Sermon Commentary for Sunday, January 13, 2019

Acts 8:14-17 Commentary

While it’s at least tangentially related to this Sunday’s gospel lesson, Acts 8:14-17 may seem like a rather odd text for the second Sunday of the new year.  It isn’t, after all, just a mysterious text that even the most learned scholars struggle to fully understand.  While the Lectionary longs to unite Christians around the study of a common weekly text, interpretations of Acts 8 also divide Christians, including, perhaps, those who read this Commentary.

This Sunday’s text and story’s seed lies outside of this lesson, in Acts 8:2.  There, after all, we learn that when religious leaders stone Stephen to death, “a great persecution broke out against the church at Jerusalem, and all except the apostles were scattered throughout Judea and Jerusalem” (italics added).

One of the Christians that persecution scatters is Philip.  However, we might say that he “gets scattered” well outside the early church’s “comfort zone.”  It sends Philip, after all, to Samaria’s home of Jews’ ancient cousins-turned-enemies.  It’s a place where even the most optimistic early Christian could might never have imagined the gospel receiving a faithful welcome.

Yet this week’s Epistolary Lesson forms part of just such an announcement.  When Samaritans hear (and see!) Philip’s gospel proclamation, they don’t just pay attention to it.  They also turn to the Lord Jesus Christ in faith.  In fact, with more than just a touch of hyperbole, verse 14 announces, “Samaria … accepted the word of God.”  It as least suggests that the whole area receives God’s amazing grace with its faith.  We might compare this to the entire 21st century Middle East receiving God’s grace with its faith in Jesus Christ.

Among the Samaritan faithful recipients of God’s amazing grace is a man named Simon.  He’s a very popular sorcerer who both amazes people and knows it.  Samaritans even seem to think of him as some kind of god.

But, of course, such popularity’s shelf life can be very short-lived.  It may expire when someone else does even more amazing things.  So when the Samaritans hear they good news not of Simon the sorcerer, but of the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ, they seem to turn away from Simon and towards Jesus.  Philip, as a result baptizes “both men and women” (12), including, perhaps ironically, Simon himself.

This text the Lectionary appoints for this Sunday actually begins with the news of this amazing revival reaching the Early Church Headquarters.  While we’re not sure just how the apostles feel about it, we are sure how they respond to it: they send two of the “old pros,” Peter and John to check things out.

When these men who’d been among Jesus’ first disciples arrive at what we might think of as Samaria’s “Revival Meeting,” the Spirit who already fills them quickly shows them what’s still needed among the Samaritan Christians.  They pray, verse 14 reports, that those new Jesus followers “might receive the Holy Spirit.”

Add, however, to that verse 15’s mysterious, “because the Holy Spirit had not yet come upon any of them; they had simply been baptized into the name of the Lord Jesus,” and you have a recipe for modern scholars’ confusion.  As Karoline Lewis in her January 10, 2010 Preach the Word article asks, Does it mean that “the baptism of the Samaritans not take the first time?  Something was missing?  There needed to be ‘official’ church officers present to make the baptism of the Samaritans legitimate?  What was the Holy Spirit doing at the time of the baptism anyway?”

My colleague Stan Mast does a wonderful job of exploring some of Acts 8:14-17’s ramifications in his January 4, 2016 Sermon Commentary on it.  He notes that Reformed Christians, at least, profess that since only those whom the Holy Spirit helps can profess that Jesus is Lord, the Samaritan Christians must already have the Holy Spirit.  Mast suggests, then, that the Holy Spirit hasn’t yet fully transformed their lives in the way it had those on whom the Spirit descended on the first Pentecost.  The text the Lectionary appoints for this Sunday at least suggests that the Samaritan Christians still need a tangible manifestation of the Spirit who already lives in them.

I respect Christians who have a different understanding of this mysterious second baptism.  I urge them to explore Acts 8:14-17’s text through the lens the Spirit and their theology of baptism provides them.

Yet those who proclaim this Sunday’s Epistolary lesson might let the Spirit who lives in us take it in another slightly different direction.  A direction on which most Christians might agree.  We might focus on the way the text’s Spirit for whom the apostles pray unites Jews and Samaritans whom history and theology long divided.

Few Jews (or Samaritans, for that matter) could have, prior to receiving the gift of the Holy Spirit, imagined God working in the hearts and lives of their ancient cousins.  Each had his or her own understandings of God as well as God’s plans and purposes that left little room for the understandings of “the other.”

It’s, in fact, fair to wonder if the first Jewish Christians send Peter and John to check out the Samaritan revival because, in fact, they can’t imagine the Spirit making the Spirit’s home in those outsiders.  Yet when the apostles show up, they recognize that God not only is doing amazing things in and with the Samaritans, but that God also wants to do even more wonderful things.  So Peter and John pray the Samaritans will receive the Holy Spirit.  They even serve as conduits of that Spirit into the Samaritans (17).

On this Sunday on which most people who follow the Lectionary will likely focus on Jesus’ baptism, Acts 8’s report of the Samaritans’ baptism provides a kind of good supplement.  It reminds us that Jesus was baptized to minister not just to the Jewish insiders, but also to gentile outsiders like the Samaritans.  Not only that, but also that the Spirit fills Jesus’ followers so that we too may witness to and witness the mighty acts of God within both insiders and outsiders.

Yet it remains highly ironic and deeply sad that the baptism that united Jewish and Samaritan Christians so deeply divides modern Christians.  It’s not just that our theology of baptism divides us.  It’s also that we’re sometimes tempted to reject the baptism other Christians have received in other parts of Christ’s body.

Might this second Sunday of the year of our Lord, 2019, then, be a good time to reaffirm Paul’s assertion that there is only “one baptism” (Eph. 4:5)?  We will probably continue to have diverse theologies of that unifying sacrament.  However, Acts 8:14-17 might serve as a good invitation to live more fully into the unifying power the Holy Spirit graciously gives to baptism.

Illustration Idea

In her January 19, 2010 commentary on Acts 8:14-17 on the Preach This Week website Karoline Lewis tells about her experience with preaching a sermon about baptism.  “After the church service, she writes, “a long-time member of the church, 90-years-old, came up to us and the other pastors and asked, ‘Is it really true? That God is the one who baptizes you?’

“We soon learned that her older sister was born extremely ill. There was neither hope for her survival, nor for her to be able to leave the house. As a result, the grandmother baptized her.

“When the baby died, and her parents approached the pastor about the funeral, the pastor refused to perform the funeral in the sanctuary because he had not baptized the baby. The funeral for our member’s 3-month-old sister was held in the church basement. Ninety years later, she wondered, she prayed, ‘So, my sister is OK?’ The sister she never knew; the sister for whom she still shed tears.”


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