01/13/19 “Up Close and Personal”

Acts 8:14-17

If you’re a fan of the Olympics, you probably remember the features called “Up Close and Personal.”  Jim McKay hosted the first ones more than four decades ago for the 1972 Olympics.  He told the stories of athletes in sports that were (at the time) practically unknown in the U.S.—luge, curling, skeleton, and so on.  The features provided a huge ratings boost for ABC, as viewers became invested in the lives and performances of the athletes they’d gotten to know, especially the ones who had overcome major personal challenges to get to the Olympics.  Over the years, the phrase “up close and personal” has become a common one in conversation outside of the Olympics, and even outside of sports itself.  Now we use it whenever we talk about learning the intimate details of someone else’s life.

In our passage from Acts today, we learn what can happen when followers of Jesus get up close and personal with others.  The passage is a very brief, matter-of-fact report of how the apostles at Jerusalem responded when they heard that, as Luke says, “Samaria had accepted the word of God.”  But as short and matter-of-fact as it is, it offers a wealth of guidance from the early church about how we can be the Church today.

Earlier in Acts, it’s reported that all of the believers except for the apostles had fled Jerusalem in the face of persecution.  This was after Stephen had been stoned to death for his preaching.  Stephen had been one of the seven who were appointed to take care of distributing food assistance to the widows, in an effort to resolve one of the Church’s first disputes.  Philip was another one, and Philip was among those who had scattered throughout Judea and Samaria, preaching the word.

Although the other believers were travelling the countryside, the apostles remained in Jerusalem.  Why were they still there?  Well, it could be they were braver than others, willing to stay in spite of the danger. They might have been making logistical plans, assigning territories to be covered in order to fulfill the mission that Jesus had given them before his ascension—to be his witnesses in Jerusalem, in all of Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.

Or, could it have just been more comfortable to stay in Jerusalem?  Other than Paul’s raging campaign against the infant Church, there aren’t reports of wide-spread persecution against Christians at that point.  It’s certainly a lot easier to stay in the place you know, ministering to people you know, or who at least are a lot like you.  No packing, no uncertain accommodations, no unfamiliar streets and no people whose lifestyles make them seem a little sinister.  After all, good work can be done anywhere.  It doesn’t necessarily have to be done in a strange place, does it?  And Jesus did say they would be his witnesses in Jerusalem, so maybe they thought that starting there was a good idea.

Whatever the reason, the apostles were in Jerusalem, while all the other followers, including Philip, were spreading out, preaching the gospel.  Philip made Samaria his mission field.

This was a rather bold choice.  As we’ve learned before, Jews and Samaritans were bitter enemies, and had been for centuries.  When Assyria conquered Samaria around 722 BC, they resettled many Samaritan people in other places and moved their own people into Samaria.  Intermingling and intermarriage followed, which muddied the genetic waters and opened a racial divide between the Samaritans and the Jews.   Then, after the exile, Ezra and Nehemiah set about expelling foreigners from the Jewish community and a political divide was created.  Finally, a religious divide grew, as differences in religious practice began to harden into a theological wall that separated the two groups.  After the Samaritans tried to prevent the rebuilding of the Jerusalem temple, and the Jews destroyed the Samaritan temple in Gerizim, the hostility seemed set in stone.

But here is Philip, preaching in the no-man’s-land of Samaria.  Chapter 7 tells us that the people of the city of Samaria paid eager attention to his words and were joyful over the healing of their sick and possessed.  They came to believe Philip’s good news about Jesus and the kingdom of God, and they were baptized.

Back in Jerusalem, the apostles get wind of the Samaritan conversion.  We’re given no information about the discussions which surely followed when the apostles heard this news. Maybe they were overjoyed.  Maybe they were all kinds of doubtful.  But, Jesus did say that his followers were to be witnesses in Samaria.  So, maybe with that in mind, the apostles sent Peter and John to Samaria as their representatives.

Peter and John discovered an unusual situation.  The Samaritans had been baptized in Jesus’ name, but they hadn’t received the Holy Spirit.  This is the only time Scripture reports this kind of separation between baptism by water and the baptism of the Spirit.  Confronted with this unique situation, Peter and John began to pray for the Samaritans.  After praying, Peter and John laid hands on the Samaritans, and the Samaritans received the Spirit.

And that’s it.  That’s all we’re told about this incident that Luke thought was important enough to include in his account of how the Church grew in its earliest days.  Since he did include this story, he must have felt that there was something there for Christians to gain from it.  Plenty of people have thought long and hard about why this story is important.  Some think it supports the idea that baptism by water and the baptism of the Spirit are two different things.  Others believe it makes a statement about the role and power of the clergy, since it was only through Peter and John that the Samaritans received the Spirit’s presence and power.  Still others think that it is simply a symbol of how God’s kingdom was to include all people, even those who had previously been considered outsiders.

I think the story offers something more practical than that.  This story demonstrates some pretty nuts-and-bolts kinds of things about how Christians can share the Good News of Jesus Christ, not with unbelievers but with each other.  And it demonstrates that if we are to do that, we need to get up close and personal with our brothers and sisters in Christ.

Usually we think we are to witness to people who don’t yet know Jesus.  That’s what Philip did.  He headed out to Samaria—a place where he would have been met with suspicion at best and hostility at worst.  Somehow, he would have had to get the Samaritans to lay aside their distrust of a Jewish stranger in their midst and their suspicions about his motives.  But he also would have had his own prejudices to overcome—his own suspicions about the Samaritans with their strange practices and beliefs, and maybe even their looks that revealed the foreign genes in their family tree.

There’s really only one way to make that happen—by getting to know someone on a personal level.  I suspect that before Philip did any real preaching, before crowds started to gather, he had some encounters of the up close and personal kind.  He would have had to find something to eat and a place to sleep.  I’ll bet he had plenty of one-on-one conversations with strangers, maybe in the course of resting with a cup of tea, or getting directions, or asking for advice about a place to stay.

Those face-to-face encounters created relationships, and relationships grew into trust, and trust grew into crowds hearing and accepting the Gospel of Jesus Christ, all because Philip wasn’t afraid to go to a strange place and get to know strange people.  Because of Philip’s willingness to get up close and personal with people who didn’t know Jesus, centuries of hostility began to melt away.

That’s what we usually think of as the mission field—going to people who haven’t yet heard the Good News of the Gospel.  But our passage is about Peter and John being sent to people who had already accepted Jesus—people who were already Christians.

This is the first lesson that our passage holds for us.  Sometimes God leads us to people who don’t know Jesus.  Sometimes God leads us to people who are already Christians. But they may still be very different from us.  They may be refugees from another country, where polygamy is accepted and practiced by Methodist clergy and members. Or, they may be the neighbors who have lived next door to us all our lives but are part of a different Christian denomination or tradition.  They may be politicians on either sides of the aisle who claim faithfulness as the foundation of their opposing positions.  They may be faithful United Methodists whose perspective on homosexuality is very different from yours.  They might even be college football coaches who claim that God arranges their teams’ victories, as the Clemson University coach repeatedly asserted in his interviews after the National Championship game.

We hear about or watch as these other Christians practice their faith in ways very different from our own.  But we generally take a “live and let live” approach, never talking about our shared faith or our points of difference.  We stay a comfortable distance away.

The apostles in Jerusalem could have done the same thing.  After hearing that the Samaritans had accepted Jesus, they could have just sent a messenger with a note of congratulations and then left well enough alone.  It would have been an official acceptance, but it would have preserved the distance that had existed for generations.

Instead, the apostles sent Peter and John to meet with the Samaritans personally—to hear their stories and learn about their experiences.  They didn’t maintain a comfortable distance.  And, because they didn’t—because Peter and John went personally to meet with their new brothers and sisters in Christ, they learned that the Samaritans had not yet experienced the power and presence of the Holy Spirit.  Because they were physically present—because they were in a position to get up close and personal with other believers—they learned that the Samaritans’ experience was very different from their own.

We, too, are called to do what Peter and John did—to be willing to talk with and listen to other Christians whose views and experiences are very different from our own.  I confess that I have trouble with putting this into practice.  When I strongly believe something and am convinced of the rightness of my position in terms of my faith, it is hard for me to listen to someone I think is getting it all wrong.  It is hard for me to accept that they are “real” Christians because, obviously, if they were, they’d agree with me, right?

It’s when I find myself with this attitude that I need to be more like Peter and John.  I need to make more of an effort to listen and hear what the other person has to say.  I need to learn more about their experiences, in an effort to find common ground.  I need to close the distance between us and try to get up close and personal with those I disagree with or whose faith seems very different from mine.

After Peter and John learned about the Samaritans’ experience, they immediately leapt into action: they began to pray.  They prayed that the Samaritans’ need would be met—that they would receive the Holy Spirit.  They didn’t launch into an explanation that the Samaritans weren’t “real” Christians because their baptism didn’t fit the established pattern. They didn’t write off the Samaritans as Christian wanna-be’s.  They spent time in prayer first, so that they would know what role God wanted them to play in the unfolding of the Church among the Samaritans.

It’s one thing to pray for people whose stories we learn from impersonal reports.  It’s another to pray for people we know. As Jim McKay and his Olympic features revealed, our care and concern grow when we get up close and personal with others.  When we hear the stories of people who once were foreign to us, told in their own words, their stories become our stories, and our concern for them takes on a new urgency.  Our prayers become more specific as we learn what our new friends’ needs are.  They go from being general prayers for the well-being of strangers to petitions for unique and beloved individuals.  Our prayers change when we get up close and personal.

As we get to know those whose experience of faith is different from ours, our first course of action should be to pray for them—not for a change of heart or mind, so that they will better conform to what we think is right, but that the Holy Spirit will be present in their lives, guiding and empowering them.  And while we’re at it, we should pray in all humility that the Spirit will guide and empower us as well.

The result of Peter and John’s prayer was that they laid hands on the Samaritans—they physically touched people who had been their enemies for centuries.  Touch is so powerful.  Touch can communicate what words can’t. Touch can communicate love, care, and concern.  Withholding touch can communicate hostility, coldness, and suspicion.

Many years ago, a young family began attending the church where I was a member.  They had come from an African country; I don’t remember now which one it was.  The dad was a student at UT, and his wife and two little boys had come with him.  Usually they all came, but one Sunday Dad had to work, so Mom was there alone with her baby and toddler.  After church, I saw her in the narthex, baby in one arm and trying to button the toddler into his coat with the other.

I asked her if she would like for me to hold her baby while she took care of the toddler.  As she handed the baby to me, she had tears in her eyes.  I figured they were just the tears of an overwhelmed young mother in a strange place.  After she finished with the toddler, she turned to me.  She said in a tear-muffled voice, “Thank you for holding my baby.”  I tried to brush it off: “It was nothing.  You just looked like you needed an extra air of hands.”  “You don’t understand,” she said. “In my country, everyone wants to hold the babies, to show that they are loved and accepted in the community.  Since I arrived here, I have felt so sad because no one asks to hold my baby.  But, now, because you held him, I know he is loved and accepted here, too.”

Touching someone is the ultimate expression of being up close and personal. It was in that moment—in that moment of spiritual connection made visible in an up close and personal physical connection, the Samaritans received the Holy Spirit.

It is a risky business to try to connect with Christians whose understanding is very different from ours.  We risk feeling awkward. We risk rejection.  We risk having our preconceived ideas upset and our comfortable view of the world made less comfortable.  But we learn from the story of Peter and John and the Samaritans that the Church can’t fully be the Church if we’re not willing to develop and maintain personal relationships with other Christians, especially those we’d rather keep at a distance.

When we are willing to take that risk, we do it as the people of a God who sees us all as beloved and precious, and calls us by name.  We do it as the people of a God who came close to us in the human form of Jesus.  We do it as the followers of Jesus, who sends his own Spirit to live within us in an unsurpassed up close and personal relationship with those he loves and who love him.  As we get up close and personal with our brothers and sisters in Christ, bridges across divisions of all kinds will be built and crossed.  The Church will be strengthened.  And we will all be blessed through the presence and power of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

~~ Pastor Carol Williams-Young