Leaving the Comfortable

Message preached January 14, 2001
Long Green Valley Church of the Brethren
Glen Arm, Maryland USA

based upon Acts 8:14-17, (see 8:4-25 lined out)

Order of Worship

Over the holidays, Karen and I finally splurged on something weíve been anticipating for a while - a new bed. I must confess that, though I wasnít as dissatisfied with our old mattress as my wife, the new one is wonderful. What a joy it is to lay down upon its comfortable surface. I do feel more rested in the morning. Of course, for Karen there is a second thing she desires for a good nightís sleep. That would be for me to follow through on my doctorís referral to a sleep clinic to deal with my snoring. I donít know, something about doing this makes me feel uncomfortable. Maybe itís the tales Iíve heard of persons afterward having to wear masks to bed. For my own health and my wifeís sanity, am I willing to leave the comfortable?

Leaving the comfortable ... thatís what Peter and John did when they were sent from Jerusalem to Samaria. These disciples of Jesus, now known as apostles, had earlier left behind some of their more bumbling ways as followers to become key leaders of the early church. Where we pick up their story, as told in the Acts of the Apostles, Peter and the others have moved in some very bold and remarkable ways. Empowered by the Holy Spirit, they have gathered a huge following. Furthermore, these former fishermen have stood before highly educated and powerful men and unabashedly spoken the truth with a daring that few would have predicted beforehand.

Iím reminded of an evening some of us gathered in the church library to receive training as mentors to our youth. Gina Miller, who many of us can still see as the little girl growing up in our congregation, blew our socks off as a confident, knowledgeable, and inspired trainer (though I know she might disagree). Sheís no longer only a learner, sheís a leader - an "apostle," as well as a "disciple." Call it growing into maturity. Call it the work of the Holy Spirit.

Back to Peter and John. They had become awesome characters in the story as weíve received it. Even so, they had yet to venture beyond the comfort of Jerusalem. Granted, this city of "Shalom," "Godís peace," was no easy location to do the Lordís work. Even so, God had much bigger plans for this band of Jesus people, a program that would break through the walls of this metropolis and eventually lead them to every corner of the earth.

The work in Jerusalem was, indeed, a big deal - so much so that the apostles called in reinforcements, persons who became known as "deacons." The primary task of these "deacons" was originally to pay attention to the widows and others who had not received adequate care from the apostles. However, from the very beginning these deacons couldnít be contained in a box. They transcended their calling. A fellow named Stephen immediately started preaching with an impact as great or greater than Peter. His words created such a stir that he worked himself out of a job, literally. The opponents of the Christians killed him. (see Acts 6:8-7:60 for more on him, or see "Lighthouse Ministry")

Then there was Philip, another deacon who did more than take meals to the elderly. He left Jerusalem altogether, at the prodding of the Holy Spirit, and headed into strange territory - Samaria. There he preached the good news and healed people. You may be aware that Samaria was not a place every good Jewish mother wanted her son to go. Think of the current clash between Jews and Palestinians and you have a flavor of the animosity that existed back then. Even so, God led Philip to Samaria and, lo and behold, some amazing things happened. People were turning to Jesus by leaps and bounds. It caused quite a stir.   (for more about Philip and a Samarian named Simon, see "Magic for Sale?")

When the church in Jerusalem heard about what was happening, they sent Peter and John to Samaria. Was it a "fact-finding mission," to see if God really was at work in that place long-considered God-forsaken? Were they sent to "follow-up" Philipís work? He was "only a deacon," after all. Was their mission to bring order to chaos, to clean up a perceived mess, to set things straight? Maybe all of the above, or possibly none of the above.

Whatever the reason, Peter and John were directed to leave the comfort of Jerusalem for the first time since the day of Pentecost, when God cooked up a mighty meal with the fire of the Holy Spirit. Upon arrival in Samaria, they discovered that the real Good Samaritan (God) was, indeed, at work. And they added their prayers, and "laid hands on them." As a result, these Samaritan Christians "received the Holy Spirit." (Acts 8:17)

Much has been written over the years on this, wondering why the Holy Spirit waited until Peter and John laid hands upon these people before blowing through their lives with a power greater than dynamite. Of the four instances in the book of Acts where people are said to have "received" the Holy Spirit in a dramatic way (2:2-4, 8:17, 10:44-48, 19:5-7) only two of them involve laying on hands (8:17, 19:6). Why here? Does this tell us something about how the Spirit moves in our lives? To be honest, Iím not convinced there is a specific order or sequence of events which determine how one receives the Spirit - like, does it happen before weíre baptized, during, or after? Are there stages of spiritual development that are the same for everybody? I donít believe so. God, after all, is free to act in whatever way is most fitting for each place and person.

I recently had an interesting insight into this scripture. A fellow wandered into our church, saying he had walked all the way out here from Baltimore looking for a construction job to offer his services... My eyebrow raised about as much as yours just did. To be honest, this man didnít seem to have every cylinder running, if you know what I mean. He also had his earthly possessions with him. As we talked, I learned he was currently staying in a shelter in Catonsville (the other side of Baltimore), and had taken the bus to Parkville. He didnít have a plan, or much of anything else for that matter.

For better or worse, I took him back to Parkville. I didnít know of any jobs out here. We ate together in Wendyís, before I got him back on the bus. "Jesus" did get mentioned. He said he knew him. He also said heíd been through a program called "Nehemiah House," where they very intentionally share the gospel and are tough in getting people on their feet. Unfortunately, for him it hadnít helped by the time his six months were up and he had to move out. I donít know why, though I have some hunches.

Iím not telling this story for you to see what a "good boy" I am, or how foolish I might be. Itís just that while we were sitting in the restaurant stumbling through small talk about life experiences, it dawned on me how important "touch" is in this world. I admit I didnít really want to touch this fellow. For one thing, who knows when he had his last bath, or what germs might be lurking on or in his person. But he was a human being like me, someone for whom Christ died. I didnít "lay hands on him," but we did touch. He took his gloves off and shook my hand as we parted. Hey, he didnít know what germs might be lurking in or on my person, either...

When Peter and John traveled to Samaria, they were headed into "unclean," "untouchable" territory. I really think the "laying on of hands" they did as they prayed was as much for them (Peter and John) and the church in Jerusalem, as it was for the believers in Samaria who then received the Holy Spirit. It was a connection. In the days and years ahead, the church would be called by God to reach out and touch people very different from themselves. They would need to really grow in leaving the comfortable. By the way, when Peter and John left that city where Philip had such a warm reception, they didnít head straight back to Jerusalem. Along the way home, they "proclaimed the good news to many villages of the Samaritans." (8:25)

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The Holy Spirit is described in a variety of ways in the Bible - fire, wind, power, teacher, presence, helper - to name a few. In all of these there is an element of personal touch. It is through the Spirit that we experience, some say "feel" God with us today. This touch is important. Without it we lack fire in our faith, there is no wind in our sails propelling us forward, we are powerless, unable to move. We need, all of us, individually and together, the touch of the Holy Spirit.

In Johnís gospel Jesus calls the Holy Spirit, whom he promises will come in his place, the "parakletos" (14:16, 26, 15:26, 16:7). This word is variously translated as "advocate," "counselor," "helper." The old King James Version, however, termed it the "comforter." Behind "comforter" I hear the promise of Isaiah, "Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that she has served her term, that her penalty is paid, that she has received from the Lord's hand double for all her sins." (40:1-2) I also hear Jesus say, "Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted." (Matthew 5:4)

Itís important to note as we use this term for the Holy Spirit, however, that when the King James Version originally translated "parakletos" as "comforter," this word had a slightly different meaning. To "comfort" was not necessarily to only weep alongside one who is weeping, or to warm up someone who has been out in the cold. "Comfort" of that variety is a big help, indeed - donít get me wrong. In an earlier era, though, to "comfort" was to "give strength," to "fortify" someone, to "empower" them such that they could stand up and do what God called them to do, as well as be what God called them to be.

In order to leave the comfortable, we need the "comforter." All of us. To put it a bit different, the touch of this "comforter," the Holy Spirit, fortifies us to leave the comfortable - to grow into maturity as Christians. To be honest, the faith we are called to live is not a "comfortable" faith. Jesus calls us to places we wouldnít ordinarily go, given our own inclinations. He calls us beyond ourselves. By the way, if we find something comfortable, faith-wise, thatís not necessarily an indication that this is the direction in which the Spirit of God is leading. So very often God is nudging us away from the comfortable, and into the arms of the Holy Comforter.

Now, this morning we come to the Lordís table. However, letís be clear that this table is not a comfortable mattress... Let me amend that slightly. The element of "rest" is part of this day. We "rest" in the Lord and are reinvigorated to get up and live out a new day. The "comfort" we find here is a "fortification" to leave the comfortable and step out by faith. In a sense, for this body of Christ, through the presence of God in the Holy Spirit this is a "com-fort-table." Here we receive from the Lord what we pass on to others, fortified to leave the comfortable.

(1 Corinthians 11:23-26, followed by Communion)


©2001 Peter L. Haynes

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