Is God calling us in new directions? This is the question before a lot of our churches these days, as they struggle with aging buildings and membership. These questions are front and center in our Acts passage today.
Acts is one of my more favorite books. It is a book of excitement and uncontrollable growth. It seems that God cannot be contained, and in many ways it continues a theme that had begun at the tomb: that God is on the loose.
In Acts 8 we encounter Saul, who we all know will become Paul and become one of the great leaders of the church. But for now, Saul is in overdrive when it comes to persecution. He not only approved of killing Stephen (and capital punishment is against Jewish law), but he is going from house to house, dragging out men, women, and children and sending them to prison.
And what is their offense? The only crime they have committed is being Christian.
It is hard for us to imagine this kind of persecution. I would hardly describe America as a Christian nation, but there is certainly enough religious freedom that I do not feel any trepidation about practicing my religion or going to church at any time of day or night.
There is a small tidbit of history that may go unnoticed to the untrained eye. The simple words, “Philip preached in Samaria” are coded. Many of us are conditioned to focus on the verb and read “Philip PREACHED in Samaria,” when most likely people of that day were reading this as: “Can you believe Philip preached in SAMARIA!?” The Jews and Samaritans had long-standing animosity. Remember the questions that were raised when Jesus spoke to a Samaritan woman? These are a people that don’t get along. So this marks an important step in the church’s growth.
Where are our current day “Samaria”s – those places that are seen as off-limits for some Christians, but are the exact places we need to be?
People were amazed at Philip doing this and preaching in SAMARIA. One of these men was Simon, who had previously practiced magic, but listened and declared “This man is the power of God that is called Great!”
It is somewhat amazing that these persecutions backfire for Saul and the other persecutors. They were seeking to stamp out Christianity. But what does their persecution do? It spreads the gospel message even further.
Today we see persecution of other kinds in our churches. It tends to center around gay marriage, immigration, and the poor. I find the persecution go well beyond politics, and to every which way in the argument. This all raises questions for us as the Church. Where should we be? What should we be doing? How should we “do” church? These are questions for every presbytery to wrestle with – and arguably every church.
Acts raises questions for every Christian too. Is God taking us in new directions? Where in our lives have we been complacent or stalled? How is God calling us forth into the unknown or into the uncomfortable? Are we called to preach like Peter or Philip? Are we called to acts of mercy or acts of judgment?
Whatever we are called to, we are called to GO, for God’s spirit is on the loose. And where we go really is not up to us…it is up to God. I happen to believe God is taking us in new directions, and God knows it will be a bumpy ride for the church. But God wants us to grow up.