Pastor John’s sermon begins around the 21 minute mark.
I agree with St. Francis that we should “preach the gospel at all times, and use words only when we have to.” But what do you say when you have to? How do you talk about your faith to those who ask–your children, a workmate, a person from another faith, or a complete stranger.
The 21-year-old son of a very good Jewish friend of mine has been emailing me with these questions: Why do Christians call Jesus the “son of God?” What is up with the Trinity: I thought God was one. Do you believe in the resurrection?
Where do you start? Where do you start with young people who haven’t really grown up in church wanting to be baptized?
Several years ago Keith Logan and I led a 12-session small group called “Holy Conversation: Talking about God in everyday life.” It was based on the book of that name written by Richard Peace who is the professor of Evangelism and Spiritual Formation at Fuller Seminary.
The purpose of the small group was to become more comfortable sharing our faith and learning how to share the Gospel.
We practiced talking about Jesus, about Sin and Redemption, about Confession and Believing in Jesus.
What was refreshing was that each person was given complete liberty to talk about these topics in their own language and from their personal experience.
But each of us had to make a commitment to find a practice partner. This partner could not be a church member or spouse, or boyfriend – it had to be someone you knew who was not a churchgoer, not a professed believer.
As you can imagine, this caused a lot of tension. Many of us would rather talk about politics, money or sex than we would about Jesus, sin and redemption. We don’t want to push our faith upon someone else.
This morning’s reading in Acts invites us to enter into a narrative of two people talking about faith: a seeker – the Ethiopian Eunuch – and a proclaimer – Philip, who told him the Good News about Jesus. The Eunuch got so excited he stopped in his tracks to be baptized. Such was the power of Philip’s proclamation that it changed the Eunuch’s life. It gave him an answer for his deepest longing and he went on his way rejoicing.
I believe that the proclamation of Jesus Christ still meets the deepest longing of many and we should be honing our skills at listening to the longing and then inviting folks to connect their longing to the Good News of the love of Jesus Christ.
I suspect some of you are feeling some agitation.
- “I thought this was a socially progressive church!”
- “I thought we were inclusive and non-judgmental community.”
- “I thought this was an activist congregation.”
- “If I wanted to hear about the “saving love of Jesus” sin and redemption I would go to an evangelical church.”
Well, we are progressive (whatever that means) and non-judgmental. This is a socially-active and engaged congregation. But if we separate our action and our message from Christ, then our house is built on sand and won’t stand for long.
I believe that the Good News of Jesus Christ, the message of the Cross, the promise of Salvation, drives us to be the progressive, engaged, non-judgmental people we are.
So let’s unpack this scripture. If you have your Bible open them, or use your pew Bible. I love this story in Acts – there are so many intriguing details.
It opens with Philip heading down the road from Jerusalem to Gaza –Gaza has again been much in the news lately with the Palestinian protests and Israeli response. This is a real place.
Philip meets a Eunuch. Now parents, you may want to distract your children just for 30 seconds (having said that, they are all probably now attentive! It will be an interesting lunch conversation! “Daddy, what was pastor John talking about?”)
Like Varys on Game of Thrones – a Eunuch was a man who was set apart. It became the name of one who was castrated in order to guard the King’s harem of women.
This Eunuch was an Ethiopian so his skin was certainly dark – he was an African.
This Eunuch did not serve a King but served Candace who was Queen of Ethiopia – the Kandake of Kush. Candace was probably not a name but a title, and apparently there was a woman Amantitere who ruled Ethiopia in the 30’s and 40’s of the Common Era.
This Eunuch was returning from Jerusalem (where he had been worshiping) to Ethiopia. That is a long way to travel to worship. I know some of you drive here from Mentor, but this Eunuch had to make his way through Egypt and then through the Negev dessert. He might have been a Jew or a “God-fearer” who was attracted to Judaism. But this trip expresses some deep and compelling desire for an experience.
This is where it gets more interesting.
According to the priestly teaching in Leviticus, a Eunuch was unclean because he was not whole; he was deformed.
The prophet Isaiah (56:4) however, disagreed: “For thus says the Lord: to the eunuchs who keep my Sabbaths, who choose the things that please me and hold fast my covenant, I will give in my house and within my walls, a monument and a name better than sons and daughters; I will give them an everlasting name that shall not be cut off.” (pun not intended, I don’t think.)
Just goes to show you that religious folks have always disagreed about who is in and who is out; who is worthy and who is not, who is the “other” and who gets to make the rules and interpret God’s desires for humankind.
As you read your Bible it is very important to remember that the authors and editors of the various books are having a theological discussion, a biblical argument. Job is countering Ecclesiastes and Proverbs. The bible is NOT univocal – the Holy Spirit may inspire it all – but the spirit is stirring a rich diverse conversation not unanimity. Personally, I will always listen to prophet more than priest!
Philip runs over to the Eunuch’s chariot and asks him: “Do you understand what you are reading?”
I love Philip: curious, interested. Pay attention to that.
The Eunuch, like many of us who begin to read the Bible, has questions; it is not always easy. I think this verse in Isaiah may have a very personal meaning to him.
Like a sheep he was led to the slaughter,
and like a lamb silent before its shearer,
so he does not open his mouth.
In his humiliation justice was denied him.
Who can describe his generation?
For his life is taken away from the earth.
We don’t know the backstory, but it makes me wonder what this Eunuch experienced in Jerusalem. I wonder if he heard words of judgment from the priests of the Temple about his impurity, rather than welcome? Just as so many today hear judgment, obligation and guilt from many church pulpits.
I think the Eunuch saw himself in this passage from Isaiah: wealthy but humiliated, having a good job but feeling that justice was denied him; perhaps feeling alone, marginalized despite his status in the court. Feeling called and broken, drawn but distraught – looking for some good news.
Isn’t this the story of today–folks who are on the outside looking in? Individuals who live in the confusing and unsettled world of identity – seen as the “other,” “different,” “odd.” Living in the shadow land of competing expectations where you don’t know really where you belong, or who you are. It is hard – life is taken away from you.
Maybe this is your story – living in the in-between, successful in many ways and yet unsatisfied, looking, seeking, going long ways to find a place of belonging but all you feel is the “longing.” Where do you go, to whom do you turn for direction?
There was a son of a preacher once who was gay and his preacher father disowned him – would have nothing to do with him. The father said he was just being faithful to the words of scripture. The son began to take drugs, and several times attempted to end his life.
But by the grace of God he stumbled into a church that was led by a woman, a lesbian, who welcomed him and told him a different story about Jesus and his love. And the woman Isaiah preacher, this female Philip – interested and open – trumped the Levitical pastor-father. This man found Jesus again for the first time, and it saved his life – literally saved his life.
Edwin Markham once wrote a poem “Outwitted” about the power of the inclusive gospel of Jesus Christ that still saves lives and offers hope:
He drew a circle that shut me out-
Heretic, rebel, a thing to flout.
But love and I had the wit to win:
We drew a circle and took him in!
This is what Philip did – he told the good news of Jesus Christ and the Eunuch was set free.
The Jesus Christ I believe in, the Jesus Christ that this church seeks to serve and proclaim will outwit narrowness, will outwit exclusion, will outwit the false doctrine of hell. For the good news of the gospel of Jesus Christ is that love wins!
If we are going to grow this church,it won’t be because of a new Co-Pastor.
It will be because you are witnessing to the Lord Jesus Christ and are able to speak about the really Good News of God’s love.
This is not a competition. God doesn’t care if we have more or less members than the Baptists or the new contemporary church to which people seem to flock. It is not about converting Muslims or atheists.
The Good News of Jesus Christ is not about guilt, obligation, fear, or judgment – it is Good News after all, liberating news, transforming news.
We are just trying to help each other reach the point where our seeking meets the explosive power of a new identity!
This broken world is full of people seeking meaning. How are they going to understand the love of Christ unless you and I guide them in word and in deed.
So practice your elevator speeches!