Sermon for May 2nd, 2021
My favorite story in the entire Book of Acts is the one we get this morning: Philip and the Ethiopian Eunuch. It is such a brief little passage, and it is such a brief encounter between Philip, one of the first deacons of the church, and this unnamed Ethiopian, but I could spend days talking about it because there is just so much going on here. There are so many implications that can be drawn from this passage for how we, as disciples of Jesus, should be evangelizing and proclaiming the good news to the world; how we should be sharing the faith with all people and baptizing them into the body of Christ. We could draw all sorts of conclusions from this passage about what we as Christians need to be doing to grow the church, but I want to point you in a different direction first this morning. I want to draw your attention to something else. First, I want you to pay attention this morning to what God is doing to grow his church.
Take a closer look at that passage from Acts. It was an angel of the Lord that said to Philip “go down this road.” And when Philip had gone down the road that the angel had told him to go down, the Spirit of the Lord told him to “go over to this chariot and join it.” And after Philip and the Eunuch have their encounter, and the Eunuch is baptized, it is the Spirit of the Lord that snatches Philip away and sends him off to preach somewhere else. You know, it’s almost like God has something to do with this! Like maybe God has his thumb on the scale with helping the Church out.
It was God who told Philip to go down this road. It was God who told Philip to go and talk to this person. And eventually it is God that tells Philip that it is time to move on and preach to other people. God is directing the action here. Yes, Philip has a role to play. Philip needs to be obedient to God. Philip needs to go where the angel or the spirit direct him to go, and Philip needs to have the courage to speak when it is time for him to speak, but I doubt that Philip woke up that morning with a grand plan to evangelize the Ethiopians. This encounter was a part of God’s plan, not Philip’s. Philip wouldn’t have imagined it. God is directing Philip here and Philip’s success comes directly from his ability and willingness to listen to God.
Philip wasn’t a biblical scholar. There is no evidence here to suggest that he was rich, or that he was a charismatic speaker; we don’t know what he looked like: if he was handsome or charming…we don’t know any of that. What we know is that God said go, and Philip went. Philip didn’t have all the answers, but there was one thing that he had supreme confidence in, and that was that Jesus was the messiah. As far as Philip was concerned that is the only answer that matters. Philip doesn’t have all the answers, but he knows who does…Jesus. Jesus doesn’t just have the answers; he is the answer. Philip knows that Jesus is the answer, not just to the Eunuch’s question about scripture, but to all of the Eunuch’s questions; all of his struggles and pains and hopes; Philip knows that the answer to all of that is the man who died and rose again. The man who forgives sins and defeats death. Philip knows that Jesus can change this man’s life. Philip knows that Jesus can give him a new life, a life that is about more than just guarding other people’s riches; a life where you aren’t forced into slavery and mutilated along the way. Philip doesn’t have much power to help this man, but he knows that Jesus has unending power. So Philip, as a follower of Jesus, has one job. One Job. And unlike all those other people in the world that have one job and can’t seem to do it, Philip does his job. Philip’s job, Philip’s one job, is to connect people to Jesus. That’s it. Philip’s one job in his encounter with the Eunuch is to connect him to Christ, and he does his job. And you’ll notice that the moment Philip does his job, God moves him on and basically says, OK, I’ll take it from here.
And the Eunuch goes his way rejoicing and Philip is moved by the spirit off to preach the gospel somewhere else. All Philip needed to do was to point this man to Jesus. Philip needed to connect him to Jesus; once that relationship was made, the Eunuch is going to get his nourishment and sustenance from Jesus. Jesus will answer his questions.
You know, Episcopalians are notoriously bad at evangelism, or sharing our faith, and I think that one of the reasons why, is because we are afraid that someone might ask us a question that we don’t know the answer to. What does this scripture mean? Why do you cross yourself here? Why do some Christians do this and some Christians do that? We don’t want someone to ask us a question that we don’t have the answer to, so we avoid the situation by not talking about our faith at all.
But we don’t have to have all the answers. We don’t have to know every scripture by heart or know every answer to every question about our faith, as long as we know that the ultimate answer, to all of it, is Jesus. We just have to connect people to Jesus. That is our job. He will help them find the answers. He is the answer. Our problem is not lacking knowledge, it is lacking courage. Lacking courage to go when God says go and to speak when God says speak. We get so caught up in our plans and in our strategies for growth and in trying to figure out how we are going to grow the church and draw in new members and attract new families, and on and on and on, and we forget that God is playing an active role in all this, and God may not care one bit about your plans. Listen to God; go where he sends you, share your faith with those you meet along the way, and most importantly, connect people to Jesus! Do not forget that God has his thumb on the scale and he is trying to help us, we just have to be willing to listen and to know that even if we don’t have all the answers, we know the one who does.
Over the past two thousand years, some of the most brilliant minds in history have written some deep, powerful, mystical, complicated stuff about Christianity, and Christian theology, and scriptural interpretation. The reality of God and the mystery of what Christ did on the cross and the implications of his resurrection, all these things are probably far more profound than what you learned in Sunday School as a kid. The Christian faith is not a simple religion and I am not at all in favor of dumbing it down. I think we still need to use our greatest minds to grapple with the truths that God has revealed to us, just like we always have. But you don’t need a Master’s degree to start your Christian journey. You shouldn’t have to have a diploma in theology or scripture to become a baptized part of the body of Christ. As far as I am concerned, if you can come to me and in good faith make the responses in our prayer book that are a part of the baptismal service, if you can reject Satan and the evil forces of this world and if you can affirm to follow Jesus Christ as your Lord and saviour and if you can affirm a belief in the Church’s faith as the creed states it (even if you don’t completely understand every word just yet), well as far as I am concerned, that’s good enough, let’s find some water and get you baptized. We don’t need to make joining Christ’s body needlessly hard for people. Now following Jesus, that is a life-long endeavor. And I would expect that if you are a sincere follower of Jesus that prayer, and serious study, and scripture reading, and acts of charity and mercy will feature prominently in your life, but God didn’t wait for us to love him before he loved us. If we are waiting for people to become expert Christians before we encourage them to join the fold, then our churches are going to be very empty indeed. God is already at work in people’s lives, leading and directing them to his son long before they figure it out and respond. God wanted that Eunuch in his church, that is why he leaned on Philip and tipped the scales to make that encounter happen. God wants people in his church and we can either facilitate that process or we can be a barrier to it.
You don’t need a master’s degree to become a baptized Christian, and guess what, you don’t need a master’s degree to become an evangelist either. You don’t need every answer to every question about theology and scripture. You just need the conviction that Jesus is the answer and the conviction that he wants people that are outside the church to be inside it. Don’t worry about knowing what to do or what to say. The truth is, it may not be your job to bring someone to the beatific vision of the heavenly throne. It may not be your job to bring them to a complete understanding of God and Holy Scripture. Your job might be just a momentary encounter with someone, planting a seed, redirecting someone, setting them down a path, telling them that I think the answer is this way, this is where I found God, this is who the messiah is. That may be all that God wants you to do. You have to trust that God has a hand in this too.
What do you need to make a new Christian? What you need is some clean water and a person with a desire to follow Jesus. That is what you need. That is when you graft a new shoot onto the vine that will give them life. What do you need to be an evangelist? You need faith that Jesus is the answer and you need the courage to listen to the Holy Spirit. That’s it.
Friends, we as the church, are all called to be evangelists, not all in exactly the same way, but every one of us is called to connect and direct other people to Jesus Christ. We, the church, have one job to do, and we had better get busy doing it.