Commentary on Acts 8:14-17
The reading catches us up in the midst of a veritable whirlwind of events in the early post-resurrection church.
The simple newspaper-like report of the opening verse points us in two directions at once. We want to hear more of what has been so significant as to call for the “sending of Peter and John”; we anticipate hearing more of what the actions and effect of the visit of these signal leaders will be.
Reading only the few short verses of the assigned text is hardly enough to capture the emotions that carry this narrative. It will be helpful to read (not just once but several times) the rapid sweep of events that moves from Saul’s “dragging off both men and women” believers to prison (8:3) to Peter and John’s return to Jerusalem having preached the word and now still testifying to the good news along the way (8:25).
Two different kinds of noteworthy events accompany this preaching. One is signaled in the rounds of persecution that continue to scatter the young believers; the other belongs to the continuing response of those who are baptized upon hearing the good news of Jesus (8:12). It is striking that by the end of this section of the narrative (8:25) we no longer hear any mention of the persecutions, but only of the continuing success of the word.
Proclaiming the Word
Thus, in case there is any wonder why all the fuss and what motivates this narrative, the answer rests in the central focus of the reading, captured so well in its deceptively simple report: “Samaria had accepted the word” (8:14). The energy that authorizes, occasions, and empowers this narrative is clearly the “preaching of the word” (8:4). The power of that word of God in the face of all obstacles fairly breathes through this narrative. The proclamation of the “good news about the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ” cannot be deterred even by the threats of persecution that meet it on every front.
Linked to the baptismal theme of this day, some reflection on the power and promise of the word of preaching would be fruitful for the preacher, both in preparation and in the preaching of the good news itself. Though it might seem too simple, the lesson encourages a renewed confidence in the “good news of the word” to establish a place for its own hearing even in the face of obstacles of whatever kind that might seem to call for the preacher’s magical wit or rhetorical sleight of hand. This is after all the season of Epiphany and still the occasion for telling the good news of Jesus one more time.
The compelling companion to the preaching of the word is the overwhelming force of its effect on the hearers: “The crowds with one accord listened eagerly” (8:6). The most telling comment of the narrative on that effect is that “even Simon,” the popular worker of magic, and thus potentially the chief voice of opposition, is silenced by the power of the word (8:13). Simon believes and is baptized right along with the others.
All of this exciting promise in the preaching of the word now greets the apostles Peter and John as they arrive from Jerusalem. We might be permitted to wonder for a moment about what more they might be charged to do in response to the powerful events that have already transpired. Will they hop on the bandwagon and join in the excitement of a word that seems unable to be held in check, or will they bring with them some counsel of caution or restraint on behalf of the apostles at Jerusalem?
A Surprising Spirit
The answer comes swiftly in the second verse of the lesson. Peter and John seem to know exactly what is needed in this situation. Without hesitation they pray for all those who have heard the word and been baptized “that they might receive the Holy Spirit” (8:15). We are invited to join in the excitement that their prayers are answered and the people indeed do receive the Holy Spirit (8:17), though we receive no details regarding what the effect or the signs of the reception might be. Perhaps the silence intentionally leaves us to imagine on the basis of other portions of the narrative of Acts what the presence and power of that Spirit might be in the lives of this new community of believers.
What we are told in the narrative that lies beyond today’s assigned reading is the unpredictable and surprising effect that comes in the relapse of Simon. Simon now seeks to capitalize on the Spirit’s power and offers money for the rights to God’s gifts. Peter chastises Simon for this change of heart for the worse and calls for his repentance. A repentant Simon pleads to the apostles for prayer on his behalf that nothing evil befalls him. Though the narrative is silent about what eventuates, perhaps this silence is meant to suggest that his prayers are indeed answered.
What we do see in this narrative is a brief vignette of the role of the Spirit in the life of this new community. The Spirit is present and active from the beginning in the ongoing rhythms of repentance and forgiveness that will shape this community in its continual hearing of the good news of God’s kingdom.
Baptism in the Name
Amid all the power of preaching and response to the word that accompanies this narrative, there are some questions that continue to circle around the edges. It suggests that there is a power and a presence in this Word of God that precludes any facile parsing out of the rules for its management, even for the apostles. It is clear that power accompanies the preaching and the hearing of the word, and that powerful change will accompany the new beginnings of baptism. One of the signs of that change may be seen in the careful notation that it is “both men and women” who are included within the sweep of this new kingdom (8:12), just as it has been “both men and women” who have been threatened by the effects of the persecutions that sought to limit its reach (8:3).
But what of this baptism? And what of the associated Spirit? In response to the word of preaching these people had been baptized, but we are told that they had been baptized “only in the name of the Lord Jesus.” Is there still something more? Apparently so, since Peter and John now lay hands on them and pray that they might also receive the Holy Spirit.
We may be permitted to wonder a bit, especially when we note that in all the other instances in Acts where the “name” of Jesus and baptism are associated, there is no indication that such baptism is lacking in any way (see, for example, 2:38; 10:38; 19:5; 22:16). At Jesus’ baptism we hear of the Spirit’s presence and of God’s delight in a chosen Son. Yet we hear nothing as yet about where that Spirit will now lead this chosen One.
Perhaps this “addition of the Spirit” in this narrative instance now suggests that, even when having received the outpouring of God’s gifts in baptism, one should not be surprised to see that God’s Spirit still awaits with even more wondrous gifts for us. Such is the promise that will continue to accompany and empower this community and our communities of faith for the life and mission to come.