Genesis 25:19-34, Acts 8:1-17
July 6, 2008
So, did you read the story of Stephen this past week? I hope you did! Because today I’m going to give you another reading assignment. Today in Acts, we have the story of another of the early church leaders. (I hope you’re not getting behind on these assignments. If you are, you’re going to have a tough time on the Final Exam!) Then, next week we’re going to focus on yet another! At that time, we’ll be talking about this man called Paul. You’ll want to be around for that one!
Today we have the story of Philip. And we also have today the story of how the Gentiles (actually the Samaritans) were first brought to this new faith in Christ, and how they first received the Holy Spirit. And I think it’s very interesting that this man named Philip was involved in that story? And I’ll tell you why.
You may remember that Philip was one of the Twelve Disciples chosen by Jesus. And at first we might think Philip was a rather obscure figure. But there are actually several stories involving him in the Gospels. And I want you to see that there are some common themes running through those stories.
Before I do that, though, I want you to remember that I am one who is reluctant to assign “personality characteristics” to someone based on only one or two verses. Remember my feelings about Thomas. I hate to see Thomas cast as the “doubter” or the “skeptic” based on the one story in John 20. Especially when it’s clear to me that none of the disciples would have believed Jesus was alive again if they had been the one who was not there when he appeared. It was the unbelievable nature of that vision that was the focus of that story, not the skeptical personality of one person!
People do that, though. I had to chuckle one evening when I stumbled onto one of the religious channels. There was a program on that was honoring Joseph, the husband of Mary, the mother of Jesus. There were a number of people commenting on “the kind of man Joseph was.” They were saying all sorts of nice things about him. But what was funny to me was that they were building an entire personality profile based on the fact none of Joseph’s actual words are recorded in scripture! “He was humble.” They said. “He was ‘quiet,’ and ‘soft spoken.’” “He accepted the difficult and somewhat dangerous calling God gave him without question.” “He obeyed God with out objection, therefore he was faithful when others might have run the other way.” All of this based on the fact that he said nothing at all!
Well, I’m reluctant to do that kind of thing. But there are several stories about Philip in the scriptures. And as I said, they do have some common threads running through them. And I think they relate to our story for today. And even if they are not characteristics of Philip, they’re still good principles to examine!
For example, it was Philip who Jesus turned to when he was about to feed 5,000 people, and he asked him “Where are we to buy bread for all these people?” And Philip actually answered question. He said, “Six months wages would not buy enough for each of them only to get a little.” (John 6:5-7) Notice, that’s a very “practical” answer. His was not an emotional response. He didn’t say, “Oh come on, Jesus! You’ve got to be kidding! Just send them all home!” Then, it was also Philip who, in that same straightforward, practical way, said to Jesus in the Upper Room, “Lord, show us the Father and we will be satisfied.” (John 14:8) “All this spiritual stuff is great, but just make it so we can see God! That’ll make this faith business a lot easier!”
We’ll see that straightforward thinking if we look at one of the first stories in the Gospel according to John. Jesus is choosing his disciples, and he first finds Philip and says to him “Follow me.” Then what did Philip do? He went and found Nathanial and brought him to Jesus. Someone once said, almost every time we meet Philip in the scriptures he’s bringing someone to Jesus. Isn’t that good? He’s found what’s really important, and he wants to bring others to that knowledge. But if you remember that story, you’ll recall that Nathanial then made a disparaging remark to Philip. He said, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Wow! There’s some of what we used to call “regional prejudice!” But Philip, probably smiled, and simply said, “Come and see.” (John 1:43-46) Again, straightforward practicality. He didn’t let those kinds of emotion based thoughts about a person or a region get in the way. Just “Come and see.”
Those are great stories, but it’s in John 12 that I think we find the most interesting story. The writer tells us there that Jesus was in Jerusalem for one of the festivals. And he tells us this. “Now among those who went up to worship at the festival were some Greeks. (Gentiles!) They came to Philip, and said to him, “Sir, we wish to see Jesus.” Philip along with Andrew, he went and told Jesus. (John 12:20-22) Now, isn’t that similar to what happens in our story for today?
Actually today’s story begins with this man named Saul, the one we’ll be dealing with next week. After the stoning of Stephen, Saul launched a “great persecution” of the Church. And because of that, we’re told, the church was “scattered throughout the region.” In other words, this community we’ve talked about for a few weeks now, this “communal group” that shared life and possessions and wealth together, was no more. They were forced to disperse. And they went to various places around the area.
Well, Philip went to Samaria. And of course, we all know what the Jews thought of the Samaritans. They had a lot of derogatory names for them. The biggest “beef” they had with the Samaritans was that they had intermarried during the last exile. They had tainted the purity of their race! So this story is about how the Gospel came not to Gentiles, but to Samaritans. But that’s just as important, because they were still considered to be outsiders – according to the Jews. So here was Philip in the heart of that controversy. Here was Philip setting aside all of those aversions toward individuals, regions, and religious differences, and simply telling them this amazing story of Jesus. And by the way, they’d heard of him before. He had been to Samaria. He had been proclaimed by the woman at the well. You can read her story in John chapter 4. (Oh no! Another reading assignment!)
So, was it that Philip was by nature more accepting of others? Or was it just the sheer excitement of the story of Jesus? Again, was this a personality trait? Or was it simply the nature of this “good news,” or the power of the Holy Spirit? Actually, I’m fine with any of that. There is certainly truth in all of it. But at the very least, the story serves as an example to us. Because sometimes we find ourselves dealing with some of those “social aversions,” don’t we? Sometimes we “aren’t sure” about “certain people!” If someone came through that door all tattooed and pierced, having just gotten off one of those loud motorcycles, what would we think? Or if someone came in who was clearly of a different ethnic descent, would that be our version of this story?
If we’re honest with ourselves, we have to admit that we people are at least a little bit uncomfortable with people or ideas that are different. And let me tell you that’s natural! I don’t know what that is, but if people encounter others who are different, the human tendency is to have some inner “reservations?” What makes all the difference is how we handle those reservations. And the Christian faith is all about how we are to do just that! We are to love those who are different. We are to “honor all people,” as my charge to you states each week. And when we feel those aversions rising within us, we are to “take every thought captive in obedience to Christ,” as Paul told the Corinthians! (II Corinthians 10:5) I love that verse!
That same Paul, who would have been just as prejudiced against non-Jews as anyone in that culture, would also come to write these famous words to the Church in Galatia, “…for in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith. As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.”(Galatians 3:26-29) What was different? He was transformed by the Gospel of Jesus Christ and the power of the Holy Spirit! And that’s what’s happening here in the early days of the Church. And it’s the same today. People are transformed by the power of the Holy Spirit, and the word spreads.
Many Christians in our world don’t get that! They live their faith as though the most important thing is “believing the right things.” But it’s being Transformed that’s the most important thing! Being changed by God into the likeness of Christ. That’s the heart of the faith! That’s why many Christians feel like there’s something missing in their faith. They live in a world that says, “I can’t help the way I am,” and they try to live a faith that says the opposite. We can help the way we are, and in fact, we’re called to! We are called to be transformed. That’s the message by which the word will spread!
In our day, with the decline of the main line denominations, there’s an ever increasing interest in evangelism. But too many people are missing the mark. Evangelism is not something that is primarily concerned with marketing strategies and communication techniques. Those things are fine. But the reason for evangelism and the way it takes place are different in the Bible. The reason for evangelism is that we have to share with the world the incredible news about the love of God and his hand in our lives. And the way that takes place is not through marketing strategies and communication techniques. Those are fine. But the way evangelism takes place is the way it happened in the beginning. People are transformed by the love of God, and in that transformation, the word spreads! And that’s the thought I want to leave with you today. Have you been transformed?
Eternal God, transform us by the power of the Holy Spirit. Help us to be so amazed by your Grace, and so overwhelmed by your love that we rise above the conventions of the world around us. Help us to be conformed to the image of your Son, so that the world can see you in us. For we pray in Jesus’ name, Amen.