Sometimes it’s the smallest, most simple act that brings about the most profound change. It is easy to read Acts 21 simply as an aside in Paul’s larger story. His ministry to the gentiles and his journey to Jerusalem seem to be the narrative that grabs our attention. In fact, lectionary readings (those resources the larger church uses to guide us through teaching and preaching most of the Bible in a three year period) skips this scene. But there is actually a lot Philip can teach us about our day to day commitment to the gospel at our local level. Is there truly any insignificant service on behalf of Christ? Continue reading
Our text for Sunday is a rich story with numerous applications. Philip and the Ethiopian Eunuch signifies for the first time, the gospel message reaching acceptance at the ends of the earth. The Eunuch’s status is also informative. While wealthy and holding a position of power, he is also seen as strange and an outsider, having been robbed of his identity as a male and his ability to leave a family legacy. So, when he is found reading from a text in Isaiah (the suffering servant), it’s a text with which he can also identify. Jewish law excludes the Ethiopian Eunuch from full embrace within the Jewish faith precisely because the Ethiopian is a foreigner and because he is a Eunuch (Deuteronomy 23:1). But Isaiah 53, which the Eunuch is reading, along with the gospel message of Christ that Philip presents, signals that Jesus has opened the door for all creation to know and follow God. If Isaiah 53 isn’t direct enough, just a few chapters later, Isaiah 56 really points to a future time when foreigners and eunuchs will be included in God’s kingdom:
“Thus says the Lord: Maintain justice, and do what is right, for soon my salvation will come, and my deliverance be revealed. Happy is the mortal who does this, the one who holds it fast, who keeps the sabbath, not profaning it, and refrains from doing any evil.
Do not let the foreigner joined to the Lord say, “The Lord will surely separate me from his people”; and do not let the eunuch say, “I am just a dry tree.” For thus says the Lord: To the eunuchs who keep my sabbaths, who choose the things that please me and hold fast my covenant, I will give, in my house and within my walls, a monument and a name better than sons and daughters; I will give them an everlasting name that shall not be cut off. And the foreigners who join themselves to the Lord, to minister to him, to love the name of the Lord, and to be his servants, all who keep the sabbath, and do not profane it, and hold fast my covenant— these I will bring to my holy mountain, and make them joyful in my house of prayer; their burnt offerings and their sacrifices will be accepted on my altar; for my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples. Thus says the Lord God, who gathers the outcasts of Israel, I will gather others to them besides those already gathered.” – Isaiah 56:1-8
The focus on this Sunday’s lesson is not from the perspective of the eunuch but from Philip. Philip is willing to share good news with anyone with whom he shares the journey. First, he proclaims the gospel to the unruly neighbors to the north – the Samaritans. God’s Spirit does the rest. Then, he obediently journeys into the desert in the middle of the day (who does that?) And finds an exotic foreigner reading texts from a faith community that excludes his kind. Once again, God is at work.
So, the question for this Sunday shouldn’t be “to whom have I been sent?” Rather, might we ask “to whom have I not been sent?” The answer – everyone, of course! God doesn’t exclude. We should be looking for holy moments throughout our day to share good news with whomever we cross paths. This includes people who are like us and people who are different. After all, “red and yellow, black and white, they are (all) precious in his sight.”
For further reflection, I recommend the following short blogs:
How can I serve despite my circumstances?
How many of us know someone who is like Eeyore? For these folks, all situations seem dark and gloomy. No matter what the challenge, folks like these seem to find the worst in all situations.
But I bet we also know folks who see a golden outline in every seemingly dark situation. They are the folks that can lift you up and who want to keep going when all seems hopeless.
Most of us probably find ourselves somewhere in between. There are days when all seems lost, hopeless. There are also days that we find strength beyond ourselves to keep pressing on. Our lesson for this week is that:
- God is at work in all situations
- so all things can work together for God’s glory (Romans 8:28)
- so how can I be available to see God at work and join God at work, no matter my circumstance?
This last bullet gets to the heart of the Christian vocation. We confess that as disciples, we have been set a part and gifted with the Holy Spirit to be Christ’s presence here in our time and place. Life here and now will not be perfect. Rarely will things be easy. So how do we become the sort of people (both collectively as a congregation and individually) that recognizes God at work and then gladly joins in that work? How do we learn to praise and worship him in all circumstances?
It seems that when we focus only on our needs and wants, our list of complaints and reasons why we “can’t” only grows. The mark of a growing disciple is one who seeks to lean in on God’s provisions and grace, despite the situation around them. Philip is the Biblical example the lesson uses this Sunday. I’ve tried to think of others. One that sticks out in my mind is Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a German theologian and pastor. I’ve been reading some of his works recently and he strikes me as a man who has really learned to lean fully on God’s provisions in the face of a cruel humanity.
Bonhoeffer, a widely respected thinker, could have avoided much of the pain that his German countrymen were facing by staying in the US during World War II. But he felt called to be among his people so that he could fully participate in their struggle during the war and then participate in a rebuilding after the war. Despite the Nazi Government’s crackdown on his free speech and though he was eventually imprisoned and put to death in a concentration camp, Bonhoeffer was used by God to train young seminarians and to write what would become very influential books on practical theology that continue to speak to folks of what it looks like to follow Christ.
Perhaps this clip of Bonhoeffer’s life (its 7 minutes) is one example you can give your class of how a person can be available to be used by God, no matter the circumstances.
I like this example, but it is an extreme example. We can be inspired but can we relate? There are more folks who live like this in front us day in and day out. Can you think of any? Encourage your class to think of examples, too.
One LIFE community teacher had a really good question this week about our the focal scripture: At the end of Acts 8:15-17 it says Peter and John went to Samaria and prayed that the believers would receive the Holy Spirit. Does this mean when we are baptized we don’t receive the Holy Spirit. Is it only by laying on of hands?
My response was kinda long, but here it is:
No – the giving of the Holy Spirit does not come only through laying on of hands or through baptism. Acts proves that nothing can really limit the ways in which God will show up and act through the Holy Spirit. This one instance in Acts 8 cannot reflect the varied ways that God makes his Holy Spirit available to those who follow in the way of Christ. Seeing that many have had your same question, one theologian, in response to this scripture, says:
“Attempts to extract from this story of the laying on of hands “data” for the construction of a systematic doctrine of the Holy Spirit are futile. Luke’s narrative descriptions of the ways in which the Holy Spirit comes to believers defy the construction of a coherent doctrine.”
Here are some examples of the many ways the Holy Spirit is given in the book of Acts:
- Acts 2:4 – describes receipt of the Holy Spirit without mentioning baptism
- Acts 2:38 – baptism joined with receipt of the Holy Spirit
- Acts 8:16,17 – Baptism, followed by laying on of hands, followed by receipt of the Spirit
- Acts 8:38 and 16:15 – Baptism, with no mention of laying on of hands or the Spirit
- Acts 9:17-18 – Laying on of hands, followed by receipt of the Holy Spirit, followed by baptism
- Acts 10:47-48 and 11:15-16 – Receipt of the Holy Spirit, without laying on of hands, followed by baptism
So, there appears to be no defined order or strategy in Acts. What is important in our text for Sunday and throughout Acts is the story of how the Christian movement expands, at the direction of the Holy Spirit, toward the ends of the earth. Beginning with Acts 1:8, we see the expansion of the good news beyond the Jewish community of Jerusalem. When Peter and John come to Samaria and lay hands on the new believers, their action can be understood as the apostles approving of and joining God in this growing community of believers. Acts is a story about the community of believers and how they grew beyond the gates of Jerusalem. That God is working in a place that most Jews despised (Samaria) and that the leadership of the church approved, is an important development in the movement of the gospel from Jerusalem, to Judea and Samaria and ultimately to the ends of the earth.
To further illustrate this point, in Acts 10, Peter goes to the home of Cornelius, the Roman Centurion. While sharing the gospel with him, his family and others in the home, the Holy Spirit comes upon all who were listening. Verse 45 says the “circumcised believers were astonished that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out on even the Gentiles.” Then Peter says “Surely no one can stand in the way of their being baptized with water. They have received the Holy Spirit just as we have.” In all of these stories, its about the widening inclusivity of the gospel of Christ – it is for everyone.