May 6, 2012/Fifth Sunday of Eastertide
A couple of years ago, I collaborated with a good friend and colleague of mine on a Bible Study on this passage from Acts. We created it first for our presbytery council, and then for the presbytery. My friend, Margaret and I were part of a new committee called the Transformation Outfitters. It wasn’t so much a committee as it was a visioning team for the presbytery. The presbytery, with the Transformation Outfitters leading the charge, had committed to becoming an intentional missional body. For those of you who may be unfamiliar with the term missional, I’ll do my best to explain it.
My understanding of this word is probably one of many, but as I grasp it, the idea of being missional is the people of God seeking to be the church wherever and whenever we are. For example, if I want to be missional, then I’m going to try and figure out how God is calling me to serve in this particular place and time as opposed to what I did when I served the church in Minnesota. My context of ministry has changed. In Minnesota I served a small church in a small town that was shifting from being primarily farming and agriculture to a different kind of community. For some of the residents it was a bedroom community. The work was in Rochester or Mabel, so they lived in Canton, but worked elsewhere.
The context is different here, isn’t it? Shawnee is much larger. We have urban problems. I realize that not everyone sees us as particularly urban, but this neighborhood has very real urban issues. There are hungry and homeless people all around us. Literally. At least one, if not more, sleeps right out there on our porch. There are universal human needs, no matter what context we live in, but the way these needs manifest themselves here is different from my former church in the Midwest or New York or Maryland, etc. So as a minister, I have to figure out how God is calling me to serve here.
The idea behind the missional church is that individuals, congregations and governing bodies like presbyteries discern how God is calling them to live and serve right where they are.
Sounds like common sense doesn’t it? But the truth is that more than often than not in my time as a minister I’ve come up with programs, plans, ideas and said, “Hey God. This is what I want to do. Actually, this is what I’m going to do. I need you to bless it. Make it work, and if you want to join in, that’s okay too.” How do you think God has responded?
Sometimes the programs I’ve created and co-created with others have worked. Sometimes not. If I wasn’t listening to the needs around me and just trying to fill what I considered to be my new program quota, the ideas flopped. I’ve seen this happen with others in congregations. I’ve seen it happen in presbyteries. We come up with some great program that we think will make everything swell and it doesn’t work. The program idea may be sound, but if it doesn’t fill the need that God is trying to meet in that time and place, it just doesn’t work. Even with the best of intentions.
That’s how I understand missional. That’s what the presbytery I served in back in Iowa and Minnesota wanted to model. Missional.
So that’s how we come to today’s passage. My friend Margaret and I used this passage from Acts as our focus. Why did we choose this? Because we discerned in this story of what the Spirit does in the calling of Philip and his encounter with the Ethiopian eunuch as what we also hoped for in our churches and in our own lives.
Philip’s story alone is pretty remarkable. Just a few chapters before this one he and twelve others, including Stephen, were commissioned to feed and care for the widows in the community. They were the first deacons. The apostles needed time to pray and spread the word so they laid hands on these twelve so that they would also be empowered by the Spirit to do their own unique work. But the Spirit is never to be underestimated and it blows where it will. It moved Stephen to speak to the powers and principalities even though it meant his martyrdom by stoning. And Philip? After Stephen was killed, Saul led a severe persecution against all the believers in Jerusalem. So with the exception of the apostles, all the other believers were scattered. Philip went into Samaria. Even though he wasn’t commissioned to preach or to evangelize, that’s what he did. He preached to the Samaritans. His preaching expelled unclean spirits from those who were possessed. Folks who were lame or paralyzed walked again. Philip even converted a magician named Simon. He was baptized and he stayed by Philip’s side for a long time. Although Simon once performed acts that amazed all those around him, now he was amazed by the miracles and signs that happened through Philip because of the Holy Spirit.
Seems a little different from what the original intentions for Philip and the other twelve were, doesn’t it? The Spirit blows where it will and it directed Philip in a completely different way than any of the apostles or Philip could have imagined.
So we come to this particular chapter in Philip’s story. Philip is told by an angel or the Lord to get up and go south. Take the wilderness road that leads from Jerusalem to Gaza. I suspect that Philip might have found this command odd. Why a wilderness road? Just the name implies that it wouldn’t be well traveled. What use would God have for Philip there?
But Philip didn’t question. He just got up and went.
Turned out a ministry was waiting on that wilderness road. I doubt it was one that even Philip expected. An Ethiopian eunuch, an official of the court of Queen Candace was in his chariot leaving Jerusalem for home. The Spirit tells Philip to go over to the chariot. Philip ran to it and when he did he heard the eunuch reading aloud from the prophet Isaiah. Philip asked him if he understood what he was reading and the eunuch invited him to join him and guide him in the interpretation.
Philip began with that Isaiah passage and told him, to quote the old hymn, the story of Jesus. When they came to some water, the eunuch was moved to ask for baptism. More specifically he said, “What is to prevent me from being baptized?” We don’t have a record of Philip’s exact response but it must have been a “yes.” The chariot was ordered to stop. They got out. Philip baptized the eunuch. When he and the eunuch came out of the water Philip was snatched up by the Spirit and taken away. The eunuch didn’t see Philip again, but went on his way rejoicing. Philip found himself in Azotus and went through each town proclaiming the good news.
Pretty powerful story isn’t it? Philip hears the call, answers the call and a conversion happens. It’s the kind of story that I love because it’s all completely unexpected. Philip himself was unexpected. The eunuch? Absolutely! He was of a different race, a different culture. Yet he had gone to Jerusalem to worship, so he had been exposed to Judaism in some way or another. There were plenty of reasons to prevent him from being baptized. First and foremost he was a eunuch. The Law stated that someone with his unique physical condition could not worship in the temple. Philip was Jewish. He certainly knew the Law. But he didn’t hesitate to baptize him. This is a wonderful story of conversion.
But who is really converted here? In a blog I read this week by a fellow pastor in Denver, that was the question. Who was really converted? Yes the eunuch was converted; that’s the obvious answer. But there had to have been a conversion for Philip as well. A conversion in how he thought and believed and in the assumptions he made about who belonged and who didn’t.
It seems to me that conversion, like repentance, is not just a change in belief but a change in heart. Philip’s heart had to have been changed for him to hear the Spirit and listen to the Spirit and approach the person the Spirit told him to approach, eunuch and all.
It’s really easy for us who are already believers to think that our call is to convert others, but I wonder if the real call is for us to be converted. Maybe that’s the whole point of being missional. It’s not just discerning God’s will for us where we are, it’s discerning that God is calling us to open ourselves to whatever really new thing that God is doing in whatever time and place we find ourselves in. It’s God calling us, through the Spirit, to change our minds about who belongs and who doesn’t. It’s about being willing not just to tell the story of Jesus to someone else, but to hear that story from someone else’s perspective; to see that story through someone else’s eyes.
Philip was told to get up and go. He did. And in that process he converted an Ethiopian eunuch. But I suspect Philip was changed as well. Not just him but the whole course of the ministry from that point on. In the language of our gospel lesson, new branches were growing from the true vine. Branches that none of the original disciples could have possibly forseen. But that’s how the Spirit works, isn’t it?
Just like Philip we are called to get up and go, to proclaim the good news, to share the story of Jesus. We are called to be missional, to discern God’s work right here and now. We are called to evangelize and baptize and even convert. But in that process we are also called to be converted, to see that the new thing God is doing means we will change and be changed. But we are not alone in the process. We are loved. We are emboldened. We are empowered. The Spirit does not leave us alone. The Spirit calls. So let’s get up and go. Amen.