Empowered to Share: Practicing With-ness
May 14, 2017
A children’s choir was performing a special Easter anthem as a part of their church’s Easter Sunday celebration. When the song was finished, a little boy had been assigned to step out and recite Jesus’ words in the Gospel of John, where Jesus says, “I am the Light of the World!” The little boy stepped out on cue, but suddenly froze as his mind went blank, with all those faces staring at him. Fortunately, his mother was sitting in the front pew, and she leaned in and whispered her son’s line: “I am the Light of the World.” The little boy regained his confidence, stood up straight, and belted out, “My mother is the Light of the World!”
There are many of us who share this little boy’s sentiment as we celebrate our mothers and the other special women in our lives today. But as wonderful as these women may be, there is only One who is the true Light of the World. His name is Jesus, the Crucified and Risen Lord who is on the move in the world. And as John the Baptist reminds us, we are all called to be witnesses of this Light, to testify to him.
We’ve seen examples of these witnesses throughout the book of Acts. We’ve met ordinary Christ-followers who, empowered by the Holy Spirit, were emboldened to be courageous witnesses: Stephen who was martyred for his faith when he stood before the Jewish religious leaders and gave testimony to the risen and reigning Christ, and Ananias, this unassuming disciple who was flexible and available to God and was sent to pray over Saul of Tarsus.
Today we meet another one of these ordinary Christ-followers named Philip. Philip is first introduced with Stephen in Acts 6, and was one of those deacons who helped care for the widows in need. Then the Holy Spirit led him to the city of Samaria to preach the good news among the Samaritans. But the Spirit is not done whisking Philip about. Just wait to hear where the Spirit leads him next. Listen to this story from the book that we love, found in Acts chapter 8. Recite Scripture.
Drawn into the Story
Well, nothing says “Happy Mother’s Day” quite like a strange story in the Bible about a eunuch in a chariot! This is a strange story, indeed! And yet it is also a wonderful story, full of so much insight and wisdom. Especially as we think about what it means for us to share our faith in our own lives here and now.
I want to invite you to crawl into this story with me this morning, to find yourself in company with Philip. Wonder with me: what might we learn, from inside this story, about what it means to bear witness to the hope of our hearts?
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 the wilderness road). The first thing we learn, and this is the most important, is that sharing our faith is ultimately God’s work from beginning to end. God is the central actor in this story. Philip has a part to play, but it is in a supporting role!
An angel of the Lord, which in the Bible refers to God’s presence, is the One who calls Philip to act. God initiates this whole thing that is about to happen. God issues the call, gives the directions, and will be the One who empowers Philip to share. This theological conviction is at the heart of any kind of ministry we do. It is not ultimately about us! It is always about God and how God is already at work.
And where does God call Philip to go? Toward the south to the road that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza. That’s as much detail that Philip gets at this point. He doesn’t know why God is calling him to go this place, or what will happen when he gets there. It’s a strange, unexpected place—a dangerous place. This is the same road that the Good Samaritan travels on in Jesus’ parable—a dangerous road that was a den for robbers and thieves. And yet this is the place God calls Philip to get up and go to.
How does Philip respond? So he got up and went. Like Ananias last week, Philip is flexible and available to God. He is listening to God. And when the call comes, even though he isn’t given much detail, he responds with obedience. He goes.
And once he gets there, he happens to meet the most unexpected person—an Ethiopian eunuch who was a court official for the queen of the Ethiopians. As an Ethiopian, this man would have been someone who, to the first century Jew, came from a more exotic place, someone who would have been an “outsider” to the Jewish community. He is also someone who is an important man—a powerful and wealthy man who had much authority and power in the queen’s court. He’s on his way home from Jerusalem, where he was worshipping at the Temple.
What’s so powerful in this story is that we see God’s Spirit on the move out beyond Jerusalem, into Samaria and Judea, and even to the ends of the earth. The Ethiopian would have represented someone from the ends of the earth—a Gentile living in Timbuktu! And yet this radical love of God in Christ is for all people! The gospel crosses cultural boundaries and embraces everyone.
And what’s this man doing as he rides in is chariot? He’s reading from the book of Isaiah! Not only is God’s Spirit at work in calling Philip to go, but we see God’s Spirit at work in the mind and heart of this Ethiopian Eunuch, preparing him for his encounter with Philip!
What happens next? Then the Spirit said to Philip, “Go over to this chariot and join it (or stay near it).” God is still in charge, giving the directions. And Philip still has his ears and heart tuned to the Spirit’s leading.
So Philip runs up to the chariot and stays near it, waiting on the Spirit’s timing. And as he waits, he hears the Ethiopian reading from the book of Isaiah. We’ve already seen the way that Philip is someone who listens to God. Now we see that Philip has this same posture of listening with the Ethiopian, which tells us that maybe evangelism, sharing our faith, is first and foremost about learning to listen. It’s about learning to listen with, what novelist John Steinbeck called “a good ear.” Listening with a good ear is about listening to what is going on beneath the surface, listening to the lives of people we encounter, listening to their questions, their hurts, their hopes, their fears. Would that change your view of evangelism if I told you the most important thing you can do is learn to really listen with a “good ear?”
It is only by listening first—without pretense, without judgment—that a way is made for Philip to enter into conversation and relationship with the Ethiopian. He listens to what the Ethiopian is reading, listening even more deeply to the spiritual cry of the man’s heart, and he asks the question, “Do you understand what you are reading?”
And the Ethiopian replies, “How can I, unless someone guides me?” And then I love the next part. And he invited Philip to get in and sit beside him, which is another way of saying, “Come and sit in my chariot with me, come travel with me on the road of life.” By listening first and being genuine in the way he related to the Ethiopian, Philip was welcomed into a relationship with this man.
Author and speaker Brian McLaren has suggested that being a witness, at its heart, is really a call to with-ness—to be with people: to be with people in the real stuff of life; to be with people in their pain; to be with people in their questions and doubts; to be with people in their joys and struggles. The incarnation is all about the God who came to be with us; and we follow the pattern of Jesus when we learn to simply be with people.
Think about your own faith journey. Who are the people who have had the most significant influence in your own life? Are they not those who genuinely cared about you and came alongside you and “got in the chariot” to be with you on the journey?
Most people long for authentic, meaningful relationships, and it is when we learn how to be with others, without an agenda, entering into friendship, that God opens up opportunities for us to share in natural, fruitful ways. This is when they invite us into their chariot to travel down the road of life with them, having earned respect and trust and the right to be heard.
And that’s what happens with Philip. He earns the right to be heard. Traveling along together, the Ethiopian turns to Philip, and in reference to the passage he just read in Isaiah, asks him, “Tell me please, who is the prophet talking about, himself or someone else?”
This is the window of opportunity. And Philip doesn’t get embarrassed or shrink away or change the conversation. He tells the man about Jesus. Clearly, plainly, genuinely, he shares his faith. Then Philip began to speak, and starting with this scripture, he proclaimed to him the good news about Jesus.
One of the biggest obstacles I often hear from people about sharing their faith is, “I don’t know enough about the Bible.” And I would agree that it is important for all of us to be growing in our knowledge of Scripture so we can talk with people about Jesus. But when it comes to sharing our faith, we don’t need to panic or get anxious about our knowledge of the Bible. Our role, as we see in this story, is simply to introduce people to Jesus. To share with others who Jesus is, what he means to us, and how he has changed our life. We all have stories about how God is at work in our lives, and as Lindsay reminded us last Sunday, there are no “boring” stories. Your story is your story, so share it. Let the Holy Spirit work through your testimony of what Jesus means to you personally.
There is one last part of this story that I want us to highlight this morning, and it really is the climax. As Philip and the Ethiopian travel together in the chariot, they come upon some water. And the Ethiopian says, “Look, here is water! What is to prevent me from being baptized?” And he gave orders to stop the chariot. Then both of them, Philip and the eunuch, went down into the water and Philip baptized him.
Baptism points to God’s promise, which is that we belong to Christ. It is a sign and seal that we have been welcomed into God’s family, as one of God’s children. It points to moving from being on “the outside,” so to speak, to being enfolded into the community of faith. Our calling as witnesses is not just to go out and come alongside people and introduce them to Jesus; it’s to practice a radical hospitality that welcomes them into God’s family. It is going beyond “out- reach” to embrace, as my good friend Denise Kingdom-Grier likes to say.
The eunuch asks a question, and it’s a great question. What can prevent me from being baptized? One way to interpret this question: What can keep me from becoming a part of God’s family?
One answer, and I’m sad to say it, is us, the church. We can stand in the way of others being welcomed and included in the family of God. When we keep others at a distance because they’re not like us or refuse to embrace others because they don’t have their theology all together or their life all together (not like we doJ--or pretend to, anyway)! Or even this: when we don’t move beyond just being friendly and welcoming but really include others in our lives—open up our circles of friendships to make room for others.
I know I only have a few sermons left to preach as one of your pastors, and I want to make every sermon count. Here is one of the ways I really want to challenge us as a congregation: Let’s go beyond outreach and being friendly to be the kind of church that is practicing “with-ness” by truly enfolding and embracing new people in our church family. Will you go out of your way to come alongside some of our new members and connect with them on deep and meaningful levels?
I’ve pointed out a number of things from within this story, and as we wrap up, let me highlight what we’ve talked about:
- Sharing our faith is God’s work from beginning to finish. It’s ultimately not about us! We are simply God’s instruments.
- The most important posture for being a witness is the posture of deep listening—listening to God and listening to the lives of others. And being willing to be obedient when the Holy Spirit prompts us.
- Sharing our faith happens best in the context of authentic relationships—learning to be “with” others, to ride with them in the chariot on the road of life. When we earn the right to be heard, we trust God’s timing to open up an opportunity for us to share what Christ means to us—to tell our story.
- Beyond outreach, God calls us to embrace and welcome others into God’s family. To enfold others into the circles of our friendships.
So what is the Spirit saying to you this morning? To us? Who is God calling you to come alongside? Is there a name or a face that comes to mind today? Maybe it’s someone outside the walls of this church; maybe it’s someone within the walls. Think about the people God has placed around you.
As we go into this week, I invite you to join me in assuming a posture of availability and deep listening, saying: “Lord, your servant is listening. Direct me where to go and to whom to go.”
In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.