As we move on in the Acts of the Apostles we need to look back, we have seen the church founded and grow, we have seen many added to its numbers and yet we have also seen Stephen one of its promising leaders stoned to death. However difficult the circumstances and the emotion of the first words of our reading today from Acts 8:1-8 those famous words of Kenneth Wolstenholme from the 1966 World Cup Final “they think its all over .. It is now!” could not be used for the early church.
It seems as though things are coming to an end “a great persecution broke out against the church in Jerusalem, and all except the apostles were scattered throughout Judea and Samaria …. Saul began to destroy the church. Going from house to house, he dragged off both men and women and put them in prison.”
Despite this God provides, Stephen has gone, Phillip is here – another one of the seven comes along to take forward the mission of the church. Phillip is clearly one of the scattered who has found himself in Samaria, despite 1000 years of enmity between Jews and Samaritans we hear ” Philip went down to a city in Samaria and proclaimed the Messiah there.”
It has been suggested by many scholars that this outreach to the Samaritans is one of the key factors in the growth of the early church as it moves beyond its normal boundaries. This will open up the church to begin to preach the gospel of the risen Lord Jesus Christ to the gentiles and to the rest of the world. It is not just words, it is not a hollow message and the people see this “with shrieks, impure spirits came out of many, and many who were paralyzed or lame were healed. So there was great joy in that city.”
The persecution of the early church was ground breaking for those who had been used to doing things a certain way, this ministry to the Samaritans was beyond their comfort zone and outside their usual practice. Was this a new beginning or was the early church simply discovering more and more of what it meant to be church in a changing world?
Today the church finds itself as locked down as the rest of the country yet Jesus is not locked down, he is risen and he is alive. As a church we must take hope in the new direction that our passage sees the early church moving in, while what is sacred will always be sacred, we must move on and embrace this new direction that has become part of our lives and will become part of the DNA of the church.
In a recent article the New Statesman reflected on how they see the start of a religious revival due to a deep sense of need highlighted by the worries and fears of COVID 19. That coupled with the church reaching out in new ways in its teaching, mission, pastoral care and community support may well be our new direction as we recover what it has always meant to be the people of Jesus.
Proclaiming the Gospel of Jesus was what it meant to be church back in the Acts of the Apostles, it was what it meant for Stephen and for Phillip and it still is. In a changing world we must change the ways we share that life giving gospel so it can be heard.
As we reflect on that purpose being the same yesterday, today and tomorrow I take you to a hymn from 1887 by William-John Sparrow Simpson:
All for Jesus–all for Jesus,
this our song shall ever be;
for we have no hope, nor Saviour,
if we have not hope in thee.
All for Jesus–thou wilt give us
strength to serve thee, hour by hour,
none can move us from thy presence,
while we trust thy love and power.
All for Jesus–at thine altar
thou wilt give us sweet content;
there, dear Lord, we shall receive thee
in the solemn sacrament.
All for Jesus–thou hast loved us;
all for Jesus–thou hast died;
all for Jesus–thou art with us;
all for Jesus crucified.
All for Jesus–all for Jesus–
this the Church’s song must be;
till, at last, her sons are gathered
one in love and one in thee.
Your friend and vicar
*(c) The Reverend Edward J Burns