Acts 8:1-4 is a transitional passage between the account of the stoning of Stephen and the ministry of Philip. While a transition, it is significant for what it reports and the effect this had on the theme of Acts: that the Church be witnesses for Jesus Christ in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth (Acts 1:8).
A time of severe persecution broke out against the church in Jerusalem and many believers were scattered as a result. But this negative experience was used as a catalyst for advancing the mission: “Now those who were scattered went from place to place, proclaiming the word (8:4).” In particular, Philip preached throughout the countryside of Samaria. And the one who would first take the message of Jesus to the ends of the earth was introduced in Acts 8:1, Saul/Paul. The Church endured a great shaking, but it became the catalyst for the next chapter in the story.
I wonder if we are in our own Acts 8 moment today? The world is in the midst of a great shaking, a global pandemic that has produced some sobering numbers. According to Johns Hopkins, over 33.2 million cases worldwide, and over one million deaths. In the United States, 7.1 million positive cases and over 205,000 deaths. In Florida, almost 705,000 positive cases and 14,143 deaths (as of September 29, 2020).
The most prominent effect on the church by this situation is how we “do” church. The virtual world has taken over for the more common ways we worshiped, fellowshipped, served and governed prior to the pandemic. Many of the means we are currently employing today will likely stay with us into the future as either a vaccine is produced or we develop effective treatment modalities enabling us to live with the virus. There will be a new normal. We just do not know what it will exactly look like, yet.
These thoughts came to me while I was participating in a study leave the week of September 21, a CREDO program designed for presbytery and synod leaders. During some built-in Sabbath time I was reflecting on Acts 8, and the similarities (and differences) in our current situation. Several things stood out to me: · The followers of Jesus were hard pressed in Acts 8. Many had their lives completely overturned and changed. But they all had a rock to which they were anchored in the storm. · Wherever circumstances took them, these followers found ways to share their faith. And the church grew in ways and numbers far beyond what had been possible before the “shaking.” · Some, notably the Apostles, stayed where they were and sustained the church in the face of suffering. · God opened up new and sometimes surprising ways for the church to move ahead, most notably, the familiar story of Saul’s journey to become Paul.
I have noted – and had this confirmed by some of my colleagues in mid-Council ministry – that the circumstances of the pandemic and the parallel distress over issues of racial injustice, the upcoming election, and other factors have ratcheted up the stress level for many. Conflicts that are being experienced in some places today are perhaps being felt in a more intense way than if some or many of these other factors were not present.
Can we find our own Acts 8 response in the face of these things? Despite the shaking, can we carve out places of retreat and renewal, a solid rock to sustain us in the midst of travail? Can we look for and embrace new ways of being the church and sharing our faith and doing ministry that focus on hope and not fear? Can we begin to envision how we will move forward from where we are now to the new things that God will do in and through us?
October is here, and soon we will be in the midst of the holiday season. Many congregations are discussing how to “do Christmas” this year. Ideas are being shared during weekly Zoom meetings with pastors on Thursdays. Let us allow the coming seasons of Thanksgiving, Advent, Christmas and the New Year do what they are in part designed to do: create in us a spirit of thankfulness, and expectation of hope, and a season of renewed joy, love, and peace. May we celebrate our Lord and Savior, who still is in the business of making all things new.