Belonging to God
Sermon by Rev. Brian Combs, 8/8/18
Evangelism, for many, is a four-letter word. Utter it in an elevator, at a casual dinner or on the street corner, and people will recoil emotionally, refuse to make eye contact and duck for cover. Regrettably, it has a reputation for turning the Bible into a declaration of war during times of conflict, a justification for the hostile takeover of native peoples and their lands, a rationale for saving the souls of people not like us.
In the original Greek, however, it simply means… messenger of Good News. Not coercive news, not judgmental news, not damning news, not hostile news, not bad news, but Good News. As evangelists go in the New Testament, Philip is the follower most unlikely to get his own cable access television show or be the face of a mega church.
Still, as the Spirit so often does, it is the least charismatic and least talented that is chosen to grow Christianity from a cult of Palestinian fishermen to a religion encompassing the ends of the earth. In this transitional text, where the Gospel begins to cross borders and widen its embrace, what do we learn about evangelism?
Acts 8:26-40 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.” (This is a wilderness road.) 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 and was returning home; seated in his chariot, he was reading the prophet Isaiah. Then the Spirit said to Philip, “Go over to this chariot and join it.” So Philip ran up to it and heard him reading the prophet Isaiah. He asked, “Do you understand what you are reading?” He replied, “How can I, unless someone guides me?” And he invited Philip to get in and sit beside him. 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. In his humiliation justice was denied him. Who can describe his generation? For his life is taken away from the earth.” The eunuch asked Philip, “About whom, may I ask you, does the prophet say this, about himself or about someone else?” Then Philip began to speak, and starting with this scripture, he proclaimed to him the good news about Jesus. 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?” He commanded the chariot to stop, and both of them, Philip and the eunuch, went down into the water, and Philip baptized him. 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. 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.
It requires very little talking since Philip only has one line.
It’s not about us, but about the Spirit’s leading.
It may include rejecting God’s word in the name of God’s welcome.
Geel, a small town in Belgium, is non-descript in every way. Rural and agrarian, its quiet citizens work the land in anonymity and obscurity. You’d bypass it on every map and every trip through Europe, except for the one thing. In Geel, you’ll never hear phrases like crazy, lunatic, deranged, mad, or psychotic. For the past 700 years, attempting to live out their Christian piety, this Finish town has implemented what’s become known as the “family care system.” After psychiatric patients were discharged from wards and unchained from asylums by the thousands, the citizens of Geel welcomed these men and women into their homes. After arriving, there was no discussion of diagnosis, no clinical workup, and no signed rehabilitation plan. Instead, an extra place setting was added to the dining room table, the spare bedroom was tidied up, and an invitation was extended to become part of the family. Helping with the field chores, raising the children, and vacationing together was strongly encouraged. When research psychiatrists showed up with their clips boards, they were astounded to find that far more than medicine or counseling, simply being included was by far the most therapeutic intervention of all.
While the Eunuch wasn’t mentally ill, he was spiritually sick. Although he had the Queen’s ear, the combination to the safe, and the keys to the chariot, he didn’t have the one thing he had been searching for his entire life. After being castrated as a boy, puberty never showed up and neither did his gender or his place. Because of his androgyny, the Eunuch spent his days being told in hushed guesses and blunt accusations who he was not.
Until he heard the Good News. When Philip stooped down and cupped a palmful of sandy water, he baptized the Eunuch into the sacrament of belonging. Washed away was the synagogue’s refusal to let him worship because of his genital mutilation; washed away was his exclusion into the chosen people; washed away was the uncertainty about his sacred worth. Through Philip’s faithfulness, we learn that evangelism has nothing to do with a strong-armed conversion agenda and everything to do with a radical acceptance into the family of faith.
Announcing the Good News that you are a child of God.
In response to dwindling worship services, shuttered Sunday school classes and declining relevance, mainline denominations have organized commissions, adopted recommendations, and ratified action plans. But to little effect. Although the Gospel isn’t a strategy, the Book of Acts offers us a faithful model of discipleship when the Spirit calls.
As messengers of Jesus, let us run to the nearest desert of estrangement where eunuchs toil in their rejection, declaring at the font and beyond that the Church is most Christian when it is perpetually becoming more Universal.