The movie Shadowlands tells the story of C.S. Lewis and his wife Joy. If you are not familiar with the story, Jack (as C.S. Lewis was affectionately called) marries Joy in order to help her and her sons stay in England. When Joy finds out that she is very ill with cancer, Lewis discovers that he truly loves her. And he becomes deeply pained as he watches her struggle with the disease in her body. At one point in the movie, in the midst of Joy’s treatments, Lewis has the following interaction with one of his friends and colleagues at the university where he teaches. His colleague says, “Christopher can scoff, Jack, but I know how hard you’ve been praying; and now God is answering your prayers.” Lewis responds, “That’s not why I pray, Harry. I pray because I can’t help myself. I pray because I’m helpless. I pray because the need flows out of me all the time, waking and sleeping. It doesn’t change God, it changes me.” Our passage this morning from Acts has been looked to by some to say that there is a pattern to faith in Christ. And, if we follow that pattern, then God will respond in certain ways. The pattern that is derived from this passage is: believing the gospel, being baptized by water, and receiving the laying on of hands. When we follow that pattern, then God will send the Holy Spirit upon us.
When I came to faith in Christ as a teenager in the 90s, the big focus in youth ministry and in the church in general was on a personal relationship with Jesus. And there was a pattern to that as well. You would believe in Jesus and then pray the believer’s prayer. When you did that, the Spirit would come upon you and you would be transformed. Then, baptism (or if you had already been baptized as a child, public profession of faith) was just a sign of that transformation by the Spirit. But in order to receive the Spirit, you had to follow those steps…or it didn’t work. Or so most of us believed. It was through those steps that were able to make God move in our lives. Now, perhaps the leaders at the time would not have described it that way, but that seemed to be the underlying principle. Somehow we could force God’s hand. No one at that time would have made the claim that we were changing God, yet that seemed the basic outcome of that theology. Our actions make God act.
This morning I would like to look at this passage from Acts in a different way though. I’d like to suggest that what it teaches us is quite the opposite. The four verses we read this morning come in the middle of a story about Philip’s ministry in Samaria. If you recall, there are two stories about Samaria from the gospels. The most familiar one is probably the story of the Good Samaritan. The other story is of the woman that Jesus encounters beside a well. In both stories we see that there is a bit of tension between the Jews and the Samaritans. The Jews viewed the Samaritans as heathens who did no good and could not be trusted. The Samaritans worshiped the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob also, but they believed that their worship was right and true, while Jewish worship included some false teachings that came with them when they returned from the Babylonian exile. These differences in worship led to a deep divide between the two groups. The Samaritans would have been considered part of the Gentiles, even though their religion had deep connections to the Jewish religion.
Because of this tension between the two groups, it’s not surprising that it is Philip who goes to Samaria to preach the gospel rather than one of the twelve. Philip was a Hellenistic Jew. That means he was a Greek convert to Judaism who then found faith in Christ. This is not the same Philip that was counted among the twelve. This Philip was appointed as a deacon in Acts 6. And here he receives a calling to go to Samaria and preach the gospel. It makes sense that someone not originally of Jewish heritage would be the first to share the gospel in Samaria. Philip would not have had such a strong prejudice toward the Samaritans. So, Philip goes and preaches the gospel to the pagan Samaritans and they accept his teachings. But for some reason, the people don’t receive the Holy Spirit, despite believing and being baptized. Why would that happen?
Well, I think there may be two possible explanations. First, God moves when God chooses to move. There is no magic formula. We see later in Acts that when Peter comes to Cornelius’ home that Cornelius and his household have already come to believe in Jesus and the Holy Spirit has already come upon them…even though they have not yet been baptized. At Pentecost, the Holy Spirit comes upon everyone there, whether they have been baptized, haven’t been baptized, or even those who didn’t yet believe. I think these stories exist to show us that God will move when God will move. We cannot make God move. There was a contemporary Christian song that was very popular a while back by a band called Switchfoot. The song was called “Dare You to Move.” And when that song first came out, I heard several discussions about the meaning of the song. Some Christians were upset that it made it sound like the band was daring God to move, as if God responded to the threats of humans. But when the video for the song was released, it showed a rather different interpretation of the song.
But before I talk about that, I want to jump back to Acts for a second.
Now, you may remember one other time that Samaria is mentioned in Acts. In the very first chapter of Acts, Jesus is preparing to ascend to heaven and he tells his disciples, “[Y]ou will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” Jesus specifically mentioned Samaria as a place that he envisioned the disciples going to witness to the truth about him. And when we get to our passage from Acts 8, the twelve have yet to go to Samaria to share the gospel. There is no mention of why they had not yet gone there, but with the things we’ve already discussed about the tensions between the Jews and the Samaritans, I think it is safe to guess that they simply did not WANT to go there. They were avoiding it. But God’s plans happen, even when we resist. So, God took a different tactic, not all that unlike the tactic used with Jonah when he tried to flee away from Nineveh. The twelve resisted, so God put a plan in place to force their hand. God called Philip to go to Samaria instead, which he did. And by normal standards, his mission there was successful. The people came to believe in Jesus…even Simon the sorcerer came to believe. And Philip baptized them all with water. But for some reason, word spread to Peter and John that though the Samaritans had believed in Jesus and been baptized, they had not yet received the Holy Spirit. Perhaps this story is more about Peter and John than about the Samaritans.
Back to the Switchfoot video…when I first watched the video, I realized that the song was not about daring God to move. It was about daring the church to move…daring the people of God to take action in the world…daring Christians to help transform the world for Christ. The problem with the Samaritans was not that God fails to act when God was supposed to. We cannot make God move. The problem was that the church failed to act as it was supposed to. The church allowed its prejudice to get in the way of its mission. And it took a relative newcomer (Philip) to open their eyes. Where are our prejudices getting in the way of following Christ’s call? Where are we looking at our neighbor with suspicion rather than love? Where are we letting fear separate us from others? We cannot make God move. There are no specific steps we can follow that will somehow force God’s hand. God will move when and where God chooses to move. But often God is moving ahead of us and we are simply not seeing it…either because we are not paying attention or because we don’t want to see it. So, our challenge from Acts 8 is to look for where God is moving and be prepared to join in. Our challenge is not to mold God to our vision, but to be molded into God’s vision. And that will most certainly require putting aside some prejudices and seeking to love those whom we are more inclined to hate. May we all be shaped to God’s will and may the kingdom draw ever closer as the church dares to move along the way of Christ.