In today’s passage, we draw near to one of the most important boundaries that marked off Jewish life--the boundary between Jews as the unique, covenantal family of God over against the other nations and ethnicities of the world, the Gentiles.
If yesterday showed us that Christ’s call to these early Christians to be Spirit-empowered witnesses propelled them to cross boundaries for the gospel to reach the ends of the earth, then in today’s reading we find that this movement and empowerment of the Spirit would also require them to cross one of the clearest lines, the most dearly demarcated boundaries of all: sometimes we are called to reach out to our enemies, the difficult people, the mean ones, the people we don’t like and who may, in turn, dislike us.
In today’s reading we get several snapshots of the work that the Spirit is doing in this early Christian community, particularly focused through the lens of two important leaders whose exploits will frame much of the story in the coming chapters of Acts: Saul and Peter.
The book of Acts opens with Jesus’ promise to his disciples that the Holy Spirit would empower them to be witnesses in “Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8). In today’s reading, Philip, the bold boundary crossing deacon who had already evangelized Samaria (Acts 8:4-8), says yes to another assignment (Acts 8:27) and finds himself riding in the chariot of an Ethiopian eunuch who had just left from a visit in Jerusalem to worship at the temple.
Remember, at the beginning of Acts, Jesus said to the apostles, “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth." In today’s reading we learn how Phillip, one of the original seven “food distribution team” members (Acts 6:5), was given that really tough mission to go to Samaria.
Today’s reading begins with the end of Stephen’s message to the Sanhedrin. I don’t think the Sanhedrin could miss that Stephen lifted up the similarities between their rejection of Jesus with their ancestors rejection of Moses and God. And the declaration that, “the Most High does not live in houses made by human hands” would have certainly angered the Sanhedrin.
Stephen transformed his response to the high priest’s question into an opportunity to share a narrative of the Good News of Jesus Christ. First, he provided a synopsis of his own understanding of how God was present in the stories of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, stories the members of the Sanhedrin also knew very well.
The newborn Church continued to grow very quickly, and with each milestone a new organizational strategy or approach developed. In today’s passage, a “food distribution team” was formed to make sure no one was overlooked. Stephen, a man “full of faith and of the Holy Spirit” was the very first person named to the team.
Notice that today’s reading begins with feelings and acts of jealousy. Feelings of jealousy are flashing caution signs, warning us that we are probably not seeing things the way God sees them. The religious leaders of Israel are jealous of the apostles of Jesus and place them in jail.
In last week’s First 15s, we read about the compelling movement of the Holy Spirit in the newborn Church of Jesus Christ. In Acts 4:32, we read, “All the believers were one in heart and mind. No one claimed that any of their possessions was their own, but they shared everything they had.
The early followers believed and proclaimed that the major religious and governmental powers had taken their “best shot” at Jesus and failed. After all, they had tried to kill him and discredited his holiness. For Jesus’ followers, however, their new power was all the evidence they needed that Jesus was who the prophets, the angels, indeed all creation said he was. This was all the evidence they needed.
What had so emboldened these men? How had these uneducated, inexperienced men gained such eloquence? When had they learned to reason and argue so well? What power had enabled them to heal a person that had been disabled all his life?
He was amazed. Everyone was amazed to see the man who had been crippled from birth standing, walking, jumping, even leaping! Peter’s words to them were confusing. “Why are you amazed? We didn’t do this.
This is the moment to which preachers look. We’ve preached the Good New and proclaimed the Gospel. Has anyone heard? Was anyone listening? Often, we may not know. Our words may have been a seed planted, yet to bear fruit.
Peter, the coward, has become Peter the Rock! He who denied Jesus out of fear, now leads the band of Jesus’ followers with boldness and confidence.