December 12, 2004

The Love of Christ Compels Us to Break Down Dividing Walls
Acts 8:4-25

I wasn’t prepared for what I saw when I stepped foot into the apartment of two former students of mine here in Grantham a year ago. The living room and kitchen were nothing out of the ordinary, although they were a bit on the neat side, particularly in comparison to the average dorm room. In many cases, you’re lucky if you can find your way through the doorway! When the grand tour continued, however, and I entered one of the bedrooms, I could scarcely believe my eyes. It was a scene right out of Better Homes and Gardens. Everything was in its precise place and meticulously labeled. For example, the closet—a two-door variety with shelves and a rod for hanging clothing— contained absolutely nothing that was out of place. Each shelf was clearly marked—even sections of the bar for hanging clothes were designated: v-neck t-shirts; traditional t-shirts; boxer shorts; solid color short sleeve pullover shirts; striped pullover shirts; patterned pullover shirts; turtlenecks; button down sweaters; pullover sweaters; button down dress shirts; dress pants; leisure pants; white socks; dark socks; and on and on. I was overwhelmed. I just stood and stared at how precisely divided each and every item was, and I quickly got the impression that the young man behind this mad demonstration of hyper-organization grew quite uncomfortable if any of his belongings somehow got mixed up.

We often don’t like to get our things mixed up either, do we? We even categorize people sometimes and put them in their appropriate places. In the opening seven chapters of the book of Acts, the church had been largely mono-cultural. Jesus, as you know, was utterly Jewish, and his earliest followers were wholly Jewish in their outlook as well. There were, of course, hints of diversity within this Jewish community, such as when the Greek-speaking Jewish believers and the Hebrew or Aramaic-speaking Jewish believers fussed with each other in chapter 6. Every group—every community—has at least some element of diversity. But again, the church has been, up to this point, a mono-cultural community consisting of Jews who had accepted Jesus as the Messiah. That homogeneity—everyone is neatly situated on the right shelf in the closet—begins to explode here in Acts 8.

As a result of the persecution developing in part because of people like Saul and his associates, many of the Jewish believers residing primarily in Jerusalem and its suburbs are forced to flee. As they flee, they increasingly come in contact with people who are different from themselves, people positioned neatly on other shelves in the closet. In Acts 8, this dispersion took Philip, not only to a different shelf in the closet, but to an entirely new closet altogether. In his flight from Jerusalem, Philip traveled to the city of Samaria, located some 40 miles to the north.

The animosity between the Jews and the Samaritans is, of course, well documented. Some 750 years before Philip’s time, the northern kingdom of Israel – remember, the original kingdom of Israel under David and Solomon, had split into two smaller kingdoms, Israel in the north and Judah in the south, after the reign of Solomon – and its capital city, Samaria, fell at the hands of the mighty Assyrian army. As was their customary policy, the victorious Assyrians shipped the people of northern Israel off to a distant land and, at the same time, imported a group of foreigners into the region. The Assyrians, in other words, moved around the clothing on the shelves. Over time, these imported foreigners intermarried with some of the Jews who remained in Samaria, producing a sort of mixed-race. For the pure Jews living in Jerusalem and elsewhere in the south, these “half-breeds” were, as Will Willimon describes them, “racially impure and religiously inferior.” These “Samaritans” were neither Jew nor Gentile, but an unwelcome and even disgusting combination of the two. By the time of Jesus and then Philip, the word “Samaritan” had become for the Jews what Andrew Walls appropriately refers to as a “theological swearword.”

The church has similarly had many such swearwords over the years. In the 5th century, if a “mainline” Christian wanted to marginalize another person, he labeled him either a “Nestorian” or a “Monophysite.” The Nestorians and Monophysites were groups of believers who held views of the nature of Jesus that differed from the Church as a whole. In the 6th century, a new swearword appeared. If you wanted to label a Christian who thought differently then you did, you called him a “Melkite.” And in the 16th century, the popular swearword was “Anabaptist.”

In 1st century Judaism, once again, the dominant theological swearword was “Samaritan.” In Luke’s Gospel, the first volume of this Luke-Acts series, Luke recounts an episode in which a Samaritan village steadfastly refused to allow Jesus and his disciples to rest there. “Shall we call down fire from heaven to consume them?” James and John inquired of the Lord. Jesus, thankfully, simply passed by. In his gospel, John bluntly informs us that Jews and Samaritans simply did not deal with each other (4:9). And in John 8:48, a cluster of antagonistic Jews label Jesus himself in their attempts to marginalize him: “…you are a Samaritan…” they respond with no small amount of sarcasm. Jews and Samaritans were worse than oil and water. Samaritans, in the Jewish mind, belonged on a separate shelf somewhere off in a distant room, if they belonged anywhere at all.

Now Philip, Luke informs us in Acts 8:4, went to the city of Samaria. There, this young man, compelled by the love of Christ, empowered by the Holy sprit, and living in the light of God, preached the word and proclaimed the good news of the Messiah. The crowds, Luke continues, listened eagerly, and they watched with amazement as God worked mightily in their midst. People were healed and delivered from their spiritual chains, and the city was overcome by great joy.

The news, as you might very well imagine, is so astonishing that, once the apostles in Jerusalem hear about it, they send a delegation—Peter and John, no less—to verify the account. When they arrive, they discover that the story was, in fact, true. The Samaritans had accepted the word of God, and they had been baptized. What remains, oddly enough, is for Peter and John to lay hands on them and to pray that they might receive the Holy Spirit, which they now do. This “second Pentecost,” so to speak, has troubled various readers for years. “Why did the Samaritans not receive the Holy spirit when they believed and were baptized?” some wonder. My own suspicion is that the delay has more to do with the way the Jews categorized Samaritans than it does with providing an ongoing theology of when and how followers of Jesus receive the Holy Spirit. It is as though God deliberately withholds this final seal of his approval until the very leaders of the early Church are present to witness the events. “Samaritans are in!” he announces. “My love and grace extend to all of the shelves in the closet. I care deeply about the very people that you label, the people you ridicule, the people you avoid. Remove, once and for all, the word ‘Samaritan’ from your list of swearwords.”

When the love of Christ genuinely compels us, the Holy Spirit empowers us, and the light of God illumines our path, we will, like Paul, take an honest look at ourselves and see who we really are. We will, like Stephen, lay down our lives for Christ. And we will, like the Jewish Christians who comprised the mono-cultural church in its infancy, see other people, not as enemies to marginalize, but as men and women for whom Christ died. In Christ Jesus, human barriers begin to fade. Walls come down. Hatred vanishes. Items on the various shelves begin to intermingle, and no one seems to worry about it anymore. Swearwords lose their meaning.

What “swearwords” does Christ long for us to remove from our vocabulary this morning? There are many, I’m sure, and our lists might vary from person to person. There are ethnic swearwords, economic swearwords, political swearwords, and religious swearwords. These are just a few.

Two related swearwords these days are unquestionably “Arab” and “Muslim.” Some people even fail to realize that the words “Arab” and “Muslim” are not synonymous, anymore than the words “American” and “Christian” are. One, “Arab,” is an ethnic term, and the other, “Muslim”, a religious term. So many people seem to watch a few news clips, listen to campaign rhetoric or skim an occasional article in the newspaper or some popular magazine, and immediately conclude that all Arabs are terrorists and that all Muslims are out to conquer the world. The terms have become modern replacements for the previous generation’s swearword “communist.”

The overwhelming majority of Arabs in the world, contrary to what you think, are not terrorists, but are instead warm and hospitable people like you and, I hope, me. For another thing, very few Muslims are actively engaged in promoting a theology of violent conquest, let alone literally confiscating territory for religious gain. I might also remind us that the worst of Muslim militancy isn’t very much different from the majority worst of Christian militancy throughout the centuries. The eastern Christians living in Egypt in the 7th and 8th centuries, for example, welcomed the new Muslim rulers because they rightly assumed that the Muslims from the Saudi Peninsula would treat them better than the western Christians centered in Rome. The western Christians had been making life difficult for Christians in the east for years and years—the Muslims were not the “bad guys.” And yet we often throw every Arab and Muslim into the same pot, never bother to seek an honest and reliable understanding, label them with swearwords, and actually assume that this is the way that Christ looks at the world.

Here are a few other swearwords floating around these days with alarming regularity: “liberal,” “conservative” and “fundamentalist.” Have you noticed how people throw these words around? If we want to dismiss someone who we consider to be far out, someone who has fallen off the deep end, we label them “liberal.” If we seek to dismiss someone who we consider to be naïve or intellectually inferior, as though they have never given a serious thought to anything meaningful, we label them “fundamentalist.” And if we want to abort a conversation with someone who is somewhere in the middle—they read a little and occasionally think at a higher level—we refer to them as “conservative.” And in the process of labeling others, we are never really required to engage with people different from ourselves in any significant way. We use our labels, not as helpful descriptions to aid in conversation, but as swearwords to drive wedges between ourselves and others.

I’ve been the victim of such labeling in rather fascinating ways at times over the years. When I am in certain circles, including seminars, religious conferences and academic meetings, I am sometimes labeled a conservative because I believe in such things as the deity of Christ and the general inspiration of Scripture. In other circles, I am a raging liberal! I’ve been called a liberal, for example, for my criticism of our government’s warring ways and because of my insistence that a biblical view of morality, which certainly calls us to protect unborn babies, also requires us to care passionately about the poor, victims of injustice, and our environment. I’ve been called a liberal for other reasons as well. I remember one occasion a few years ago when then President Sawatsky called me in my office at the college. He informed me that a particular student in one of my classes came to him and complained that I was too liberal. “Keep up the good work,” Rod said to me with what I am certain was a smile on his face. And what was it that I had said or done to have been labeled a threatening liberal by this former student? I questioned her belief that the King James Version was the only acceptable and reliable translation of the Bible in use today!

Labels. Uninformed generalizations. Distrust. Prejudices. Dividing walls. Swearwords that place people in neat, tidy, and often unfair categories. If the story of Philip’s journey to Samaria means anything for the church today, it means that we must not only take an honest look at ourselves and in turn give our lives without reservation to Christ. We must, at the same time, rethink our categories and our often sinful tendencies to look at other people in what are surely ungodly ways. God is not an Arab, to be sure, but he is not an American either. God is neither black nor white, rich nor poor, male nor female. God is not a liberal. He is not a conservative. He is not a fundamentalist. God is not a democrat or a republican. God is not Catholic. God is not Brethren in Christ. God is God, and, as he inquires through the prophet Isaiah, with whom will you dare compare me?

As the church in the book of Acts moves outside of the Jewish confines of Jerusalem, it soon discovers that its tidy shelves are far too tidy. God wants to move some of the clothing, so to speak. He wants to add new items to the wardrobe – new colors and new styles. Surely one of the greatest effects of the proclamation of the Gospel is precisely this: human barriers and divisions crumble in the light of Christ. I don’t want to be a conservative. I don’t want to be a liberal. I just want to be a Christian – a faithful follower of Jesus who sees himself and the world as Christ does. The love of Christ compels us and the Holy Spirit empowers us to receive this astounding news: Samaritans are in!