Synod Mass at St John’s, Decatur—Acts 8:26-40, Matthew 28:18-20, Isaiah 53:7-11
There are two Philip’s in the New Testament: Philip the Apostle, who shares a feast day with James the Less on the 1st of May, and Philip the Deacon, whose feast day we celebrate at this liturgy. Philip was one of the original seven deacons, who were chosen to pursue administrative work and liberate the apostles for the ministry of teaching and evangelism. So it’s a little ironic that what Philip the Deacon is mostly known for has nothing to do with waiting on tables on serving the poor, but is a marvelous act of evangelism!
It’s also providential that Philip the Deacon’s feast day falls during a synod—indeed, during a season in the life of the whole church—when evangelization is a frequent topic of conversation, and an ever-present concern. Back in the meeting hall, we’ve just talked about a vision for discerning those pockets of the population around us whom the Holy Spirit may be preparing, softening, to respond to our proclamation of the good news of God in Jesus Christ. We are keenly aware of the Great Commission, which we just heard once again a couple of minutes ago: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.” We’ve talked about the need to pitch our tent among such people, to walk with them in their world, making Jesus incarnate in their midst even before we speak his name. In preparing for this sort of apostolic ministry, we have anxiety about techniques and methods. What, precisely, are we going to tell them? What images and metaphors and figures of speech will we use to translate the gospel into terms that will touch their hearts? And how will we seal the deal? How will we move from introducing them to Jesus to the waters of the baptismal font? These are all questions that both excite us and weigh on us in this vulnerable moment in our life together.
We have all these questions, and it seems to me that we have, in the story from Acts, Chapter 8 of Philip’s encounter with the Ethiopian eunuch on the road to Gaza, in a “compressed file,” as it were, something that is labeled on the internet as FAQs—“frequently asked questions”—we have here some answer to our frequently asked questions about the work of evangelism. And the overarching rubric seems to be this: Effective evangelism happens when we share what we know about Jesus with those whom the Spirit has prepared to receive that knowledge.
So let’s look into this. Philip is contacted by an angel, who instructs him to “Rise and go toward the south to the road that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza.” There he finds the Ethiopian court official, sitting in his chariot, trying to make sense of a biblical text—in this case, a snippet from the Book of Isaiah, Chapter 53. Part of it was our first reading at this liturgy. We hear it every Holy Week; the words are very familiar. “He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he opened not his mouth; like a lamb that is led to the slaughter, and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent, so he opened not his mouth.” So, before Philip even arrived on the scene, the Holy Spirit was at work in the heart of the Ethiopian, stimulating his mind to curiosity, afflicting him with the burden of holy confusion! He knew that he was reading something very significant. The words tugged at his heart. But he wasn’t able to connect the dots. He wasn’t able, on his own, to put the pieces of the puzzle together. I think we need to rely on the promise that the Holy Spirit will not only go with us in our missionary endeavors, but will also go before us. In fact, I think it’s safe to say that the Holy Spirit is already in those places and among those people whom we have not yet even identified, troubling the waters, disturbing the homeostasis, preparing the ground for our arrival. Do you not find that an utterly comforting and heartwarming thought? I certainly do.
Now Philip sees the eunuch, pulled over to the side of the road from Jerusalem to Gaza, sitting in his chariot, reading a scroll copy of Isaiah. He asks him if he understands what he’s reading, and the eunuch says, “Nope. Not a clue. Makes absolutely no sense to me. Who is this guy who’s despised and afflicted and crushed and brought to grief? I’m confused.” Philip must have indicated something of his own ability and willingness to answer those questions, to explain Isaiah 53, because the Ethiopian scoots over and pats the seat next to him and says to Philip, “Come on up and sit beside me. Let’s take a ride.” And off they went. So we see here that Philip literally entered the eunuch’s environment, observed what he was doing, and made contact based on what he saw. He didn’t just start a conversation about a completely random subject; he based his question on what he saw the eunuch was already interested in: “Do you understand what you are reading?”
This becomes for us a pattern of missionary activity: Entering the environment of others, being present while respecting appropriate boundaries, being curious and sensitive, doing way more listening than talking, building relationships, and earning trust. Philip looked for a hook by which to engage the Ethiopian in conversation, and he found that hook in the man’s curiosity about what he was reading. As we pursue our missional vision, we will do well to keep looking for hooks, and then to allow those hooks to draw us into deeper conversation about what God is up to in their lives and in their world. But notice that Philip at first kept a respectful distance from the eunuch’s personal space; he didn’t invade it headlong, but waited for an invitation to hop up into the chariot. The work of evangelization is always gracious and gentle, never aggressive, coercive, or bullying.
But once Philip got into the chariot, he wasn’t shy about sharing what he knew. He connected the dots. He put the pieces together. He explained that the text from Isaiah that the Ethiopian eunuch was curious about and troubled by was all about Jesus—that Jesus is the Suffering Servant, the Man of Sorrows, acquainted with grief, the one who bears our iniquities and by whose stripes we are healed. Jesus was the one the Philip’s new Ethiopian friend was looking for, the one who alone could satisfy the deepest yearnings of his heart and complete him as a human being.
In the vows and promises of baptism, which we will shortly renew, we declare our intention to “proclaim in word and deed the good news of God in Jesus Christ.” It is quite true that we probably need to think in terms of “deed and word” rather than “word and deed.” Proclaiming the gospel in deeds earns us the privilege of proclaiming it in word—“Please step up into my chariot and explain to me what I’m reading about.” And when that moment arrives, we need to be ready. We need to have our story straight, and be able to tell it confidently and concisely, because we don’t know when we’ll get another opportunity. “Let me connect the dots for you: Jesus is the one you’re looking for; Jesus is the one who will bring you peace, purpose, and joy; Jesus is the one who conquers sickness, evil, and death, and in whom we share the very life of God.” We don’t want to give that all away too soon, before we’re invited, but when the right time comes, we’d better have it ready. Philip did, much to the delight of the Ethiopian eunuch.
So then it was time to close the deal. Philip had patiently explained the gospel to the eunuch. It all came together in his mind and heart. The lights came on, bells rang, birds sang; he was ready to make a commitment. Luke tells us that “as they were going along the road they came to some water, and the eunuch said, ‘See, here is water! What prevents me from being baptized?’” Philip led him to Jesus, then the Ethiopian virtually led himself to the waters of baptism, with a great big assist, no doubt, from the Holy Spirit, who had animated this exchange from beginning to end. As the clergy here know, we keep a lot of statistics in the Episcopal Church. Every winter, churches are required to file a document called the Parochial Report, and fill in all sorts of numbers about membership and attendance and activity and sacramental events. These are all very interesting to me, and I do look at them, usually online after the numbers have been crunched by the national church. But, going forward, there’s one number that’s going to be way more interesting to me than any other, and that’s the number of Adult Baptisms. When we start to see a sharp increase in the number of adult baptisms across the diocese, then we will know we have truly become a missionary church; then we will know that we are beginning to live into the vision that we’re mostly just talking about now. To loop back into my address back in the meeting hall, that’s the moment when people driving by will notice that there’s a new coat of paint on the house. That’s the payoff; the delivery of the goods.
My friends, the Holy Spirit is active, both among us, and among those with whom we will yet share the good news of Jesus. The job we have been given is frightfully intimidating, but eminently doable, the Lord being our helper. Blessed Philip, pray for us. Praised be Jesus Christ. Amen.