To begin with, let me set the context. The Acts of the apostles, chapter 8, depicts at church that has just suffered the loss of its deacon Stephen. They have been persecuted and we find them spread out and going to places which might not have been if it weren’t for the persecution. The apostles, those who personally knew and ministered with Jesus, stay in Jerusalem. Philip is found going to the Samaritans. Often times travellers would avoid Samaria altogether. We see Samaritans represented as outsiders in the New Testament and we certainly remember the good Samaritan as a surprising and shocking story about an outsiders hospitality. It is to these people that Philip has begun his ministry. Philip preaches and demonstrates actions that are Spirit led -healing people, and casting out demons. There is a fellow in the area named Simon the magician. Simon’s claim to fame is that he does miraculous things through magic and has gathered quite a following. The people of the region in which Philip was ministering in Samaria are convinced by Phillips strong preaching, behaviour, signs and wonders, and as a result they come to believe in Christ. They reach a point of decision and wish to be baptized. Along with them is Simon the magician who we learn from the account of Acts, also comes to belief.
And so it is in this passage that we have heard today that there is a visit from those apostles in Jerusalem. It is here that I wish to expand and elaborate on the text. What are we to make of this new deacon Philip, and those he is baptizing? I wonder, what was the feeling back in Jerusalem that prompts to visit from Peter and John?
Was this news of a growth in the church in Samaria taken in disbelief? Are Peter and John coming to inspect, like some kind of new pharisee and make sure things were done in the right way, in the correct manner? Or was this news received in Jerusalem about this new church and its deacon Philip taking with joy and welcome?
If there was disbelief one might argue that John and Peter are much like the liturgical police who have come down to ensure that things are being done correctly. If one is to take this point of view seems that Phillips ministry is incomplete and his baptisms are also incomplete. This is especially tempting point of view to take especially when we hear of John the Baptist during the baptism of Jesus in the River Jordan. John the Baptist commends to others within earshot that his is a baptism of repentance and another one who follows him will baptize with the Holy Spirit. So in our case looking at Acts it might seem that the apostles are coming down from Jerusalem in order to offer some guidance and corrective measures. An early church is formulating how it will baptize and what happens at baptism.
This, I believe, is a track in the wrong direction. Mainly the thing that disturbs me the most about thinking that the apostles, Peter and John are coming down from Jerusalem in order to offer corrective measure to somehow bolster a lacking ministry of Philip puts a lot of human control over the person of the Holy Spirit. In the instances of Philip preaching healing and casting out demons all this is in the power and majesty of Jesus Christ and in the power of the Holy Spirit so certainly in the Holy Spirit would be part of Phillips’s baptism.
I take the point of view that the news about new Christians in Samaria was taken with joy and welcome when first heard in Jerusalem by the apostles. I believe this direction of joy and welcome offers us a powerful statement that overcomes possible messages of disbelief and skepticism and the narrow tribal religion that results from such a view. In the baptism of Philip to the Samaritans I believe that there is a seed which is nurtured and helped along by the laying on of hands by Peter and John. It is a welcoming and acknowledgment that the new Christians are in deed part of the church. They may be in the hinterland of Israel they may be sidestepped by travellers, and they may be despised and disregard it by others, but those in Jerusalem who are the apostles and followers of Christ have come to them to affirm and welcome them into the Christian community.
Baptism is the initiation rite of the Christian Church. We use a Trinitarian form naming God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit. When the Bible says that Peter and John come from Jerusalem because the Samaritans had not yet received the Holy Spirit, but only been baptized in the name of Jesus Christ, I wonder if this is the church referring to the baptism of Jesus where the Spirit descends upon Jesus like a dove.
One thing comes to mind in this visit from Peter and John, and that is the importance of touch. It is human to touch and in the church many of our significant moments are marked by touch. Baptism involves touch, often carrying an infant, or marking the sign of a cross on the forehead. Confirmation involves touch, with the laying on of hands by a bishop. So to with ordination, marriage, anointing the sick and setting new ministries such as bishops, or new clergy ministry. It is significant that those who would have previously distanced themselves from the traditions and people of Samaria have made the effort to come and lay hands upon them and encourage the Holy Spirit in their lives.
What I want to stress is that belief needs to be nurtured and tended, as well as stretched and broadened. This is the first instance of God reaching out to others who were seen almost as untouchables. We know from the accounts in Acts that God will next reach out to the Gentiles, and so the tidal wave of Christian faith will flood the world.
The spark of faith is present to those who come to believe with Philip’s preaching, and the wider church visit from Peter and John help to stoked the spark and flame it alive. A generous affirmation of faith to those who were for so long despised, and a generous God who has planted the spark of faith in each of us. Let us not be afraid of flaming our faith, and recognizing that even those whom we might disagree with, or seem foreign to us can also be filled with the Holy Spirit and welcomed joyously into the Church.