Acts 8:1b-3: The killing of Stephen becomes the occasion for a mass persecution of the Christians. Christians become scattered. Saul, who was present at Stephen’s stoning, becomes a primary persecutor. Ironically, the action which scatters the disciples leads to the spread of the gospel.
Acts 8:4-25: Philip now takes center stage. Philip, like Stephen, was one of those chosen to administer to food program for the church in Jerusalem. He may have been a Greek-speaking Jew who had become a Christian. Like Stephen, his administrative ministry becomes a ministry of teaching and preaching. The context for these Philip stories is that some from the church in Jerusalem have left the city during a time of severe persecution. Philip goes to Samaria. This follows the geography of Acts 1:8 – after the Holy Spirit comes the apostles (and the church) would be witnesses “in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” Luke will follow that geography in this book.
Samaria is home to the Samaritans, though Samaria was both a city and a region. The region was conquered by the Assyrians in 722 BCE. The upper classes were deported and the region was also, then, settled by non-Jews who intermarried with the local population. At the time of Jesus and the early church, Jews did not consider Samaritans to be Jewish any longer, and the Judean Jews refused Samaritan help when the Temple was rebuilt after the Babylonian exile (this was the Temple that was later destroyed in the war with Rome – 70 CE). The Samaritans then constructed their own Temple and developed their separate “Jewish” traditions. From this you again understand why many hearers of Jesus’ story would have considered “good Samaritan” an oxymoron.
Philip’s ministry in Samaria parallels Jesus’ ministry – powerful words and incredible signs: the lame are cured, unclean spirits are cast out. The response is joy. It is interesting to note that the message Philip shares is characterized in slightly different ways: “proclaimed the Messiah” (v. 5), “the good news about the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ” (v. 12), “the word of God.” No one summary phrase seems adequate to capture the good news that God was up to something very special in Jesus, and that we can be a part of that.
One of those who came under the influence of Philip’s preaching was a former magician named Simon. He had been one who also performed powerful deeds, and people attributed to him the power of God called “Great.” Simon is baptized and follows Philip closely. Magic is the belief in supernatural forces and the attempt to manipulate them for human benefit…. Biblical faith makes it clear that faith is a personal relation to a personal God, not merely a belief in mysterious supernatural forces. (People’s New Testament Commentary)
The story of Simon is briefly interrupted. Peter and John are sent from Jerusalem to Samaria. They pray that these people might receive the Holy Spirit. Some of this is rather striking – why hadn’t the Holy Spirit come when in other places the Spirit comes with baptism. Pentecostal Christians use a story like this to argue for a second coming of the Holy Spirit into the believer’s life – a baptism of the Holy Spirit. Luke’s concern seems to be to include a variety of ways that the Spirit was experienced and understood in early Christianity within the one church, and yet to “regulate” the work of the Spirit by the apostolic norm. Luke is concerned to hold together three elements of the life of the church: baptism, the Holy Spirit, and apostolic approval. (People’s New Testament Commentary). Peter and John lay hands on the Samarian believers and they receive the Holy Spirit. The tradition of laying on of hands as a way to symbolize the conferring of the Holy Spirit continues in Christian traditions of confirmation and ordination.
Now Simon the magician comes back into the picture. He sees what is happening and offers them money – not simply to receive the Spirit, then all he would have to do is wait his turn. Rather he not only wants the Spirit but the ability to give the Spirit to others. In some of the religious traditions of the time, spiritual power, priestly authority could be bought. Simon reflects that understanding of the spiritual life and spiritual leadership, but it is not the understanding of the spiritual life that is in keeping with Christian faith. God’s Spirit is available for all and will not be conferred differentially according to the ability to pay. Simon’s heart had not yet grasped this, and he is invited to change. That the change is beginning can be seen in Simon’s request for the prayers of others. Christian faith is not meant to be a solo venture or individual Spirit-empowered people, but a life lived in the midst of a Spirit empowered community.
Simon’s story, though a little difficult to relate to in some ways, is also very easy to relate to in other ways. All of us are subject to misunderstandings about what it means to be people of faith, but the opportunity to change and grow is always offered to us.
Acts 8:26-40: Philip is again a main character, and again he is reaching out to a person who would have been religiously marginalized in the Judaism of the day. How was this Ethiopian eunuch marginalized religiously? Given that this man had come to Jerusalem to worship and was reading Isaiah, we can at least surmise that he was a religious seeker. He may have been a convert to Judaism – but this poses a problem. In Deuteronomy (23:1) eunuchs are prohibited from being a part of the assembly of God. True, there is a passage in Isaiah (56:4) which welcomes eunuchs, but that seemed set in some future time.
So Philip encounters this man who is a religious seeker, but wonders if he has a place in the people of God. And the man is different from Philip in almost every way – he is a eunuch, he is of a different race, of a different culture, and was probably born into a different religion, he is certainly a richer person than Philip, and more powerful. They converse about the story in Scripture and Philip shared with him “the good news about Jesus.” Beyond race, beyond religious background, beyond culture, beyond sexual identity, beyond disparities of wealth and power, the good news about Jesus can be communicated. And it must have been “good news” to the Ethiopian, because here is the response. And as they were going along the road, they came to some water; and the eunuch said, “Look, here is water! What is to prevent me from being baptized? Was Philip all talk, or was his invitation to become a part of God’s people in Jesus for real? Would Philip baptize him right then and there? And both of them, Philip and the eunuch, went down into the water, and Philip baptized him. Beyond race, beyond religious background, beyond culture, beyond sexual identity, beyond disparities of wealth and power, there is good news in Jesus Christ, and a part of that good news is that all are welcome. We need to be a place of open hearts, open minds, open doors. We want and need to be a place of welcome, a home along the wilderness road of life for people searching for God, for meaning, for relationships, for inspiration, for courage, for direction. We want and need to be a place of welcome for people who come in their Sunday best (unfortunate phrase) and people whose Sunday best might be blue jeans and a sweat shirt. We want and need to be a place of welcome for people no matter their religious background, their economic situation, their marital status, their age, their ethnic and cultural heritage, the hue of their skin. That in the history of the church we have responded to people who ask – what is to prevent me from being baptized, what is to prevent me from being included? – that to people who ask that we have responded, “plenty” is a sad part of our history. The church has not always lived up to its stories, and where that has been true for us, all we can do is ask forgiveness and determine to do better.