Good News in The Last Place You’d Expect to Find It: A Sermon on Acts 8:4-8:25

As we start to unfold this story of the first Christians we are picking up on some important themes, and not only that, we are starting to see that everything is connected. Everything from Genesis 1 to the law and the prophets and into the gospel stories and message is tied into this story. Without understanding the whole story, there is no way to make sense of any of these stories in Acts.

One of the great arts of Christian theology is to know how to tell the story: the story of the Old Testament, the story of Jesus as both the climax of the Old Testament and the foundation of all that was to come (not, in other words, a random collection of useful preaching material with some extraordinary and “saving” events tacked on the end), and the story of the church from the first days until now. . . . Sometimes a story is the only way of telling the truth (110). – N.T Wright

Last week we talked about the stoning of Stephen and how before he was stoned went on a sixty verse sermon about the pattern of rejecting God’s messengers. The irony of the entire speech is that God was speaking through him, and he was also rejected and put to death. With hands covering ears and screaming at the top of their lungs, they refused to change when the truth hit them and tried to stop the new true story from going forward. Then this is what Luke tells us what happens.

On that day a great persecution broke out against the church in Jerusalem, and all except the apostles were scattered throughout Judea and Samaria. Godly men buried Stephen and mourned deeply for him. But Saul began to destroy the church. Going from house to house, he dragged off both men and women and put them in prison.

So remember we had seven people who were top quality that were chosen to take care of the widows and make sure that the gospel was actually reaching the marginalized in their areas. We heard the story of one of them last week, Stephen, and how that all unfolded. Then Luke goes into the story of another one of these seven guys. This one’s name is Phillip.

Those who had been scattered preached the word wherever they went. Philip went down to a city in Samaria and proclaimed the Messiah there. When the crowds heard Philip and saw the signs he performed, they all paid close attention to what he said. For with shrieks, impure spirits came out of many, and many who were paralyzed or lame were healed. So there was great joy in that city.

Remember, to understand what is happening in Acts, we have to understand the entire story. An important part of this story is the gospels and the words that Jesus said in the gospels and especially at the beginning of Acts. One of the last things that Jesus says to his disciples is this.

But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.

Jesus’ words here is basically a pattern for the entire book of Acts. So if you don’t think you remember anything from this series, at least remember Acts 1:8, because Luke takes this as foreshadowing and as he shows the church growing and changing he follows this pattern. When they say Judea, they mean all areas north of Jerusalem, and when they say Samaria, they mean all areas south of Jerusalem. So far in the first seven verses of Acts we have been stuck in Jerusalem, north of Jerusalem. But now, as the Christians start to scatter and bring this good news elsewhere, we are starting to see south of Jerusalem hear about what is happening. This isn’t just a geographical split of North and South, but it’s also very much an ideological split. But to understand we need a quick history lesson.

“It began with the break-up of the monarchy in the tenth century BC when ten tribes defected, making Samaria their capital, and only two tribes remained loyal to Jerusalem. It became steadily worse when Samaria was captured by Assyria in 722BC, thousands of its inhabitants were deported, and the country was re-populated with foreigners. In the sixth century when the the Jews returned to their land, they refused to help of the Samaritans in the rebuilding of the Temple. Not till the fourth century did the Samaritan schism harden, with the building of their rival temple on Mount Gerisim and their repudiation of all OT scripture except the Pentateuch. The Samaritans were despised by the Jews as hybrids in both race and religion, as both heretics and schismatics.” (John Stott)

We know from reading Luke in Acts and his gospel, especially Luke’s gospel, that Jesus has a soft spot for Samaritans. This wasn’t the case for everyone else. In fact it was the opposite. Jews hated Samaritans. As John puts it, they don’t associate with Samritans. While Jesus seemed to have done his best to break down that hate with stories about the good Samaritan, he didn’t get very far, because Jews in general don’t trust them, don’t like them and want nothing to do with them. So I’m sure that when Jesus said that they were going to witness in Samaria, that they pushed that to the back of their heads because they would never do that, never be found there. But here we are, the words of Jesus ring true and Phillip, for whatever reason, a reason we aren’t told about, finds himself in Samaria, and turns out that he’s a hit. The people love him. Spirits were leaving bodies, people who were lame were being healed. He seems to have got their attention. The story continues.

Now for some time a man named Simon had practiced sorcery in the city and amazed all the people of Samaria. He boasted that he was someone great, and all the people, both high and low, gave him their attention and exclaimed, “This man is rightly called the Great Power of God.” They followed him because he had amazed them for a long time with his sorcery. But when they believed Philip as he proclaimed the good news of the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ, they were baptized, both men and women. Simon himself believed and was baptized. And he followed Philip everywhere, astonished by the great signs and miracles he saw.

Samaria already has had some action lately. There was a guy there who was a magician of sorts, and he also amazed the people of Samaria. Luke tells us that “he boasted that he was someone great.” Luke then goes on to tells us that Phillip showed up, he didn’t boast about himself, but rather he proclaimed the good news of the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ. Luke is contrasting these two people because he wants to show us how the kingdom of God is different. It isn’t about boasting about yourself, rather its about boasting and proclaiming something that is happening despite yourself. Simon gets followers and shows his greatness. Phillip points everyone to follow Jesus and the Kingdom of God, he doesn’t make this about himself at all. Simon see this power (seemingly greater than his own), along with everyone else, and believed and was baptized. Luke though, doesn’t want us to forget that he kept following Philip everywhere and couldn’t get enough of the signs and miracles that he saw. He is a miracle jumper of sorts it seems. Let’s keep reading.

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

Now it becomes a bit obvious that Jews don’t like Samaritans. In no other case do people find out about Jesus and the church sends the disciples themselves to see if this was true. But sure enough, Peter and John has to show up to make sure that this was actually the case and that it wasn’t just fake. They still don’t trust Samaritans. It’s even more interesting that John would show up. Let me jog your memory a little but about how the disciples and John especially acted toward them last time. This is Luke 9.

As the time approached for him to be taken up to heaven, Jesus resolutely set out for Jerusalem. And he sent messengers on ahead, who went into a Samaritan village to get things ready for him; but the people there did not welcome him, because he was heading for Jerusalem. When the disciples James and John saw this, they asked, “Lord, do you want us to call fire down from heaven to destroy them?” But Jesus turned and rebuked them. Then he and his disciples went to another village.

So you send the guy who was quick to call fire down from heaven on these people to make sure that this was real. If he is convinced then we can trust it. I’m sure he was chomping at the bit to be able to go back there as well, to see these folks who once rejected Jesus and he wanted to destroy come to believe and be baptised. Then from here, once Peter and John see that this was real, they lay hands on them and the Holy Spirit shows up and continues it’s work. So Jesus words are ringing true. The Holy Spirit is coming on these people, they are receiving power and the message is going from Judea to Samaria. This is all despite the feelings of hatred toward these people. All their religious histories and past are slowly falling by the wayside as this good news of Jesus is transcending culture, race and religion. Jews would be sitting around telling stories about his for a long time. For the first time in a thousand years they are on the same page with people. They are back to worshiping the same God, and are believing the same good news. This is massive! It’s one thing to see 3000 Jews believe in Jesus. It’s a whole other thing to see Samaritans believe. They are the enemy and now they are our friend. Maybe this good news is actually good news? Maybe the Samaritans can actually participate with us in this? Then the story starts to get interesting.

When Simon saw that the Spirit was given at the laying on of the apostles’ hands, he offered them money and said, “Give me also this ability so that everyone on whom I lay my hands may receive the Holy Spirit.”
Peter answered: “May your money perish with you, because you thought you could buy the gift of God with money! You have no part or share in this ministry, because your heart is not right before God. Repent of this wickedness and pray to the Lord in the hope that he may forgive you for having such a thought in your heart. For I see that you are full of bitterness and captive to sin.”
Then Simon answered, “Pray to the Lord for me so that nothing you have said may happen to me.”

Simon wants in on the action. Whatever happened to all these other people, did not happen to Simon. He was upset, or maybe he just saw a business opportunity? He didn’t want to miss out it seems. He believes, he got dunked in some water. But now, he wants the real stuff. The power part. The Spirit part. You know the part that will give him the kind of followers that Phillip was getting. The kind that would make him great. Peter, our classic hothead, snaps. “You and your money can go to hell.” OK, so let’s just talk about this for a bit.

Q: Why did Peter snap here? Why was it so offensive what Simon said?

Peter has this captivating ability to see in someone’s character something that transcends the question. He can see what drives people. One of the most interesting things that I have found about Acts thus far is the view on money and how it intersects with the faith. There is an overwhelming amount of rebuking going on when people use their money poorly, or view money in the wrong way. Ananias and his wife Sapphira died because of how they viewed and treated money. It’s not just how they treat money though. It’s how money is allowed to be talked about and used within the kingdom of God. You’ll notice that no one here ever cares about how Caesar is spending their money or how governments are spending money or how non-believers are spending money. What they care about, and what the early church seems to have all sorts of guards up against, is how Christians interact with their money.

I was at a seed starting class in Waterloo this weekend, and one of the things that kept coming up over and over again was how important it was that everything was right. The soil needed a certain amount of moisture, temperature needed to be right, needed to be transferred at the right time and the list went on. The beginning stages of plants are so crucial for their development that anything that went wrong would set the whole thing off track. I see the early church sort of in the same way. The reason why Peter is so harsh here is because this is the very beginning and every thing matters. If you let a little but of dysfunction, idolatry or mis-directed desires then it could set the whole thing out of whack, especially when it comes to greed and money with humans.

I’m sure this can stem back to Jesus’ words on money and God. You can’t serve both. They are mutually exclusive. The early church believed this deeply and Luke tells the story in such a way to remind us over and over again that these two worlds cannot overlap. They are different. You cannot try to make excuses and say that you can, or that it is different now. If you serve God, you cannot serve money. If you serve God, you have to look at money entirely different. If you serve God, then you control money, not the other way around. This is why we see people selling their things and then using that money to take care of one another. Serving God means you care about people, you care about the kingdom, not care to have more money and make more money and be more powerful.

Remember at the beginning, when Luke tells us that Simon boasted in himself and Phillip proclaimed the kingdom of God? Well it turns out that Simon really didn’t change at all here. Sure he believed and he even got baptised. His heart hadn’t changed. He had no way of grasping that the good news was not good news of power or of saving your butt. He had been operating from a certain perspective and tried to fit this good news into that one. So the idea of a gift did not fit. He wouldn’t do anything for free, or at least if he wouldn’t do it if he wasn’t getting an ego boost and some more followers. So he thought everyone was like this. So he’ll give them what they want, so he can get what he wants. The problem is, they want nothing to do with it. He didn’t want the gift of the Spirit like everyone else. He wanted the power to lay hands on people and have the spirit come upon them. This was still a grab for power. He didn’t get it.

Then to top it off, after Peter rebukes him, what really concerned Simon isn’t so much that he couldn’t receive God’s pardon and receive the Spirit, but only that he could escape God’s judgment. He still only cares about himself, and there is no room for this in the church. If you are here, just because you don’t want to go to hell, or you want to be right and everyone else wrong, or you don’t want bad things to happen to you….you are hear for the wrong reasons. This isn’t what the kingdom of God is about.

This was a gospel that is worth dying for as we just saw through Stephen. To treat this as merely a commodity to be bought and sold is to not understand anything what is happening. We tend to do this with all sorts of things. It’s probably thanks to some of our capitalist upbringing. But we have learned, like Simon, to turn everything into a commodity. We think everything has a dollar value and we have very little understanding of gifts or being motivated by anything rather than money.

After they had further proclaimed the word of the Lord and testified about Jesus, Peter and John returned to Jerusalem, preaching the gospel in many Samaritan villages.

So the story ends with Peter and John going from town to town “preaching the gospel.” The last thing I wanted to bring attention to, because I think it’s important to note as we move deeper into Acts is some of the wording that is being used. There is a word here that is used that when it gets translated to English means “good news” or “gospel”. The word is

εὐαγγελίζω – euaggelizō – yü-än-ge-lē’-zō  (link)

So when you hear the phrase throughout the Bible “preach the gospel” the word in the Greek is euaggelizō. Now the problem is, that in Greek, there isn’t another word that is thrown in there that gives us another meaning. So what English translators did, to best explain what is going on here, is translate this word to mean “preach the gospel” but really what this word when said as a verb doesn’t mean preach, it is just a word that is a verb form of the word good news. It would be better translated as “gospelize the gospel.” I remember when I first heard about this word in Greek class at Tyndale. It blew my mind. It not so much that this was a bad translation, but in how we view the phrase today we always default that to meaning “preach” which always mean speak about it, talk about it, proclaim it loudly. Still, almost every weekend, we have street preachers down here on the corners downtown Sarnia “preaching the gospel.”

But this isn’t what it means. It doesn’t mean to talk about it. It means to make the good news into a verb. Gospelize the gospel. Make the gospel alive. Live the gospel. So when Peter and John head back to Jerusalem and the text says that they were “preaching the gospel” we can read that as “gospelizing the gospel.” They weren’t just going into towns and getting asked to preach sermons, they were living out the reality of the good news to everyone around them. So now, for the rest of your time reading Acts and even the Bible, when you see the phrase “preach the gospel,” you can understand what it really means, and what it meant to them.

The role of the Christian now to “preach the gospel” now has entirely new meaning. It doesn’t mean to preach. It doesn’t mean to speak it to everyone, shove it in their face and constantly talk about it. What it does mean though is to live out the good news as if its a verb. The gospel is living and active. It can be made into a verb, and the only way it becomes good news is if it is lived out through us. That is it. It is not just news that you tell someone about. It’s news that you show off through your life. Dan Oudshoorn recommends we call it “embodied proclamation” so that we don’t forget that there is also a verbal component.

Q: What should good news/gospel look like as a verb in our lives?

As the gospel starts to flow into new cities and amongst people that they never thought would get it there is this constant reminder that the gospel is specific. This new way of living is specific and there is no way to get around that fact. If you aren’t willing to die. If you aren’t willing to stop holding onto your money. If you aren’t willing to give up control. Then you cannot enter into the Kingdom of God. Simon, the magician, tried to control God. He wanted power to administer the gifts, not the gifts themselves. As a magician, he was constantly attempting to control divine powers through techniques and formulas. You can’t control God. His spirit shows up when you want it to. You can create the right environments, you can’t pray for it to happen, it just happens, and there is nothing you can do besides accept the free gift. Any attempt to control or stop it only seems to make it bigger. There is no formula.

But the church is ruthless in its demands. Not just anyone can walk in there and control it. This is working on God’s timing and God’s style. Simon was successful, he could get crowds, it would have been easy for the disciples to pass along the gift to pas around the Spirit and get this movement a real boost. Remember, they are looking to grow this right now, they are trying to get this message out there. Simon could have been a big part of that. But they choose not to. They aren’t looking for success, they recognize that preaching the gospel isn’t about getting crowds and getting people saved. It is about living a specific way. It is about living a life of repentance. A life that make good news actually good news to you and the rest of the world. So friends may we preach the gospel, live the gospel, gospelize the gospel wherever we go.

We hear the story of the wind at Pentecost,
Holy wind that dismantles what was,
Holy wind that evokes what is to be,
Holy wind that overrides barriers and causes communication,
Holy wind that signals your rule even among us.

We are dazzled, but then – reverting to type –
We wonder how to harness the wind,
how to manage the wind by our technology,
how to turn the wind to our usefulness,
how to make ourselves managers of the wind

Partly we do not believe such as odd tale
because we are not religious freaks;
Partly we resist such a story,
because it surges beyond our categories;
Partly we had imagined you to be more ordered
and reliable than that.

So we listen, depart, and return to our ordered existence:
we depart with only a little curiosity
But not yielding;
we return to how it was before,
unconvinced but wistful, slightly praying for wind,
craving for newness,
wishing to have it all available to us.
We pray toward the wind and wait, unconvinced but wistful.

Walter Brueggemann Prayers for a Privileged People

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