Persecution is good for the Church! The message of Jesus Christ has always flourished in places where people are hurting the most. In the former Soviet Union Christianity grew underground despite persecution. In Romania, for example, the Lutheran Church was severely persecuted for their faith. People were taken from their homes in the middle of the night and threatened with death if they did not denounce their Christian faith. However, the Church survived and grew underground. Now upon leaving worship they greet the pastor with the words, “A mighty fortress is our God.” Having lived under tyrannical rule they have experienced firsthand the power of God in their lives. One could make the argument that the demise of Christianity is that it became officially part of the empire with Constantine’s conversion. Once Christianity is co-opted into the power structures of the world it ceases to be a place for the least among us.
In Acts 8 it is persecution that begins the Church’s evangelical mission beyond Jerusalem. “That day severe persecution began against the church in Jerusalem, and all except the apostle were scattered throughout the countryside of Judea and Samaria.” From here we pick up the story of one of those evangelists, Philip. We see through his story how the church, driven by the Holy Spirit, is being called to the wider world. Every movement is away from being just a church of Jewish Christians in Jerusalem to a Church on the move. The power of the message of Jesus Christ is converting hearts. It is moving people away from magic and exclusion to the kingdom of God.
I wonder what the people who belonged to the church in Jerusalem felt about the persecution. They must have been terrified. We are told that Saul (Not yet converted to Paul) was “ravaging the church by entering house after house; dragging off both men and women. My guess is they were wondering why this was happening to them. They did not understand why God had left them to die or be thrown in prison? It must have been a bleak time for the church. And yet God was at work in ways that they could not see or understand. God was on the move. And through this persecution God was doing a new thing. God was moving them out into the world and in doing was converting the church.
The evangelism stories of Philip center around two stories. One is Philip’s confrontation with a man named Simon who was wowing everyone in town with his magic tricks. Philip confronts him with the real God who does not win us over with magic, but with good news of the kingdom of God. We can see all the time that sometimes we prefer the magic trick to the real good news. I think of all the people on television selling us “true happiness” or “fulfillment” if we only buy their product. Philip draws us back to the real truth that it is the good news of Jesus Christ that brings real lasting happiness, not the snake oil salesmen. This is confirmed when Simon tries to buy his way into the Holy Spirit. Peter (who comes to Samaria to see what God was doing through Philip) is clear that money cannot buy God’s gifts they are freely given! We can’t buy God’s love and it is not magic. It is simply the free gift given through the Holy Spirit. It is there for all.
This is confirmed in the Spirit’s moving of Philip to a wilderness road where he meets a eunuch who is reading from the prophet Isaiah. Just to review, a eunuch is someone who was castrated at an early age, and their sexual orientation is appeared to have changed. It is forbidden for a eunuch to enter the temple. (“No one whose testicles are crushed or whose penis is cut off shall be admitted to the assembly of the Lord.” Deuteronomy 23:1) The Eunuch is someone who is excluded from the rites and ceremonies of the people of God. The exchange between him and Philip is interesting for many reasons. One is that the eunuch needs help with interpretation. Reading and meditating on the text by himself is not enough for understanding. I would agree that we cannot understand the Bible by ourselves in isolation from the community. At Bible study people often say to me, “Pastor how are we supposed to know what this means?” My response is always that is why we are in Bible study to interpret and understand what the text is saying to us. Outside of the community of God is hard to know what the text is saying.
The other interesting part of this is that the eunuch’s inclusion (through an impromptu baptism by the river), the inclusion of the Samaritans, and eventually Paul’s mission to the Gentiles all serve as the fertile ground of the church. As Nadia Bolts Weber (The pastor of All Saints and Sinners in Denver, Colorado) preached this is not the conversion of the Ethiopian eunuch. This is about the conversion of the Church. It is about how we, the supposed insiders, are constantly being converted by the outsiders, those about to hear the good news. Acts 8 is about the ever widening scope of the church and its mission.
Of course the church in the United State of America in 2012 is not being persecuted. But we can all agree that there is a seismic shift going on in the Church. Some people are scared. Some people are wondering why God has abandoned us. Some people believe that these are bleak times for the church. Acts 8 teaches us that when things look at the worst God is really just moving us to a new place. God is forcing us out of our comfort zones into uncharted territory. God is converting us to hear the good news again. God is challenging us to confront theologies of magic, and the idea that money can buy us anything worthwhile in this world. God in this time and place is on the move and forcing us to go with God into places that widen the mission and ministry of the Church. Thank God for persecution!