The Acts of the Apostles
The Experimental Church: Powered by the Spirit
“An Experiment in Evangelism” Click here for audio
Pastor Marty Raths
This fall we are making our way through the Acts of the Apostles. We have talked about how Acts and the Gospel of Luke are companion books, written by the same author, and meant to be read together because the church is meant to be the ongoing presence of Jesus, the body of Christ in the world in Paul’s words. So what we see in Jesus, we should also see in the church. There should be a resemblance of spirit between the two, between Jesus and his followers.
Jesus’ life and ministry and teaching provoked opposition, and there was opposition to the early church movement, both from without and from within. And the kingdom message that Jesus proclaimed was expansive. Jesus took it into new territory, crossing boundaries, overcoming barriers, building bridges, and we see this happening throughout the Acts of the Apostles as well, including in our story today.
An angel of the Lord tells Philip to head towards the road that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza. Luke makes a point of telling us that it was a “wilderness road.” In The Message Peterson translates it as a “desolate road.” In other words, this is a new stretch of road for Philip. That happens if we are faithful to the call of the kingdom. We will find ourselves in new circumstances, encountering new people, engaging new ideas. It happens again and again to the disciples in Acts, and it is happening to Philip now.
He is going into unfamiliar territory, and whenever we do this, the temptation is always that we will let our fears take over, and that is almost never good for our practice of the faith. As the church we are called to be the body of Christ in the world, but when it comes to being faithful to this call, nothing constrains us more than fear. Fear turns us inward, and it pulls us back. It makes us resistant to change, and it keeps us from taking risks for the sake of the kingdom.
There is a book called The Almond Tree by a Jewish American writer named Michelle Cohen Corasanti. In part it is a book about risking peace in a conflicted situation, and at one point in the book one of the characters says, “If you want the fruit, you must go out on the limb.”
Philip’s going out on the limb now. Instead of giving in to his fear, he has stepped out in faith, though he is not sure what is going to happen to him on this new stretch of road, where it is going to take him, whom he might meet along the way, what challenges he might face, or, more positively, what opportunities might present themselves.
I remember Donna and I being in a confirmation class once, and we asked the youth, “How does God help us to be better people, and more faithful disciples,” and one of the youth said, “By giving us opportunities.” I have never forgotten that response because it was such a good one, and one that was very much true. But it is also true that opportunities do not always just come our way. Sometimes we have to go out and meet them, and that is what Philip does. He has taken a risk. He has gone out on a limb by venturing into what is for him unfamiliar territory, when he comes upon a man who was prominent in the court of the queen of the Ethiopians.
“Go over to him,” the Spirit tells Philip. Here we go again. Jesus’ kingdom message is pushing another one of his disciples out beyond where they would have ever imagined themselves going. We have entered the lab again, and another experiment in church is being conducted, and this time Philip is conducting an experiment in evangelism.
Now there is a word that is sure to put fear into the hearts of many would be disciples of Jesus. Evangelism. Talk about taking us out of our comfort zone. Granted there is a lot of bad evangelism out there, evangelism that is manipulative, self-righteous, and judgmental. But too often we settle for doing no evangelism at all as a result. In his day Dwight Moody was a prominent preacher and evangelist, and once when he was criticized for his evangelism, he acknowledged that there might be better ways to do it. But then he went on to say to the one who had criticized him, “I still like my ways of doing evangelism better than your ways of not doing it.”
Evangelism is a part of the life of faith, if we believe that the news of the kingdom coming is good news. So let me try to take a little of the fear out of it. Revivals and door-to-door knocking and street-corner preaching notwithstanding, the most common reason why someone comes to a church for the first time is because someone they know invites them. Now that is not so hard, is it? Do we know someone who does not have a church family? How about inviting them to come to ours? Better yet, invite them to come with you sometime.
Then you can help to make them feel welcome here because this is the most common reason why someone comes back to a church a second time. They were made to feel welcome the first time. Again, that is not so hard, is it? Make people feel welcome when they come. Reach out to them. Introduce yourself. Invite them to come with you to the fellowship time. Introduce them to others. If they have small children, let them know about the nursery and Sunday school. Connect them with Patsy. Do the same with Abigail if they have youth in their family . . .
Philip’s encounter with the Ethiopian man gives us some other lessons in how we should approach others. When Philip comes up to the man, he hears him reading from the Book of Isaiah. The Spirit is already at work in this man even before Philip gets there. This man is already searching for something in his life, so much so that he has got the scriptures open. We should never assume things about others, about their faith or their lack of faith. Assume simply that the Spirit is already at work in others in some way. Wesley called this the prevenient grace of God, the grace of God going before us, always before us, working in our own lives and in the lives of others.
The religious writer J. Philip Newell recounts a time when he delivered a talk on the beginning of the Gospel of John where John writes “the true light that enlightens everyone was coming into the world.” He encouraged the gathered group to look for that light within themselves and to expect to see that light within others and within the wisdom of other faith traditions. After he finished, a Mohawk elder, who had been asked to comment on Newell’s talk, stood with tears in his eyes. Then he said, “As I have listened to you speak, I have been wondering where I would be today. I have been wondering where my people would be today. And I have been wondering where we would be as a Western world today if the mission that came to us from Europe centuries ago had come expecting to see some of this light in us.”
Now in sharing this story I am not implying that all faith traditions are the same, or that there is nothing distinctive or unique about our Christian tradition. I only want to illustrate what John Wesley meant by the prevenient grace of God.
This grace serves as a reminder to us that God is not constrained by the church, that the grace of God can work and does work beyond the confines of the church and beyond the confines of Christians. And this grace also serves as a corrective to the arrogance that has been so much a part of Christian evangelism through the years, the arrogance that has assumed that we alone have the light, and all others are in darkness. Our belief in the prevenience of grace makes for a far humbler approach, one that is evident in the actions of Philip. He hears the man reading from the scriptures, but he does not say, “Let me tell you what that means.” Instead Philip asks, “Do you understand what that means?”
There is such a difference in spirit between those two questions. The one assumes a position of superiority. I know, so let me tell you. The other assumes an equality of position. If you want, let us talk more about it. The one causes a separation, and the other invites a connection, and the man does just that, he invites Philip into his chariot, and they begin to talk about the scriptures and the good news of Jesus.
Jesus never forced the faith on others, and there is no forcing of the faith on Philip’s part either, and that is as it should be in our evangelism. The faith cannot be forced. Someone once compared the faith to a rosebud. Just try to force it open, force it to bloom before its time. We will just cause more harm than good, and an overbearing evangelism has harmed a lot of hearts.
Jesus once told a parable about a sheep that strayed away from the flock. I wonder if he ever imagined how many would leave not because they strayed away but because they were driven away by the arrogance of the rest of the flock, meaning the church. It was early on in my ministry when I realized how much of my ministry was going to be with people who had been hurt in some way by a graceless church. There are a lot of us out there, and it is only a gracious church that will bring us back, a church that does not make assumptions about others or force the faith upon others, but encourages others instead to respond to the ways that the Spirit is already at work in their lives./
As they were going along, they come upon some water, and the man asks Philip, “What is to prevent me from being baptized?” Now that is a really loaded question, and unfortunately in the history of the church the list of things that have been used to keep people out of the church’s fellowship is quite long.
There was a list then too that Philip could have used to justify his not baptizing this Ethiopian man. This man was a foreigner. As a eunuch, his physical condition was in violation of the holiness codes found in the Book of Leviticus. As an official to the queen of Ethiopia, he was loyal to the wrong sovereign. All these reasons, and many others as well, have been used through the years to justify keeping the likes of “those kind of people” out of the church.
But Philip is being guided by the Spirit here, as he has been throughout his entire encounter with this Ethiopian man. He knows that there is really only one question that matters when it comes to baptism. When Jesus first called Peter beside the sea, he did not ask him about his past, or the company he kept, or his occupation. He did ask him what he thought about the pressing issues of the day or what interpretation of the torah he favored, or whether he was liberal or conservative in his politics or his theology. Jesus asked him simply, “Do you want to follow me?”
It was evident to Philip from all that this Ethiopian man had said and done that there was nothing more that he wanted in his life than to follow Jesus. “What is to prevent me from being baptized?” he had asked. Nothing, Philip was able to answer, nothing at all. So he baptized him right there beside the road, and in so doing he helped to extend just a little more the frontiers of the kingdom coming, and to make room for one more at the table of grace. Amen.