May 5, 2012
I. Mark and Tisha Donnelly worshipped with Central Christian Church while Mark pursued an MBA at SMU in Theater and Arts Management. For me, they represent the next generation of young adults for the Church to reach. Mark had grown up in a Disciples of Christ congregation but had drifted away after high school. Tisha had never participated in church or been exposed to much about Christianity except what she had been learning from Mark. They are artsy, creative, thoughtful and intelligent. They loved the way Central Christian Church used the dramatic and visual arts as well as music. They were active and enthusiastic. We had them for dinner one evening because Tisha wanted to ask questions about Jesus and Christian faith. What really got the conversation going was looking at the pictures I had taken on my 2004 pilgrimage to Rome. The statue of Artemis of the Ephesians from the Vatican Museum was the jumping off point. For Tisha this was not the idol whose silversmiths protested Paul’s teaching in Acts 19. Rather, Artimis of the Ephesians was a symbol of feminist spiritual liberation. I did not turn the conversation to condemning Tisha for idolatry, but to talking about how Jesus and even Paul speak to the concerns of today’s women. Tisha did not make a confession of faith in Jesus before they moved to California to pursue their dramatic and art careers, but they both claimed Jesus as important to their journeys.
A. Many churches are trying a lot of new approaches to reach people like Mark and Tisha. On Easter Sunday Ed Young of Fellowship Church made the news by having a live lion and lamb in their service. A couple weeks later they made the news again with a “pet friendly” outdoor service to help animal lovers feel welcome and comfortable. I had to laugh a little because many churches have had blessing of the animals on St. Francis Day in October. Central Christian Church had been doing that for years before I became their pastor. With a dog park as a primary community outreach, Central Christian Church also added a service for dogs and their humans on St. Roch Day in August. I’m not proposing that for 1st Christian Church, Duncanville, only mentioning it as an example of new ways churches are trying to reach people.
B. In Acts 13:36, Paul said to the people in the synagogue at Antioch in Pisidia, “David … served the purpose of God in his own generation.” We face the challenge of serving God’s purpose in our generation, in which many of us feel like strangers in our own communities and even families.
1. The sometimes superficial Judeo-Christian cultural consensus with which many of us had become comfortable has dissolved. With the turmoil in global Islam in the daily news, we are uncertain about how to respond to the growing number of our Muslim neighbors. Among young adults, the fastest growing religious identification is “atheist,” and the attraction is not so much intellectual rejection of belief in God as blaming religion for much of the violence and injustice in history and the world.
2. Among the friends of my twenty and thirty something sons, few have any church experience. Among those that do, very few have continued to be active. Nevertheless, they do claim to be spiritual people. Our oldest son’s Pennsylvania church attempts to reach this generation with small home Bible groups that people may participate in for 2-3 years before they come to Sunday worship. Among the young adults who are active in church, denominational loyalty and identity and formal membership have become almost meaningless. Relationships with people who share their spiritual journey keep them involved.
II. Acts 6-8 reports the parallel challenges the Church faced in its earliest days, setting the stage for Philip’s conversation with the Ethiopian Eunuch in Acts 8:26-40. Suddenly, those first Jewish disciples of Jesus found themselves unwelcome in the Temple and synagogues. Stephen’s eloquent preaching in the Synagogue of the Freemen got him hauled before the Sanhedrin and stoned. This prompted a persecution in Jerusalem that scattered the Christians through Judea and even Samaria. Though as Jews they would have considered the Samaritans to be ethnically, theologically and ritually impure, they did worship the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, so the preached Jesus to them, and a great revival broke out.
Then an angel of the Lord said to Philip, “Get up and go toward the south to the road that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza.” (This is a wilderness road.)27So he got up and went. Now there was 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 worship28and was returning home; seated in his chariot, he was reading the prophet Isaiah.29Then the Spirit said to Philip, “Go over to this chariot and join it.”30So Philip ran up to it and heard him reading the prophet Isaiah. He asked, “Do you understand what you are reading?”31He replied, “How can I, unless someone guides me?” And he invited Philip to get in and sit beside him. 32Now the passage of the scripture that he was reading was this: “Like a sheep he was led to the slaughter, and like a lamb silent before its shearer, so he does not open his mouth.33In his humiliation justice was denied him. Who can describe his generation? For his life is taken away from the earth.”34The eunuch asked Philip, “About whom, may I ask you, does the prophet say this, about himself or about someone else?” 35Then Philip began to speak, and starting with this scripture, he proclaimed to him the good news about Jesus.36As they were going along the road, they came to some water; and the eunuch said, “Look, here is water! What is to prevent me from being baptized?”38He commanded the chariot to stop, and both of them, Philip and the eunuch, went down into the water, and Philip baptized him.39When they came up out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord snatched Philip away; the eunuch saw him no more, and went on his way rejoicing.40But Philip found himself at Azotus, and as he was passing through the region, he proclaimed the good news to all the towns until he came to Caesarea.
A. At the height of this revival Philip was sent on an unspecified errand to a deserted road notorious for dangerous robbers. He was sent toward the troublesome territory of Gaza. That was the home base of Israel’s ancient enemies the Philistines and is still a hotbed of turmoil today. The Spirit seems to drop him down in Azotus, which was called Ashdod when it was a leading city of the Philistines. Philip proclaimed the good news about Jesus to just one person, who though important in his own country, would not contribute anything to the growing, struggling Church in Judea and Samaria.
B. The Ethiopian Eunuch was even farther off from the Jewish beginnings of the Church than the Samaritans. Ethnically, he was Nubian – a Black African, not even Abyssinian who shared a Semitic ancestry with the Jews. He had embraced the God of Israel and come to Jerusalem to worship. Though “eunuch” was sometimes used for high government officials, that he was also described as a court official of the Candace suggests he probably had been castrated to protect the integrity of the Queen. That would have made him ineligible to enter the Jerusalem Temple. The language of “come to worship” suggests he was on a pilgrimage rather than engaging in Temple worship.
C. Philip’s interaction with the Ethiopian Eunuch is a tangled web of messy ministry. The Greek word for treasury is gaza, the same spelling as the unfriendly territory where Philip and the Ethiopian met. I think this word play emphasizes the messiness Philip is facing. The Ethiopian had the considerable sum required to purchase a hand-copied scroll of Isaiah. Though obviously intelligent, he did not have the education to interpret it. How did he know he could trust Philip to guide him? How did he know he could trust the good news about Jesus that Philip proclaimed to him? He was reading Isaiah 53:7-8 when Philip approached him. We can see how that easily leads to Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection. I wonder if he and Philip got as far as Isaiah 56 that talks about foreigners and eunuchs being welcomed into God’s covenant people. Is that what prompted him to ask to be baptized as eligible converts to Judaism would have been? None of the New Testament had been written yet. The Ethiopian would not have had the Gospel stories of Jesus nor the teaching of the Epistles. Isaiah is the only Scripture he brought back to Ethiopia from which to proclaim and teach the good news he had heard and believed about Jesus. Modern evangelism would consider this inadequate follow-up.
III. Love drives fear out of messy ministry. I have long been fascinated by 1 John 4:18. “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear.” I am convinced that when we respond to situations, challenges and crises out of fear, we almost always make the wrong decision. Fear makes us timid when we should be bold. Fear makes us lash out when we should listen. Fear makes us cling to what we might lose when we should be generous. Fear makes us focus on consequences when we should focus on faith. Fear makes us focus on punishment when we should focus on grace. Love, not courage, shows us how to respond to our fear. Courage rises out of that love to be able to do what love calls for even when we are afraid.
A. We may well feel fear in the face of the unfamiliar and uncomfortable trends in our culture, particularly among the emerging generation of adults. Fear can lead us to retrench and withdraw. Or fear can lead us to capitulate and copy. But love will motivate us to proclaim the good news about Jesus to the people who do not know him and may have distorted ideas of what it means to trust him. Love will motivate us not to be satisfied with just getting enough people to keep the church going but to enthusiastically cultivate disciples who follow Jesus into a whole new life.
B. Former National Public Radio reporter and social critic Ken Myers was recently asked by Ginny Mooney of the Christian Post how the church can be relevant to the broader culture to draw seekers to Christ. Myers replied, “Let’s substitute the phrase ‘way of life’ for the word ‘culture.’ How can the Church be relevant to the way of life of its neighbors? As Eugene Peterson has said, ‘by showing them a better way of life.’ … If people are just looking for a religious Band-Aid or spiritual Prozac, they are not seeking the redemption promised in the Gospel which calls them to die to self and live (really live) to Christ. … The Great Commission is all about making disciples, not converts. … Pastors (and churches) need to be committed to the long-term task of nurturing mature believers.”
C. This Philip is probably a Greek convert, not the briefly mentioned Philip among Jesus’ twelve disciples. His encounter with the Ethiopian offers four simple, practical steps for addressing the unchurched and dechurched people of our generation. (Ralph Milton’s E-Zine for people of faith with a sense of humor)1. You have to be there.
2. They have to be interested.
3. You have to be willing to teach.
4. You have to be ready to act.
D. Love drives fear out of messy ministry. Love is the better way of life we show to the people to whom we want to proclaim the good news about Jesus. This is the love that permeates all of 1 John. Love is what pushed Philip past his fears, and the Ethiopian went on his way rejoicing! Unchurched people decide whether what we say about Jesus is authentic and trustworthy based on their observation of our love for each other and our love for those hardest to love. Unchurched people will hear the good news about Jesus if we love them enough to listen to their questions and opinions without arguing them. Every one of us has someone like Mark and Tisha in our lives whom we can love.