By Interim Pastor Doug Marshall
Thought for Meditation:
It is out of the exciting renewal of our own faith that the excitement of sharing with the outsider comes… It is simply the excitement of God's love in us that empowers us to have compassion for all people and to share with all people ourselves, and therefore our Lord.
There’s a story of a church that had a unique problem. The church had been around for a long time, and over the years the pews in the sanctuary had dried out. As they dried out they lost so much weight that eventually some of them began to float. During worship one of the pews would rise up in the air, and float around the sanctuary. If a person didn’t pay attention, it might hit them in the head. A few windows were broken. It was very distracting to the tranquil and worshipful atmosphere.
The church formed a pew committee to look at options of how they could solve this problem. They thought about buying new pews, but remembered that the pews had been purchased with the memorial money from Miss Susie and Uncle George. No one knew who Susie or George were but getting rid of the pews was out of the question. They looked into the idea of using steel cables to attach the pews to the floor, but that was way too expensive. They decided that the best way to hold down the pews was to add more weight to them.
The first thing they did was buy new hymnals hoping that the weight of the hymnals would keep the pews on the floor. It wasn’t enough weight. They thought about buying some scrap iron to put on the pews, but that didn’t look very nice and would scratch the pews if the iron was moved around. They finally decided that the best solution was to put warm bodies on the pews to hold them down. The committee sent out a call to all the members of the church and told them they needed them to come to worship. The following Sunday the pews were fairly full, but there still weren’t enough people to hold all the pews down.
The pew committee then explained the second part of their plan. Every member was expected to invite a friend or a neighbor to come to worship and fill the pews. The problem with that solution was that it was a Presbyterian church. The average Presbyterian invites someone to church once every twenty-four years. At that rate, the pews were not likely to be filled.
That silly little parable brings us to the topic of our Scripture lesson this morning – evangelism. Philip was one of the first deacons, but he is usually known as Philip the Evangelist. Let’s look at his story. At the beginning of Acts 8 Saul persecuted the church in Jerusalem. Many Christians left the city, including Philip. He went to Samaria where he preached about Jesus. Many of the Samaritans became followers of Jesus.
Our passages starts with an angel of the Lord telling Philip to go south. He started walking on the road that went from Jerusalem to Gaza, about 60 miles. As he walked he had an encounter with “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” (Acts 8:27-28a).
The word “Ethiopian” was the term that Jews used to describe any black person, not necessarily someone from Ethiopia. Some scholars think this man was from Sudan, though no one really knows. In the culture of the New Testament era, Jewish attitudes toward Africa were very positive. Black men were esteemed. There was an exotic mystique about them.
This particular man was also called a eunuch. Servants of a queen were usually castrated so that there wouldn’t be any potential for a sexual relationship. According to Deuteronomy such a man would not be allowed into the Temple, though another passage in Isaiah moderates that a bit. This eunuch had a position of power. He worked as the head treasurer for the Candace. That was the title given to the queen mother, the woman married to the king.
Finally, we hear that this man had come to Jerusalem to worship. He might have been a Gentile who was attracted to Jewish practices and to the Jewish God. Or, he actually might have been a Jew. There was a group of black Jews who had lived in Africa for four or five centuries. Either way we know that he had some sort of spiritual interest and openness.
The Holy Spirit led Philip to the chariot where he heard the eunuch reading Isaiah. The Ethiopian eunuch was a man of prestige and honor, a man of power, yet he didn’t have the power to understand scripture. Philip asked him a question. “Do you understand what you’re reading?” Evangelism is much more effective when you start with a question, when you start where a person is and then really listen. When the eunuch asked him to explain Philip used the scripture to talk about Jesus. By the end of their conversation the eunuch believed in Jesus and was baptized. I’d like to share with you three reflections that come from this passage.
First, the Good News of Jesus Christ reaches across the barriers that divide us. There were several differences between Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch. They were from different races, different cultures and probably had different languages. The eunuch was in a position of great power whereas Philip was not. In spite of the barriers that divided them, through Jesus they were able to connect. Philip was willing to reach across this barrier, to this foreigner, to this man of power. The Ethiopian eunuch was willing to accept Philip as his spiritual guide.
No matter how you get your news, it seems very clear that our world is filled with barriers, everything from the riots in Baltimore, Shiites and Sunnis, Christians and Muslims, Russia versus the USA. There is also an economic barrier between the rich and the poor, a cultural barrier between liberals and conservatives, and who knows how many other barriers. There are barriers within the Presbyterian denomination and there are still barriers within Sharon Church.
The good news of Jesus Christ reaches across the barriers that divide us. In Jesus we are one people. Yes, there are differences but we have more in common than we will ever know. Let’s not allow our differences to divide us and keep us apart. Let us not be afraid to reach across the barriers and share God’s love in Jesus Christ with those who are different. And when someone reaches across a barrier to you, let go of your fears, let go of you hurt, and welcome that person as a brother or sister in Christ.
The second lesson is that Evangelism is primarily telling other people about Jesus as he is revealed in the Bible. The eunuch wondered who Isaiah was talking about. Philip’s response was to use the scripture to tell him about Jesus.
Three great theologians got together in heaven and made an appointment to see God. Martin Luther was the first one. He talked with God for about an hour and came out with a smile on his face. “Now I understand what justification by faith is all about.” John Calvin went in and after an hour or so came out with a smile on his face. “Now I understand predestination.” Karl Barth went in. Two hours later he was still in there. Eventually God came out and said, “Now I’m not even sure who I am.”
Karl Barth is considered by many to be the greatest theologian of the 20th century. He had a lot to say and said a lot. Unfortunately, he is not easy to read or understand. However, there is a story about Barth that I love. He was being interviewed by someone about his theology. His interviewer tried to get at the core of his beliefs. Finally Barth said something like this. “At the center of my theology is the belief that ‘Jesus loves me this I know, for the Bible tells me so.’”
At its core, evangelism is simply one person telling another person about Jesus. How has Jesus worked in your life? How is Jesus working in your life right now? The Bible is the primary place that God speaks to us, the main way that we learn about Jesus. It is the written word of God that points to Jesus, the living Word of God. Therefore we need to be reading the Bible, learning about Jesus, and telling others what we know about Jesus. That is what evangelism is all about.
Finally, in evangelism, spreading the Good News of Jesus Christ, God is the primary actor. This story starts with an angel of the Lord telling Philip what to do. Philip obeyed. Then the Spirit tells Philip to go over to the chariot and walk with it. Philip obeyed. The text doesn’t say it, but as Philip talked about Jesus he was relying on God’s strength and inspiration. Every preacher needs God’s help for the message to actually be heard. The fact that the Ethiopian eunuch believed and wanted to be baptized was God’s work in his life. The road that they were traveling on was a desert road. The presence of water along the road was an act of God. At the end of the story the Spirit takes Philip away. All through this story God is the primary one at work. Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch were responding to what God was doing.
I know that evangelism is a word that most of us are not comfortable with. I have a sense that the main problem we have with evangelism is not that we’ve seen or experienced it done poorly. The real problem is that we are not confident in our ability or in our knowledge. Here is the good news – it doesn’t depend on you! We have our part, but ultimately, evangelism depends on God, not on us. God is the one at work. We are called to respond to what God is already doing. Having said that, let me offer you four ideas, four attitudes, that will help us do evangelism well.
First, as we tell others about Jesus we need to do so with humility. We are not the experts who have all the answers. We are not any better than anyone else. We are sinners who are telling others how we have experienced God’s grace and forgiveness.
Second, we must share the good news about Jesus with love. Our motivation is that we have been loved and we want to share that love with others.
Third, as we share the gospel we need to do so with simplicity. We don’t need to say everything there is to say about God. In fact we shouldn’t say everything. Evangelism should involve as much time listening as talking. We need to keep the gospel simple. I love how Dick Gregory explained Christianity. He was one of the leaders of the civil rights movement. He was challenged one time to explain the gospel in ten words or less. This is what he said. “We’re all bastards but God loves us anyway.” Keep it simple.
Finally, as we share the good news of Jesus, we must do so in faith. How people respond to our message doesn’t depend on us, but on God. We simply pray and trust that God will work through our words and our actions.
I understand that at the Spring Clean up the pews in our sanctuary were cleaned and cared for. I don’t think we need to worry about floating pews. However, just to make sure, I encourage you to invite your friends, your family, your neighbors and the people you work with, to come to church and fill our pews. Hopefully, while they are here, they will hear God’s word and experience God’s love. Even more important than inviting them to church – listen to their stories and their questions, and tell them how Jesus has worked in your life. AMEN.