Wednesday, May 06, 2015

Taking Time for Others (How to Be the Church, Part 4)

[This was shared during worship with the people and friends of Living Water Lutheran Church in Springboro, Ohio this past Sunday morning.]

Acts 8:26-40

Many of you already know about what happened on our flight with Southwest Airlines coming back from San Antonio by way of Baltimore a few weeks ago. I found myself sitting down between two women, one in her forties and the other in her thirties. Both appeared lost in their own thoughts and I was glad that I had my Bible and Ellis Peters mystery novel to read during the flight. “Nearly three hours of uninterrupted reading time,” I thought to myself.

God had other ideas.

Nearly three hours later, Danielle and Sara (who turned out to be believers) and I had each been inspired and spiritually enriched by our time together.

We talked about our families and our friends. We talked about the lessons the Lord had taught and was teaching us in life.

I gave each of them the blue wristbands I wear in honor of Sarah, the young woman from my former parish, who loved blue butterflies and was inspired by Psalm 46:10: “Be still, and know that I am God.”

At the end of the flight, each of us commented, “God arranged for this meeting.”

Now, I’m asking God would leave me open to such divine appointments every day.

I’m praying too, that God will orchestrate those kinds of encounters with non-believers so that, whether it’s waiting in the deli line at Kroger or eating at Chipotle, people who need the Savior Jesus as much as I do will be nudged by the Holy Spirit to life-giving faith in Christ through my openness to them.

It can happen. It's simply a matter of not being so wedded to our agendas that we fail to take time for fulfilling our mission as followers of Jesus.

Listen: No one ever had a more serious agenda than Jesus. He was conscious of what He needed to accomplish always. Luke 9:51 says that Jesus had His face set for Jerusalem. Nothing would deter Jesus from going to the cross where He would die for the sins of the entire human race, including yours and mine, then rise from the dead so that believers who turn from sin and surrender to Him can have new and everlasting life with God.

But even with that serious agenda, Jesus was always willing to be interrupted, willing to take the time to share the good news--the gospel--with those in need. If Jesus could take that time for people while He walked on the earth, surely neither I nor my agenda can give way sometimes too. I’m asking God to help me be more like Jesus in this way.

In these Sundays of Easter, we’re talking about how to be the Church. The Church is made up of disciples, followers of Jesus.

Last week, we talked about some of what it means to be a disciple.

Today, we explore the topic further through an incident recounted in the New Testament book of Acts.

Acts tells the story of the early Church, from the risen Jesus’ ascension to heaven until about thirty years later. (So until about 60 AD.) Our lesson is Acts 8:26-40.

The first seven chapters of Acts basically tell us about the Church in Jerusalem as the first believers in Christ told their fellow Jews about Jesus’ death and resurrection and the life available to anyone who believes in Him.

But the events recorded in Acts, chapter 7, usher in a new era in Church history. Stephen, a believer in Christ, is stoned to death for his faith and a general persecution against the Church causes many believers to leave Jerusalem.

This is yet another example of that principle of Biblical faith, first enunciated clearly by Joseph in Genesis 50, that what the world means for evil, God often means for good. That's because when the believers in Christ went to other lands, they didn’t keep their mouths shut or lay low. They told others about Christ so that still more could become believing disciples in Christ’s Church.

No one appears to have been bolder or more dedicated in telling others about Jesus than a layperson named Philip. Early in Acts, chapter 8, we read about Philip sharing Christ with Samaritans, people who Philip, as a Judean, would have been taught to hate from the time he was a baby. But Philip believed that Christ died and rose for Samaritans too, that Christ can transform the life of any person willing to surrender to Christ.

And, Acts 8 tells us that, when the remnant Church in Jerusalem learned that God was anointing Samaritans who believed in Jesus with the Holy Spirit, they decided that Philip was right in preaching to them.

Which brings us finally, to our lesson, Acts 8:26-40. Verse 26: “Now an angel of the Lord said to Philip, ‘Go south to the road—the desert road—that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza.’ So he started out…”

In John 10:14, Jesus says, “I know my sheep and my sheep know me.” Philip knew that the angel’s message was from God, because through God’s Word, He knew God. So, Philip took off for where God wanted him to go. Like Philip, disciples are responsive to the Holy Spirit, the Author of God’s Word.

Verse 27: “...and on his way he met an Ethiopian eunuch, an important official in charge of all the treasury of the Kandake (which means 'queen of the Ethiopians'). This man had gone to Jerusalem to worship, and on his way home was sitting in his chariot reading the Book of Isaiah the prophet.”

Several things to notice here: First, what the New Testament calls Ethiopia, we call Sudan.

Second, a eunuch is a man who has been emasculated and put into the service of his nation’s royalty.

Third, this eunuch was a powerful man. We might call him his nation’s finance minister.

Fourth, the Ethiopian eunuch had gone to worship in Jerusalem. He was what Jews of that time called “God-fearers.” They weren’t Jews, but they believed in the God of the Jews, even if they weren’t yet incorporated into the Jewish faith.

Fifth and finally, everyone read out loud in those days. So, as we will see, Philip knew the man was reading from Isaiah 52 and 53, which talks about how God would, hundreds of years after the words were written, send a suffering servant who would take the punishment of others and redeem them, save them.

Verse 29: “The Spirit told Philip, ‘Go to that chariot and stay near it.’ Then Philip ran up to the chariot and heard the man reading Isaiah the prophet. ‘Do you understand what you are reading?’ Philip asked. ‘How can I,’ he said, ‘unless someone explains it to me?” So he invited Philip to come up and sit with him.’”

When disciples encounter unbelievers who appear interested in Christ, they don’t beat them over the head. They seek and they earn the permission to share Christ with them.

If Philip had just started preaching at the eunuch, he would have gotten nowhere. We must earn permission to share Christ with others not by scoring debating points, but by making ourselves lovingly available to helping others know our God, King, and Savior Jesus.

You’ve heard me mention before Peter’s words for us, 1 Peter 3:15-16: “...Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect, keeping a clear conscience, so that those who speak maliciously against your good behavior in Christ may be ashamed of their slander.”

Now, back to our lesson, verse 32. “This is the passage of Scripture the eunuch was reading: “He was led like a sheep to the slaughter, and as a lamb before its shearer is silent, so he did not open his mouth. In his humiliation he was deprived of justice. Who can speak of his descendants? For his life was taken from the earth.” The eunuch asked Philip, “Tell me, please, who is the prophet talking about, himself or someone else?” Then Philip began with that very passage of Scripture and told him the good news about Jesus. As they traveled along the road, they came to some water and the eunuch said, “Look, here is water. What can stand in the way of my being baptized?” And he gave orders to stop the chariot. Then both Philip and the eunuch went down into the water and Philip baptized him.”

Philip was a layperson and he baptized the eunuch!

I know that will make some Lutherans feel uncomfortable.

Philip didn’t go to the church council. He didn’t get an apostle. There were no church councils and no apostles around.

It is true that 1 Corinthians 14:40 says that in the life of the Church “everything should be done in a fitting and orderly.” Under ordinary circumstances, maybe for good order’s sake, a person who had been properly called by the power of the Holy Spirit to the ministry of Word and Sacrament should have baptized by the eunuch. But that wasn’t possible at that moment.

And besides, in the great commission, Jesus commands all Christians to make disciples, baptize, and teach. Listen: Disciples go with the flow of the Holy Spirit. They’re not Lone Rangers, but when the Holy Spirit gives the green light to fulfill the great commission, they go. That’s what Philip did.

And what happened? Verses 39-40: “When they came up out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord suddenly took Philip away, and the eunuch did not see him again, but went on his way rejoicing. Philip, however, appeared at Azotus and traveled about, preaching the gospel in all the towns until he reached Caesarea.”

Philip didn’t hang around for a victory lap. God didn’t let him. Philip had done what he was called to do and now it was on to the next place God wanted him to be.

Disciples rejoice in what God does through them and give God all the credit. Disciples know always that it’s the Holy Spirit, not them, who accomplishes the purposes of God, even when the Spirit chooses to do what He does through them. Then disciples move on, knowing that God has more He wants to do through them. 

This is one of my favorite passages of Scripture. I love the simple and amazing picture of what God accomplishes through disciples that it paints. Through it, we know that...

  • disciples know the Word and are responsive to the Holy Spirit; 
  • disciples respectfully seek permission to share the good news of Jesus with their unbelieving friends; 
  • disciples go with the flow of the Holy Spirit, so that when the Spirit flashes green lights, they go; and 
  • disciples rejoice in what the Holy Spirit does through them, but know that it’s always the Holy Spirit who does the work. 
More next week, as we explore how to be the Church. Amen

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