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“Seizing the Moment”
Sermon on Acts 8: 26-40
5th Sunday of Easter, Year B
If you had to summarize the “plot” of the book of Acts in one verse, it would be these words of the risen Christ to his disciples: “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”
When Philip encounters an Ethiopian official on his way back from a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, that is what has been happening. First there was Pentecost in Jerusalem, the day when the Holy Spirit made ordinary people, Jews and Jewish converts from all over the Mediterranean world, suddenly able to speak in different languages, so they could all understand each other. Then there was another little Pentecost, this time in Samaria, a place Jews normally didn’t go. There Philip proclaimed the Messiah Jesus to the Samaritans, and all kinds of human misery, sickness both physical and mental, was relieved. “There was great joy in that city,” we are told (8:8), and many were baptized that day.
Now the Spirit is moving into even newer territory. The Ethiopian Philip meets on the road from Jerusalem to Gaza would have represented the farthest corner of the known world to people of Philip’s time and place. Both Jews and Romans would have been filled with wonder to have such an exotic personage in their midst. As a court official for the queen of Ethiopia, with oversight of the nation’s treasury, he was a man of considerable power in his part of the world. It is likely that he was a “God-fearer,” a non-Jew who read the Jewish Scriptures and listened at the synagogue. Maybe his utter foreignness made him seem an unlikely person to receive and accept the message of a Jewish messiah, but on closer examination he was no more unlikely as a receiver of this message than Philip was as its preacher.
That’s because Philip was not held up by the community as an apostle and evangelist like Peter and John and, later, Paul. Philip first appears on the scene in Acts chapter 6, when the twelve disciples decided that the care of the needy was distracting them from their apostolic task, which was to go into the world preaching the Word of God. Philip, along with Stephen, was one of the first deacons of the church, set apart by the community for a ministry of compassion. In other words, Philip wasn’t commissioned to evangelize; he was commissioned to care for the needy in his locality.
Yet the Spirit of God, it seems, won’t let Stephen and Philip stay in their place. Stephen is so bold in preaching the gospel to the unreceptive that he is stoned to death. Philip, who goes down to Samaria by order of the Holy Spirit, gets a far better reception. No sooner does Philip return to Jerusalem than the Spirit orders him south again, down a wilderness road where he meets the Ethiopian and explains the passage from Isaiah to him. The Ethiopian, once he has understood who the mysterious prophetic words are pointing to, seizes the moment to request baptism. The church in Ethiopia today traces its beginnings to the news brought back by that official who welcomed Philip into his chariot.
Both Philip and the Ethiopian recognized an opportunity when they saw one. Philip may not have thought of himself as an evangelist, but with the nudging of the Spirit he saw his opening. He took the opportunity to tell this emissary from a distant land about what God had done in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. There was nothing aggressive or pushy about his approach to this man. What the Bible says was the Spirit and Philip may have experienced as a hunch or an intuition led him to that chariot where the Ethiopian sat reading. Philip simply took advantage of the opportunity to respond to the man’s open-minded curiosity about the Hebrew Scriptures.
Sometimes evangelism – the dreaded E-word -- is simply being in the right place at the right time and being able to answer some questions. Evangelism can be as simple as sitting next to someone and having a conversation, giving “an accounting for the hope that is in us,’” to use words from 1st Peter.
I know I’m making it sound easier than it is. For one thing, we live in a culture that is suspicious of any kind of religious talk. Even when such talk isn’t dangerous, as it often was during the early period of the church, religious speech is at best unfashionable, considered in many circles to be in bad taste. Religious extremists both inside and outside the Christian camp have given religious discourse a bad name. All too often we hear “religious” talk used to bash someone over the head for his politics, lifestyle, sexual orientation or personal beliefs. And there’s another reason evangelism may not be as easy as our story today makes it seem: many American Christians feel inadequate to talk about what we believe in a coherent way. You might be at a dinner party with some new friends, between the salad and the main course, when someone finds out you’re a church member and asks you why you are a Christian. That’s not so easy, because you want to get it right, to say something that will be powerful and understandable and most of all believable. How do you talk about God and Jesus and the Holy Spirit, when experiences of God are so often indescribable, and a lot of the language that’s given to us seems to come out of a textbook?
And yet we do need to speak. We need to give an accounting of our faith because there are a lot of people out there, in this age that is described as post-Christian, who could benefit from what we have to say.
Years ago, when the behavioral phenomenon called hoarding was just beginning to get media attention, I heard an interview with a woman who described herself as a hoarder. She lived in New York, and she said she could not pass a newsstand in the city – and you know that in parts of New York they are on every corner – without stopping to buy several newspapers and magazines. She made several of these purchases daily, and she never threw any of it away. When asked why she did this, she gave a very poignant response. She said she bought all that stuff because she knew that somewhere in all that printed material, there had to be the one piece of information that would change her life. So she was going to keep looking until she found it.
Philip and Stephen knew that what God had done and was doing in Jesus Christ was the one piece of information that people needed to hear. It was information that changed lives, starting with theirs. We are here today because of them. We are able to confess the faith we share because ordinary men and women, not all of them “official” apostles, had an apostolic message they had to get out into the world. We are the beneficiaries of their ability to seize the moment to speak of what they had seen and heard.
Last week we kicked off our congregational small-group discernment process by talking about some of the trends we’ve observed in church and society over the last few decades. Membership in mainline denominations, including the PCUSA, has been declining since the 1970s, but that decline has accelerated in the last 25 years. Just in the time since I was ordained, I’ve witnessed this decline in our presbytery, with church budgets shrinking, new member classes getting smaller, and some churches having to close their doors. For a very long time, since at least the 1950s, American church people have assumed that as long as we offered uplifting worship and music, had a children’s program, and the preacher delivered the goods from the pulpit, people would come to us. “Build it and they will come” was the model for church growth. We felt “missional” by sending missionaries to other countries to build and staff schools, hospitals and clinics designed to reach needy people in the name of Christ. This was the “Christendom” model of the church, which was based on the assumption that everyone around us was already, to varying degrees, a Christian.
We are in a different context now. More and more, the “mission field” is right outside our doors. In our neighborhoods we encounter people of other religions, but mostly we meet people who are not affiliated with any religion. What would they like to hear from us? What is the piece of information that could benefit them?
In the book of Acts, the Holy Spirit is not the Counselor, the Comforter, or the One who prays within us. The Spirit is the One who galvanizes the church into action. The Spirit is about crossing boundaries, striking up conversations with strangers, and building new communities in places no one had thought of before. When the Spirit is at work in the church, we are emboldened to step outside our church doors, ready to seize the moment that is offered to us.
I can’t say what that moment might be for you.
Maybe you will tell someone about a low point in your life, a time when you were really, really scared, and then you weren’t anymore, because you knew that God would not abandon you and that somehow it would be OK. So maybe you’ll talk about what it’s like to be liberated from fear.
Or maybe you’ll speak about a time when you felt filled with an indescribable joy and you couldn’t say why, you couldn’t explain it, but you knew that it came from God.
Maybe you’ll talk about a time when you heard the words “Christ died for us,” and you really believed them, deep in your bones, for the first time.
Maybe you’ll tell someone about a situation that looked absolutely hopeless, with no prospect of anything but angry words and bitter feelings, and then there was a breakthrough, a chance to make a new beginning, and you knew God was there, a forgiving presence that allowed others to forgive.
Confidence, joy, assurance, peace: who wouldn’t want to hear about these things?
I don’t know what you will say, but you will know. That’s what the Spirit of God does for us. God will give you the moment, and you will be able to seize it. And when you do speak, it will be a gift to your hearer. It will be the glory of God, a human person alive with the Holy Spirit, spreading the word, speaking about what we have seen and heard.
Manassas Presbyterian Church
April 29, 2018