This is the second of our series of articles through the year from Spectrum, each taking a theme form the book of Acts…
Acts 8:4-17 & Acts 20:1-3
by Tom Stuckey.
Luke’s motif of ‘journey’ permeates his two New Testament books. In his Gospel, Jesus ‘sets his face to go to Jerusalem’ (Lk 9:51). In Acts the journey is from Jerusalem through Samaria to the ends of the earth (Acts 1:8). Jerusalem is not forgotten. As Robinson and Wall comment ‘The Holy City remains in the reader’s rear-view mirror, always in sight but now left behind’(p.111).
The first of our two study passages tells of Philip’s outward bound journey from Jerusalem (8:4-17) while the second speaks of Paul’s proposal to return to Jerusalem (20:1-3). The theological contexts are very different. The focus of this study will be on the former.
Philip’s mission, unlike Paul’s, is exclusively to ‘the lost sheep of the house of Israel’. Driven from Jerusalem he finds himself in Samaria. What once had been the focal point of worship now moves to the edge. Henceforth the ‘edge’ will become the new centre. Will the effects of Covid 19 permanently shift the pattern of church life from buildings to Christian homes?
Philip, full of the Holy Spirit and faith (6:5) was a deacon, not an apostle. In their ‘new normal’ however he breaks the rules and becomes a preaching and miracle working deacon. In a changing and changed situation fixed roles and understandings of ministry slip and slide as the Spirit leads. As Bishop John Taylor once remarked ‘The Holy Spirit does not appear to have read the rubrics’ (p.120). But not only this, the theology also shifts. At the beginning of Acts you become a believer when you have been baptised ‘in the name of Jesus’ but rather strangely you do not receive the Holy Spirit until hands are laid upon you by an apostle from Jerusalem. Paul, who is not a recognised and regarded apostle, simply goes ahead and lays his hands upon the Ephesian believers. There is a further baptismal anomaly here because these believers have only been baptized with John’s ‘baptism of repentance’ (19.5). Although against the rules, the result is another explosion of Holy Spirit power. There is theological untidiness here; but this is only to be expected when traumatic events force the Church to move from a traditional centralized system of control to the new norm of a scattered church.
The Jerusalem connexional team were able to gain back control (11:22f, 15:12f) over Philip’s Samaritan mission by sending the apostle Peter to validate the work. Peter’s presence also serves to affirm the ‘come to us’ theology of Israel’s restoration (Matt.10:5f) traditionally believed to be centred on Jerusalem. Paul pursues a different theological narrative. For him the new centre is the edge, though being a Jew he never forgets the significance of Jerusalem. The actual Acts history of mission is peppered with unresolved tensions and dichotomies in practice and theology. Luke, however, in his narrative airbrushes out these anomalies and presents us with a sanitized story of an advancing united church.
Luke’s account of the interaction between Simon Peter and Simon the magician raises additional questions about power and authority. Simon the magician clearly had a high status in the city (8:10) but this was overshadowed when Philip arrived demonstrating greater ‘powers’ (dunamis) (v.13). Simon wishes to know the secret so when the apostle Peter arrives he makes his request. The word which he uses for power is exousia (authority) (v.19). He wants his status back.
- Where is the true centre of the Church? With regard to its authority? With regard to its mission? Should this be the same post Covid 19?
- What happens to people when they lose authority or status? Have you ever experienced such a loss?
- Is theology something you make up as you go along or is there more to it than that?
A.B.Robinson & R.W.Wall, Called to be Church, Eerdmanns, 2006.
John V.Taylor, The Go Between God, SCM, 1972.