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Acts 8:14-17

The Gospel Moves Out Our text is a short one—only four verses in the larger Philip cycle of Acts 8.[1] With the persecution initiated by Saul after the martyrdom of Stephen, the early disciples begin to scatter from Jerusalem. The core of the disciples, at least, stays put in Jerusalem to run the church from what they must assume will always be its center. Christianity, or the Way, is still in a very Jewish moment.

As Philip goes, he does what any truly convinced and chosen follower of Christ might do. He preaches. The difference is that Philip, one of those seven (like Stephen) chosen to serve,[2] does his preaching among the hated Samaritans. As Philip preaches, many are converted and baptized into Christ.

This is a sort of hinge- or seam-moment for the people of God’s movement into the world. In the first few chapters of Acts, it has become clear what it is to be a follower of Christ as a Jew in Jerusalem. The call that Jesus left them to go from Jerusalem to Samaria and to the ends of the earth still hangs in the air but remains unfulfilled. How exactly might one convert a Samaritan, let alone a Gentile? Philip is undeterred by the technical challenges and forges ahead, possibly the first missional church planter figuring out how to “really do church.”

This is the edge of the known and the unknown for the followers of Jesus’ Way. They can see and recite the promises, but the where and the how are still largely unknown. So as the report of Philip’s success comes back to Jerusalem, Peter and John come down to Samaria to inspect the work. I am sure that we could project all of our fears and suspicions about church authority onto this moment, but that seems unnecessary. Acts outlines the spread of the Gospel in the power of the Spirit more than the acts of the apostles. It is probably more appropriate to read their curiosity as an honest desire to witness the unprecedented work of God in this area more than trying to rein in that unruly long-haired preacher Philip. It reminds me more of a GS’s visit to a creative access area to celebrate the singular way that God is moving in East Africa, for example, than it is a American DS’s attempt to control creative ministry in the suburbs.

A Samaritan Pentecost In our text proper, Philip disappears from the scene and gives way to Peter and John as they mediate the presence of the Spirit among the Samaritans. This requires some reflection. In Acts 2, the Spirit comes as the Jewish disciples wait among Jews according to the words of Jesus. In Acts 10, the Spirit comes on a household of Gentiles even as they hear the word preached by Peter. In Acts 19, a mysterious community of John the Baptist’s disciples are re-baptized when Paul discovers that they were only baptized into the baptism of repentance—a promise of the Messiah, but not the name, power or authority of Christ himself. Upper room waiting and prayer, apostolic preaching, Ephesian water. So what of Acts 8?

In Acts 8, the Spirit comes by the laying on of hands. Having been validly baptized in the name of Jesus Christ, these Samaritans receive the laying-on-of-hands and then receive the Holy Spirit in some tangible or audible way. Important to this text and to all of Acts is that there is no way to twist God’s arm in relation to the Holy Spirit. There is no foolproof mechanism for the reception of the Holy Spirit. Instead, the Spirit falls on those who would like to receive her when, where and how she will.

I should not have to say it, but this obviously does not absolve us of the need to faithfully administrate the sacraments. Most of us are not in the wild theological west where the boundaries are unsure and conversion is a leap into an unknown liturgical reality. We know what baptism is. We know what the Eucharist should look like, thanks to what we have received from the apostles, who received it from the Lord (1 Cor. 11). And we do not mess with the sacraments because, as this passage demonstrates, they do not belong to us and so are not ours to change.

By the same token, the Spirit does not belong to us. It is not a lever for us to pull to satiate our spiritual need. We wait prayerfully for the Spirit and, if we learn to listen closely as John and Peter did, we may receive something as clear as a command to lay on hands. More likely, we will continue to do those things that we know we are called to do—heal the sick, feed the hungry, clothe the poor, pray for the discouraged friend by the laying on of hands. As we carry out our normal and unexciting spiritual tasks, the Spirit falls and makes them much more than we could have ever imagined. I suspect that Peter and John did not know their hands would become the vehicle of this Samaritan Pentecost. But they knew about prayer and the Samaritan believers, in their new faith, were eager and primed to receive this second work of grace.

A New John the Baptist

One final and important point about Philip. His work here in Acts 8 is akin to the preparatory work of John the Baptist in Luke 3. He preaches and baptizes while others come behind to complete the work of sanctification and catechesis. I know that I am often too shy to begin the work of evangelism because I know that I will not be there to complete it and I frankly don’t trust most Christians to teach the Gospel well. So I let an opportunity to talk to a stranger pass by. I live my life, many days, as a functional agnostic who needs to control the outcome of my discipleship more than I need to follow the Spirit. When we minister this way, have we really understood the deep dependence that the Gospel calls us to?

Philip begins a work that he will not finish. Peter and John extend and further the work among those on the edges of the Jewish community. But ultimately, no one person or even church controls this message. It is the Spirit’s power that transmits the word of Christ across boundaries and into the unknown realms.

To those like me who are not on the boundary, may your ministry be faithful to the tasks that you know you have been given so that the Spirit might truly move in your mundane and sanctifying work. To those few of you who are truly on the edge, may you remain bold to proclaim the word of Christ in contexts which are difficult to control. May the institutions support and guide your work and may all that potential and undeveloped faith come to lasting fruition through the embodied, sacramental grace that we have received by the witness of the apostles. [1] This whole essay is informed by Bock, Darrell L. Acts. Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2007, 321-337. [2] This is most likely not Philip the apostle of Luke 6, but Philip the evangelist of Acts 6. Some have argued this is only one person, but it seems very unlikely (Bock, 638).