Acts 8:14–17 (NRSV)
14 Now when the apostles at Jerusalem heard that Samaria had accepted the word of God, they sent Peter and John to them. 15 The two went down and prayed for them that they might receive the Holy Spirit 16 (for as yet the Spirit had not come upon any of them; they had only been baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus). 17 Then Peter and John laid their hands on them, and they received the Holy Spirit.
We live in a very interesting period of time. I would say that it is an exciting time for the church. I have said this on many occasions because I truly believe that just over the horizon God is about to do something amazing in the Church, and particularly among Friends. I say this because we are living in a period of time, an era of history where the Church is vulnerable.
When people are vulnerable our natural instinct is to protect. We often withdraw from the potential dangers and fortify our positions so that we can make a defense when the attack comes. This frequently occurs when there are significant cultural, economic, technological, and natural events causing changes within a community or people group. If we were to remove all political connotations and opinions away from the Syrian refuge issue we would be able to see that this natural instinct to flee danger and protect themselves is at the root of the mass exodus. If we were to just contemplate our own response to the situation if the tables were turned we may even see that we may possibly respond in a very similar manner. And in many cases we are responding in a similar manner, because it is a base instinct that was created within our genetic code.
Many leaders across the nation are teaching those that listen that the end is near, that Christ is about to return. I find this form of teaching repugnant because Scripture clearly teaches that no one not even Jesus Christ knows when that great day will occur. When I mention that to people, they often pull back and say just look at the world around us clearly this is the end. No, I believe that it is the beginning of something great (and yes the Lord’s return would be great.). I agree that there are pressures on the church that have been building for decades that are now causing presenting themselves as significant cultural shifts that cause us to look at what has occurred in the past as being the golden age and the future is only darkness. The problem with that type of thinking is that it depends on the perspective. The “golden age” of the church was also seen as the dark ages of culture in Europe. And the church has remained and thrived for centuries after that golden age.
It would be foolish for me to say that there is not a crisis of faith occurring throughout our land. It would be foolish to say that our culture has not changed significantly over the generations. Science has shown it to us in multiple ways. I mention science because the scientific method of observation and exploration in search of truth is just one of the ways our culture has shifted. Some of the shifts cause us to step back but other aspects of these shifts can make our testimony even greater. Again it is all about perspective. In many ways the dynamic shift within our culture is similar in degree to the greatest movements within church history. The eighth chapter of the Book of Acts is a testimony of just how important these cultural shifts and the response of the faithful can be to the future of the Kingdom of heaven.
The passage today speaks of the people of Samaria becoming believers of the word and being baptized after Phillip teaches them, then Peter and John come to visit and the people are filled with the Holy Spirit and the church grows. This is wonderful but we really need to look deeper to understand just how meaningful this is.
Samaria is in many ways the remnant of the Northern Kingdom of Israel. If we look into the history of the people of Israel we would see that after the reign of Solomon the nation split and only the tribes of Judah and Benjamin remained loyal to the house of David, all the others gained their independence, united together and named their own king. Fast forwarding through history the leaders of the Northern kingdom, the tribes that rebelled essentially over the high taxes imposed by the house of Solomon, quickly fell away from God and judgement commenced. When we read about this division we often think that all of the nation was opposed to God but that is not reality. The Levites or the priests still had cities of refuge and centers for worship and faith continued. We do not often hear about the faith of the Samaritans because they opposed the temple of Solomon. They opposed this temple because it was linked to political ideology that they did not agree with. So we see the first division of faith based primarily on nationalism, and nothing about religion.
Samaria, we are told fell to the Assyrian Empire, because their leaders opposed God. But there is something interesting about their religion, it still remains. They were a people group that were rebellious and independent and they were free to live as they saw fit, yet through their occupation they still maintained their central place of worship. And just as the people of the southern kingdom they anticipated the coming of the Messiah. Do not hear this incorrectly, I am not saying that the Northern Kingdom was more faithful, it is very clear that many within the northern kingdom opposed God, what I am saying is not all in that kingdom were faithless.
Now let us move forward and speak about Phillip. Phillip was a second tier disciple. This is not to say that he was not important because it is very clear from the book of Acts that he was, but what I mean is that he was not one of the original twelve, he was among the second wave of leaders. Philip along with Steven the first martyr, and five others, were appointed to be deacon by the Apostles. This office was created after a dispute emerged between the Jewish and Hellenistic factions of the church over the use of offerings, in short many believed that the Gentile Christians were being treated unfairly by the Hebrew believers. Each of the seven deacons were chosen by the community of disciples, not the Apostles, they were to be upstanding members of high integrity and the apostles laid hands on the seven chosen without prejudice and the seven were to minister to the needs of the Church. Phillip is a man of faith who emerged from the Hellenistic side of the church, he may have come from a Hebrew family but his family by his very name favored the benefits of the Greek culture. If you were a member of the assembly who came from the Hellenistic side of the church would see Phillip as your guy.
Well not long after the dispute within the church, the persecutions from the Jewish people in Jerusalem began. One reason for the persecutions was because Gentiles were becoming accepted among the followers of Jesus and the traditional religious community feared it would not be long before the Temple would again be desecrated by these Gentiles. So eventually all the non-Hebrew believers were forced out of Jerusalem. Phillip, a believer with a Hellenistic name, left Jerusalem and went to Samaria, and began to continue the work he had been doing among the people around him.
I want to stop there for just a moment because we have two groups of people being discriminated against by the establishment in Jerusalem. The church was at that moment open and welcoming to all people, accepting both Jew and Greek not only in their assembly but in leadership. There was a cultural shift occurring within the religious community, and many felt that this was unacceptable. Does God really intend for people of all cultures to be followers or does He require that all people submit to the hereditary leaders of the promised people. Accepting Greeks that live in and around Jerusalem is one thing, they lived there, now they hear that there are people in Samaria that have become followers?
I want us to consider this from a different perspective for a moment. Phillip is a member and leader within our Meeting and because of financial reason he is forced to move from our community to work in another nation. It just so happens that the only place he can find work is in the lands occupied by a group we oppose. Let’s just say he was hired by a company that required him to move to Iraq because he is a petroleum engineer and they needed him to work on a new project. Well Phillip is a well-respected member of our Meeting and we will greatly miss him and his family. After a few weeks we get an email saying that he was worshiping among a group of people in Iraq. He sounds very excited about it and goes on and on about the amazing life changing occurrences that are happening while he works among the people of that nation. He then adds even ISIS Militants are coming to faith and are going to start an Evangelical Friends Church with him. We were with him up till then. ISIS is an enemy they cannot be accepted. Why?
This scenario is fictional, but is similar to the situation Phillip had in Samaria. Samaria was the enemy of Judah. They are the enemy of God. They oppose coming to the Temple in the capital city to make sacrifices and leave offerings to provide assistance to the people of the nation. At this moment the Church has a huge problem does God love the people of Samaria and can they be Samaritans and Christian?
The church of Jerusalem quickly met to discuss this unprecedented event, and it is decided that Peter and John will go to meet with Phillip and the Samaritans. They send them because by Luke’s writing we see that they are baptized but do not have the Baptism of the Holy Spirit. And Peter and John want to know and pray with them to see if they can be accepted into the Church.
Notice that I said accepted into the Church. The reason I say this is because there is a phenomenon occurring. After Pentecost God did not withhold the baptism of the Spirit from believers, even the Gentiles were filled with the Holy Spirit. As they drew close to Christ it became apparent that they were authentic not only in word but in their actions. But there is hesitation when it comes to Samaria. Is God withholding his blessing from those dogs for the long history of rejection of the true faith or is something else going on?
I do not want to get into a debate over what it means to have the baptism of the Spirit. We in the Friends Church are very liberal in this area, it can mean many things but it can always be summed up into one statement: It will be evident in our lives that we are true believers. I want us to consider is what God is doing in the Church at this moment.
Peter and John go. Peter the outspoken person and obvious leader, and John the one whom Jesus loved. Both were members of the Apostolic ranks, both were in the inner circle, the closest of Jesus’ friends. Peter was the one who witnessed the vision and evidence of God’s acceptance of Gentiles into the church but it is very clear that at moments Peter falls back into a very Law focused expression of faith. John is probably the most accepting of outsiders, because of this he almost comes across as being opposed to his own people in his writings. These two were chosen to represent the church as they consider the people of Samaria.
They go because they do not trust Phillip, they do not trust that these Samaritans could be believers if there was no evidence of the Holy Spirit being present. But I ask a simple question: Who was the Spirit hidden from? Phillip obviously saw something because he was reporting that they were believers. But the apostles in Jerusalem were not convinced.
Could it be that even the Saintly Apostles, the first disciples of Jesus, the ones that walked in the very dust behind the greatest teacher and Messiah, could have been blinded by their own flesh? Could it be that they could not see the truth of the Samaritan faith because they were too wrapped up in their own nationalistic religion? I only mention this because Phillip does not have an issue with the ministry that he has among the people, but the Apostles. I do not mean to cast shame or doubt on the heroes of my faith, I only wish to get a glimpse of the truth.
Peter and John go. They do understand that God might be working a great thing among their Samaritan neighbors. They go and they meet with them, they speak with them, they lay hands upon them, and pray with them. The result of this is Samaria is accepted into the Church, the blinders have been removed and all can see that God is at work. There are some lessons we can learn from this short passage, the first is that if we question we should seek to find the answers. And the second is we need each other to become fully aware of the truth surrounding us. This is the great Epiphany of this season, the great revaluation and insight from God. That he is working in ways we do not fully understand among people we do fully know. And he is calling us to meet with them, to speak with them, to encourage them, lay hands of on them and pray with them. He is calling us to know and get to know all people from all over and let them know the Word of God. The Word that they are loved and accepted, they are forgiven and redeemed, they are restored and glorified through the birth, life, death and resurrection of our Lord and God, Jesus.
As we enter into this time of open worship. Let us reflect on the ministry of Phillip to the people seen as enemies of Israel and God, let us consider our own changing culture and vulnerability that it causes within our church, but let us also consider the great hope and insight that we have received from Jesus. We have a future and a reason to be here. And it is so we can encourage others along their journey with Christ.
Philippians 1:3–11 (NRSV)
Paul’s Prayer for the Philippians
3 I thank my God every time I remember you, 4 constantly praying with joy in every one of my prayers for all of you, 5 because of your sharing in the gospel from the first day until now. 6 I am confident of this, that the one who began a good work among you will bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ. 7 It is right for me to think this way about all of you, because you hold me in your heart, for all of you share in God’s grace with me, both in my imprisonment and in the defense and confirmation of the gospel. 8 For God is my witness, how I long for all of you with the compassion of Christ Jesus. 9 And this is my prayer, that your love may overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight 10 to help you to determine what is best, so that in the day of Christ you may be pure and blameless, 11 having produced the harvest of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ for the glory and praise of God.
The season leading up to Christmas and shortly after, is one of my favorite times of the year. I know it sounds pretty cliché but it is not about the gifts, mainly because I am a terrible gift giver. I think it has something to do with the whole concept of leaving my job at a store and going back into a store when I am not working that just has an adverse effect to my mental wellbeing. What is it about this season if it is not the gifts, I really like the gatherings. I love the idea of friends and family coming together and sharing meals and laughter with one another. We live in such a busy spread out culture that we rarely gather, there is too much to do. I love these gathering because these are the times that memories are made. The moments we stop what we are doing to enjoy the fruit of our labors.
The season of advent is a season of longing. It is a season to celebrate the anticipation of the coming messiah. It is a time to recognize the hope that those in ancient days looked forward to and to remember that we too are longing for the fulfilment of that coming to be seen today. I have a fear that as we mature physically and emotionally we forget about the anticipation and longing of the season. Kids on the other hand they get it, well I should clarify that by saying they get the longing of the season though maybe not the reason we should be longing. Advent is filled with longing but also joy. There is hope for those of us in Christ because there is a reason behind our longings, we do not wait appearance of the king, but we are waiting for the return of the king.
There is a difference in these longings. Those of ancient days were longing for the Messiah, they had these preconceived ideas of how this person would look and act. They studied this in great detail, to such a degree that when the one came many missed it. We on the other hand have the actual personality revealed to us, we know what to expect and our hope is not in hypotheses but in observations. There is a difference in the two types of longing. One is based on ideas the other is based on experience. One is founded on interpretation of hope, the other is anticipating the fulfillment of that hope in the world around us. One is like living in the shadow where the other is like turning around and walking toward the light.
This holy anxiety is something that I would like us to consider today. Anxiety might not be the best word to use, but the idea of a joyful anticipation that cannot be stilled in response to this turning from the shadows to walk in the light. Paul understood this holy anxiety. Last week we got a glimpse of it when we read his prayer to the Thessalonians, today we see it again as he writes to the people of Philippi. Both of these places were in Macedonia, both were people Paul was called to minister through the vision he received while at a cross road in Troas. He could have gone south to Ephesus or north across the sea into the heart of the Hellenistic world. God led him to the north and Paul began the ministry that brought the Gospel of Christ to the west.
There is a difference in the joy, the holy anxiety that Paul feels between these two cities. To the Thessalonians the anxiety was a longing that they would remember and to the Philippians there is joy that they have continued. Some biblical scholars feel that a more accurate translation of Paul’s opening would be, “I thank God for your remembrance of me.” Instead of him thanking God when he remembers them. There is something to that statement. They remember him and he is aware of their remembrance. This could only mean that they were participants in the continued ministry that Paul started among them. If you were to look at a map you would see that Paul would have gone from Troas directly to Philippi, and from Philippi to Thessalonica. So the Philippians were the first Macedonians to encounter the Gospel. And they were so engrossed in the new life that Christ had to offer that they assisted Paul in spreading the gospel throughout their land.
I think that it is a valid point that the scholars make because of how Paul continues his greeting and prayer of blessing. The next verses he speaks of the joy that he has for them because they participated in the spreading of the Gospel from the first day until the moment he penned the letter. They were active, their belief was more than just knowledge based but it moved into the deeper regions where they put their very lives into the hands of God and allowed Him to direct their paths.
He says to them, “I am confident of this, that the one who began a good work among you will bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ.” Witness the holy anxiety. There is a longing not only within the life of Paul but one that he senses within the lives of the community of Philippi. Something began in their lives and it continues to well up within them, it stirs and moves, it makes it difficult to stay still, they are on the verge of becoming charismatic Quakers literally moved by the Spirit. But I want us to focus on the word began. The use of this word means that they are involved in a process that started at one point and is growing. A seed is taking hold and through the fullness of time will bring forth fruit. It began, it continues to press through the anticipation of advent reaching out to that glorious day of the return of the one on whom we lay our hope.
Life with Christ is a process it is a journey that begins, and stretches along life’s pathways as we walk toward the light. The difference between the greeting Paul give the Philippians and that of the Thessalonians is that the Philippians continue to walk with their faces pointing to the sun, where the Thessalonians turned their heads and begun to cast shadows. Paul looks to the Philippians with increasing joy, and those in Thessalonica there is thoughts of nostalgia.
Last week I asked a very personal question, I asked each of us to consider why this meeting called me. I asked this because I have a great deal of love for this meeting, it is something very deep within my spirit. To be fully honest I longed to be here with an anxiety that I could only say was God’s calling. When I left from the care of this meeting, I walked out into the life of being a pastor knowing that eventually I would be back here. What surprised me was the timing. I did not understand the longing that I had stirring within my soul, was it a stirring of nostalgia a longing to return home to the comfort of home or was it this joy similar to what Paul feels with Philippi? That is my own part of this journey. But what is yours? Was the longing that you had one of nostalgia or anticipation for the next phase of the journey?
Paul writes to these people of Philippi, the people that first responded to his ministry in Macedonia, and he longs for them with a longing of continued partnership. He urges them in his prayer to continue pressing on toward the goal before them. He prays that the love of God will overflow among them that they will become a greater blessing to those around them, and that as they continue with their journey toward Christ that the very Spirit of God will grant them greater knowledge and insights in how to proceed.
There is a reason that Paul writes this prayer, because Philippi is a very important place. It was an important port for Macedonia, a center for gladiatorial sport, and the religious cult of Dionysus. We are far removed from the ancient practices of the pre-Christian Roman Empire so many do not understand the importance this has, but Dionysus is the Greek form of the god Bacchus. This is the god of wine, merry-making, and insanity. This god was believed to be a shape shifter that would appear as a drunk man that would shift into a frenzied lion or bear. Those that participated in the worship Dionysus would engage in drunkenness, fornications, and would work themselves up into a violent frenzy where they would rip sacrificial animal apart with their hands. Rituals of this kind were so disorderly and threatening to the community that the roman government was forced to regulate it. Much of the letter to the Philippians was written to encourage the community of Christ to live his lifestyle even though so much of their culture opposed the ideas of Christ.
Remember his prayer again, that love would overflow abundantly, filled with knowledge and insight. This prayer and these words speak volumes to our own culture that seems to be fixated on intoxication, sexuality, and violence. Our current era is far from the debauchery those ancient Philippians witnessed daily. I admit that we as a culture have turned our faces away from the light of Christ and are standing in the shadows instead of facing the light of God’s grace, but there is hope. All we are experiencing today are things that our spiritual ancestors face two thousand years ago and they filled Paul’s life with joy.
We are called also. We are called to live through this time. God has given us gifts to minister to the people of this era, He will continue to give us insight that will direct our paths for His glory. Do not lose heart. Do not lose hope. Have faith that the one who began this work in our lives will see it through. Believe that we will see a harvest. Pray for knowledge, pray for insight, and pray for an overflowing abundance of love. It is the life of Christ that turns people away from the emptiness of the world. It is lives that reflect the holy lifestyle of Christ, that give this broken world hope.
When people experience the love God has for them through us it causes them to question us and themselves. When we live the love of Christ with them and encouraging them to walk in faith they have to respond with belief or rejection. Remember who the people Paul wrote this letter to, they were a people that were once actively pursuing a life totally dedicated to the satisfaction of their own lusts, yet they turned from those ways to embrace life with Christ. They actively pursued this life and spread this life from the very moment they heard and continued long after Paul left from their presence. This tells us that our current culture is not irredeemable, there is still hope. If God can turn Philippians to Him He can do a great work among us.
The question is how do we move from where we are today into that anticipated future in Christ? We get to that place only by loving God, embracing the Holy Spirit, and living the love of Christ with others. We get to that place when we stop arguing about who is right or wrong and encouraging others to embrace life with God.
We live in a culture that is broken, hurting, spiritually sick and hungry. We live in a world that does not need more judgement but hope. We have that hope, we know that Christ came just as the ancients hope for. We know that he was born, lived, and taught us how to live life with God, and He made that life possible through His death and resurrection. He empowers us to continue the work He began by giving us the Holy Spirit who gives us all the gifts we need to spread the Gospel of the kingdom in our communities, states, nation, and world. He gives us gifts of teaching, healing, encouraging, hospitality, wealth, music, art, and various others. He gives these gifts for his glory and our joy. He gives us all we have for this time and this place. I ask again, “why did you call me?” Am I here to pat you on the back and say we are better than others or to encourage you to continue participating in the spreading of the Gospel? I long with the compassion of Christ that his love will overflow more and more among you and this meeting, and that we will see the fulfillment of what He began in our lives.
1 Thessalonians 3:9–13 (NRSV)
9 How can we thank God enough for you in return for all the joy that we feel before our God because of you? 10 Night and day we pray most earnestly that we may see you face to face and restore whatever is lacking in your faith.
11 Now may our God and Father himself and our Lord Jesus direct our way to you. 12 And may the Lord make you increase and abound in love for one another and for all, just as we abound in love for you. 13 And may he so strengthen your hearts in holiness that you may be blameless before our God and Father at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his saints.
How can we thank God enough…What a wonderful statement to ring in the season of advent and to close out the week of Thanksgiving. How can we thank God enough for you? How can we thank God enough for you in return for all the joy that we feel before our God because of you? When was the last time you considered the shear joy that the fellowship of Christ has brought you?
These were the things that I have considered as I went through the past week. It has been difficult to think on these things to stay thankful because the world outside these wall so often distracts from that mindset. Especially when one has to go to work a few minutes after eating a feast dedicated to thankfulness, and try to manage a crowd that is focused of getting good deals. But I was challenged this week to consider these things.
I personally am thankful for this community. I have expressed often how blessed I have been to have been part of this community as a broken young man looking for an excuse to turn his back on God, only to be faced with a community that embraced me as a person and not judging me for my past. I am thankful for this community because you all reflected the love of Christ and encouraged me to strive for something greater. And even more you trusted me enough to allow me to marry one of your own. It is a weird thought I know.
When I examine my spiritual journey to Christ, and what has lead me to be the man I am today, this Meeting is very important. I almost understand what Paul means when he says that he thanks God for joy because of a church.
But then he goes on to say that he is in constant prayer, earnestly seeking to return to this same church that has brought him such joy, so that he might assist in restoring what is lacking in their faith. Does anyone else feel like they might be experiencing spiritual whiplash? This church that brought Paul joy, great joy, to the degree that words cannot be expressed to honor the gratitude that he feels, is also a source of a great burden.
Spiritual whiplash, the very dichotomy of church, the very people that bring joy also bring frustration. It is similar to the dichotomy of Thanksgiving in our culture, we celebrate a feast where we give thanks for all we have and then before digestion even has a chance to start we jump right into the frenzy to obtain more. If we were to examine that for a moment it is really enough to bring tears to our eyes. Moving from selflessness into selfishness in a matter of moments, maybe not individually but culturally. It brings to reality the very statement the Prophet Isaiah spoke after his vison of God, “Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!”
What is lacking what have the people that brought Paul such joy lost that has caused such a burden that has him yearning to return? Love. Love that flows from the very throne of God, the love that takes no account of individualism and just flows out to others. These people that brought joy to Paul, seemed to have slid back into previous lifestyles.
I say this because if we were to read deeper into this letter we would find that in the very next chapter Paul begins to speak about fornication, lustful passions, and exploitation. These are activities that do not foster love, but are focused on self gratification. They do not promote the building of a community but actually encourage the destruction of relationships.
But Paul does not look at them as a lost cause, he sees them as having great potential. This church, the community to which this letter was written is Thessalonica, which is a city in Macedonia, part of Greece. This is the very community Paul spoke about having a vision to go, and in that vision the yearned for him to come to teach them about the ways of Christ, and to share the Gospel.
Paul writes to them, urging them to return to the place where they let God direct their paths. Saying, “And may the Lord make you increase and abound in love for one another and for all, just as we abound in love for you.” Increase and abound in love for one another and for all. Let that statement slowly flow over you. The idea of increase so often is twisted in our contemporary culture. We interpret increase with the idea of profit and personal gain, this is far from what is being said. It is quite literally an increase an over flowing abundance but the abundance is not to be internalized but it should flow out.
Paul is urging them to consider the life and lifestyle of Christ, whose advent we celebrate and anticipate during this season of the year. Christ came from heaven to be born of a virgin, He came to live a full human life from an embryo to adulthood, to show us and empower us to live in relationship with God. Jesus taught us a rhythm of life that revolved around worship, prayer, and service to others which is an image of the increase and abounding love that Paul is urging the people in Thessalonica to embrace. It is in worship that we are encouraged to receive and are filled with the spirit of God. It is in prayer where we allow that living water to saturate our being and it is in service to others that the outflowing or increase happens.
Why did Jesus come? Why will he come again? Why does he delay? It is because of love. It is because God so loves the world that he gave his son. He gave the ultimate gift. He gave not to condemn but to redeem, not to judge but to restore. Not to shame but to encourage a different path. A path that is not focused on individualism but on the kingdom of God.
I began by speaking of the joy that this community has brought me. I experienced the increase and flowing love from God through a community that sought God. I came here not really knowing what might happen, and I did not really expect what I found. The increase and abounding love this community shared flooded my very being, leaving no question in my mind that I must embrace the calling that was in my heart. A calling I was not yet willing to embrace because I did not understand it. You all sent me out and you brought be back. The question is why? The only answer I can come up with in my mind is to remind you of the love that God has showered on this community, the love that was once shared and the love that God wants us to share again. The love that brought healing to a broken man, and gave encouragement to overcome the past and embrace the future. The love that was saturated in grace and forgiveness.
I look out at the community our Meeting serves and I see people all around us that are hurting, I see even within our walls a dryness, and a hardness. Why did you bring me? Why did you bring someone that has such a great love for you to this place? Increase and abound in the love of one another and for all, just as I abound in love for you. Seek the Lord and his will, let him direct and strengthen our lives so that we can be a blessing to others.