“(Philip) asked, ‘Do you understand what you are reading?’ (The eunuch) replied, ‘How can I, unless someone guides me?’” Acts 8:30b-31a New Revised Standard Version
Always available and ever ready for the next big opportunity, that was the evangelist of the early Christ movement who we know as Philip. At no particular point are we provided with lengthy credentials and impressive accolades which followed this man of God about, but we are given the impression that Philip was passionate for his faith despite the spreading persecution breathed upon those who followed “The Way.” The conditions at this stage within the Book of Acts appear far from ideal for the spread of the Gospel, but at the same time the pressure applied to the faithful does not seem to have deterred men and women such as Philip. It has been stated throughout the history of Christianity that difficulty has a way of extending the message of Christ that seems to be far more reserved during periods of freedom and acceptance. While there were some among the Christian community who remained close to the “mother church” located in Jerusalem, the period of persecution provided the opportunity for other believers to branch out beyond the narrow confines of that area with which they were most familiar and to journey forth into uncharted territory with the Good News. Equipped with the power of the Holy Spirit, these faithful Christ followers lived into Jesus’ assurance found in Acts 1:8 stating, “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria.” The Gospel of Christ was by no means a message isolated to one certain area in time and history, but rather a transforming message to be carried with all believers wherever they may find themselves in the world.
This context brings us to a very special encounter within the early portion of Acts: a moment of exchange between Philip and an intriguing, unnamed eunuch said to be from Ethiopia. While the details of this eunuch’s life are sparse, we are told that he was returning home following a season of worship within Jerusalem, the hub of Judaism. We can only assume his faith affiliation, but it does appear that the eunuch may have been a God-fearer from beyond Judaism or perhaps a convert to the faith we would rightly recognize as a proselyte. Regardless of his attraction to the worship of the Jewish community, we are told that off the beaten path, in a desolate location, this eunuch was having a moment with a well-known portion of the Book of Isaiah that we identify as the “Suffering Servant” passages. Can you visualize his predicament? Possessing a portion of Scripture, but having scant details as to its background or the significance of this individual highlighted by the words of the prophet. Perhaps we might state, “Well it really isn’t all that complicated. After all, we know the rest of the story.” But…can you imagine not knowing? Not fully comprehending? Having just enough information to entice further examination, but no one to offer clarification? That was the situation of the Ethiopian eunuch. It is safe to say this individual in that moment, like countless others in our world today, was “stuck.” Many of us who have been raised within the Christian faith and participated consistently in the life of the Church have a difficult time relating to the eunuch and others like him. I guess we could say our familiarity with the Good News in a way has bred contempt. We have heard and experienced so much Christianity that it just seems routine within our lives.
Routine may be one of many factors which functions as a hindrance to the effectiveness of our Christian witness. With time, we have forgotten the joy associated with the breakthrough discovery of God’s love expressed through the giving of his Son for our sins. Rather than approaching this moment as being routine, we learn from the example of Philip and his interaction with the eunuch that people reach a moment of receptivity that cannot possibly be staged, forced, or overlooked. Philip’s living in tune with the Spirit’s leadership provided him with a heightened sensitivity to a person who not only experienced great need, but also a willingness to become a part of a hope-filled response to the eunuch’s longing. This early evangelist’s effectiveness was born not of haphazard approaches to people at random, but through hearing, seeing, and following the Spirit’s nudge to draw alongside of this otherwise stranger. With eager willingness, Philip made himself available to one who found himself searching for meaning while possessing the ability to address his questions, concerns, and confusion. The starting point for an evangelistic encounter came in Philip’s initial inquiry and the capacity for Philip to then hear out the eunuch’s desire to discover more of the “Suffering Servant.” From there, Philip was able to begin a dialogue which began with what the eunuch knew from an informational vantage point and moved into the realm of clarification so as to lead to understanding. This is a key part of effective evangelism especially in our world today. We must not assume what another person already knows while at the same time not imposing an overwhelming litany of theological arguments related to the necessity of personal salvation.
The relational approach to evangelism which I addressed last month seeks to develop common ground as a launching point for evangelistic conversations. As we discover in the exchange between Philip and the eunuch, genuine concern was expressed, and proper questions created the space for Philip to share Christ with the man. The same can be said for our witness in the world today. While a faithful example goes a long way in adding credibility to our witness, the time does come for meaningful conversation to occur with others. The nature of such conversation may not be a quick “in and out” moment. There will no doubt be times when we share in multiple conversations related to the Gospel before one is ready to make a full commitment. At the heart of such conversations must be a genuineness that seeks not so much to be heard as a willingness to hear from the other. It is in such hearing that we understand another’s story, his or her challenges, and what obstacles may exist to following Christ as Savior. As we abide with those who are searching, they are able to discover: 1. Not only do we care, but God cares, 2. It is okay to have questions, and 3. We long to join them in their process and will not leave them floundering. Thanks be to God for those faithful servants who, like Philip, have come alongside of us to show us the way and brought light to our darkness.
Serving Christ Together,
The Rev. Kelley Smart