This snippet of early Christian history might seem unimportant, slim fodder for a sermon, and a peculiar choice for this first Sunday after Epiphany, until we see its place in the larger story of the Christian church. Then we’ll recognize it as one of the great turning points in the Gospel mission. That, in turn, will show us the connection between this snippet and the Epiphany of Christ’s glory in the world. And all of that will preach.
I suspect that every generation sees its own time as tumultuous. Has there ever been a time in American history more difficult, divisive, and dangerous than this early 21st century? It surely feels that way to us, but professional historians will undoubtedly say, “Of course, there have been other times as dicey as these.” Historians of the Christian church will surely point to the time surrounding our text as one of those tumultuous times. Think of the whipsaw events in the lives of the apostles. One day they meet the Messiah and their lives are utterly changed. With great joy they follow him and experience the wonder of the coming Kingdom. They can’t wait for Jesus to restore the Kingdom to Israel. But then he is crucified by the leaders of Israel in consort with the Roman authorities. The dream dies.
When Jesus rises from the dead, they get a whole new lease on life and a mission that will change the world. “You shall be my witnesses in Jerusalem and Judea and Samaria and to the ends of the earth.” Overwhelmed by that mission, they wait and pray for the gift of God. The Holy Spirit blows into the church at Pentecost and the resultant explosive growth of the church is nothing less than miraculous. Great joy fills the church as it enjoys the blessing of God and the admiration of the people.
But it doesn’t take long for opposition to raise its ugly head. Within weeks the joy of Pentecost has been replaced by the sorrow of Stephen’s martyrdom and the horror of Saul’s raging persecution of the church. The Hellenistic Jews who had migrated to Jerusalem flee back to their homes out in the Empire, taking the Gospel with them, while all the apostles stay behind in Jerusalem. One of the scattered ones was Philip, one of the seven deacons appointed by the apostles to take care of the widows in the church. He was more than a dispenser of money and food; he was a powerful preacher of the gospel.
But look where he went—to those accursed Samaritans, those centuries-old enemies of the Jews, those half-breed Jews who had married Gentiles back in the days of the Exile polluting the blood line and corrupting pure religion. The Jews called them “Samaritan dogs.” When a Samaritan village gave Jesus the cold shoulder, James and John, the sons of thunder, wanted to call down God’s judgment on the curs. But now, driven by persecution and filled with the Holy Spirit, Philip preached the good news of the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus to the Samaritans. And, wonder of wonders, those blasted dogs believed and were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus.
That’s the background of our text. As the apostles back in Jerusalem were nursing their sore necks after that incredible succession of whipsaw events, they heard the news that “Samaria had accepted the Word of God.” The response of the Mother Church is captured in Dr. Luke’s cryptic words: “they sent Peter and John to them.” We’re not told the mood in Jerusalem. Was it incredulity? “You have got to be kidding me!” Or was it skepticism? “I don’t believe it.” Or was it concern? “What kind of Christians are they, having been evangelized by a mere deacon?” Or was it great joy? “Let’s go and welcome them into the church.” Were Peter and John the Apostolic Welcome Wagon or were they “the Jerusalem Holy Spirit Police,” as one preacher called them?
That title comes from one possible interpretation of verses 15 and 16a. “When Peter and John arrived, they prayed for the Samaritans that they might receive the Holy Spirit, because the Holy Spirit had not yet come upon any of them.” Had the apostles already heard about this aberration in Samaria? Had the good news of the Samaritans’ conversion been accompanied by concern about this theological/spiritual irregularity? If so, then Peter and John were the “Jerusalem Holy Spirit Police” sent to straighten out the heterodoxy/heterospirituality in Samaria. Or were Peter and John merely the warm-hearted hand of the Mother Church, sent to officially welcome the Samaritan church into the Body? Somewhere in the process of getting to know each other, Peter and John had asked the same question as Paul would later ask the disciples at Ephesus (who had also been evangelized by a non-apostle). “Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you believed?”
Regardless of which interpretation we adopt, we’re facing a real problem here. If Paul was right when he said that “no one can say Jesus is Lord except by the Holy Spirit (I Cor. 12) and when he claimed that if you don’t have the Spirit of Christ you don’t belong to Christ (Romans 8), then these true Christians already had the Holy Spirit. They had been born again by the power of the Spirit (Compare John 3:5 with John 1:12,13). What was the problem then? What were Peter and John praying about?
The key is that word “receive (verses 15 and 17),” and also the word “come upon (or “fallen upon” in verse 16).” Though they had the Holy Spirit, they had not yet experienced that Spirit in the way the apostles had at Pentecost and the Ephesians Christians would later in Acts 19. The Spirit was in them, as evidenced by their new faith in Jesus, but they had not yet consciously, intentionally, experientially “received” the Spirit. Peter and John couldn’t be sure the Samaritans were born again Christians, even though they were. Everything in the text indicates the reality of their conversion, but it was not manifest to the apostles. To be sure of the reality of their conversion, the apostles needed to see some evidence of the Spirit of Jesus in the lives of the Samaritans. The apostles prayed not for a second blessing (the classic Pentecostal interpretation of this text), but for a visible/audible/tangible manifestation of the already present Spirit. They prayed for an Epiphany.
Their prayers were answered. “Then Peter and John placed their hands on them and they received the Holy Spirit.” We’re not told what form that reception took, but it was obviously something people could observe. Note that the next verse says, “When Simon saw that the Spirit was given….” He saw. The apostles saw. The Samaritans saw. The presence of the Spirit was now visible. Peter and John were now convinced that “Samaria had accepted the Word of God.” In fact, they were so convinced that on their way back to report to Jerusalem, they preached “the gospel in many (formerly cursed) Samaritan villages.”
This was a significant turning point in the expansion of the Gospel. Jesus had told his apostles to take the gospel out of Jerusalem into Judea and (even) Samaria on their way to the ends of the earth. Now it had happened. There was visible proof, an epiphany that had convinced the two big guns in the early church. That’s what this text meant to the early church. Dr. Luke included this little snippet in his great history of the Gospel’s spread to prove to the Jerusalem church with its Judaizing tendencies and to the larger Gentile church that the Spirit of Jesus did, indeed, fall upon non-Jews. The church is for all kinds of people, even people you formerly considered cursed outsiders.
That is a message we need to preach on this first Sunday after Epiphany, because our world is perhaps more divided today than it has ever been. And we Christians are not above looking down on certain classes of people. I think of accusations hurled by both right and left wing Christians in America that the other side can’t be real Christians because of their stance on some moral or political issue. And what about the suspicion and outright scorn directed at Syrian refugees seeking asylum in Europe or America. “They are all Muslims,” and thus beyond our orbit of concern. Even if they are Christians, what kind of Christians are they? This little story in Acts 8 reminds us that the Spirit of Jesus can bring even the most reviled enemy into the Body of Christ. We’re still under orders to be Christ’s witness in Samaria and to the ends of the earth. So, this text could be the basis for a sermon on daring evangelism or warm hearted ecumenism or open handed hospitality.
Or we could preach it as a challenge to the spirituality of our congregations. We could be “the Jerusalem Holy Spirit Police” by asking our congregations, “Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you believed?” This text will allow us to push that question more deeply. Here are genuine converts to the Faith, real citizens in the Kingdom of God and believers in the name of the Lord Jesus. But they had not received the Spirit.
How can we know that we have? Where is the proof? What experience counts as irrefutable evidence that we have received the Spirit? More Pentecostal Christians will point to Pentecost and to Acts 10 and 19 in support of their claim that speaking in tongues is the definitive manifestation of the Spirit. The reception of that gift is the epiphany for which we should look and about which we should preach today. This is clearly a huge theological issue between Pentecostals and non-Pentecostals; it deserves more attention that I can give it here. So I’ll just give two simple reasons why I wouldn’t preach this text that way.
First, as I pointed out above, this text marks an important turning point in the Gospel mission. And wherever there is such a great turning point in the book of Acts, unusual things happen. Among them is the falling upon, pouring out, or reception of the Spirit in some supernatural way, usually by speaking in tongues. In other words, these unusual outpourings of the Spirit are not the norm. They are the exception designed to prove to the church that the Gospel has now come to a new group of people: to the Jewish disciples at Pentecost (Acts 2), to half-breed Jews in Samaria (Acts 8), to God fearing Gentiles in Caesarea (Acts 10), and to outright Gentiles in Ephesus (Acts 19). We shouldn’t turn these one of a kind historical experiences into a life rule for all Christians throughout history.
The second reason I wouldn’t focus on tongue speaking as the sign of the Spirit’s presence is Paul’s clear preference for spiritual fruit over spiritual gifts. After speaking warmly about spiritual gifts in I Corinthians 12, Paul says, “I will show you a more excellent way” in I Corinthians 13, the great hymn about love. Some Christians may be given the gift of tongues, or healing, or prophecy, or administration, but all Christians must manifest the fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5). Thus, we can use this text as a call to display the ever-growing fruit of the Spirit out in the world. How will the world know that we are genuine Christians? How will other believers know that we have received the Holy Spirit? “They will know we are Christians by our love, by our love,” sang the old campfire hymn. “By their fruits you will know them.” This little snippet of Christian history gives us a wonderful opportunity to probe more deeply into the spiritual lives of our church. If the world is ever going to believe in the good news of the kingdom of God and the name of the Lord Jesus, we must be an Epiphany, showing the presence of the Spirit of Jesus by our love, joy, peace, patience….
In another sermon commentary on this text, I said that the conversion of the Samaritans was the ripple effect of the martyrdom of Stephen. His death was like a stone thrown into a pond. But as I rehearsed the whipsaw events that preceded our little text for today, it struck me that my simile was too small and mild. Not the death of Stephen, but the death of Jesus was like a mountain hurled into the heart of the ocean, which created a tidal wave, a tsunami that swept away kings and kingdoms, cultures and customs centuries in the making. From Jerusalem to Judea and Samaria and to the ends of the earth, the tsunami of the Gospel continues to wash up on new shores, changing the landscape in previously unimagined ways.
As I pondered the reaction of the apostles in Jerusalem to the news of Samaritan conversions, I thought of a couple of science fiction novels in which the gospel reaches other planets. In Maria Doria Russell’s horrific novel, The Sparrow, a group of Jesuits launch a space mission so that they can know God’s other children. And in one of Orson Scott Card’s novels (Ender’s Game, Speaker for the Dead, Xenocide, and others), a group of Catholics have colonized a planet in a distant galaxy and are trying to evangelize its strange pig-like inhabitants. I wonder how we would be able to tell if other species had actually accepted the Gospel. That was the question that prompted the church to send Peter and John to Samaria.
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Sermon Commentary for Sunday, January 10, 2016
Acts 8:14-17 Commentary