Exodus 34:29-35, Acts 8:26-39
February 9, 2014
Today’s story from Acts is the one where Philip tells the story of Jesus to this man from Ethiopia. Now, many thoughts have been offered about this man and who he was. Some say he was an actual convert to Judaism. He was reading from their scriptures when Philip approached him, so that seems to make sense. And Luke tells us that he had come to Jerusalem to worship. So whether he was a convert or not, he was certainly connected with Judaism in some way. He could have been one who practiced different faiths. We’re really not sure.
We do know that during the Passover, people would come to Jerusalem from all over. It was the duty of every good Jew to celebrate the Passover in Jerusalem at least once in their lifetime. And those who lived near enough would do so often. So every year at the time of Passover, there were great pilgrimages, and Jerusalem hosted people from many countries. Remember the Pentecost story. To the chagrin of many a lay reader, that story includes the names of the many places people had come from to be in Jerusalem that day!
Well, this man was from Ethiopia. That’s in Africa, for those of you who missed that day in your High School Geography class! And there’s no doubt he was from a different culture. Most likely he was a black African. And not only was he of a different culture, he was a high official in Ethiopia. He was a minister who was in charge of the Queen’s treasury! So most scholars agree that he was quite influential, and very wealthy! His “caravan” that day was probably large and very ornate! And amazingly, Philip ran right up to his chariot – probably to the chagrin of his body guards. (That’s the second time I’ve used that word “chagrin” today!)
Well, the reason I’m using this story for today is that I wanted us to think about outreach. Last week we talked about the kingdom into which we’ve all been called, how it’s a kingdom of joy and celebration. Now today I want us to think about how we in that kingdom reach out to the world. And when I think about that, I like to think about one of my favorite Apostles, this guy Philip.
We meet Philip at several places in the Gospels and the book of Acts. And almost every time we meet him – including this story for today – he’s bringing someone to meet Jesus. In John 1, for example, he meets Jesus, and then he goes and finds his friend Nathanael and tells him. Do you remember that? We read that story last week. Then in John 12, some Greeks had come to the Passover festival and they wanted to meet Jesus, this now famous rabbi. Jesus had just paraded into Jerusalem on his donkey and created quite a sensation. So these people wanted to meet him. Well, there were some who weren’t very happy about that. Greeks are Gentiles, and you know what the Jews felt about Gentiles! Even far into the book of Acts there was a lingering question about whether or not they would be included in this new faith!
Well, these Greeks came to Philip, and Philip went and found Andrew. And Philip and Andrew took these “outsiders” to see Jesus. And by the way, Andrew was also one who always seemed to be telling someone about Jesus. Again, in John 1, he met Jesus and then he went and told his brother Simon, who we now know as the more “famous” Apostle, Peter!
Well, in our story for today, Philip was told by the Holy Spirit to go talk to this man from Ethiopia. And he told him about Jesus. And let me ask you, isn’t that what outreach is about? If we’re followers of Jesus, isn’t it our mission to bring other people to meet him? That’s what we’re thinking about today.
A few weeks ago, we had our Recommitment Sunday where we rededicated ourselves to faith in Jesus Christ, and where we were “reintroduced to the waters of baptism.” Then, we had the Sunday when we “considered our call” – our call into the kingdom of God. Then last week we talked about how the kingdom is one of joy and celebration, and how we share that celebration in the family of God, the Church. Now today we consider how we as the Church share that kingdom with the world. (Do you see the progression here?)
Well, as we read these stories of outreach from the Bible, we often think, “Hey, these guys were the Apostles!” “It was different for them!” “They were led by the power of the Holy Spirit.” “They had the power of the Pentecost experience.” And then we wonder, how do we are to share the joy of the kingdom with the world? Everybody’s always scared of that idea. “Do I have to talk about my faith with strangers?” Or worse, “Do I have to talk about my faith with my family??” We’re uncomfortable with that, aren’t we? Sometimes we think that’s in the realm of “other denominations.” They do that. We’re afraid of the “E” word. “Evangelism.” It conjures up images of people on street corners, handing out pamphlets, and knocking on people’s doors. Maybe we’ve been approached by such people. (Maybe you’re sitting there thinking, “He’s not suggesting I should do this!”)
Well, it’s really not that scary. I just want to suggest two things to you today about reaching out and sharing the faith. The first is this. The simplest way to do that is to invite someone to church. Statistics show that an enormous percentage of people who come into churches – as opposed to those who are born into churches – are there simply because someone invited them. Not because they were approached on a street corner, or because a preacher asked them, or because they heard about it on the internet. (Although that kind of outreach is growing!) Something like 70 or 80 of the people who come into churches do so simply because someone asked them to come.
That’s not so threatening, is it? It’s pretty simple. Ask someone to come to church! Be thinking about who you might ask? Think about who you would simply tell about your church. If something is important or special or exciting to you, you tell someone about it, don’t you? The example I always like to use is, if you found the price of gas was really low at a certain station, you’d tell others about it, wouldn’t you? Well, if you’re church is a good thing to you, wouldn’t it follow that you’d tell others about that, too? Philip had “found the one,” he said. And he went and he told.
That’s one of the ways we reach out. But there’s another that’s very important, maybe even more important. One of the best ways we bring people close to Jesus is by the way we live our lives. Like I said last week, if we life lives of peace and grace and forgiveness with each other, it will be compelling to others. They’ll see the value in that kind of community, particularly in a world where it’s hard to find those things! But on the other hand, if they see us at odds with each other, they just may walk the other way. Like I said before, we need to be vigilant about that.
You know that people have said over the years that “the church is nothing but a bunch of hypocrites!” Well, I say, prove them wrong! Show them it’s not! Show in the way you live this life together that you are God’s people! Whether it’s as our group, or whether it’s simply the way you live your personal life, live in such a way that brings glory and honor to God. That will be compelling to others!
I don’t need to tell you that the Church is undergoing a great deal of scrutiny these days. Our conduct is being watched. Our basic assumptions are being questioned. We’re being told that we’re not responding to the needs of the world. And maybe we need to take a look at some of those things! I think we’re finding that we can’t simply say the same old words to the world that we’ve relied on for so long. We need to find new ways of saying what we believe and why we believe it.
And we need to prove it! We need to share the faith by showing the faith! That’s the theme for today. We need to live the things we believe. We need to be conformed to the image of Christ. And as I like to say sometimes, we need to be careful that we are not “marring his image within us.” And that’s not easy! We’re all going to blow it from time to time. But we cannot use that as an excuse to “not bother.” We need to strive to move forward, indeed to be changed each day, “from one degree of glory to the next.” People need to see that in us. It has been said, and you’ve heard me say it, that at any moment you may be the only Jesus someone might ever meet!
As Peter said in his first New Testament letter, we should “always be prepared to give an answer to anyone who asks about the hope that is within [us.]” And sometimes that means keeping things very simple. People don’t always need to hear a lot of theology, or even long explanations. Some questions we might have to answer, “I don’t know.” And there’s nothing wrong with that! But we still need to be able to communicate the simple truths.
The great theologian Karl Barth was able to do so. He was able to see past his many writings and all his teachings about the faith. He was able to see the simple truth. Perhaps you’ve heard this story. One of his students asked Barth if he could boil down into one sentence, all of his writings, including his multi-volume “Church Dogmatics.” (“Dogmatics” meaning “Strong Beliefs.”) And he said, “Yes.” And this was the sentence. “Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so.”
That’s the faith we share by showing it. That’s a great sentence to take with us today. We are the people of God! And that’s a good thing! That’s a great thing! God loves us, and his love is shown in that he sent us his Son! And Jesus came to show us how to live, and how to love as he loves us. Tell someone. Show someone. Invite someone!
Eternal God, indeed you call us into the community of faith. Help us to live so that the world will know that we are your people, and in such a way that brings glory and honor to you. Thank you for the example you sent in your Son Jesus. Help us to follow him in all that we do. For we pray in his name, Amen.