You could say that Acts 6-8 is the part of the story when things begin to go off the rails. But only if you are open to the possibility that “off the rails” is exactly where God wants them to be.
Regardless, there are at least five fascinating characters and a couple funny things in these three chapters. Here, let’s take a look.
When we last left the first Church, they were all one big happy commune, selling off all their stuff and giving it to the apostles to dole out as needed while preaching and teaching and having a good time, even when the authorities roughed them up from time to time.
That did not last. The start of Acts 6 has different factions of believers fighting over how the money got doled out; the Greek speakers thought the Hebrew speakers were disrespecting them and their families. So the apostles, weary, say “It is not right for us to neglect the preaching of God’s word in order to handle finances.” (I am curious how many current pastors and ministers would agree with this sentiment.) So they said to the group, y’all pick a group of seven guys to run the operation. Make sure they’re good ones. And we’ll stick to preaching and let them run this commune.
Two of the seven they picked become central characters during this stretch of Acts, and, once again diminishing the value of good administrative skills, not a word is said about their fairness at distributing resources. Oddly, after the original apostles make a hullabaloo about “Y’all run the organization while we go preach,” Stephen and Philip emerge from the seven deacons, not as stellar administrators, but as…preachers. The lead singer always gets the most attention.
You may know Stephen if you follow the daily mass readings, because his feast day (and his story) comes up every year on December 26. The day after Christmas, while everyone is celebrating the birth of a baby by returning the gifts they didn’t want, the Church celebrates the first martyr, and in Acts 7 you see how it all played out. After performing miracles and preaching great things, he gets trotted before the council of leaders and asked if he really said that Jesus was going to tear down the Temple and overthrow all the customs that trace back to Moses. “All those sitting in the Council fixed their eyes on Stephen and saw that his face looked like the face of an angel. The High Priest asked Stephen, ‘Is this true?’”
Stephen does not throw away his shot. In about 50 verses, he retells most of the Old Testament (well, from Genesis 12 through about 2 Samuel) before building to the punchline: you guys, the Council, are just like all the people who turned on God and Moses, and subsequently turned on everyone else God sent. “Was there any prophet that your ancestors did not persecute?” he asks in 7:52, which we should think about any time someone thinks that their alignment with God should somehow exempt them from opposition. Then he tells the establishment that they murdered the Son of God that all those prophets foretold and in doing turned their back on God.
And that’s how Stephen became the first martyr. As they take him out and stone him to death, you can see the author shifting the narrative. Through Peter and Stephen, he’s laid down the marker that Jesus’ followers were never going to find a home within the Judaism from which they came. As the stones bury Stephen amidst his cries, echoing those of his professed savior, that God not hold it against those guys who are killing him, you can see a chapter closing on the story of the Church. And in delicious storytelling style, the stoners of Stephen have a kid hold their cloaks. The kid’s name is Saul, and he is all in favor of the murder of Stephen, so much so that he joins the establishment in launching a persecution against the Christians, “going from house to house, he draggged out the believers, both men and women, and threw them in jail.”
We have met Stephen. We have been given a peek at Saul, who we will get to know much more deeply soon. But the guy who gets lost, and the guy with the better stories and foils, is Philip.
So I had to look it up. This is not Philip the apostle (one of the 12 Jesus picked, who is otherwise pretty forgettable, tbh). This is Philip, one of the seven guys along with Stephen picked to run the commune. He also becomes well-known for reasons other than keeping the books tidy.
When Stephen gets killed and the establishment goes on a rampage, the believers scatter everywhere. The commune breaks up. Things have gone off the rails. And a funny thing happens.
Remember the Gospel story of the Good Samaritan, or the story of the Samaritan woman? Well, if not, know that Samaria was home to a group that the Jewish folks absolutely shunned. Like Coke-Pepsi, Alabama-Auburn, Yankees-Red Sox level shunning. And that’s where Philip goes when Jerusalem becomes too hot for Jesus’ followers. He slays (figuratively). He performs miracles and preaches to huge crowds and everyone hangs on his every word. He throws out evil spirits and heals the paralyzed and lame and “there was great joy in that city.”
Two fascinating characters appear briefly here. The first is Simon the magician. Simon was the reigning big deal in Samaria: “He claimed that he was someone great, and everyone in the city, from all classes of society, paid close attention to him.” (8:9-10). Maybe you know someone like that. Well, he sees all the people switch to Team Philip, and he joins them, awestruck at the tricks Philip can do. The word of these believing Samaritans trickles back to the apostles, and Peter and John emerge from Jerusalem (where presumably they had been laying low) to check it out. They realize that these Samaritans, Yankee fans though they are, have caught on to The Message and so Peter and John do what Philip cannot: they lay hands on the Samaritans and pass along God’s Spirit.
Well, Simon is smart enough to realize that THAT is a cool power to have. So he offers Peter and John some money if they will give him that power too.
“May you and your money go to hell, for thinking that you can buy God’s gift with money…you are full of bitter envy and are a prisoner of sin.” (8:20-23) That is probably the harshest condemnation leveled directly on someone in the New Testament (and you may know folks who need to hear that, too).
Does it work? “Simon asked Peter and John to pray for him, “so that none of these things you spoke will happen to me.” And…
The author doesn’t say if they did. He moves on. Contemporary writers say this Simon went on to become the first Gnostic, which is the first Christian heresy. But it’s still fascinating that the author leaves out what Peter and John said to Simon’s begging.
OK, this is a lot, but one more guy Philip brings into the story: the nameless Ethiopian eunuch.
And this is sort of a funny story. An angel tells Philip, “Go down that road.” (That’s about all the direction he gets.) So Philip does, and he gets passed by a chariot with an Ethiopian official riding in it, headed home from Jerusalem. He was reading on the trip, and this is one of two places in the Bible that indicate that reading and praying silently are relatively new things, because Philip knows the Ethiopian is reading from Isaiah.
God tells Philip hey, go catch up with that guy, and I always have an image of the Six Million Dollar Man running super fast to catch up with a car. So Philip catches the chariot and asks, nonchalantly, so, whatcha reading? The Ethiopian is having a hard time understanding Isaiah’s passage on the suffering servant, so Philip says, hey, can I get in and explain it to you? Or maybe he explains it while sprinting alongside the moving car, in which case he’s in tremendous shape. The text is unclear on this point.
Philip uses this to preach, and the Ethiopian (who unfortunately never gets a name) buys in, then says, hey, I want to be baptized. There’s water here in the ditch beside the road. Why won’t that work? And Philip doesn’t know why, so he does it. Scene.
So yes, things have gone off the rails. We start with a happy commune in Jerusalem, and we end up after the first martyr Stephen and young villain Saul and the simonous magician begging for mercy and Philip the sprinter leaving the new Samaritan believers to pour ditch water over the head of an Ethiopian traveler. If this story is supposed to be about how Jesus’ rising sparks the salvation of God’s chosen people, it has gone seriously off the rails.
But it kind of seems like “off the rails” is where God’s best work gets done. At the very least, this stretch underscores the theme that at the heart of God’s story is God choosing the unlikely. The text is definitely clear on that point.
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