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Acts 8:26-40

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Many of you know that Melanie and I both went to seminary out in Colorado, which was an incredible season of life. Western culture is very different than Southern culture, and we love that we’ve been exposed to both. One of the biggest differences is that in the West everyone wants to be unique and different. People are very open with one another because, there, it’s a good thing to be different from others, and it’s culturally appropriate to draw attention to those differences. But, in the South, it’s different. In the South, everyone wants to blend in. People are more reserved with what they disclose to others, because, here, it’s a good thing to be in tune with your neighbors, and it’s culturally appropriate to keep your differences to yourself. There are of course positives and negatives to both of these cultures, as there is in every culture, but as we look to continue the work of Jesus by the power of the Spirit, we must be aware of the cultural context that influences our pursuit of that work. Being counter-cultural is hip in Denver, but not in Dacula.
I bring this up because we are presented today in our text, a situation that we all know is fundamental for continuing the work of Jesus, and yet it’s a situation that for many of us, is especially uncomfortable. Up to now in the story of Acts, the gospel has been proclaimed, preached, and shared to groups of people, to the masses and crowds who have gathered around the disciples to hear what they were teaching. But this morning, Philip is not preaching to a crowd, he’s having a 1-on-1 conversation with someone about Jesus. And that situation is one that makes many of us uncomfortable, particularly those of us who were raised and live in a culture that discourages being different and drawing attention to those differences. And yet, it’s not rocket science that an important part of doing the work of Jesus as the church is sharing with others, our neighbors, friends, and coworkers, the good news that Jesus is King - that Christ has died, Christ is risen, and Christ will come again.
But I think this story of Philip and the Ethiopian can help us overcome this discomfort. So this morning I want to talk about two things: First, we’ll look at how this story helps reframe our understanding of evangelism; and second, we’ll reflect on how Philip actually goes about sharing the gospel. But first, how does this story help reframe our understanding of evangelism.
In Acts 8, Philip is directed by the Spirit to encounter an Ethiopian official on the road to Gaza. The Ethiopian is reading from the scroll of Isaiah, and Philip asks if he’s understanding what he’s reading, to which the Ethiopian responds, “How can I, unless someone guides me?” What a fantastic question. This question gets at the heart of what evangelism is all about, and it get’s at the heart of one of the most important works of the church community, which is to help people see Jesus. What is evangelism? What does it mean to share your faith or share the gospel? What is one of the primary functions of the church community? To help people see Jesus. “How can I understand any of this unless someone guides me?”
We do not enter evangelism as combatants, looking to defeat arguments by the truth of our faith. Sure, you may win the debate, but you’ve lost the person. We do not enter as expert theologians, needing to have the right answer for every spiritual question. This is one of the primary reasons we are afraid to enter into these conversations - we’re afraid we won’t have all the answer. But these are poor and unhelpful frameworks for evangelism. We enter the realm of evangelism as guides, helping people see Jesus at work in their lives and in their world.
When I was in college, I had the opportunity to spend a summer studying in Spain. One weekend, we traveled to Barcelona where the renowned architect Antoni Gaudi worked in the late 19th, early 20th century. He’s most famous for the great Cathedral in Barcelona, la Sagrada Familia. He was a part of the modernista movement, which for non-artsy people like me, that means the really weird and unique style of art that breaks out of more traditional design. So sprinkled all over the city of Barcelona are these impressive and really unique works of Gaudi - a bridge here, a lamppost there, an apartment building here, a park bench there. His works are all over the city. The thing is, you’d miss the vast majority of his works if you didn’t have something or someone helping you see them. Without a guide, you’d walk right past some of these works of art, and Barcelona would seem like any other city, nothing particularly special. But with a guide, the city comes alive in a whole new and beautiful way.
That’s what evangelism is. The greatest human tragedy is missing the active presence of God in our world - Father, Son, and Spirit. Missing the connection to the Father that is ours by design, that has been gifted to us in the Son, Jesus and that is experienced through the work and indwelling of the Holy Spirit. This vitally important work of the church to proclaim the gospel in word and deed can be helpfully and simply framed as helping people see Jesus. It’s as beautifully simple as that.
This is what Philip does for the Ethiopian on the road to Gaza. He helps the man see Jesus. Now, how does he do it and what can we learn from his example? Well, I see five ways we can follow his example. First, we’ve got to be ready to faithfully obey the Lord. Verse 26:
Now an angel of the Lord said to Philip, “Rise and go toward the south to the road that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza.” This is a desert place. And he rose and went.
The Lord needed Philip in a particular place at a particular time to meet a particular person so that his gospel could travel to a new land and a new people, and we see Philip’s faithful obedience to God’s call. God says, “rise up and go,” and Philip rose and went. Without question the Lord has called you to a particular place at this particular time in order to be around particular people so that his gospel can effect a new heart, a new home, a new neighborhood. If we want to see a movement of the gospel in our city, we must faithfully obey the call of the Lord to be his witnesses - wherever we are, wherever we go. That’s the first thing.
Second, Philip recognizes that everyone, no matter their station in life, everyone has a need for Jesus. We are told that this Ethiopian was a eunuch. He would have had to be in order to reach the high position of treasurer for the Queen. This man has made a significant sacrifice to attain his status, and he’s reached the top. He’s the second or third most powerful person in Ethiopia. He’s worked his way to the top, sacrificing for it, and he can have anything he wants! But he’s not satisfied. There were plenty of other gods in Ethiopia to worship and follow, but instead he goes to Jerusalem, about a thousand miles away, he goes to Jerusalem because he’s not satisfied, he’s missing something. So he travels all the way to Jerusalem, and once there he’d be utterly frustrated because he would be turned away from the temple, because eunuchs were banned from the temple.
So frustrated and still in need, cut off and shut out from the place that holds his answers, he’s on his way home , and he’s reading from the scroll of Isaiah. On that very page that is opened on his lap as he reads would be the promise that he needs to hear:
Let no foreigner who is bound to the Lord say, “The Lord will surely exclude me from his people.” And let no eunuch complain, “I am only a dry tree.” For this is what the Lord says: “To the eunuchs who keep my Sabbaths, who choose what pleases me and hold fast to my covenant— to them I will give within my temple and its walls a memorial and a name better than sons and daughters; I will give them an everlasting name that will endure forever.
Banned from the temple and the community of God because of his past, the promise that the Ethiopian eunuch needed to hear was that the Lord had a made a way for even the likes of him to be brought into God’s house and God’s family. And that promise was fulfilled because of the man who like a sheep was led to the slaughter, who in his humiliation had justice denied him, who’s life was taken away from the earth - that promise was fulfilled through Jesus. This man needed Jesus, and Philip knew it. No matter their station in life, everyone has a need for Jesus.
So Philip is faithful to his call to be a witness, he recognizes that everyone needs Jesus, and finally we see that his evangelism is centered on Jesus. If our function as the church is to help people see Jesus, than that’s where we start. We start with Jesus. A lot of people get tripped up on this. They want to start with all kinds of other topics: they want to start with sexual ethics or creationism or financial stewardship, but all of those things come in later, after they meet Jesus, after they see their need for him, after their overwhelmed by his loving grace, after they are energized by his kingdom vision. Verse 35:
Then Philip opened his mouth, and beginning with this Scripture he told him the good news about Jesus.
He starts with Jesus, and so should we. That’s who they need, and that’s who we need as well. The Ethiopian’s question, “How can I understand, unless someone guides me?” That’s our question as well. There is only one scenario that sees you and I faithfully obeying our God and helping people to see Jesus, there is only one scenario where that can possibly be true - and that’s if we ourselves are being guided in this work. And the good news is that we are. Jesus promises to guide us all our lives, to open our eyes to his presence and beauty that is all around us, to open our ears to hear the unending song of his love, to challenge us, encourage us, confront us, and rebuild us. He is a patient guide. The perfect guide. And it is only by following him and listening to his voice, that we can help others see what we see and hear what we hear and know what we know.
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