May 25, 2014
Sixth Sunday of Easter
First Reading: Acts 8:5-8, 14-17
If one of your close friends was unjustly condemned and then stoned by a mob, would you feel like going on a mission trip to a nearby town? Philip the Deacon (or the Evangelist) surprises us by his audacity in the face of persecution. After St. Stephen’s martyrdom, rather than cowering, cowtowing, hiding or hightailing, he sets out to proclaim the Gospel boldly.
This Sunday’s first reading from Acts 8 immediately follows the death of Stephen at the hands of Saul’s mob. Persecution of such ferocity is designed to discourage whatever religious behavior it condemns, but Philip is undeterred. While he does not re-engage the Jerusalem Jews in an evangelistic dialogue, he goes to the “city of Samaria” to proclaim Jesus’ message. This city had been the ancient capital of the northern kingdom of Israel, and had become a city of some political importance in the Roman period, being renamed “Sebaste” by the emperor Augustus. The “city of Samaria” was the capital of the whole region also called Samaria—kind of like Oklahoma City being the capital of Oklahoma. The city is about 65 miles north of Jerusalem, so Philip might be headed there to avoid the knife-edge of persecution, but ends up attracting even more attention.
Fulfilling the Expanding Plan of Salvation
As the capital city, Samaria represents the whole region by the same name. What happens in the city, happens on behalf of the region. It also represents the Samaritan people, the remnants of the ten northern tribes who had been forced to intermarry with other nations. Philip’s decision to preach there is not random, but it is rooted in Jesus’ last words to the apostles recorded at the beginning of Acts: “…and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, throughout Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8 NAB). The ten tribes seemed to have been lost, but now Philip’s proclamation of the gospel in the Samaritan territory will make them the first to hear the gospel message besides the Jews. Philip’s preaching fulfills the words of Jesus, and the prophecies in the Old Testament which refer to bringing all the tribes back to the Lord in the land. The lost tribes have been found!
Preaching with Power
While great preaching might delight us, screeching demons coming out of people could scare us away from a powerful preacher. But such deliverances are signs of God’s power at work defeating the devil, not of the devil’s power. Not only does Philip preach convincingly, but he casts out demons and heals very sick people. These miraculous signs wake people up and cause them to pay careful attention to his message. Often such powerful signs have accompanied the preaching of the saints. The Lord grants these wonderful demonstrations of his power to confirm the message proclaimed. These signs and Philip’s preaching prompt a joyful response from the residents of Samaria. They are happy to encounter God and receive his message to them.
Now the Lectionary skips over Acts 9-13 which portrays Simon the Magician converting to Christianity under Philip’s preaching, only to try and buy the apostles power a few verses later and have the sin of “simony” (i.e., the buying of holy offices) named after him for all time. Philip’s mission is going so well that the apostles, Ss. Peter and John come to help him out. It is not entirely clear why, but Philip seems not to be able to fully initiate new people into the Christian faith. He needs an apostle to come with authority and pray for the Holy Spirit to fill these new Christians. If Philip comes with the message and power of Jesus, Peter and John come with the power of the Holy Spirit. Perhaps this is an early indication of the distinction in sacramental power between a deacon and a bishop, but the point is that we cannot evangelize solo. Preaching the gospel and inviting people to come to Christ involves incorporating them in a community, the living Body of Christ. We can’t do that all by ourselves, but need to work as a team to bring in the harvest of souls.
Often persecutors get what they want: bland, innocuous Christians. If a Christian speaks out boldly and then suffers for it, it is easy for the rest of us to capitulate and shrink away from bringing our faith to others. But Philip takes the opposite approach. It almost seems as if Stephen’s martyrdom inspired him to preach the faith bravely. When he does step out in faith, God shows up in power to supplement his message with miraculous special effects. We might not be able to go to the city of Samaria and preach to crowds of people rapt with attention, but we might find Philip’s example inspiring. If he could bounce back from so great a tragedy with such zeal and boldness, then just imagine what we could do.