Unplanned Plans

By Ajit John

A 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. 2 Devout men buried Stephen and made loud lamentation over him. 3 But 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. 5 Philip went down to the city of Samaria and proclaimed the Messiah to them. 6 The crowds with one accord listened eagerly to what was said by Philip, hearing and seeing the signs that he did, 7 for unclean spirits, crying with loud shrieks, came out of many who were possessed, and many others who were paralyzed or lame were cured. 8 So there was great joy in that city.

9 Now a certain man named Simon had previously practiced magic in the city and amazed the people of Samaria, saying that he was someone great. 10 All of them, from the least to the greatest, listened to him eagerly, saying, “This man is the power of God that is called Great.” 11 And they listened eagerly to him because for a long time he had amazed them with his magic. 12 But 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. 13 Even 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.

Meditation

At his Ascension, Jesus told his disciples that they would receive power when the Holy Spirit came upon them, and that they would be witnesses beyond Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth. No method was given.

But the words of Jesus set the stage for an unpredictable turn. If the Church had been a truly modern enterprise we might expect a mission statement or strategic plan. But the Book of Acts contains neither. Instead we find a detailed report of Stephen’s brutal death and the immediate dispersal of Jewish believers fleeing the organized persecution of a Pharisee named Saul. The text in Acts is specific; all except the apostles were scattered throughout the countryside of Judea and Samaria.

What a strange way to execute a planned expansion! Did those early believers have friends or relatives in the region? We aren’t told. Many would have had to abandon their livelihood and families. What Luke’s account makes clear is that the sudden dislocation of the new Christians didn’t quench their zeal to proclaim the Messiah, despite Stephen’s murder. After Philip joined them in the city of Samaria, many signs and wonders, including dramatic deliverance from unclean spirits, made it obvious that the risen Lord Jesus was alive and in their midst.

My rector is fond of saying, “We make our plans and we say our prayers.” It’s a humble approach to church planning, and it has served the parish extraordinarily well for two decades. But things happen that could never have made it into the stated plans of a church situated in the northeastern corner of a growing metropolis. Suddenly the world was at our doorstep, not for anything that was done or planned in the parish. Judea and Samaria came here and the good news of Jesus the Messiah was faithfully proclaimed and the sacraments celebrated. Another chapter to the Book of Acts emerges from such stories as these.

The Rev. Ajit John is an associate priest at St. Paul’s L’Amoreaux, a vibrant multi-ethnic parish in Toronto, Canada.

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