Saturday, May 28, 2011

St. Philip, deacon and evangelist

Reading: Acts 8:5-17 (not chopping up the section as the lectionary does)

Thus Philip went down to (the) city of Samaria and proclaimed the Messiah to them. With one accord, the crowds paid attention to what was said by Philip when they heard it and saw the signs he was doing. For unclean spirits, crying out in a loud voice, came out of many possessed people, and many paralyzed and crippled people were cured. There was great joy in that city. A man named Simon used to practice magic 4 in the city and astounded the people of Samaria, claiming to be someone great. All of them, from the least to the greatest, paid attention to him, saying, "This man is the 'Power of God' that is called 'Great.'" They paid attention to him because he had astounded them by his magic for a long time, but once they began to believe Philip as he preached the good news about the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ, men and women alike were baptized. Even Simon himself believed and, after being baptized, became devoted to Philip; and when he saw the signs and mighty deeds that were occurring, he was astounded. Now when the apostles in Jerusalem heard that Samaria had accepted the word of God, they sent them Peter and John, who went down and prayed for them, that they might receive the holy Spirit, for it had not yet fallen upon any of them; they had only been baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus. Then they laid hands on them and they received the holy Spirit.

Another Sunday and another reading from the Acts of the Apostles about those whom we revere as the first deacons. Today we read about Philip, the deacon who went to Samaria and preached the Gospel. Of the seven men who on whose heads the apostles laid hands, setting them apart for service, that is, diakonia, in the sixth chapter of Acts, (i.e., Stephen, Philip, Prochorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas, Nicolaus), we only ever hear again about Stephen and Philip. It is interesting that Philip, who's ministry, like Stephen's, was not limited to serving at table, but seems to have revolved around him being something of a charismatic evangelist. He healed the sick, cast out demons, and apparently baptized, but he needed to go to Jerusalem and retrieve Peter and John to come and perform an ordinance that can only be likened to the sacrament of confirmation.

Philip is an interesting figure precisely because he was an evangelist. Fleeing the persecution of the nascent Christian Church unleashed in Jerusalem with the martyrdom of Stephen, Philip, along with his four daughters, relocated to Samaria. His four daughters are referenced in Acts 21. As he began to preach the Gospel, to heal the lame, and to cast out demons, he became the rival of a local miracle-worker, Simon. In his First Apology (chaps 26 and 56), St. Justin Martyr calls Simon "a magician," which for a Christian is a pejorative appellation, and notes that he was later revered in Rome as a god.

I like very much what commentator Loveday Alexander, writing The Oxford Bible Commentary says about Philip's challenge to Simon Magus:

the magician's powers may be real, but they fade into insignificance beside the powers of the gospel. The preaching of the word brings about not just a nine days' wonder, but belief and baptism, i.e., intellectual conviction and entry into a new community. The fact that the magician himself is impressed by Philip (v. 13) simply serves to highlight the gospel's power... (pg. 1038)

St. Philip, holy deacon and evangelist, pray for us

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