I don’t preach missions sermons very often. Why? Well… as bad as many (most?) churches are in terms of missions, I rarely feel that that is the topic that is needed on Sunday. However, I am in the US right now, and preached this Sermon at one church, and will preach this same sermon three times this Sunday. So I may as well share it here.
Good Morning, We will be in Acts chapter 8 today, but I would like to start with a story. The story is called “The Three Little Pigs.” This is not the more common version of the story, with the house of straw, the house of sticks, and the house of bricks. It is more like a follow-on to the story.
In this story, the three little pigs are now wiser. They each have their own solid brick houses. One day the first little pig returns home after work. He opens his front door… and discovers that his house is now filled up with manure. Perhaps the family of the big bad wolf had done this as a malicious trick. Even though the three little pigs were… pigs… they did not really want to live in messy homes. They liked things tidy.
The first little pig was angry and unhappy but outside of griping never did anything about it. Every day he would come home to his filthy home that smelled worse each day. He would take pictures, put them on Instagram and complain about how this is proof that the country is falling apart.
The second little pig also returned home one day. He too found his house fool of manure. After thinking about it a bit… he rolled up his pig sleeves and got his pig shovel and pig mop, and began cleaning and cleaning and cleaning. He filled up a big dumpster and a truck came and hauled all of the manure away, Soon he was able to return to a clean house— as good as new.
The third little pig also came home to his own house and found it full of manure. He thought about it and thought about it and then got to work. Rolling up his pig sleeves and getting out his pig shovel and pig mop, He cleaned the whole house from top to bottom. As he did, he spread the manure on his garden. Soon he had a clean house and the best vegetables and flowers in the land.
Hold onto that story and please open your Bibles to Acts 8.
At that time a great persecution arose against the church which was at Jerusalem; and they were all scattered throughout the regions of Judea and Samaria, except the apostles. 2 And devout men carried Stephen to his burial, and made great lamentation over him.
3 As for Saul, he made havoc of the church, entering every house, and dragging off men and women, committing them to prison.
This is a bad situation… a real problem. There is persecution. Perhaps you are like me and don’t like to use that term. So many have watered down the term so much that almost anyone can claim to be persecuted for almost anything. But this was real persectution. People were breaking into the homes of Christians and throwing them in jail. Stephen was actually killed, and certainly more might be added to that list. Things were so bad that those who were not yet in prision felt the need to escape the city. Many went into the surrounding villages in Judea. Some went into the villages of Samaria.
Things seemed so good in the first four chapters of the book of Acts.— almost perfect. It seemed so good that 2000 years later we will still talk about trying to recapture the spirit of the first century church. But I don’t think God wants the church today to embrace some unhealthy nostalgia of the past. After all, God inspired the writer of Ecclesiastes to warn people not to embrace the foolish notion that things were better in the past than they are now. So God through Luke showed the church in Chapters 1 through 4 as almost perfect, but then clarifies things in Chapters 5 through 8 showing that things were far from perfect.
Chapters 1 through 4 showed the church of Jerusalem growing in leaps and bounds. Chapter 8 shows the church of Jerusalem shrinking back to almost nothing. Chapter 4 shows generous selfless giving. Chapter 5 shows giving that was selfish and deceptive. Chapter 2 shows a joyous church praising God. Chapter 5 shows a fearful church, Chapter 2 showed a church receiving the favor of their neighbors. Chapter 8 shows a church hunted by their neighbors. Chapter 4 shows a united church. Chapter 6 shows a divided church. Chapter 1 shows a church started by resurrection and miracles. Chapter 7 shows a church suffering its first murder— its first martyr.
In many ways, the church of the book of Acts is like the church of today. A mixture of good and bad. Of great highs and great lows.
The wording of this passage suggests that the only ones still in Jerusalem (outside of those locked up in prison) are the Apostles— the Twelve. The rest of the church went to Judea and Samaria
But as we move to verse 4… we discover, surprisingly, that this is good news, not bad.
4 Therefore those who were scattered went everywhere preaching the word. 5 Then Philip went down to the city of Samaria and preached Christ to them. 6 And the multitudes with one accord heeded the things spoken by Philip, hearing and seeing the miracles which he did. 7 For unclean spirits, crying with a loud voice, came out of many who were possessed; and many who were paralyzed and lame were healed. 8 And there was great joy in that city.
Now we need to look at the story from this new angle. The trials going on in Jerusalem were not destroying the church. Rather those trials were like a gust of wind hitting a dandelion seed ball. Whoosh… seeds scatter everywhere to start new plants wherever the wind sets them. The stronger the wind the further they go. Those who were scattered went everywhere preaching the word. These were not necessarily professional ministers. These were most likely pretty ordinarily people. They preached God’s message of hope to those around them. Where? Wherever they were taken as they were fleeing the city.
And then we learn about Philip. He was one of the 7, like Stephen who died. Stephen’s death did not destroy the witness of these 7. As one went down another rose up. Philip goes to Samaria. Jesus told His disciples that they would be His witnesses even to the ends of the earth. That is an awful lot of places. He specifically mentioned Samaria as one of the places to be a witness. Philip went to Samaria. Samaria is close to Jerusalem. However, Samaritans were very unpopular with the Jews. Samaritans were like the neighbors that we ignore, or wish would move away. But sometimes those are the very neighbors who were placed there for a reason. Or maybe we were placed next to them for a reason.
Philip did not wait for the Samaritans to come to him. He went deep into the heart of Samaria… and began preaching and healing. And they responded to the message and there was great joy.
I won’t keep going through this passage verse by verse for the sake of brevity. But word gets back to the Apostles in Jerusalem that something big is going on in Samaria… so they hurry up there. Persecution would not make them leave Jerusalem— but the excitement of seeing the Spirit of God do amazing things? Yes. They must see that. And they WERE amazed by what they saw. People were praising God and the Holy Spirit confirmed that they were God’s own. It says that Peter and John who had hurried up there… well, they then returned to Jerusalem. But on the way back they did not hurry. Rather they preached along the way in Samaritan villages.
That is pretty shocking. Consider John, for a moment. Only a few years prior John asked Jesus if He would give himself and James permission to call down fire on a Samaritan village that had not welcomed them in. That tells you a lot about the disciple’s view of Samaritans, I think. Jesus and the disciples were rejected in many Jewish villages, but there is no record of them asking Jesus permission to call down fire on them. God did not bring down the fire of judgment on the Samaritans. Instead, here in Acts, He brought down the fire of the Holy Spirit. Now John, as well as Peter, is caught up in the excitement of what God is doing.
So what are some lessons we might take from this.
Let’s return to the story of the three pigs. All three pigs had a bad thing come into their life. Each was in a bad situation… a problem… something that ruined their day. All three were given problems.
The first pig embraced a strategy I would call, “Resignation.” He resigned himself to the situation. In the Philippines, we use the expression, “Bahala na.” Hard to translate into English but something like. “It is fate… so you may as well accept it.” One may complain… but ultimately one does nothing substantive about it. The problem remained and grew.
I would say that the second pig embraced a strategy I would call “Restoration.” It means to restore… or bring back to normal. It is like a TV sitcom. Things are doing well. A problem springs up… craziness ensues. Eventually, someone comes up with a solution and everything returns back as they were at the beginning of the episode… all ready for a new situation next week. The second pig did this. He undid the problem. The problem is now gone. Things are back to normal. No worse, but also no better.
This seems like a pretty good strategy. It is the strategy of the fixit-man. Find problem. Fix problem. Not bad… but in the Bible, I think we find a better way. And that way is the strategy of the third pig.
I would call this strategy, the the strategy of Redemption. Redemption means saving or returning value to something ruined or broken. Usually it implies making things better than they were before. Can a problem be turned into a benefit. We often speak of God’s salvation in terms of redemption. When I was young, I was taught the memory aid for Justification— “Just as if I never sinned.” It is a good memory aid, but still inadequate. That is because, in God’s saving work, we get more… we get… “More than if I never sinned.” We are not just returned to the Garden— literal hedged-in place— called Eden… we are a part of a whole new creation… as joint heirs of this creation with Christ. We are not just receiving visits from God, strolling with Him in the cool of the morning. We will be dwelling with Him… Heaven and Earth joined.
The churchmembers of Jerusalem were certainly fearful and probably angry… and they could have simply embraced those feelings… effectively doing nothing. But this is not what they did.
Perhaps they could have aimed for the Second Strategy. Restoration. Perhaps they could have tried to work against the problems in Jerusalem and get everyone back into the city with the church as it was before.
But they went to the Third Strategy. Redemption. They did not do nothing. They did not simply reverse the problem. They embraced the problem. Under persecution they spread out over the land. The church was not crushed by hate, attacks, persecution. It grew— outward. Did they understand that they were carrying out Jesus’ plan to be witnesses in Jerusalem, and Judea and Samaria, and even the ends of the world. I don’t know. Whether they understood it or not, God led them into that situation and they responded. Philip was only one of them.
Persecution does not automatically lead to good things. I teach missions history… and history is complicated in this area. In the first three centuries of the church, persecution appears to have fueled its growth. However, in 7th and 8th century in North Africa, the church disappeared under persecution. In other places like in Lebanon and Egypt, the church has not grown or dissolved under persection, but has faithfully endured. But even today, God has used persecution to grow His church. In modern-day China and Iran, persecution has led to great growth of the church. Why do some places grow and others wither under persecution? I don’t really know. And I think it is better to admit ignorance than to claim knowledge I don’t have. But I have to think that how one responds to it… must be part of it. The people fled Jerusalem, but they did not see themselves as fleeing from God. They understood that God was with them in persecution and they were bringing Christ and His message wherever they went. It is not wrong to run… it just depends on where and what one is running to.
Maybe that is something we can gain from the first century church. We live in a time of pandemic. We live in a time of nuclear, chemical, biological, and cyber weaponry. We live in a time of scary technology and environmental disasters. We live in a time of great suffering and immorality. Most of these things we cannot fix. The problems are too big, and we are too small. But we are not called to fix things… undo the problem.
We are called upon to redeem. To open our minds and hearts to God’s plan to transform… bringing hope and salvation to a broken world.
As a church, don’t look back at the first century church and say, “Oh we want to be like the 1st century church… perfect, and growing in leaps and bounds.” That was not the whole story. Rather, maybe we could say, “Oh we want to be like the 1st century church that responded faithfully to trials and tribulations and transformed what was evil for good… and in the process turned the world upside down.”We want to be like the church that embraced problems as potentially… good.
You have supported Celia and myself in serving God in the Philippines, training up Christians in Asia and Africa to serve God. These Asian and African Christians as we train them, often serve in places of great persecution. Sometimes as missionaries, sometimes as pastors, chaplains, or pastoral counselors. We thank you for your support and prayers, and pray that those we train will serve God fearlessly in dangerous places serving redemptively, flowers for ashes,… embracing the heart of Joseph who told his brothers who sold him into slavery— “What you meant for evil, God used it for good.”