Sunday, June 24, 2012

The Foolishness of Persecution [Acts 8:1b-40] (12 August 2001)

Accompanying Presentation (opens in a new window)

In the past few weeks we have been studying the first few chapters of the book of Acts. Let us recap what we have learnt so far. In the first sermon on Acts 1 we saw that the disciples were told to wait for the outpouring of the Spirit because the Spirit would usher in a new era during which we need to be very sensitive to the promptings of the Spirit. Each situation that confronts us needs to be evaluated for its own merit. What worked yesterday might not work today.

Then from Acts 2 we saw that the death and resurrection of Jesus had changed things at a cosmic level. So great was the change that the new age of the Spirit had begun while the old age characterized by enmity to the Spirit was still around. The two ages inevitably clash because their agendas are different. The old age is ruled by death while the new age of the Spirit is characterized by life in Jesus.

In the third sermon we saw that healing happens today precisely because the Spirit works to reverse death. We saw that the barrenness of Sarah, Rebecca, and Rachel, like illnesses and debilitating conditions, are but a sign of the reign of death which God has overcome in the death and resurrection of Jesus. However, there is no formula for healing. We can only depend on God’s initiative and hope that he stretches his hand in response to our pleas.

Then from three stories in Acts 4, 5, & 6 we learnt that the Spirit promotes a form of life in the church that is drastically contrary to other forms of life to which we are used. While the old age tells us to seek prestige and look to money for security, the Spirit produces humility and asks us to find security in God. While the old age tells us to make people dependent on us so as to hold on to power, the Spirit asks us to willingly give away our power, to empower others so that he can work through others.

And last week we dealt with the martyrdom of Stephen. We saw that he was open to the realm of heaven in which the death of Jesus is given cosmic significance that runs contrary to the curse of Deuteronomy 21.23. And we saw that Stephen imitated Jesus in his death—a death of which Saul of Tarsus was a witness. We shall see today what immediate effect seeing Stephen’s death had on Saul and what his actions made happen in the early church. And from this we will learn what the foolishness of persecution is. First, we must hear the text for today. I have asked Angie to read for us the text of today’s sermon.

Thanks Angie.

Most of the text we have heard today lies between two statements about Saul’s persecution of the church. In Acts 8.3 Luke writes, “But Saul was ravaging the church…” etc. And in Acts 9.1, which we did not hear today, Luke tells us, “Meanwhile Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord…” etc. From this we should understand that Luke wants to tell us what happened when Saul persecuted the church. The description of Philip’s ministry in Samaria, the conflict with Simon of Samaria, and the conversion of the Ethiopian eunuch, all happen as a consequence of Saul’s persecution of the church.

Let us first chart the movement of Philip, who happens to be the main character in Acts 8. The map in the slide shows us his missionary journey. He is initially in Jerusalem, one of seven men chosen to handle food distribution to Greek-speaking widows. When Stephen is killed and Saul steps up his persecution, Luke tells us that only the apostles remained in Jerusalem. All the other Christians fled Jerusalem. Philip flees to Samaria where he too, like Stephen, has a ministry as powerful and as controversial as that of the apostles. From Samaria, Philip, prompted by the Spirit, goes toward Gaza. The most common route would have been to first go to Jerusalem and then to go toward the coast. Somewhere between Jerusalem and Gaza, probably quite close to Jerusalem, he comes across the Ethiopian eunuch. And finally, the Spirit spirits him off to Azotus until he eventually reaches Caesarea.

Early in the book of Acts, Jesus voices a prophecy that is the agenda that drives the church. He told his disciples, “You will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” However, we have covered seven chapters of Acts and the disciples are still in Jerusalem. Only toward the end of chapter 7 does the action move out of Jerusalem—and that is for the stoning of Stephen!

Theophilus must have been getting quite concerned. Having read the first volume containing Luke’s account of Jesus’ ministry, and having realized that Jesus was one who kept his word, the failure of the action to move according to Jesus’ words must have been disconcerting. And Luke then says that the church faced severe persecution. What was happening? Was Jesus going to be wrong? Was the church really only a human movement? Was it going to be snuffed out in Jerusalem itself?

But then Luke narrates the events with which we are concerned. And in broad strokes he tells us how the second phase—the Judea and Samaria phase—came about. Saul was the instrument who enabled, or rather forced, the evangelization of Samaria to take place. As Joseph told his brothers, someone probably told Saul later, “You meant it for evil but God meant it for good.”

Luke tells us about Philip’s ministry in three acts or movements. Let us consider each in turn. The first part of Philip’s ministry is its description. Luke uses terminology similar to what he used to describe Stephen’s ministry. Philip, like Stephen, works signs and miracles. However, while Luke describes Stephen as a great orator, one who spoke with wisdom, Philip has a more miraculous ministry. In fact, in Luke’s writings, Philip is the first person after Jesus whose presence makes unclean spirits come out of people with shrieks. You could say that Stephen’s apologetics was in word, while Philip’s was in deed.

The second part of Philip’s ministry that Luke tells us about is that connected with Simon the magician. Philip’s ministry, as we have just seen, was characterized by miracles. For people unable to sense the Holy Spirit, miracles will come across as magic—some mysterious but formulaic way of going against the laws of nature. Simon the magician follows Philip around and is astounded by the power that flows through him. Being a magician, he craves that power but does not know how to obtain it. Philip gives him no clues. But when Peter and John come along and lay hands on the Samaritan believers so that they would receive the Holy Spirit, Simon infers that the power of the Holy Spirit is at the beck and call of Peter and John. After all, though Philip was able to do great miracles, he was not able to transfer his power as Peter and John could. So he offers Peter and John money so that he would have what Philip evidently did not have—that is, the ability to bestow the Holy Spirit. He wanted to be able to give this gift to others but since he expected to obtain the power with money, he probably also wanted to profit from receiving the power. And it is at this point that Peter rebukes Simon. The Holy Spirit’s power is freely given as the Holy Spirit wishes. It cannot be bought. And it certainly is not for profit.

This calls to mind many televangelists who offer all sorts of miracles and healings in exchange for what they call “love gifts”. I wonder what Peter and John would have to say to them. Maybe they have forgotten Jesus’ words, “Freely you have received, freely give.” The Holy Spirit is the gift of God through Jesus to a world at enmity with God. But since the Holy Spirit is a gift, his power is not for sale. I wonder how different such practices of exchanging healing or prayer for “love gifts” is from the medieval Roman Catholic practice of selling indulgences. An indulgence was a certificate that proclaimed forgiveness for grave sins. But rather than pronounce forgiveness freely, the Roman Catholic Church sold these statements of forgiveness. I really do not see an essential difference between selling indulgences and accepting “love gifts.”

The third part of Philip’s ministry is that connected with the Ethiopian eunuch. While Philip was in Samaria, the Holy Spirit told him to go along the road from Jerusalem to Gaza. On that road he came across the eunuch reading from Isaiah 53. He shares the gospel with the eunuch and the eunuch believes and becomes the first missionary to Africa.

Here we must pause to understand Isaiah 53 because the church has for the most part lost the importance of its being here in chapter 8 in connection with the persecution led by Saul. The eunuch asks Philip, “About whom does the prophet say this, about himself or about someone else?” What do you think the answer is?

Just what I expected! However, note that Philip does not answer the question as you have. Rather, Luke tells us that Philip began with the passage from Isaiah 53 and proclaimed to the eunuch the gospel. The church for the most part has done away with this ambiguity—to its own detriment. Let me explain.

If you asked a Jew to explain the passage, you would get two prominent answers. First, she would tell you that this passage refers to Israel’s role in the world. That is, Israel as a people is personified here as the servant of Yahweh who bears the evil of the world. Second, she would tell you that the prophet himself is the servant of Yahweh who bears the sins of Israel. In fact, given the context of Isaiah 53 these two options are the most likely.

But the church has applied the passage to Jesus—and rightly so. But not because this is a prophecy about Jesus but because Jesus chose to fulfill in his life Israel’s call to bear the sins of the world. What this means is that Isaiah 53 does certainly apply to Jesus but not to Jesus alone! In fact, it applies to anyone who dares to say that he or she belongs to the people of God. For it is through his people that God accomplishes his purposes. In other words, if I say I belong to God’ people, then this passage must characterize my life. Which is to say that, by applying this passage solely to Jesus, the church has forgotten probably the most important aspect of its calling in relation to the world.

Last week I repeated one phrase a number of times: “the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.” What Luke tells us about the church following Stephen’s death should convince us about the truth of that statement. And in fact, his choice to include the quote from Isaiah confirms this. You see, Philip would not have had the opportunity of discussing Isaiah 53 with the eunuch if Stephen had not emulated Jesus. Only because Stephen saw that he too could, like Jesus, become a suffering servant and bear in his body the evil meted to him, did the persecution of the disciples escalate so as to disperse them beyond Jerusalem. So if the statement “the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church” is one of encouragement for the church, the phrase “persecution is foolish” is a warning to all potential persecutors—including persecutors within the church.

But why is persecution foolish? What did Saul’s persecution do to the church? He supervised the murder of Stephen, only to see God raise Philip with a more powerful and extensive ministry. He dragged people off to prison, only to see the church go underground. He intentionally tore apart Christian families only to see the church become the family of God. For what persecution does is force those who are oppressed to depend on each other in a manner analogous to that in which various parts of the body depend on each other. The more Saul tightened his grip, the more the church grew until he himself was defeated by the Lord of the church.

This is quite similar to what Princess Leia says to Admiral Tok. When he tries to cower her down with the threat of the Death Star, she tells him, “The more you tighten your grip, the more star systems will slip out of your control.” This is because of the very nature of oppression and persecution.

Persecution makes the church more like the body to which Paul likens the church. In other words, persecution forces the church to behave like a body—that is, to behave like the church. And when the church lives the body life to which God has called it, it becomes the relentless power of God unleashed in the world. No force can then stop it from reaching the ends of the earth, just as Saul’s persecution of the church only moved it to fulfill the next stage of Jesus’ prophecy about its mission.

But by failing to see the implications of Isaiah 53 for the church, and by applying Isaiah 53 only to Jesus, the church surrendered an important part of its commission. We have substituted taking up the cross for preaching about the cross when in fact it is by following Jesus’ example and dying for others that the cross is preached.

And so we need only read church history to see the devastating effects of applying Isaiah 53 only to Jesus. From believing that “the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church” the church moved to practice “the foolishness of persecution.” While many Christian historians like to think that Christianity conquered the Roman Empire when it became the official religion of the state, a little critical research in light of the bible—and especially Jesus’ ministry and commission to his disciples—will show that it is by becoming the official religion of the state that the church lost its prophetic voice. While the ostracized early church denounced war and violence, the accepted church promoted all kinds of wars and violence in the name of religion. I need only mention the Crusades and the Colonial efforts of many so-called Christian nations like England, France, Holland, Portugal, and Spain.

The Crusades were launched to liberate Jerusalem from Muslim occupying forces. But till AD 1918 Jerusalem remained under Islamic control. But more devastating is that the brutality of the Crusaders drove the Muslims to Northern Africa where they ravaged the peaceful Christians there with the violence doled out to them by the European Christians. And till today much of Northern Africa remains predominantly Muslim, Europe is at best nominally Christian, and Jerusalem is still embroiled in the bitter conflicts that are centuries old. That is the foolishness of persecution.

While all this was underway, the Spaniards came to South America under the pretext of spreading the gospel. Led by Dominican monks, the Conquistadors decided that it would be best to have as great results as Peter did at Pentecost. So each day their soldiers rounded up some natives at one side of a body of water and forced the natives to cross the body of water. When the natives emerged the Dominican monks pronounced them baptized. They forced the natives to build church buildings and when they faced little resistance the Dominicans took that as a sign that true conversion had taken place. It was centuries later that an earthquake destroyed one such church and revealed that the natives had hidden idols of their gods under the altar of the church. By forcing people to convert the church produced pseudo-believers who still secretly worshipped their gods though the outer form of worship appeared Christian. The foolishness of persecution is revealed here when we consider that this aberrant form of Christianity is firmly entrenched in much of South America. The church may now realize that this form of Christianity is aberrant. But what can we say. We cannot ask them to believe in Jesus because now they think they already do! It is like asking them to convert from believing in Jesus to believing in Jesus. What an absurd thought!

When the church exchanges its divine calling to become the lightning rod for the evil on the earth for spreading the gospel through violent means or for public policy based on violence, the church raises against itself the very beast that comes out of the bottomless pit. The church then battles violence and unbelief with violence and unbelief. And in such a conflict the church always loses because violence and unbelief are contradictory to the gospel it is called to proclaim.

So what does this all mean for us? Each of us is unique. But none of us is so important that the church will collapse without us. Quite the contrary, if we are persecuted and killed, as was Stephen, it will only serve to further the gospel. God will raise new leaders, like Philip, who are more formidable than the earlier leaders. The church will then go from strength to strength.

The question for us is, “Why are we not persecuted?” The Jews stoned Stephen even though they did not have the right by Roman law to do so. Yet, at this grave violation of Roman law, the Romans did not punish the Jews. The law, designed to protect people, failed in Stephen’s case. It failed the early Christians on a number of occasions. Why do our laws today not fail in our case? I submit that it is because we do not believe that imitating Jesus to the point of death is our calling. When we recover the urgency of this calling, we will invite the wrath of Satan on ourselves. Have no doubts about that.

Of course the church will prove invincible only when it follows Jesus’ command, “Freely you have received, freely give.” As long as we place restrictions of any sort on the lavish outpouring of the Spirit, we only confess that we believe God is stingy. And God will then prove himself stingy. God has given us his Spirit without cost. So let us give all Christians full access to this gift. Let us not draw some artificial boundaries beyond which we say the Spirit does not act. That would only place us in the company of Simon the magician. Rather, let us be ever ready to be astonished by God’s generosity in blessing and using people who have rebelled against him.

Finally, let us be bold to imitate Jesus. Let us recover the grand calling we have of being Yahweh’s suffering servants. Let us boldly face evil and return good. Let us absorb in our bodies the hate, sin, and evil around us. Let us fight this battle confidently, remembering that we are not battling against humans but against evil individual and corporate spiritual powers. Let us not contribute to the spiral of violence around us at both the individual and corporate level. Let us remember that the unique contribution of the church in the world is its ability to extend God’s forgiveness and grace. There are no “ifs”, “ands”, or “buts” about this. So let us not entertain any such cop-outs. If we do, we will find ourselves rejecting our calling and rejecting the wisdom of God for the foolishness of persecution. 

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