Commentary on Acts 8:1-8
There is a saying that it is an ill wind that blows nobody any good. We can see an example of it in today’s reading.
The first half of today’s reading sets the stage for what is going to follow. First, it is linked to what has just gone before, the martyrdom of Stephen, followed by widespread persecution of Christians, which, in turn will lead up to the unexpected conversion of the chief persecutor, Saul.
The martyrdom of Stephen was followed immediately by a savage persecution of the infant community. A Pharisee named Saul was among the most dedicated attackers (in the name of God, of course), dragging people from their homes and tossing them into jail. It was the beginning of a phenomenon that has been the lot of Christians in many parts of the world ever since and down to our own day. Right now there are Christians in jail for no other reason than that they openly profess faith in Christ.
While the apostles remained in Jerusalem, many of the other Christians began to scatter to the countryside of Judea (the province in which Jerusalem was situated) and the neighbouring province of Samaria, just to the north. This was to inaugurate the second stage of the Church’s expansion; the third would begin with the establishment of Christian communities in Antioch in Syria.
The persecution seems to have mainly targeted the Hellenist Christians and it was this group, scattered by persecution, which gave the church its first missionaries. And we are immediately introduced to one of them – Philip. This, in fact, was the beginning of the great missionary outreach of the Church which has not yet come to an end in our own time.
The apostles, however, remained behind in Jerusalem. First, they would have been Aramaic-speaking Jews and, by staying behind, they gave encouragement to those in prison and would be a centre of appeal to those scattered. The Church in Jerusalem now effectively went underground – and not by any means for the last time.
However, the persecution in Jerusalem, we can see now, was a blessing in disguise. “It is an ill wind that blows nobody any good.” As a result of the persecution in Jerusalem, the scattered Christians were bringing their message to new areas. Eventually – often as the result of persecution – they would carry it to the very ends of the Roman world.
Among the fugitives was the deacon Philip. He was one of the Seven who, with Stephen, had been chosen for special ‘service’. He is now a full-blown evangelist, who preached the good news about the Messiah-Christ, healed the physically handicapped and drove out evil spirits. The result was that “the rejoicing in that town rose to fever pitch”.
Probably the reference is not to the town of Samaria, a Hellenistic city called at this time Sebaste, but to the whole province. And those who were being evangelised were ‘Samaritans’ in the Jewish sense of the word, that is, those related by blood and religion to but cut off from Israel’s community and deemed to be living in heresy. (See the scene between Jesus and the Samaritan woman in John 4:9ff.)
Again and again it has been demonstrated that it is when it is persecuted, when people want to wipe it out, that the Church finds new vitality and the courage to stand up for what it believes. It is when we are taken for granted and worse, even ignored, that we are in the greatest danger. It is then that we are in real peril of being marginalised and are no longer the salt of the earth or a city on a hill. That is what is happening in many prosperous parts of the world today.
What about the world and the society we are living in?