By Michael Smith
Reading from Acts, 8:1-13
1 And Saul approved of their killing him.
That day a severe persecution began against the church in Jerusalem, and all except the apostles were scattered throughout the countryside of Judea and Samaria. 2Devout men buried Stephen and made loud lamentation over him. 3But Saul was ravaging the church by entering house after house; dragging off both men and women, he committed them to prison.
4 Now those who were scattered went from place to place, proclaiming the word. 5Philip went down to the city of Samaria and proclaimed the Messiah to them. 6The crowds with one accord listened eagerly to what was said by Philip, hearing and seeing the signs that he did, 7for unclean spirits, crying with loud shrieks, came out of many who were possessed; and many others who were paralyzed or lame were cured. 8So there was great joy in that city.
9 Now a certain man named Simon had previously practised magic in the city and amazed the people of Samaria, saying that he was someone great. 10All of them, from the least to the greatest, listened to him eagerly, saying, “This man is the power of God that is called Great.” 11And they listened eagerly to him because for a long time he had amazed them with his magic. 12But when they believed Philip, who was proclaiming the good news about the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ, they were baptized, both men and women. 13Even Simon himself believed. After being baptized, he stayed constantly with Philip and was amazed when he saw the signs and great miracles that took place.
At his Ascension in the first chapter of the Acts of the Apostles, Jesus told his followers that they would receive power from the Holy Spirit to be his witnesses in “Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” After Jesus disappeared into the clouds, two angels appeared and asked why they were still standing around looking up into the sky (1:6-11). Nine days later they received the promised outpouring of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, but here we are in today’s reading, seven chapters later, and no one has yet to venture out of Jerusalem! Are they still looking for Jesus with their heads in the clouds? What will it take to get the commissioned and empowered Jesus-witnesses out of Jerusalem and to Judea, Samaria, and the ends of the earth?
Today’s lesson answers that question and identifies the motivation as a “severe persecution against the church in Jerusalem,” when most Christians were “scattered throughout the countryside of Judea and Samaria.” Sometimes pain, hardships, and difficult circumstances are necessary for us to change our behavior.
Is the pandemic such a time for the Church? For years we have been talking about the incredible change in the world and cultures about us and our need to adjust. Now we are forced to act because an infectious virus is threatening the health of the world, and we are reluctantly adapting to these new circumstances. Perhaps the creative Spirit of God is leading us to new ways to be Jesus-witnesses. If we can keep our heads out of the clouds, we just might reach the ends of the earth after all.
The Rt. Rev. Michael G. Smith served as Bishop of North Dakota for fifteen years and is Assistant Bishop of Dallas. He is an enrolled member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation. He and his wife, the Rev. Lisa White Smith, are the parents of three and grandparents of nine.
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