I’m using up a bunch of our Holy Spirit songs today, which are usually sung on Pentecost. But in my defense, it would be difficult to preach through the book of Acts, as we are doing in this series, without being drawn to hymns about the Holy Spirit. Tradition has titled this book of the Bible The Acts of the Apostles, but as historian and theologian Justo Gonzalez observes, it would be more aptly titled The Acts of the Holy Spirit—for whatever notable actions are taken by the Apostles in the course of the story, it is almost always the case that prior to their acting, the author indicates that the Apostles are filled with the Holy Spirit, so that we might rightly interpret that it is the Spirit acting through the great fathers of the Church in order to bring about the kingdom of God—the New Creation.
There is an important theological point behind this observation, which we have made over and over in recent weeks, but which bears repeating still:
If it contributes to salvation, it is the activity of God.
Humans can and should participate in God’s saving activity,
but it is properly God’s activity.
To claim it as our own is always to be blind concerning God
and delusional concerning self.
There is a common phrase that gets at this idea—has everyone heard of a Messiah Complex—as in, this new minister sure does have a messiah complex?
The phrase is used by all manner of folks, religious or otherwise, but it implies a particularly Judeo/Christian idea—that while a person may think of himself as the long awaited savior of the world, or of the church, or of another person, such thoughts are, with only one exception, delusional.
If you were here last week, you probably remember, we talked about a practice of some groups of evangelical Christians called witnessing—going out and talking to people who are presumed to not be Christians, about Jesus in the hopes of converting them to Christianity.
One of the many critiques I have of this type of evangelism is that it has a tendency to be blind to the activity of God and delusional about the ability of an evangelist—even a very faithful and gifted evangelist—to save the human soul.
Even so, at the end of the sermon we read from the Presbyterian Book of Order, the Ministry of Members section, which helped clarify the point of the morning—that to be a Christian is to be an evangelist—it is, for Christians, a universal responsibility of our faith to proclaim the good news of Jesus to the world in which we live.
In other words, we promoted evangelism in general as befitting of Christian people, while also critiquing it in one particular form that I have suggested is not befitting of Christian people.
This morning we’ll try to answer the next logical question: if evangelism is a necessary part of being a Christian, and if we can say that it shouldn’t be done a certain way, then how should it be done? What form should Christian evangelism take? What are its particular elements and limits?
For a biblical response to these questions, we turn again to the book of Acts, praying that the Holy Spirit would illumine our hearts and minds with a life-giving Word. Let us pray.
SECOND Reading Acts 8:26-40
26 Then an messenger of the Lord said to Philip,
"Get up and go toward the south to the road
that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza." (This is a wilderness road.)
27 So he got up and went.
Now there was an Ethiopian eunuch,
a court official of the Candace, queen of the Ethiopians,
in charge of her entire treasury.
He had come to Jerusalem to worship
28 and was returning home;
seated in his chariot, he was reading the prophet Isaiah.
29 Then the Spirit said to Philip,
"Go over to this chariot and join it."
30 So Philip ran up to it and heard him reading the prophet Isaiah.
He asked, "Do you understand what you are reading?"
31 He replied, "How can I, unless someone guides me?"
And he invited Philip to get in and sit beside him.
32 Now the passage of the scripture that he was reading was this:
"Like a sheep he was led to the slaughter,
and like a lamb silent before its shearer,
so he does not open his mouth.
33 In his humiliation justice was denied him.
Who can describe his generation?
For his life is taken away from the earth."
34 The eunuch asked Philip,
"About whom, may I ask you, does the prophet say this,
about himself or about someone else?"
35 Then Philip began to speak, and starting with this scripture,
he proclaimed to him the good news about Jesus.
36 As they were going along the road, they came to some water;
and the eunuch said, "Look, here is water!
What is to prevent me from being baptized?"
38 He commanded the chariot to stop,
and both of them, Philip and the eunuch,
went down into the water, and Philip baptized him.
39 When they came up out of the water,
the Spirit of the Lord snatched Philip away;
the eunuch saw him no more, and went on his way rejoicing.
40 But Philip found himself at Azotus,
and as he was passing through the region,
he proclaimed the good news to all the towns
until he came to Caesarea.
Sermon On Agency
My wife Christin, until this past week, had never seen the movie The Godfather, which, her sister informed her, was a sin against the American Film Industry as well as against her own acculturation … and so in three different sittings last week, Christin and I watched the Godfather together. If you know the movie well, you probably remember one of the striking features of the film is the contrast in volume from one scene to the next, which forces people watching at home to either wake up their sleeping babies during the loud scenes, or talk over half of the dialogue saying “What did he say? I can’t hear Don Corleone.”
As you can imagine, we chose the latter, despite the fact that Christin doesn’t hear well because of her very small ears. And so she would occasionally ask me to repeat, saying something like, “What was that last word?” to which I responded, “Well you see, the big man, Luca Brasi, is like Don Corleone’s muscle, and another Mob family is trying to steal some of the Corleone business, and so the Don is getting Luca to pretend he’s looking for a new family in order to try and get some information about the other Mob family’s plans.”
And then Christin very calmly and sweetly would say—Will, I just asked for the last word of the scene, which, by the way, you still haven’t told me … that was hardly an invitation to mansplain.
For anyone who may not be familiar with this lingo, mansplaining is when I assume ignorance on the part of the person I’m speaking with, and so take it upon myself to explain, even though no indication was given of a need for explanation.
It’s called mansplaining because, well, it is a behavior far more typical of men, and especially when speaking to women. And it matters that we are conscious of it in its own right, but for this morning’s sermon, it matters especially because the same exact offense can apply to our evangelistic efforts.
Countless Christian people, myself regrettably included, have in an effort to spread the good news, assumed the ignorance of people who are not Christians, and uninvited, have taken it upon ourselves to explain why their religious beliefs are wrong, or why their life choices are wrong, and ours are right.
And furthermore—to bring messiah complex back into the mix—all this done in the belief that my particular expression of religious devotion is what finally saves people, saves the church, saves the world! — that if another person’s faith, or another congregation’s faith, or another culture’s faith is to be effective it must look and sound like my faith; my church; my culture.
The story of Philip and the Ethiopian Eunuch, I think, will disabuse us of these presumptions.
The best definition for evangelism I think I’ve ever heard begins with the words “At their invitation”—
Evangelism is, at their invitation, joining in a conversation that the Holy Spirit is already having with another person.”
Notice when we encounter Philip in chapter 8, he isn’t just out searching for people to convert, is he? No, Philip is instructed by the Spirit to go to a certain place. So he goes. And while in this place—on the road that runs between Jerusalem and Gaza—Philip sees a foreign man; a servant of the Queen of Ethiopia, reading the Hebrew scriptures … but Philip doesn’t run over to him and start talking about Jesus—he listens for the Spirit of God. And the Spirit of God says, go join up with that chariot.
And so Philip goes over … but he doesn’t hop up in the chariot. He respects this man’s space. And observing that the book the foreign man is reading is a book of Hebrew scriptures, and himself being a Hebrew, Philip asks the man a question, as we do in polite conversation:
I see that you’re reading the prophet Isaiah; do you understand what you’re reading?
And the foreign man says No, but if someone were to explain it to me, I might.
Notice, Philip doesn’t say, “Well boy are you in luck—I’m just the guy for the job” … but it is the eunuch who invites Philip to join him in his chariot. And so, having received invitation from both the Spirit of God and the Ethiopian Eunuch, Philip gets in and sits down for a conversation.
But notice, he doesn’t start talking about all the stuff he knows … he waits for the eunuch to catch him up on his own experience so far: “Here’s the passage I’m struggling with:
"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.
”Who is this written about?” the eunuch asks.
See, it is only now—in response to a question—that Philip begins to share with this person the particular details of his faith in Christ Jesus, the one who was humiliated—who’s body became the bearer of grave injustice; who’s life, first given to earth by God, was taken away by sin and death. But sin could not defeat, nor death hold the life of God in Christ, given to the world that we too may be freed from the taking-power of sin and death.
Philip shares his own faith—he bears witness to his own experience and understanding of what God has done and who God is … but even still, it is not Philip who insists that the man be baptized … he doesn’t even suggest it.
We’ll come back to that in a minute, but notice, at every step in the evangelistic process Philip respects the man’s space, his intelligence, his autonomy—He listens more than he speaks—he takes for granted the full and equal humanity of this foreigner—this eunuch—the non-Christian.
It could hardly be called good news if done any other way, for any so-called evangelism that does not respect the personhood of the other is just another -ism. The man is a foreigner, but the good news is that he belongs wherever is the found the family of God. He is a eunuch—we’ve been using masculine pronouns because that is what the scripture uses, but the reality is that as a eunuch, this person was accepted as neither male nor female … but the good news is that in the sight of God and God’s people he is fully human and that is all that matters.
Philip embodies this good news in his relating to the Ethiopian Eunuch. And having received what felt to him like good news—what was experienced by him as being good news—the foreign man in all his particularity and difference is receptive to Philip’s faith. So receptive that he insists upon being baptized immediately—binding his life to the humiliated one, sharing in that terrible death about which he had read, that he may also share in that glorious new life, of which Philip just spoke, by the power and at the instruction of the Holy Spirit.
That Philip is immediately snatched away after the baptism suggests that the Ethiopian does not need to be trained in Philip’s version of Christian faith. There can be no Messiah Complex here, for the Spirit of Christ who descends to the Eunuch at his Baptism remains with him, and is sufficient as the only agent of his salvation. It is rumored that after his baptism, the Ethiopian Eunuch returns to his hometown to become an evangelist.
And this should not surprise us. For the same Spirit, who descended to us at our baptism—who is sufficient as the only agent of our salvation—calls us forth to make that salvation known throughout the world, proclaiming the good news in word and deed that in Christ, you belong; In Christ you are accepted and beloved exactly as you already are. In Christ no sin, nor death, nor hell can steal your hope, your peace, your joy, your love.
Thanks be to the witnesses, but even more so, to the God who calls them. Amen.