By now I probably don’t need to remind you that at the beginning of the book of Acts Jesus says to his disciples, “you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” And I probably don’t need to remind you that in the same sentence Jesus tells them, “you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you.” So I won’t take time to remind you of those important items.
Last week, just by way of quick reminder, I suggested that if you wanted to read the book of Acts, you could do so by reading a chapter a day for twenty-eight days. If by chance you started last Sunday, or Monday, you’ve made it through chapter six, where you read about the “Hellenists” and the “Hebrews.” “Hellenists” means Greek-speaking Jews, whereas “Hebrews” refers to Jews who speak Aramaic. At the beginning of chapter six Luke tells us that there is a bit of a squabble between the two groups, with the Hellenists complaining that the widows of their group are not getting their fair share of the daily distribution of food. The twelve apostles settle the matter by appointing seven people to see to this duty.
Among the twelve is a man named Philip, not one of the twelve. In chapter eight we learn that he goes to the city of Caesarea in Samaria, and becomes a successful evangelist there. Luke says people “listened eagerly” to him, and that he is able to perform healings there.
Philip’s work in Samaria represents a major step forward in the spread of the gospel for two reasons. First, it is one of the first places Jesus lists outside of Jerusalem where the gospel will be preached and received. Second, if we refer back to Jesus’ parable of the good Samaritan, we remember that Jews and Samaritans don’t get along. Jews looked at Samaritans as sort of half-breeds, religiously and perhaps ethnically. So Philip’s success in Samaria breaks down this barrier. It indicates that as Jesus directed, the good news is intended to break down human barriers and eventually bring God’s love “to the ends of the earth.”
That’s almost when we get to today’s story. First, however, by way of quick reminder, last week I talked about the Holy Spirit still being at work. Along the way I mentioned that nothing of importance happens in Acts without the intervention of the Spirit. Today’s story is an example. It’s an important story, and the Holy Spirit is directly involved.
But before we hear the story, perhaps we should back up and remember that it’s a good idea to listen to the Spirit. That may seem like a well, yeah, of course, sort of thing to say. But we know that it’s also easier said than done. How do we know when the Holy Spirit is trying to lead us somewhere? How can we figure out it’s the Holy Spirit, as opposed to some other voice that might be trying to speak to us?
We know there have been plenty of Christians through the centuries who have claimed that they are following the leading of the Spirit, only to be proven terribly wrong. In more recent times we have only to call the names of Jim Jones, who was a Disciples of Christ minister, and David Koresh, to know there have been those who have lead well-meaning believers to their deaths, under the banner of “God/the Spirit has spoken to me.”
So how do we know? Take something as simple as next week’s don’t just go to church, be the church. There are a bunch of options, including, don’t participate. How do we know if the Spirit is trying to tell us to go to the Miller Home, Daily Bread, PCIO, stay here for one of the projects, or stay home? We may feel ourselves torn by the decision we have to make. We may be thinking, we’re supposed to have “regular” worship every Sunday. We may be thinking, I like the idea, but do I really have to be here at 8:30? We may be thinking, I don’t feel the Holy Spirit leading me anywhere for next Sunday; in fact, I don’t know that I’ve ever felt the Spirit leading me.
Today’s story in Acts begins in very dramatic fashion. An angel gives Philip instructions. I don’t think I’ve ever heard any of you report such an incident in your life. I can’t say that I’ve ever had an angel speak to me. Not that I was aware of.
But just because we can’t cite such an occurrence, does it mean the Spirit has never been at work in our lives? When Joyce Mays, then Joyce Palmer, informed her parents she was going to join Timberlake Christian Church, and they could do likewise or not, could that have been the Spirit at work in that family? I would not discount the possibility that when I received a phone call asking me if I might be interested in becoming the associate minister at Timberlake Christian Church, it might have been the Spirit at work in my life, starting me on the path to where I needed to be for the next few years – or decades.
Might it have been the Spirit at work, bringing you to this church family, in whatever way you happened to have arrived here? Was the Spirit at work in your life in 1968, calling you to try a congregation that was just getting started? Was the Spirit at work bringing you here because your family was already a part? Was the Spirit at work because someone else told you about TCC, or because you saw the sign out front, or because you heard about something we were doing in our mission work? Perhaps? Maybe?
In Acts, Luke says the work of the Spirit is the spread of the gospel. He says that when the apostles choose seven people to be servants and then evangelists, they choose seven who are “full of the Spirit.” I don’t want to give away the ending of today’s story, but don’t drift off and miss it! It’s one of the more dramatic works of the Spirit. And is it possible that the Holy Spirit has been at work in our lives, and in the forty-nine plus year life of Timberlake Christian Church – but perhaps we haven’t always noticed it?
In his letter to the Galatians, Paul says, “Live by the Spirit.” Then, anticipating the question, what does that mean, what does that look like?, he says, “the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.” Notice that he says, “the fruit of the Spirit,” singular, not fruits. Apparently he believes the work of the Spirit in our lives and in the church is a package deal. If we see those items, love, joy, peace, etc., then we can be pretty sure that the Holy Spirit is at work.
On the contrary, Paul explains, where you see jealousy, anger, quarrels, factions, envy, and such things, you know it is not the Spirit, but what he calls the work of the “flesh,” that is, our tendency to live by our rules and what we think we want, as opposed to what God wants and expects of us. The song says, “They’ll know we are Christians by our love.” Paul says, you’ll know whether or not the Spirit is allowed to be at work in someone’s life or in a Christian community by observing what’s going on.
But, we might say, I’m pretty good at, oh, love, kindness, and generosity, but not so great on patience and gentleness. So do I have the fruit of the Spirit or not? Our church does well with peace and faithfulness, but we need some work on some of those items in the list. Do we have the fruit of the Spirit or not?
I don’t know. Maybe it’s the case that we always have room for the work of the Holy Spirit in our lives and in our faith community. The fruit of the Spirit may be a package deal, but that doesn’t mean it has to be one hundred percent all the time in order for us to acknowledge that the Spirit is present and at work. Maybe we always need to listen to the Spirit, to try and hear how the Spirit is trying to speak to us and work with us, so that we increase in love, joy, peace, patience, etc., individually and collectively.
Meanwhile back at today’s story from Acts, no doubt the reason Luke includes it is that it is another story of the breaking of barriers. Philip is sent to an Ethiopian, someone very much from outside of Jerusalem, Judea and Samaria. He is from a different continent. Not only is he from a faraway place, he is a eunuch. According to First Testament law, that means he is not allowed to be in certain places in the temple or perform certain functions there. He is, to some extent, considered an outcast.
But…no, I don’t want to spoil the story for you. Suffice it to say for now that this story is important because it tells of yet another advance of the gospel, yet another case in which it’s a good idea to listen to the Spirit, because the Spirit directs us in our faith, and enables us to share and spread the good news. Tom Long puts it this way, “Walls of prejudice and prohibition that had stood for generations came tumbling down, blown down by the breath of God’s Holy Spirit, [by way of quick reminder, recall that in Greek the same word means either “wind” or “spirit”] and another man who felt lost and humiliated was found and restored in the wilderness of God’s grace in Jesus Christ.”
So that we can continue the work of spreading the gospel, so that we can live by the fruit of the Spirit, so that we can reach out and include those who are lost and humiliated, it’s a good idea to listen to the Spirit. Amen.