St. Philip and the Best-Laid Plans

In his 1875 poem “To A Mouse,” legendary Scottish poet Robert Burns wrote, “The best-laid schemes o’ mice an’ men / gang aft agley.”  Some sixty years later, John Steinbeck would paraphrase the lines to say “the best laid plans of mice and men often go awry” and take is as the title of one of his most famous works.  Taking nothing away from Burns or Steinbeck, Holy Scripture has a line which echoes the very same sentiment.  The Prophet Isaiah tells us,

“For My thoughts are not your thoughts,
Nor are your ways My ways,” says the LORD.
For as the heavens are higher than the earth,
So are My ways higher than your ways,
And My thoughts than your thoughts.” (55:8-9)

We can see these words ring to in the life of St. Philip the Deacon, also known as St. Philip the Evangelist.  Therein lies the first clue about the difference between our plans and God’s plans.

The sixth chapter of The Acts of the Apostles records that, as the Apostolic Church grew in Jerusalem, a complaint rose of from the “Hellenists.”  The Hellenists were those of Greek heritage who had become Jewish and, in this case, ultimately Christian.  The Apostles were both ethnically and religiously Jewish.  There was discord in the earliest Church because the Hellenists alleged that their widows were not being cared for in the daily distribution.  With this in mind, the Apostles declared, “It is not desirable that we should leave the word of God and serve tables.  Therefore, brethren, seek out from among you seven men of good reputation, full of the Holy Spirit and wisdom, whom we may appoint over this business; but we will give ourselves continually to prayer and to the ministry of the word.” (vv. 2-4)  In order to accomplish this goal, they chose Stephen, Philip, Prochorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas, and Nicolas to be the very first deacons in the history of the Church.

Truth be told, we know virtually nothing about the majority of these men.  Prochorus, Nicanor, Timon and Parmenas are never heard from again in Scripture and what little we hear from them in various church histories are conflicting and unreliable.  According to St. Irenaeus of Lyons and St. Hippolytus of Rome, Deacon Nicholas turned from the faith and began teaching the heresy mentioned in the second chapter of the Book of Revelations.  Many church fathers traced the heresy of the Nicolatians to the apostate Deacon Nicholas.

That leaves us only the Deacons Stephen and Philip, both of whom feature prominently in The Acts of the Apostles.   St. Luke tells us that St. Stephen “full of faith and power, did great wonders and signs among the people.   And they [the synagogue of the freedmen] were not able to resist the wisdom and the Spirit by which he spoke.” (6:8, 10)  St. Stephen then stands up before his accusers and gives one of the most amazing speeches in all of the Acts of the Apostles before being stoned to death.

After St. Stephen’s death, Saul began to “make havoc of the church” and, as a result, many of the Christians were scattered and went preaching the Gospel where ever they went. (Acts 8:3-4)  St. Philip was one of those who was scattered in the early persecution.  The remainder of the eighth chapter of Acts of the Apostles recounts St. Philip’s evangelical activities outside of Jerusalem.  The good deacon preached the Gospel in Samaria and converted Simon the Sorcerer; by the power of the Holy Spirit ran up to and overtook a chariot before converting and baptizing the Ethiopian eunuch (traditionally “founding” the Ethiopian Church); and finally he preached he was from Azotus to Caesarea where he remained.  The very next time we hear of St. Philip he is in Caesarea when St. Paul passes through that city on his way to Jerusalem.  There St. Luke makes reference to St. Philip being both one of the seven deacons, and evangelist, and the father of four virgin daughters who prophesied.  (21:1-9)

Consider the incredible ministry of St. Philip.  When he preached the Gospel in Samaria, “the multitudes with one accord heeded the things spoken by Philip, hearing and seeing the miracles which he did.  For unclean spirits, crying with a loud voice, came out of many who were possessed; and many who were paralyzed and lame were healed.” (8:6-7)  Sorcerers cast away their books at his preaching.  Empowered by the Spirit of God he was able to run in such a manner as to overtake a horse-drawn chariot, then was spirited away by God to a city 23 miles away!  All of this, keep in mind, from a man who was called to make sure that widows were getting their daily distribution of alms.

When God calls us, we have a plan for our lives.  When the bishop ordains us, he has a plan of our lives and ministries.  Nevertheless, God says, “My thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are My ways your ways.  For as the Heavens are high above the earth, so are My thoughts than your thoughts and My ways than your ways.”  We have every reason to believe that the Apostles were seeking the Lord when they selected these men to be the first deacons.  We might even go so far as to say that they were in consensus that it was the will of God.  Maybe it was the case that they could get seven men to agree to handle the alms distribution, but getting seven men to preach the Gospel until they were stoned to death, or to preach the Gospel in Samaria and Gaza and relocate their family to Caesarea was not quite so easy.  I know a pastor who has frequently said, “If I had known, all those years ago, where God was going to take me, there was no way I would have ever said yes to ordination.”

We think we know where we are heading and to what ministry we are called.  Sometimes we are right.  Then again, sometimes are thoughts and His thoughts are not quite on the same page.  Nevertheless, God also says, “I know the plans that I have for you, plans of blessing and not of evil, to give you a future and a hope.” (Jeremiah 29:11)  May we have the grace to lay aside our plans and follow through with the plans He has for us, just like St. Philip.

Holy God, no one is excluded from your love; and your truth transforms the minds of all who seek you: As your servant Philip was led to embrace the fullness of your salvation and to bring the stranger to Baptism, so give us all the grace to be heralds of the Gospel, proclaiming your love in Jesus Christ our Savior, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.

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