Read Acts 8:26-40
There’s an imaginary story in which the angel Gabriel asks the Risen Jesus what his plan is for carrying the message of God’s love to the whole world. Jesus explains that he has asked his disciples to carry that message wherever they go. As others hear and respond, they will carry that same message to others, until the whole world knows of his love. Gabriel then asks Jesus, “But, Lord, what happens if the disciples go back to fishing, or forget, or get busy with other things? What’s your plan ‘B’?” And Jesus replies, “I haven’t made any other plans. I am counting on them.”
That story reminds us of our responsibility to be witnesses to the grace we have received in Jesus Christ, but it leaves out an important truth that Jesus emphasized in his final words to his disciples. That truth is the help of the Holy Spirit! We heard this promise a few Sundays ago, in our reading from Acts, chapter 1. Jesus promised his disciples, “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses.” Jesus never intended that we should undertake such a mission on our own strength. The risen Jesus promised to be with us is through his Holy Spirit. Jesus will give us his strength and his help.
This morning, we hear about the experience of one follower of Jesus, named Philip, who with the help of the Holy Spirit entered into a life-changing conversation with an Ethiopian eunuch.
In this story, the work of the risen Jesus, through his Holy Spirit, is evident in four ways. The first is found in verse 26 of our reading: “Then an angel of the Lord said to Philip, ‘Get up and go toward the south to the road that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza.” Say these words after me: “Get up and go!” …. The risen Jesus sends an angel to call Philip to ‘get up and go,’ because Jesus has work for Philip to do. And Philip obeys.
The early Christians understood that Jesus wanted them to enter into the turmoil of people’s lives. David Bosch in his book, A Spirituality For The Road, (1) distinguishes between what he calls the Pilgrim’s Progress Model and the Jonah Model of Christian discipleship. The Pilgrim’s Progress model views the world as a threat and contagion from which Christians must keep themselves untainted. To be a Christians means to retreat from the world.
The Jonah Model, on the other hand, suggests that our calling is not a flight from this world, but rather a being sent by God into this troubled world. Jesus lived by the Jonah Model. This is the work of the risen Jesus in our lives, to call us to “get up and go” into the world and enter into the hurt of people’s lives.
And then we read, verse 29, “Then the Spirit said to Philip, ‘Go over to this chariot and join it.’” Say this word after me, “Conversation!” …. The Risen Jesus sends us to enter into caring conversation with others.
This Ethiopian was obviously seeking a sense of purpose and meaning in his life. He had been to the Temple in Jerusalem; he was reading from the prophet Isaiah.
Notice here how Philip is led by God’s Spirit. Philip does not begin his conversation with this Ethiopian by delivering some speech or sermon. Rather, he sees the man reading a scroll from sacred scripture and Philip is led by the Spirit to simply ask, “Do you understand what you are reading?” Our calling is not to approach people like door-to-door sales people hawking our wares! Ours is the task of letting the love and compassion of the Risen Jesus shine through us, so that our Lord can communicate with the heart that longs to hear.
A poet by the name of Beatrice Cleland expressed this calling of letting Jesus shine through us in a poem titled “Indwelt,” which goes like this: Not merely by the words you say, Not only in your deeds confessed, But in the most unconscious way Is Christ expressed. For me, ‘twas not the truth you taught, To you so clear, to me still dim, But when you came to me you brought a sense of Him. And from your eyes He beckons me, and from your heart His love is shed, Till I lose sight of you, and see The Christ instead.
To be a witness to our Lord Jesus, means first, simply to be available, to be in conversation with others.
And then, we read in verse 34, where the Ethiopian asks Philipp, “About whom, may I ask, does the prophet say this, about himself or about someone else?” Say this after me, “Communication!” Our risen Jesus, through his Holy Spirit, helps us to communicate the life changing news of Jesus and his redeeming love.
Christianity is a life where the Spirit helps us: to know the incredible grace and mercy of God in his Son, Jesus, to believe the amazing promise of God in sending his Son to heal and redeem our brokenness and the brokenness of this world, and to participate in ways that we are able in a through the church in that mission of healing and redeeming this world.
It was the Holy Spirit, who awakened the Ethiopian’s heart to the life changing news of Jesus and his love. Philip was simply there to name it, to give words and language to what was already there. The Spirit prepares the way and sends us to communicate the life-changing news of Jesus.
And then, one more – verse 36: “As they were going along the road, they came to some water; and the eunuch said, ‘Look, here us water! What is to prevent me from being baptized?’”
Say this word after me, “community!” The work of the risen Jesus is to draw us into community.
When Philip baptized the Ethiopian, that man became part of the community of the church. The Christian life was never meant to be a private affair “between me and the Lord.” Our Lord Jesus calls us into fellowship with one another, and in that community of faith we experience forgiveness, love, and all the fruits of the Spirit. Our risen Jesus unites us with others who have experienced that same gift of amazing grace.
Author Ernest Gordon gives a great illustration of this in his book, Through The Valley Of The Kwai. He tells of his experience with other soldiers in a Japanese prisoner of war camp during WWII. The prisoners, starved and tortured, reduced to skeletons, riddled with disease, survived by the law of the jungle. They hated, cursed, stole from one another, and watched each other die without even lifting a hand to help.
Then, Gordon describes a spiritual awakening that took place in that jungle hell. A few of the prisoners, who had been studying Mark’s Gospel, were inspired to start worshipping together. It was not really a church in the usual sense, but a simple worship space in the prison camp. Increasing numbers of prisoners gathered to worship as this re-awakening of faith brought about a miraculous change in the morale of the prisoners.
Suddenly, people began to care for one another and to share what meager supplies they had. Gordon writes, “Ours was truly a Church of the Spirit. It was the throbbing heart which gave life to the camp and transformed it from a mass of frightened individuals into a community of faith. From this community, we received the inspiration that made life possible. It seemed to be a gift of the Holy Spirit that enabled us to live nobler lives and to survive in a place where human strength was simply not enough.”
The New Testament makes it clear that the identifying mark of the Church is the presence of the risen Jesus, through his Holy Spirit. If the Church is to be renewed, it will come through a renewal of this understanding of the activity of our risen Lord in our lives. It is our risen Jesus who calls us to “get up and go” and get involved with a broken and needy world. It is our risen Jesus who calls us to enter into conversations with others. It is our risen Jesus who leads us to receptive hearts, where we might have opportunity to communicate the life changing news. It is the risen Jesus who draws us into a community of faith, where we get fed and nurtured, supported and strengthened to participate in Jesus’ mission.
With the help of his Spirit, we are his witnesses. Let us answer his call, and let us participate in his mission in and through this church. Let us pray…