to continue to be a people of God willing to step into the unjust places and fight for people’s rights.
Now I know at times changing history can seem daunting. It seems like we need to change the overwhelming majority of people’s minds to make it happen. That we have to be in a position like John and Peter to make an impact that can begin a process of changing perception for people. However, this is not the case. People who can change themselves can sometimes be the catalyst for impacts to change the world.
Take this for example. I had a colleague in seminary that was back for his doctoral work. Tom was a great Pastor, especially at going into churches that were no longer having an impact on their community and helping them to find their vision again. He tells this story of an example of a major change in one man that allowed for the church to find its vision again. I think I remember it because it involves a resistance to technology in the church.
Here is Tom’s story:
There was a trustee at Tom’s church that would have nothing to do with projection. Putting a projector into worship made no sense to him and he felt it would throw off the entire sanctuary. It just wouldn’t look good. The trustee was totally opposed to it and it seemed to cause a lot of mistrust that Tom kept brining up the issue. However, Tom knew he could make worship a better and more communicative experience with the projection. This conversation went on for several months.
Finally one day the stubborn trustee came to Tom and said he was willing to give a try, but wanted to hear why it was important from Tom first. After Tom explained the difference it could make by allowing people to see songs together, to read information together, and to use video to illustrate things the trustee agreed. He also explained that younger people saw it as a piece of worship that meant people were trying to be creative and imaginative in making worship meaningful. They installed the projection system in the sanctuary.
The reason Tom shares this story is that after the projection was in the stubborn trustee was the most ardent supporter of having the added media in worship and most excited about the mission of the church. That trustee then began to work hard to share the vision and mission of the church. He turned is stubbornness into passion for the church. Tom says this was one of the changes that made the church begin to see its mission in the community again. A simple change of mind by one trustee made a change in the history of that church and the community.
Our willingness to learn and change makes us able to notice the times in history when things need to happen. That church is not necessarily going to revolutionize the world, but they have one major supporter who is creating space for new people. That simple act is a big deal, because it creates space for a community people to be committed to sharing God’s love with the world. One guy giving up his strongly held opinion and grabbing onto a new one changed one church. I am sure you know it, but the little steps will help us get to the places we hope to go.
As you consider your own holy hands, remember that Peter and John probably didn’t know for sure they would make a huge impact on history. I am sure people fighting for racial justice rarely expect they will make the biggest impact in the world. Martin Luther King probably didn’t know the impact he would have on our country when he began.
We all have Holy Hands may we trust and work, so that if we are called to use them to change history we can. May we never doubt that we are people called by God to bring love and justice to the world.
Our time to make a difference in history may be upon us, I invite us all to keep open minds and hearts as we live out our faith together.
[i] NRSV Acts 8:14-17
[ii] Boyce, J. (2013, Jan 13). Commentary on second reading by james boyce. Retrieved from http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?tab=3&alt=1
[iii] Spong, J. S. (2004, December 15). [Web log message]. Retrieved from http://johnshelbyspong.com/sample-essays/homosexuality/