“And Saul approved of their killing him.” Chances are, if your Bible is like mine, that line, that first part of Acts chapter eight verse one, is placed with chapter seven. It wraps up the story of Stephen that we focused on last week, where the crowd stones Stephen with Saul there supervising, holding everyone’s coat, and then I’d guess that there’s a new paragraph probably a section header, those things that are there to show us a new thought is beginning. And I get the reason that editors would make that distinction, one, that’s where it fits, and two, this line is a lot easier to swallow at the end of a section then at the beginning. I mentioned it last week, taken at the end of the story of Stephen this is a tantalizing little thing hanging there, it points us toward the good Saul will eventually do. At the beginning of a section there’s not as much room for optimism, because Saul’s presence marks a big shift in how things go for the early church. It is like a switch flipped in that moment and the folks who were getting tired of what the church realized “we don’t have to talk to them, we can just get rid of them.” Its like the person who gets fed up playing Monopoly and flips the board, if you can’t win then stop the game. If the elites in Jerusalem can’t win the argument then they aren’t going to have the conversation. So the first full-fledged persecution of the church begins, and the results is that the vast majority of believers, particularly those Hellenistic-Jewish Christians, the non-ethnic Jews, get pushed out of Jerusalem.
You might remember, back in the first chapter of Acts, when Jesus commissions the disciples he says to them they will be witnesses in three places: Jerusalem, Samaria, and to the ends of the earth. Acts eight is the end of the Jerusalem section of Acts and the beginning of the Samaria and end of the earth part. This persecution becomes the catalyst for the next chapter in the life of the church.
Last week we saw in the story of Stephen a reminder that we choose how we respond to the unexpected things that happen in our lives, here we see a similar theme: these displaced Christians find opportunity in this messy situation. They treat their exile from Jerusalem as a mission deployment. Recognizing the opportunity that comes in unexpected moments and unexpected places in our lives is just as important as refusing to be brought down by those moments. The church could have ended in this moment. That’s what the folks leading the persecution wanted to happen, they hoped that this show of force would destroy the movement that had begun in Jerusalem. What actually happened is that the church expanded. What actually happened is that the church moved forward in doing its part in the role it was always meant to play.
Sometimes we need a little kick in the right direction, don’t we? Things were going fairly well for the church in Jerusalem up until this moment. Who knows how long they would have stayed there, debating folks in the temple, adding to their number, praying together. And that’s where the trap comes in, isn’t it? Everything they were doing in Jerusalem was good. No one would have looked at it and said they needed to change their plans. And even if someone did, who know how long it would have taken them to figure out what to do. We know how the Baptist church of Jerusalem would have handled it, right? They’d have formed a committee. And the committee would meet. And meet. And meet. And finally the committee would make a recommendation to another committee who would meet. And meet. And years would have gone by with them trying to figure out the right way and the right time to move forward. Don’t get me wrong, I love a lot about being Baptist and I like our congregational way of doing things, but we’re bad to spend so long talking about how we’re going to do x, y, and z that by the time we’re ready to go the opportunity has passed. Who knows how long they would have stayed there doing good things but falling short of what God had called them to do. Just because where we are and what we’re doing is good doesn’t mean it is all that God is calling us toward. The church was never meant to stay in Jerusalem and this persecution that scatters them also moves them towards their ultimate purpose. It should, I think, bring echoes into our mind of the words of Joseph in the Old Testament, when after his brothers sold him into slavery he makes his way into the most important position in the Egyptian government and faces them again and says “what you meant for evil, God used for good.” We need to recognize the opportunities that come to us in the unexpected moments and events of our lives because the history of faith shows us that it is in those moments that God has a tendency to do big things.
We’re told that the church has been scattered and then our attention is drawn to one person in particular, Philip. Like Stephen, Philip is one of the seven deacons chosen to help distribute food in the early church, and like Stephen he proves to have abilities and gifts that go far beyond just being an administrator. Gifts he probably wouldn’t have gotten to use if not for this scattering of the church. Phillip goes to a city in Samaria and he finds the people there to be much more receptive of the message of Christ than the people in Jerusalem. The Samaritans, who were marginalized Jews at best and basically pagans at worst are a lot quicker to hear and respond to the good news than the ones who should get it. That’s going to be a recurring theme throughout the rest of Acts, the Samaritans and the Gentiles, the people who should be farthest from God, are the ones who recognize the what’s going on. The Jews are the ones who reject it. But things are bad among the Samaritans when Philip gets to this town. How bad? There is a man in this town named Simon who works magic, he’s described as a sorcerer, and the people declare him as someone who comes from God, there’s a possibility in the translation here that they were even declaring him a god.
Magic in the Bible can be a weird concept to grasp. Obviously when we read about magic here we’re not talking about card tricks and sawing people in half. The text says that what attracts the people to Philip initially is that the signs and wonders he’s performing are just as good as Simon’s. The things he’s doing are just as impressive. People would go to magicians to try to fix what was wrong in their lives. People went to magicians because they thought the things they could do would make their lives better, would set them free from the things that they saw holding them down or keeping them in some kind of bondage. But what would happen is that the magician would charge for his services and his solutions never turned out to be permanent. So you’d have to go back and pay more until eventually you found yourself caught in a new kind of subjugation, you found yourself held captive by this person who had offered you freedom in the first place.
Luckily we’ve evolved beyond that right? We’ve moved past that kind of thing, we don’t go to the magician looking for someone to set us free anymore right? We go to the pharmacist. Did you know that four of the twenty cities most affected by the prescription opioid epidemic are in North Carolina, including the most affected city in the nation? Death by overdose has increased in this state by over 500% in the last four years. And its because people are looking for something to set them free. We don’t go to the magician anymore, we go to work. And we work and we work because we believe that if our bank account hits the right balance or we get the right title on our desk then we’ll finally be free. We don’t go to the magician anymore, we order the latest fab diet or self-help book and we search around for whatever it is that will make us free. We don’t go to the magician anymore, we’ve given our magicians much more official sounding names but every one of us in here knows someone who went looking in the wrong place for freedom and all they found is a new set of chains.
Philip gives the people the answer. Philip shows them freedom that isn’t just bondage in disguise. Philip tells these people what they need to hear, that real freedom only comes through the life and death of Jesus Christ, because that’s the only thing with the power to defeat what really holds us captive. We’ll never be free from all the surface level things of our lives unless we’re free from the sin that drives us to look everywhere but in our Creator for our answer. There is no freedom in a bottle or a needle or car or a house or waist size or a self-help motto. The only way we’ll be free is by letting Christ break our chains, by recognizing him as the one who guides us toward life, real abundant life.
Some time later, Philip is led by the Spirit into the desert where he meets an Ethiopian eunuch on his way back from the temple in Jerusalem. “Ethiopia” in biblical times was the name of the land south of Egypt, and it was just far enough away to be mysterious. It was just far enough away that someone could conceivably have been there and know things about it but the average person didn’t. I can’t think of a good modern equivalent, we live in too global a society and transportation is too easy, but my point is that there were a lot of stereotypes about people from Ethiopians. Things like “Ethiopians have holes where their noses should be,” or “there are tribes in Ethiopia that followed dogs as their kings.” It was close enough that if someone came claiming they had been there and told you those things you’d believe them but too far away for you to have been there and know it isn’t true. This particular Ethiopian had been to Jerusalem to worship. He knew about God and wanted to learn more, to be around people who could answer his questions, and we can assume he had been turned away. He had been turned away because eunuchs weren’t allowed into the temple. Like the man who was crippled from birth that we heard about a couple of weeks ago something he had no control over was enough to keep him outside of the temple, it was enough for the people in charge to keep him away from God. He did everything right, he went to the place he needed to go, he tried to learn his next step, and they shut the door on him. And so he’s out in the desert reading scripture alone with no one to tell him what it means.
Do you ever wonder how many people we send out into the desert to read their Bibles alone? How many people we let get sucked in by someone offering cheap magic tricks and chains disguised as freedom. When Philip gets sent out by this scattering of the church he finds himself among the people on the margins. The people that have been forgotten and neglected. And what he finds is that that’s where the passion for God is. That’s something that should give us pause, that fact that the folks who don’t seem right for God are the ones who jump at the message while the insiders reject it, but we also need to be aware of how many people are still on the margins. How many people are looking for freedom and only finding themselves deeper in subjugation. How many people are looking for restoration and being told that they’re too broken to be allowed in. It takes the church getting run out of town and scattered for them to realize how many people need to hear their message. It takes them getting rocked to remember their calling.
4000 churches close every year in the United States. You’ve probably heard that statistic and you probably know all the others: church attendance is at an all-time low, the number of people who claim no faith is at an all-time high. There are a lot of signs that point to the Christian faith being in trouble. When the church in Acts gets scattered the find where they needed to be all along. They find they people who needed them all along. They realize and live out their calling in this moment where things look dark for them. In nature, contraction is a warning sign, but it isn’t of death, contraction is a sign of new life. This huge challenge in the life of the church is sign of God leading them to an even bigger future, to new opportunities for witness and people who desperately need what they have. Where are our challenges calling us? Who is outside the walls desperate to hear the good news?