By Jared Warner
Willow Creek Friends Church
August 15, 2021
John 6:51–58 (ESV)
51 I am the living bread that came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever. And the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.” 52 The Jews then disputed among themselves, saying, “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” 53 So Jesus said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. 54 Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day. 55 For my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink. 56 Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him. 57 As the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever feeds on me, he also will live because of me. 58 This is the bread that came down from heaven, not like the bread the fathers ate, and died. Whoever feeds on this bread will live forever.”
Last week I encouraged us all to look at the study of scripture not as a task, but as an adventure. A journey of exploration and discovery. When I think of this sort of thing my mind is often filled with images from various stories, I have either read or watched on a screen. It is a journey of exploration or a quest. When I think of it as a quest my mind is immediately drawn to the story of King Arthur and the knights of Camelot. I am not a great scholar in the matters of the Arthurian lore, if I want to be totally honest most of my knowledge of Arthur comes from Monty Python, but there is a quest. A quest is more than a simple journey of exploration, when you are sent on a quest your intention is to find or achieve the task set before you. In the case of the Arthurian legends the quest was for the Holy Grail, the cup of Christ, the cup that brings life.
The quest image is what I want us to consider today. Those individuals that are on a quest will not stop for any reason. They are driven to obtain the completion of the quest or to die trying. The reason behind this drive is the understanding that the completion of the quest has great benefit. We have heard of medical researchers that have been pursued their research with a quest type of fervor. They do this because they once knew someone or were possibly related to someone that contracted a disease. That individual they knew either lived in constant pain or suffering, or perhaps they died because the doctors did not know what to do. These researchers saw this happen and something inside of them flipped a switch and everything in their lives changed. They were almost duty bound to find the cure, and they would give their lives to achieve that goal.
That is the type of drive I want us to have when we approach scripture. I want us to look at the words on the page and see them not as good words, but as the words that give life.
There is a problem with this. The words of scripture were not written in English or Swahili. They were written in a language that very few of us really know. And we all know that sometimes things can be lost in translation. At times there are not good words in one language that can fully express what we would like to say so we use the next best thing, but when we use that word, we lose something. We will often see the word love in English, but that word could be several different words in the biblical Greek text. It could be one of four different words that convey a deep affinity but are acted out in a different manner. If we do not take that into account, we risk misinterpreting or misunderstanding how this exceedingly important word should be expressed in our lives.
We are on a quest. Our quest is to know what scripture says because these are the words revealed by the Spirit to teach us of the Word. They are the words given to us to convey the knowledge or wisdom of God. What is said in this book shows us what life with God is and reveals to us how we fit into that life. We are, just like King Arthur, given the quest to find the holy grail, the cup or the vessel that brings life.
We are called to this quest but often we are met with challenges. Many of us have started to read scripture, but we often get to a point where we do not understand what we are reading and we are discouraged and we stop. We look at the pages and it no longer appears to be the grail we seek, but instead it becomes a chamber of secrets. We do not understand so we step back in fear that we might unleash some terrible heresy that will condemn us and entrap those we care for. We stop pursuing the quest we once began and we leave it to those that are stronger or wiser. We then put our trust into those stronger and wiser individuals. This is not entirely bad. Even Arthur that legendary king had companions that assisted him on his quest. The key there is that we assist, we do not walk the path for you. Each of us must walk our own pathway, we each must take that journey ourselves, but the journey is more enjoyable when we have friends to walk with.
Today, as we walk the pathway toward that vessel of life, we come to one of those areas that will often cause people to stumble and stop their journey. It is not surprising even during the days of Jesus many struggled with the words Jesus spoke. John chapter six is a turning point for the ministry of Jesus. Prior to this the questions were largely to determine if they should embrace the teachings of Jesus. Yes, there were times that there were misunderstanding, but by in large those that asked questions were seeking clarification. They were not thrilled with Jesus’ approach, but they could not outright reject what he had to say. But somewhere within this chapter things change.
On the surface we may not really notice what changed. We might simply see some people following Jesus because he has the power to make bread. We can understand this. Who would not want to follow someone that could provide for their basic needs of life? I will be totally honest, if I was offered a job where housing and meals were included with my salary, I would probably take the job. The rule of thumb we are often taught in our society is that we should not spend more than thirty percent of our income on housing. Thirty percent. That is basically one third of our paycheck goes toward keeping rain from our heads while we sleep. The next largest expense in our life is food. In the United States we spend on average six percent of our income on food. On average in the United States right from the start we thirty-six percent of our income is spent on just keeping our immediate needs covered. This ratio unfortunately is not static. The less you make the greater the percentages are and the more income you have the smaller the percentages are. If we were to look at the value of the home of the wealthiest individual in America, the amount spent on their housing each month would be far below thirty percent, where it would be common for many low-income families to be spending over half of their income on rent alone. For many Americans they are required to spend most of their income on supplying the basic needs of life. If I were to be offered a job where these basics of life were provided along with a salary, I would most likely take the position because likely the salary offered would be greater than the amount left over after I paid for the basics of life.
The people were following Jesus because they sought the benefits. That is not faith it is survival. And there is nothing wrong with survival, many of us trust God because we live in a survival mode, we have needs and we do not know where to get them so we have no other option but to trust that God will provide. But what happens when we can provide for ourselves?
The tribes of Israel wondering through the desert were provided with manna from heaven. Their needs were provided for, but as soon as they entered the land of promise that manna stopped coming from the sky and they were required to survive off the produce of the land. In the desert once the grumbling generation had died, all that were left were those that only knew the provision of God. They entered the land with faith, but gradually over time the faith of Israel diminished as they saw themselves as their own provision.
This brings us to today’s passage. Again, we begin this week where we ended last week. “I am the living bread that came down from heaven.” Jesus says. “If anyone east of this bread, he will live forever. And the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.”
This is where contention emerges. This is where most of us become confused as well. We have a basic understanding of bread. We even understand that Jesus by connecting himself with the manna from heaven is telling us that God is the true source of our provision. But we struggle with the last phrase of that verse. “And the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.”
The religious leaders disputed among themselves, saying, “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” In their mind Jesus has just presented something profoundly vile. Cannibalism? Yet, Jesus lets them continue in this line of thinking, even though they have misunderstood the words he has spoken. What is the flesh that Jesus gives?
Last week I mentioned the peace offering. I mentioned that this is the one type of offering where the people giving the offering were invited to participate in it. The offering included bread and flesh. A portion of the bread was given to God to be burned on the altar, and the remaining bread was to be eaten by the worshipers. Then the animal was ritualistically slaughtered and choice pieces of the body were given to God on the altar, and the remaining meat was given back to the worshiper to be eaten and shared in a celebration of peace with God. This offering represented intimacy between God and the people. It represented God sharing a meal with his people. And when we share a meal together there is peace and friendship.
Jesus says that he is the bread, but changes the wording a bit, morphing the bread away from bread the basic staple of life, into flesh the more luxurious aspect of the meal. In the United States, we have a skewed understanding of nutrition. We, by in large, have access to a balanced diet. We do not always take advantage of this access but it is there. We may not have a high protein source of food at every meal but we will most likely have at least one meat a day. In many areas of the world the availability of meat is scarce. To have meat at a meal in this ancient time was a celebration, it was a sign that the worshiper trusted God enough to share the meat.
Jesus turns from the bread to the flesh of the meal. We can look at the Olympic metal counts and see how important the availability of meat is to the physical success and well being of a culture. But I want us to keep in mind the sacrifice or the offering image. The worshiper is bringing the bread and the flesh. In our minds we are the ones that offer worship, we are the ones that come to God with our petitions and our praise. This is no different from the teachings of those ancients in Israel. Many of them believed that if only we were more righteous Messiah would come. They would dedicate their lives and lifestyles merit God’s favor, with the hopes that the kingdom of God would come.
Jesus says that I am the living bread, and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh. Remember that the bread of worship was a symbol of the wisdom from God, Jesus is saying that he is the source of that wisdom when he is saying that he is the bread of life. He is the source of wisdom. But there is more, John begins his gospel account with, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” The Word being spoken of is the term logos. Logos is knowledge or wisdom. This term logos was symbolized in the bread of worship. John goes on to say that through this divine wisdom, logos, everything was created, and nothing was created without this wisdom. Then in verse 1:14 John wrote, “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.”
The wisdom of God became flesh. The bread of God became the flesh of God. And that flesh became the peace offering that brings mankind and the divine back into the right relationship. Jesus is the peace offering.
Jesus by speaking those words were telling the religious leaders that their righteous labors were empty. They were rituals performed with empty hopes because the focus was not on the proper place. They were providing offerings from the economy of mankind. The things that we can do and create. What are the deeds of men in relation to the creator of the universe? What is our gold and currency to a being that in a breath can speak the entire world and everything within into existence? Their rituals were empty because they were focused on themselves. We are good enough and God should want to eat with us. The reality is God provides the bread and the meat. God became flesh and lived among us, not because we were good enough but because he loved us anyway. He came full of grace and truth.
Jesus loves us anyway. If we were to look at all the sacrifices, all the rules, and all the laws we can see one thing. We are completely unable to stand before God. The sacrifices were not there to take away the sins, but they were there to keep the impurity of humanity from infecting the places set aside for God. The things labeled unclean many times were things that we have absolutely no control over, and in many cases were human functions that God created within us. Is a child born with a deformity destined for hell? No, but they were not able to come into the sanctuary of God because they were a symbol of the imperfection of humanity brought about from the sin of our first parents. Jesus loves us anyway. We are imperfect, and God knows this so God provides what we cannot give ourselves. We cannot make peace so he does it for us.
The religious leaders still grumble, because Jesus tells them that those that ate the bread of the sacrifices still died. But those that eat the flesh of Christ, the bread that came down from heaven, will live forever. Those that rely of themselves will remain in the same state that they have always been in. But what if we turn? What if we were to take on or eat the flesh of Christ. What if we become like Christ and begin to live within his wisdom? That is what it means to eat the flesh of Christ. It is not necessarily eating but becoming putting on his lifestyle or armor as Paul tells us. When we put on Christ or partake of his life he stands where we cannot for us. His perfection redeems our imperfection. And our imperfection and weakness become his strength. I stand here not in my own strength; this is the last place I want to stand in myself. I know who I am. But I stand because I know that of Christ overcomes. I was once dead, I once lived without a relationship with God, but through Christ I have been changed. I now have peace with God. In Christ I now have friendship with God. And God has sent me on a quest to explore the wonders of who He is.
Will you join the quest and sit at the table he is calling you to? We do not bring anything to the table, but there we do have to respond. God has made peace with us through Christ but we must accept the gift of grace and turn to him. Will you?
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By Jared Warner
Willow Creek Friends Church
July 18, 2021
Mark 6:30–34 (ESV)
30 The apostles returned to Jesus and told him all that they had done and taught. 31 And he said to them, “Come away by yourselves to a desolate place and rest a while.” For many were coming and going, and they had no leisure even to eat. 32 And they went away in the boat to a desolate place by themselves. 33 Now many saw them going and recognized them, and they ran there on foot from all the towns and got there ahead of them. 34 When he went ashore he saw a great crowd, and he had compassion on them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd. And he began to teach them many things.
Mark 6:53–56 (ESV)
53 When they had crossed over, they came to land at Gennesaret and moored to the shore. 54 And when they got out of the boat, the people immediately recognized him 55 and ran about the whole region and began to bring the sick people on their beds to wherever they heard he was. 56 And wherever he came, in villages, cities, or countryside, they laid the sick in the marketplaces and implored him that they might touch even the fringe of his garment. And as many as touched it were made well.
How has your week been? How many items did you have in your schedule? Did you get them all completed or are you thinking right of what you need to do as soon as the meeting for worship is over? We live in a culture that almost takes pride in being busy. If someone does not have to look at their calendar when you ask to meet with them, we almost feel as if they are lazy. And we almost feel embarrassed if we do not have at least one event conflicting with potential meetings. The conversation around juggling schedules is replacing idle chit chat about the weather, mainly because having an opinion about the weather would require us to slow down to notice if there are clouds or not.
We are a busy culture. When I was in Ukraine, I was constantly annoyed that people did not show up to meetings on time. I was annoyed that the trains were not where they said they would be when they said they would be there. I was annoyed that people did not have a sense of urgency. And I get back home and begin work in a corporate world, and my supervisors are telling me that I do not have enough sense of urgency. I have been told that I am too laid back and need care more. I have always found this to be surprising, and to be honest I would venture to say that those supervisors did not know me nor how I work.
In today’s passage, we see Jesus and the disciples in a bit of a different way. Usually, the gospel accounts have Jesus doing the ministry and the disciples just following him around. But today, is a bit different. Jesus is the one sitting around and the disciples are the ones that are on the move. Jesus sent the disciples out. He sent them to the surrounding villages around his hometown to minister. He told them to go. He advised them to put on their durable shoes and to grab a walking stick and nothing else. Do not pack a bag, do not run to the bank to get some cash from the ATM, he did not even want them to pack a lunch. Just go. And he gave them the authority over unclean spirit, he gave them the power and authority to do pretty much everything they had watch him do.
Jesus sends them out, but what does he do in the meantime? He morns his cousin’s death. Jesus sends out the twelve, giving them authority over unclean spirits, and they went out and proclaimed that people should repent. They cast out demons and anointed many who were sick with oil and brought about healing. And while they do that, we got that weird interlude in Mark’s gospel where we discuss the growing fame of Jesus’ name and Herod’s guilty conscience. Jesus sent out his disciples to give himself space.
We do not see this interlude as Jesus’s grief. Even though I spoke about the passage last week I did not present it in this manner, but if we consider the scene. The twelve are out wandering in the villages, expanding the ministry of Christ. And Jesus is alone, and maybe he joined with John’s disciples as they carried his body to the tomb.
Today, the disciples are making their way back to where Jesus was. They are sharing various stories and are filled infectious excitement. Do we sense the excitement? I want us to remember the Monday after the Chiefs won the super bowl. How many of us remember the score at the beginning of the 3rd quarter? How many of us remember as the opposing team posed for a picture after scoring a touchdown assured that they were going to win? How many of us remember the remarkable comeback? The conversations the Monday after were filled with commentary, smart phones were replaying highlights, and pretty much everyone was talking about the game. I remember that day, I remember how the supervisors at the store expected little to get accomplished that day, and their expectations were not far from correct.
That was just a football game. What the disciples experienced was far beyond even being present at the live event. They had watch people around them being released from spiritual bondage. They were seeing illnesses that crippled the afflicted leaving the body and lives being restored. We have trouble remembering how to tell the punchline of a joke at times, imagine trying to explain atrophied muscles becoming firm and toned.
They did not want to stop talking. They were excited to tell their stories and to hear the stories that the other groups had to share. Each group most likely brought people along with them to tell stories as well. We are not told this explicitly but if the story is too good to be true but it really is true, you would want to bring a witness or two to corroborate what you had to say. People are coming and going. Stories are shared, laughs are heard. There is so much traffic in and out that the disciples and Jesus could not even take a break, even to eat.
Have you had a day like that? I worked in retail for the past eleven years. I understand this kind of busy. There are days where the stores that I have worked at buy food for their employees for one reason, the stores are so busy that if they did not have food readily available their employees would not take the time to eat. It is not that they wanted them to work that hard there was just too much to do. When a store is preparing for inventory, the day when every item in the store is counted, employees are not thinking about food, they want to make sure their area is ready to go. When the Black Friday event begins and customers are herding into the aisles a retail working is not thinking about when their lunch break will come, because they are too busy helping their customers find the hot deal on an instapot. We have days like this. I am sure that during tax season accountants have their schedule booked so tightly they are lucky to have time to eat a granola bar within the course of their workday, and I know that during harvest farmers wives often must remind their husbands that sleep is necessary.
The camp of the disciples was busy. The excitement was at monumental levels. And I can just imagine that Jesus was probably having a great time watching and listening. But he also knew that the human body cannot endure that kind of stress for long.
Adrenaline is an amazing biochemical produced within our bodies. It can enable our bodies to perform in nearly superhuman ways, but it comes with side effects. The presence of this hormone causes the muscles in the body to become stimulated. The heart beats faster, our legs might begin to twitch, our senses become more alert. This happens because we are on edge, ready to respond quickly in instance of danger. The body then begins to produce more glucose so that the muscles can have the energy to continue to function at this heightened state. Our bodies are using more glucose so if we do not eat eventually our bodies will become hypoglycemic. To combat this the liver kicks into action converting the fats in our body into usable energy. This sounds great, but what happens if we are not actually using the energy?
Adrenaline is produced during high stress. This can be positive or negative stress. If positive we are usually working hard or exercising. The negative stress is the problem. Doctors will tell us to do things to relieve stress in our lives because its hard on our heart, or maybe because we are borderline diabetic. The reason they say this is because when we are stressed mentally our bodies still respond in the same way as if a dog were chasing us, but our muscles are not using energy so the adrenaline is pumping our body full of extra sugars with nowhere to go. Eventually when that is not used, the glucose is converted back into fat which usually is stored in places like the liver, or around the heart. Negative stress, the stress from work, and misplace anxiety contribute to our nation’s obesity problem. It is not only the amount of sugar we consume. It is the stress with no healthy outlet.
I am not saying that Jesus knew the potential health risk of unchecked stress, but he could have he is God. What I am saying is Jesus understood that once the body runs on adrenaline for a while a crash is imminent. While we are in the zone, we do not know how close we are to that crash. In our mind we have never been better. Our mind is clicking, our actions are honed with precision, but with each beat of the heart we are closer to that crash. That moment when we have no more to give, and our bodies fail us. If we are an athlete the crash might be an injury something like a pulled muscle, or a twisted ankle. For me, I will be writing away thinking everything is flowing perfectly and suddenly, my brain seems to stop. I cannot type, I cannot even think. It is as if the transmission of my brain popped out of gear and the clutch is out of sync and I cannot get things reengaged no matter how hard I try.
Jesus sees this in the eyes of his disciples, and he said to them, “Come away by yourselves to a desolate place and rest a while.” Rest. Stop. Take a break. Go on vacation. Retreat.
Just when things were beginning to click, Jesus looks at them and says, “let’s take a break.” Imagine the shock of this. It would be like the coach of the football team calling a time out right when the momentum of the game was beginning to go their way. “Come away by yourselves,” Jesus says and he wants to show them and let them experience the holy rhythm that He lives.
I speak of this holy rhythm often. Enough that if you do not have it memorized after attending our meeting for a couple of months you have probably not been listening. Jesus’s holy rhythm is worship, prayer, and service. He made it his custom to worship. He withdrew to isolated places to pray, and the ministered to the need within the community. This rhythm is important for many reasons that stretch beyond the spiritual life. You can even apply this at work. Worship is celebration or remembering accomplishments. Prayer is taking a step back to examine what we are doing and looking at things from a different perspective. And service is reengaging a project. It is a holy and healthy rhythm to incorporate into your life.
But often we forget to “come away.” That coming away is in the center of the rhythm. It is in the center for a reason because it is the pivot of the cycle. If we put all our attention into service or ministry. If all our energy is on the work we need to accomplish, we might get a great deal done, but are we improving? In a football game, it is important for the offense to be on the field as long as possible. When your team’s offense is on the field that means you have control of the game. The defense is extremely important but if the defense is on the field too much you have lost control. Your defense must be strong, for the simple fact that it keeps your offense on the field.
If all we do is work, or ministry. If we are on the go all the time. It is like the defense is on the field all the time. When the defense is on the field mistakes are made and the other team gains the upper hand. When all we are focused on is the task right in front of us at any one moment, we are not able to see what is coming. When a department manager in a store is too busy stocking the shelves and not investigating the inventory levels eventually, they will sell out of items at the worst possible time. Ministry or work is immediate it right in front of us. We must do it now, those that live only in that place are highly stress. They might feel like they are keeping up, but eventually they will start to fall behind, because they have not had the time to anticipate what is coming up. If a factory pushes too hard to fulfill the orders and they do not come away to do routine maintenance, the machinery will break down causing greater harm. If a truck driver keeps driving and does not stop to rest an accident will eventually happen. We need to rest. We need to slow things down so we can regain control and perspective.
Jesus taught us that the sabbath was made for man not man for the sabbath. God gave us the sabbath not because he required that day for us to worship him, but we need that day. We need a day to stop what we are doing so that we can reengage life with renewed energy. And sabbath is not just worship on a Sunday morning. Sabbath is an intentional and disciplined. It is routine maintenance of our physical and spiritual life. It is there to remind us of what is most important, and why we do what we do.
After the disciples joined Jesus in this sabbath retreat, we see Jesus coming ashore, he sees a great crowd, and he has compassion on them. He has compassion because they were like sheep without a shepherd. I want us to focus on this as we enter our time of Holy Expectancy. A sheep without a shepherd is chaos, fear, despair. Sheep without a shepherd are wondering around without direction. They are eating the grass, following only their mouth and their stomach, until they are lost and vulnerable to attack. A sheep without a shepherd is the state of mind we find ourselves in when we live our busy lives without time to come away and rest. One thing after another, the next task, the next project, the next, the next. Wondering eating one blade of grass after another until we are lost and vulnerable. Yes, we might be working on good things, things that have great importance, even righteous importance but what is the cost? Come away, take a break, go on vacation, get some rest. Develop a holy rhythm in life, because the things that you are doing have great importance, and the offense needs to be on the field.
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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.