Wednesday, 5 March 2008

The Gospel for Outsiders (Acts 8)

Below is the text of a talk I'm giving tomorrow at UCLan CU. As usual, I'd love to hear your feedback or comments!

I want to start by telling you about a friend of mine. He is a member of one of the other CUs I work with. He loves playing football. He has a skinhead. He’s probably considered quite hard by most people. He’s not the kind of person that you’d probably want to get in a fight with. And yet my friend has a secret: he loves chick flicks. Actually, it’s probably not that much of a secret. He might admit it if you asked him. But I remember the first time that I walked into his room and saw his DVD collection. How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days, 10 Things I Hate About You, The Princess Diaries. I could hardly believe my eyes! It seemed so incredible that such a person like my skin-headed friend could have such a passion!

I think that the original readership of the book of Acts might well have had a similar reaction reading this passage as the moment when I first glanced over at my friend’s DVD collection. Because what we see in this chapter is perhaps two of the most unlikely groups of people becoming Christians in two of the most unlikely ways.

The first unlikely group that receive the gospel are the Samaritans. If I said ‘Samaritan’ to most of you, you’re probably likely to think of the phone line which you call when you’re feeling unhappy. If you’d said the word ‘Samaritan’ a Jew in the 1st Century, you’re likely to have received a very different reaction.

It’s hard for us to quite imagine the background here. When we think of national hostility, it’s normally in quite a light way, mainly consisting of jokes involving Englishmen, Irishmen and Scotsmen. But the hostility between the Jews and the Samaritans had lasted more than a thousand years. The Jews despised the Samaritans on religious grounds – though originally part of the people of Israel, the Samaritans had inter-married with pagan nations. They were considered religiously impure by the Jews: they rejected all of the Old Testament apart from the Torah, the first five books of the Bible – and they had even changed some parts of the Torah, including the 10 Commandments. Most shockingly, they had built a rival temple to the one in Jerusalem. For this reason, Samaritans were excluded from worship in the true temple in Jerusalem. In sum, in Jewish culture, calling someone a ‘Samaritan’ was about the worst insult you could come up with. Perhaps a paedophile or a terrorist would have a similar reception today – hated by most. But even this doesn’t catch the long-term nature of the hostility.

Back to the story. The chapter opens with persecution. Stephen is martyred and the Christians are dispersed and scattered from Jerusalem. And yet God is completely in control of his mission. Up until now in Acts all the ministry has taken place in Jerusalem. No one had moved out to Judea and Samaria. But Jesus had said in Acts 1:8 that the coming of the Holy Spirit was to empower missions in Jerusalem and beyond: “You shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria and to the end of the earth.” Now Acts 8:1 mentions those two areas in that order: “… they were all scattered throughout the region of Judea and Samaria.” Whether the church might eventually have woken up to its calling without persecution or not, the fact is that God used persecution to hasten his people into the mission he had given them.

Anyway, Philip ends up explaining the gospel to the Samaritans and miraculous signs accompany the account of the gospel. And on hearing Philip’s message and on seeing his signs – we’re told that first in verse 6 the Samaritan crowds pay close attention to him, and then in verse 12 that they believe. God’s gospel message, brought to life by God’s Holy Spirit, changes people’s hearts. It’s what we’ve already seen several times in Acts. The shock here, however, is that it’s the Samaritans who are responding to the message. Well, word reaches some of the apostles who have been left in Jerusalem at Church HQ. You can almost imagine the apostles choking on their cornflakes as over breakfast someone mentions that the Samaritans are responding to the gospel message. Perhaps James and John are the most surprised of all. In Luke 9, Jesus is not made welcome in a Samaritan village and James and John ask Jesus whether he’s going to call down fire on them. Again: feel the deep enmity there. ‘Jesus, are you going to nuke them? Are you?!’ And now they hear the news that the Samaritans – the Samaritans – are responding to the gospel!

Well the apostles get together in Jerusalem for a conflab. They are amazed that the gospel is changing the Samaritans. They can hardly believe their ears! And so Peter and John are sent as a delegation to see what’s going on. Let’s pick up the story in verses 14-17:

When the apostles in Jerusalem heard that Samaria had accepted the word of God, they sent Peter and John to them. When they arrived, they prayed for them that they might receive the Holy Spirit, because the Holy Spirit had not yet come upon any of them; they had simply been baptized into the name of the Lord Jesus. Then Peter and John placed their hands on them, and they received the Holy Spirit.

Now these verses are amongst the most controversial in the entire book of Acts, because they raise a question: is there a definite and separate experience of the Holy Spirit to be sought and enjoyed after conversion, shown by speaking in tongues, different from the indwelling of the Holy Spirit which starts when we first believe?

Those who believe that there is a distinct second experience use this passage to support their position. The Samaritans seem to be already converted – that's the first experience – and yet there is an experience of the Holy Spirit that they don't have – the second experience. Verse 15 says that Peter and John came down from Jerusalem and “prayed for [the Samaritans] that they might receive the Holy Spirit, because the Holy Spirit had not yet come upon any of them; they had simply been baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus.” It’s obvious they’re missing something. The Spirit has not ‘come upon any of them’. Yet in spite of this lack, they seem to be genuine believers. Not all Christians agree with this. Some now think that the Samaritans weren’t true believers before Peter and John came to pray for them. There are good arguments on both sides: some suggesting that the Samaritans weren’t yet true believers, some suggesting that they were. Well I don’t really want to get sucked into these arguments. I’m happy to chat through them later with anyone who’d like to. For what it’s worth, here’s my position. It seems to me to be the pattern throughout the New Testament that all true believers have the Spirit in every way we need for ministry and for godliness. Romans 8:9 puts it like this: ‘If anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, he does not belong to Christ.’ Or Ephesians 1:13: ‘You also were included in Christ when you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation. Having believed, you were marked in him with a seal, the promised Holy Spirit.'

So I think that we understand this episode best when we think about its context. As we said on the first night, Acts is primarily descriptive, describing the spread of the gospel from Jerusalem to the ends of the earth. And, as we’ve seen, the gospel’s movement into Samaria was a significant advance. The question is: what would happen next? The gospel had been welcomed by the Samaritans, but would the Samaritans be welcomed by the Jews? You can imagine what might have happened – the church might have grown up with separate factions; a kind of church gathering for ‘normal’ people and a separate one for the lowlife Samaritans.

So what I think happens here is that God directly intervenes. In order to prevent such a disaster of a church divided on ethnic grounds, God deliberately and temporarily withholds the Spirit from the new Samaritan believers. Why? So that the apostles, Peter and John, could come to investigate, pray for the converts, lay hands on them as a sign of fellowship, and then experience on behalf of the rest of the church that they really are genuine Christians. They could be welcomed into the church on precisely the same terms as Jews. One commentator puts it like this: ‘At this turning-point something else was required in addition to the ordinary baptism of the converts. It had to be demonstrated both to the apostles and to the Samaritans beyond a shadow of doubt that they really had become members of the church. An unprecedented situation demanded quite exceptional methods.’

And so, I think, the reason this doesn’t happen throughout the New Testament is that the situation is unique. And the reason it doesn’t happen today is that there’s no Samaritans and no-one with quite the same authority to establish the church as Peter and John. And we’d have to say that God’s unique action seems to have had the desired effect because, as verse 25 tells us, Peter and John don’t return immediately to Jerusalem, but spend time preaching the gospel in Samaria.

Now in interpreting this passage this way, I’m absolutely not excluding the possibility that the Spirit may, at certain times, choose to bless some Christians in special ways. But don’t miss the big picture. Let’s take a step back and see what these events reveal about God’s heart here: a heart for Christian unity in massive diversity and a heart for bringing into his people a group that would have – until that time – been considered outsiders.

We can learn from Peter and John here. A group of people that they’ve considered enemies (and quite frankly weird) are welcomed into God’s people. They extend the hand of fellowship to them and consider them co-heirs in the gospel, completely equal. And I think we need to remember this. There are other Christians that we consider, well, frankly quite weird. They’re not the sort of people we’d normally choose to hang around with. Perhaps there’s people here this weekend that you consider to fit into that category. Perhaps there’s people like that will become Christians through your witness this year. And the challenge is this: given that Jesus has accepted them, will you accept them too? I guess it must have been quite humbling for Peter and John to welcome in the Samaritans – and it’s not always easy for us – but we need to remember that if God has reconciled himself to them, then we must too. It’s very humbling when you see Christians modelling this: people who are completely different from each other, accepting each other and showing each other grace in the light of the acceptance and grace we’ve been shown by God.

So we’ve seen the gospel going to the Samaritans – a group of people with wacky religious ideas – and changing them. Then in verses 26-40, we see the gospel going in another surprising direction: this time to an Ethiopian eunuch. Now there’s some important Old Testament context here. Lads, you might want to brace yourselves now! Deuteronomy 23:1 says this: ‘No one who has been emasculated by crushing or cutting may enter the assembly of the LORD’. In other words, under the old covenant, someone like the Ethiopian man couldn’t be a full convert to Judaism – like the Samaritan he wouldn’t have ever been able to enter the temple. And so these verses tell of how another ‘outsider’ becomes part of God’s people.

What I particularly love about this account is the way in which, again, God is the key actor. Track the number of times in which God opens up this opportunity for evangelism. First, in verse 26, an angel of the LORD tells Philip to go south onto the desert road. Then (verse 28) God has fixed it so that the man just happens to be reading the Bible as he drives past. He is reading Isaiah 53, which is perhaps the clearest passage speaking about Jesus’ death and resurrection in the whole of the Old Testament. And then (verse 29) the God speaks by his Spirit to Philip, telling him to follow the chariot. God is involved at every stage.

And it’s quite clear that God has been preparing the man for this encounter with Philip for some time. Look at his questions in verses 31 and 34. In evangelism, God still gives us a job to do – Philip still has to teach the man the gospel – but God is involved at every step in order to bring him to Christ. And – again – we see a very wonderful thing here as we take a step back and think about what this reveals about God’s heart. God consciously directs the paths of the early church in order to show them that his gospel is for everyone, including those, like the Ethiopian, who would have been thought least likely to have been part of his people. Such inclusivity was always God’s plan. Isaiah 56:3-7 prophesies of how, through the actions of God’s Servant, all kinds of people will be brought into God’s people – including foreigners and eunuchs. Now, 600 years after Isaiah prophesied, that’s exactly what is happening. And God himself is involved to make sure that it happens.

Well let’s pause for a moment here. We’ve seen that God is assembling together a diverse group to be his very own. There’s no restrictions placed on his people – there’s no ethnic groups or types of people excluded. Even people that traditionally were disliked by God’s people are now being invited on in. We saw it hinted at in chapter 2, and it’s a major theme throughout the book of Acts. All sorts of people are now invited to be part of God’s own people. Yet, in our minds, we so often place restrictions on who we think will become Christians. I wonder if you’ve ever thought this like I have: ‘Well, there’s an evangelistic event coming soon. A great opportunity for people to hear about Jesus.’ But then you look around at your friends and think: ‘Well, I just can’t imagine them as Christians. In fact, they’ll probably not be interested.’ And so you don’t invite them. And your idea about them never becoming Christians becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy because they never get the chance to investigate Jesus for themselves.

When I was in Bristol, I got to know a guy known by everyone as ‘Pagan Ed’. Pagan Ed was quite a character. He worshipped Norse gods, because he said that they best represented the kind of gods he’d like to worship. He was going out with a Muslim. He was properly hard. He was well known for partying hard. He was a loud-mouthed Vet Science student, known throughout his department. I guess if you’d asked some of those Vet Science students the person they knew that they thought least likely to become a Christian, they might well have said Pagan Ed. Anyway, as part of the mission, a Grill-a-Christian panel had been arranged in the Vet Science department, and me and a guy from a local church in Bristol were to be on the panel. And in the run-up to this Grill-a-Christian, a couple of Vet Science students came and worriedly told me that Pagan Ed was loudly putting together a whole list of questions that he was sure would bamboozle and embarrass us Christians.

The night of the Grill-a-Christian panel came and, sure enough, Pagan Ed was there, one of the first to arrive. And he waved around a piece of A4 paper on which he had written dozens of questions. Anyway, some other people arrived, and before we started to take questions, the other guy on the panel with me – confusingly also called Ed – just shared something of the gospel. He spoke of how Jesus reveals God to us, but that Jesus didn’t just come to reveal God, but through his death to reconciles us to God. Then the person hosting asked for questions. Everyone turned to Pagan Ed. But to our astonishment, he didn’t ask a single question. He didn’t ask any questions all night, but politely listened. I remember chatting to him afterwards and asking, ‘Ed – what about your questions?’ His reply? ‘I realised that they were all peripheral. I realised that Christianity is all about Jesus – and I hadn’t given him a single thought.’ Over the next few of months, Pagan Ed continued to investigate Jesus, and eventually became a Christian. I recently met a friend of his. Ed is going on well with the Lord. It’s hard learning not to call him ‘Pagan Ed’ any more!

The point is this: we might often have stereotypes about the sort of person that we think might become a Christian, but God has no such stereotypes. God’s gospel is for all – and his Spirit is powerful to work in the hearts of all. What does this mean for us? Well, let’s be brave in our evangelism. Just take a moment to think: of your friends, of the people you know, who seems furthest away from the gospel? Well, let’s be bold in sharing the gospel with them – because the gospel that we have, sharpened with God’s powerful Spirit, is well able to break the chains of even the hardest heart. Let me beg you: don’t rule out certain groups of people in your evangelism. Keep on sharing the gospel with Muslims, with hardcore clubbers, with aggressive atheists. Continue to seek to reach them. God has no stereotypes about the sort of person he wants as part of his people and his gospel is powerful to change all. He’s saved Samaritans, eunuchs – even people like Pagan Ed. He’s well able to save others too.

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