May 6, 2012

A Chariot Ride and the Good News About Jesus

Passage: Acts 8:35

Then Philip began to speak, and starting with this scripture, he proclaimed to him the good news about Jesus.

(Video) In October 2010 Orange News UK reported the following: “Park officials in China have found a way to stop people from hogging their benches for too long—by fitting steel spikes on a coin-operated timer.  If visitors at the Yantai Park in Shandong province, eastern China, linger too long without feeding the meter, dozens of sharp spikes shoot through the seat. The spikes are too short to cause any serious harm – but long enough to prevent people from sitting on them comfortably. Park bosses got the idea from an art installation in Germany where sculptor Fabian Brunsing created a similar bench as a protest against the commercialization of modern life.”

One of the things that struck me about this story is the “scarcity” mentality implicit in the solution to the over-use of park benches.  It seems to me that for the price of outfitting current park benches with spikes the problem of demand for park bench space could have been solved by adding more benches; that is creating more park bench space.  I hear the same scarcity attitude in many wealth redistribution schemes proffered by political parties.  Somehow the economic pie is thought to be only so big and needs the supposed equitable hand of government to divide.  On the other hand, political convictions are guided by the idea that the economic pie is something that can continue expanding in the creation of new wealth.

In 1970 the population of the world was about 3.7 Billion.  I recall the panic of many of the intellectual leaders in western universities warning of scarcity; that there was only so much food to go around and unless we did something to halt what was said to be a population explosion starvation would increase exponentially.  The population of the world is now approaching double that of 1970.   The innovations in food production are such that there is more than enough food for all seven billion of the world’s people; it is principally the way humans treat each other that gives rise to starvation.

When I read Luke’s account of the early church—the book Acts—I encounter a story of the good news about Jesus breaking down every barrier that typically divides people.  In the progression of acts the Jew/Samaritan barrier was the first to fall.  In our reading today of the conversion of this Ethiopian Eunuch, race and marginalization by sexual mutilation are no barriers to the good news of Jesus.  Next, it was a Roman Gentile Cornelius who believed in Jesus and the barrier between Jews and Gentiles fell.  I am not saying that God is a free market capitalist, but when it comes to our Saviour’s love of people there is simply no limit; there aren’t more people that there is love in God.  When it comes to the love of God, it is never a zero-sum game with only so much to go around so you have better get your narrow sliver so you can eke out your existence.  Neither can the love of God be hoarded so that others have to do without.  There is always more grace in God that sin in us.  Love is that one thing that is ever expanding.

1.  “Then Philip began to speak, and starting with this scripture, he proclaimed to him the good news about Jesus.”  Imagine what the Ontario Human Rights commission would do to Philip if this Ethiopian eunuch filed a complaint claiming he was offended because Philip dared to tell him about Jesus.  Our Human Rights commissions appear to assume that the supposed human right that trumps all others is the right never to feel offended.  According to Canada’s state cult of multiculturalism, religion is to be kept within certain defined boundaries; religions seeking converts is simply offensive because culture is viewed by multiculturalists as some sort of sacrosanct inviolable thing.  (Under multiculturalism the only “culture” allowed to assert its will over others is “multiculturalism”—and it will have no rivals.)

Is the good news of Jesus really for everyone?  We have observed from the progress of the gospel in the book of Acts across the boundaries that divide peoples that the love of God is not subject to any of these restricting borders.  This same progress of the gospel witnesses that the good news of Jesus really is for everyone; it was for the Roman centurion, the Samaritans and also for this Ethiopian eunuch.  When the eunuch asked if there was anything that could prevent him from being baptized—anything that could prevent him from identifying with Jesus Christ—the answer was clearly that nothing about who he is prevents it.

What has been true of Toronto for some time is now the case for what we call the GTA; the religions of the world exist side by side.  It was not that long ago that encounter with other religions required a trip overseas for Ontarians; now it is just a couple of kilometers drive—for many just next door.  For first century Christians living in the Roman Empire encounter with other religions was much more like our current experience with the world’s religions living side by side.

It is true that in the early parts of the story of the church recorded in Acts the thing that all these converts had in common—Jews, Samaritans, a Roman centurion, and an Ethiopian eunuch—was some affinity to Judaism.  For the Jewish believers the connection is obvious; for the Samaritans they were a mixed race of Jews intermarried with other peoples; both the Ethiopian eunuch and the Roman Centurion were “God-fearers”—people who were attached to Jewish faith but had not been circumcised.  By the end of the book of Acts there are churches filled with gentiles in many cities of the Roman Empire including Rome itself; many were converts from polytheistic religions.

I note that the first century followers of Jesus commended Jesus Christ to anyone; under the guidance of the Holy Spirit they come to the place where they understand that no distinction is to be made with regard to whom the good news of Jesus Christ it to be directed—as Peter announced to Cornelius the Roman Centurion and his household—“God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears God and does what is right is acceptable to him”.

The fact that there are many religions was not a reason—according to the Apostles—to withhold the good news about Jesus; it was not a reason to tell some and not others.  To say that Jesus Christ is only for Christians is tantamount to saying that God has loved some humans and not others.  I understand many are uneasy with the idea of evangelism—the effort to tell others the good news about Jesus—because it is thought to promote an air of superiority; it is thought to bear the sound of arrogance as if it were an exercise in “my-religion-is-better-than-yours” talk.

When Philip gets into the chariot with this Ethiopian eunuch we are told “he proclaimed to him the good news about Jesus.”  The proclamation of the gospel is never a comparison of religions as if to say my ideas are inherently superior ideas to yours as some sort of contest for who has the best religious ideas.  Evangelism is not to say that I’ve got truth figured out—as if I had cornered truth—and if you would only let me explain you would see it too.  Proclaiming the gospel is commending to people Jesus Christ in his truth.  In preaching I endeavour to commend to you Jesus Christ; the one with whom you have to deal is not me but him in his truth.

It is important to note that God does not force people to believe anything; God never runs roughshod over the human’s will; never disregards the very endowments God gave to us.  This should be the character for our commending Jesus Christ to people.  In August of 1739 after John Wesley preached an open air sermon he wrote in his journal: “I there offered Christ to about a thousand people”.  This is what Philip was doing in this chariot ride; it is what we do today in proclaiming Christ.

2.  We are not given the name of this Ethiopian yet enough had been said that we can sketch a basic profile.  He is an Ethiopian which tells us of his race.  He is a eunuch—likely castrated as a child and groomed for service of the Candace.  He was the chief financial officer for the Candace; in Ethiopia the Candace was the official title for the queen mother who ruled on behalf of her son the King because the king was considered  a child of the sun and therefore too holy to become involved with the secular functions of state.  This eunuch was, because of his position, an influential person.  We note that he rides in a chariot which tells us something of his status.  He has been to Jerusalem to worship which indicates that religious matters are important to him.  He possesses a scroll of the older testament which tells us of his wealth and influence.  You couldn’t get a free Bible app for your mobile device in those days; the Bible was hand copied onto parchment made from papyrus or animal skins and thus rare.  He is devout in that he is reading the prophet Isaiah this scroll.  He is educated in that he can read the scroll that was written in Greek.  He is humble enough to know what he doesn’t know; he knows he needs to be guided if he is to understand what he is reading.

When you read of this Ethiopian eunuch inviting Philip into his chariot to discuss the meaning of something read from the prophet Isaiah; to get the picture you need to imagine a foreign diplomat in Ottawa inviting a street preacher to join him in his Mercedes limousine for a Bible study.

We have been able to paint a basic profile of this man from the few details given in the text.  The reason I did this was to ask you what your profile is.  What is the profile of your neighbour or work colleague?  What I want to point out to you is that Jesus Christ sought out this man just as he was and was willing to engage him in the particulars of his life.  When we invite people to become members of the church we do not profile them to see is they will be a good fit—we point them to Jesus Christ.  To become a member is to do what this man did—“Look, here is water! What is to prevent me from being baptized?”   Baptism is the sacrament of initiation into faith in Christ—which obviously Philip had explained to him—which is to say this man was making the declaration, “I own Jesus Christ in faith”.  Nothing about him prevents faith; nothing about one another’s profile is a barrier either.

I also invite you to take note that he had questions and desired answers.  First let us observe that many of the barriers we put up to belief in Christ are self-imposed barriers—they are not of God’s doing.  We often say I’m not ready; I have too much to give up; if you really knew me you would agree that I am unfit.   Jesus transcends every one of these barriers to reach us for our own sakes (Jesus says I’m ready, I have given all for you, I have taken care of what you need).  The second thing is that he got answers that satisfied him.  Jesus never says to park your brain at the door; yet we should not let the limits of our ability to comprehend prevent owning Jesus.  Jesus was willing to engage him in these questions through his servant Philip; got questions? Let’s talk.  Think of all the resources Jesus has put before us in study opportunities through his church—if we need to know something Jesus never backs away from engagement with you and me.

3.  Some have said that Luke’s book that we know as The Acts of the Apostles should have been titled The Acts of the Holy Spirit.  Indeed, if we underline the number of times the Spirit is mentioned in the book we can understand why someone would suggest such a title.  In the story of the Philip and his chariot ride it is said that the Spirit instructed Philip to approach the chariot and to have “snatched Philip away” after baptizing the eunuch.  This is typical of the book with the Holy Spirit leading, filling, calling, probing, prodding, and acting in this unfolding story of the church.

Jesus had promised that the Holy Spirit would come and do all of this; the Spirit’s principle role is as spotlight on Jesus.  That the Holy Spirit guides Philip to meet up with the Ethiopian on his way home from Jerusalem presupposes that the Holy Spirit had also been at work in the heart and life of this eunuch to prepare him for this encounter.  John Wesley rightly speaks of this activity of the Spirit of God as prevenient grace; meaning the grace that goes before we come to that moment of ownership, of owning Christ personally. (To prevent something is to anticipate it).  If people are, as the gospel makes plain, blinded by sin to the fact of their sinnership then a grace of sightedness must go before so we are enabled to embrace God’s forgiveness of our sin.  This is the work of the Spirit of God that makes it possible for anyone to believe.

Perhaps you have had those encounters with people; you really had no plan to talk of the things of faith in Christ but somehow the subject came up.  You were, perhaps, hesitant but at some point you thought you would wade into the waters of talk of God, first your toe in the water, then up to your knees all the while thinking “I hope I don’t get in over my head”.  And after the conversation was over you felt exhilaration. Friends, how many of what seem to us “accidental” encounters with other people are really divine appointments?  Never underestimate what the Spirit of God is doing through a word you might offer someone else about your faith in Jesus.  Some can remember events or encounters you had before you came to a place of owning faith in Christ and looking back realize how these encounters helped to point you to Jesus.  Through the Spirit’s work we are those pointers for others.

I realize that we do not all possess the gifts of evangelism as Philip did who could begin from this passage in Isaiah and explain how it pointed to Jesus.  In our men’s study group one participant said that if he could get a friend to church to hear the preacher his work was done.  As there is truth in this idea; Jesus promises unfailingly to meet us in the proclamation of gospel.

On the other hand you don’t need to know the entire Bible before you might say something about one scripture or story of Jesus.  The witness of your experience is powerful; perhaps you can speak of how you have peace in your heart about life and death through faith in Jesus—you can’t explain how you have such peace but you know it nonetheless.  You can speak of how you go to church and find that somehow you receive strength in your inner being to face something difficult—you can’t explain how this occurs you just know you are strengthened.

4.  Never underestimate what God will do through your witness.  St. Irenaeus, a church bishop of the second century, said that this Ethiopian Eunuch became a preacher of the gospel in Ethiopia; according to the Orthodox Church tradition the Apostle Matthew also came to Ethiopia to help in the establishment of the church there.  In these first three centuries after Jesus the church grew exponentially in North Africa—of which Ethiopia was a part.

Then Philip began to speak, and starting with this scripture, he proclaimed to him the good news about Jesus.