9th January 2022. Baptism of Christ.
Acts 8.1-17 – To the ends of the earth.
Our passage today focuses on Acts 8 and the story of the spread of the gospel out from Jerusalem.
The first chapters of Acts reveal a church that is in formation – a group of people become a community united by their faith in Jesus as messiah, indwelt and empowered by the Holy Spirit. Their initial focus was dedicating themselves to the apostles’ teaching there in Jerusalem – many were new followers of Jesus and so needed to grow in knowledge and understanding of who Jesus was, what Jesus taught, and what it meant to be a disciple of Jesus.
They also learned what it meant to be a community of God’s people – we see them praying, worshipping, sharing the Eucharist, sharing life together, and caring for the widows, orphans and the poor – these were key factors in the church’s character.
And yet as we read these first chapters in Acts, sitting in the background is Jesus’ command to go into Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria and to the ends of the earth making disciples of Jesus – one of the questions for them and for us as well as we read must be how was this to happen? How would the local church in Jerusalem go global? There were no Tik-Tok viral videos, no online influencers in those days – so how was it to happen?
In Acts 7 we read of Stephen’s preaching that led to his martyrdom and in Chapter 8 we discover that as a consequence, the church experienced a wave of persecution.
While the apostles remained in Jerusalem to lead those who stayed, many chose to leave the city spreading out into Judea and Samaria and beyond to find refuge. Until this time they were content to be together in Jerusalem. However, for as long as they remained in Jerusalem, they were not fulfilling God’s calling for God’s people and the mission Jesus gave the church.
The biblical narrative reveals that from the beginning God has sought relationship with humanity. As we heard in the message last Sunday, from Rev Dave Bookless, since the fall, God has been on mission. God has always taken the initiative to redeem and reconcile – in the Old Testament we read of God’s calling of Abraham, Israel, David, and the prophets.
All of this was preparing the way for Jesus. Jesus’ coming into the world, his life, death, resurrection and ascension were central to God’s mission to reconcile. Yet God’s mission and plan did not end with Jesus’ ascension. The giving of the Spirit and the birth of the church was a part of God’s ongoing plan. To fulfil this mission the church could not remain confined to Jerusalem, the good news of Jesus needed to disperse, to spread – much in the same way as the dandelion. The church is called to gather for the purpose of worship, prayer, teaching and equipping, fellowship, discipleship, and care. But an important part of the church’s DNA is to actively engage in mission in order to grow and fulfil its purpose. These twin elements of gathering and sending are integral to the character of the church.
I think in the early church that there was probably much discussion over when and how to make the move to fulfil Jesus’ command to take the gospel to all peoples. In the end it took persecution to bring about a change in the situation.
Chapter 8 contains the first accounts of the spread of the gospel and the church outside of Jerusalem. Acts
8.4 tells us that, “Those who had been scattered preached the word wherever they went.” Ordinary Christians took the good news of Jesus far and wide as they travelled, sharing with those they met along the way. This was an important first step in spreading the gospel to those outside those of the strictly Jewish community.
Sowing seeds of the gospel through sharing the good news of Jesus with those we encounter in our lives has always been at the heart of the church’s witness and a part of its mission.
We are then given several stories focused on, Phillip, where we see the shift into taking the good news to those outside of Israel.
The first story is a summary of Phillip’s evangelisation in Samaria. Luke tells us in Acts 8.6 that Phillip preached the good news of Jesus, which the people were eager to hear. Luke also tells us that Phillip’s preaching was accompanied by healings and other miraculous signs. The result was great joy in Samaria. The good news of Jesus was both preached, but also demonstrated in acts of compassion that brought healing, freedom and life to people. No wonder it was received with joy.
In this method Phillip follows the model of Jesus who both preached the kingdom of God and healed and cared for people. It was not one or the other but word and deed together. When we look at the history of the spread of Christianity in the first centuries of the church these two were also done together. Christians were known for preaching Christ – it is Jesus’ life, death and resurrection that is the heart of the good news. It is through Jesus that reconciliation with God is made possible. But integral to the early spread of the gospel was that Christians were also known for expressing their love Jesus through acts of compassion for the poor, the needy, the sick, the oppressed in practical ways. Even the enemies of the faith recognised this distinctive element of Christianity. If you are interested a good book on the spread of Christianity is Kingdom of Fools by Nick Page.
This last year a number of the workers from our organisation have led food and care package projects for some of the needy in their communities. These packages have been essential in some parts of the Roma community in Serbia where many Roma were unable to work due to the corona situation. In addition to bringing practical relief to those in need they also serve other purposes – it builds trust, it creates opportunities for conversations about and sharing Jesus with others, it helps the church connect with their community, and it is a demonstration of the love and compassion of Jesus. We see this in the ministry and work of Jorin from our church who serves in Lebanon – she both shares the gospel and serves in a ministry of compassion by providing psychological support to people with trauma. The good news of Jesus shared in word and deed.
The second story is of Phillip’s encounter with a magic worker named Simon. At this time magic and superstition played a large part in the life and culture of the time. When Simon heard Phillip’s preaching and saw the miracles, he chose to follow Jesus and be baptised along with others that responded. The apostles, Peter and John, came to see for themselves what was happening. They laid on hands people for them to receive the Holy Spirit, but Simon offered money to receive the power of the Spirit. His motive was more about power and the ability to make money from that spiritual power. Peter and John rebuked Simon for him trying to pay for the Holy Spirit – God will not be bought or manipulated.
This is the first specific account of evangelism to those outside Judaism – the first cross-cultural mission experience. The pouring out of the Spirit acts as a sign of God’s blessing on this step, confirming that the good news of Jesus was for all peoples, just as Jesus commanded. The Samaritans were despised by the Jewish people of the time, so it was important that God’s approval for this step be visible and the giving of the Spirit demonstrates this. The good news of Jesus is good news for all – no-one is excluded when it comes to sharing, no one is beyond being reconciled with God through faith in Christ. There are also no second- class Christians – the Holy Spirit is for all who believe and respond in faith. These were important lessons for the early church then, and just as important for us today.
This story also reveals that the good news is meant to be taken and spread. As the apostle Paul explains it in Romans 10.14-15, “How, then, can they call on the one they have not believed in? And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them? And how can anyone preach unless they are sent? As it is written: “How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!”
Phillip’s experience and Paul’s words show us that the good news needs to be taken and shared with all. To those who live near and to those who live far from us. It is not designed to keep to ourselves.
This is a part of our calling collectively as a church and individually as followers of Jesus. Just like Phillip we all have a role in God’s mission. Yes, God calls some people, for longer or shorter terms to share the good news of Jesus in a more specific capacity whether in pastoral ministry, in mission or other service For some it might mean joining a short-term mission trip. Yet all Christians are called to participate in other ways. We all have opportunities as we go about our daily lives to share the good news and the love of Jesus through sharing our own testimony of Jesus. We are called to share the love of God in practical ways through acts of compassion and service to our neighbours and in our community. Importantly, we can also get involved in the mission of the church through our giving and our prayers. This is why each week there is an international prayer focus for our church, and an opportunity to give to the monthly charitable focus.
Luke in writing the book of Acts writes about the continuing work of Jesus through the Holy Spirit after his ascension.
He writes of a church and people on mission – taking the good news of Jesus in word and deed to a world in need of the news that in Christ God is at work reconciling all things and that in Christ there is hope.
The good news of Jesus is just as needed today. The mission of God is ongoing, and you and I have the privilege and responsibility of partnering with God in God’s mission.