31 Maple Street
Bristol, Connecticut USA
June 6, 2021
Rev. Kristen J. Kleiman
New Ways of Being The Church Series
They had no intention of creating a new religion. Even after three years of following Jesus, even after his death and resurrection, Jesus’ followers had no plans to be anything other than Jews. And that was still true, even after Jesus ascended to heaven and his followers received the blessing of the Holy Spirit. Jesus’ followers were not looking to do anything new, to be anything new; however God had other plans.
Throughout the next few weeks, we will explore stories from the Acts of the Apostles, a new Testament book in which God shows Jesus’ followers that they are called to new paths of leadership, new paths of ministry, new ways of living. In Acts of the Apostles, Jesus’ followers are called to open their minds and expand their definition of who is called to lead and who is welcome to be a part of this new community.
And that is where we start this morning. Jesus’ followers were in Jerusalem, speaking boldly about Jesus, sharing with more and more of their fellow Jews that God’s promise of the Messiah, the Christ, had been fulfilled in Jesus. Staying in Jerusalem made sense. It was comfortable and familiar. But then….things started to get uncomfortable.
Peter and John were arrested and intimidated by those in authority after healing a man and preaching about Jesus. Stephen, a new leader in the community, was then stoned by the religious council after he, too, refused to keep quiet about Jesus. And so as scripture says, a “severe persecution” began against Jesus’ followers and the believers “were scattered throughout the countryside of Judea and Samaria” (Acts 8:1)
Scattered but not intimidated. Scattered but silenced. Scattered so they could discover that God had a broader welcome in mind.
Philip was one of those believers who was scattered, sent out from the familiarity of Jerusalem and his own kind, to discover God’s new paths of welcome.
First God sent Philip to the Samaritans, which you may know had many beliefs in common with the people of Israel and yet, the Jews looked down on the Samaritans for racial reasons as well as religious differences. Philip discovered though that God was leading him to a broader welcome, and Philip’s teaching, preaching, and healing led to many Samaritans coming to believe in Jesus Christ.
And you might think that Philip would stay in Samaria. Here, he was not persecuted. Here, he had received a warm and joyous reception. Here, he was with people who were almost like him. Goodness knows it is human nature to like to be settled in one place, especially a comfortable place. That wasn’t God’s plan though. God continued to invite the believers into a new way of being God’s community on earth, which meant expanding their welcome.
And so an angel of the Lord says to Philip, “‘Get up and go toward the south to the road that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza.’ (This is a wilderness road.)” (Acts 8:26) The Greek word for wilderness can mean a desert road or it can mean a deserted road. Either way, Philip had to wonder what God was up to. Why leave a city full of people so receptive to the good news? Why go out into the wilderness, to a place that was desert and likely deserted?
Philip might have wondered. Philip might have doubted God’s plan and that’s okay. Wondering, questioning, even doubting are an important part of faith – as is trust. Philip trusted God. Philip opened himself up to be led by the Holy Spirit, and when Philip discovered an important official from the Ethiopian royal court on this deserted, wilderness road, Philip again listened to the Spirit and ran up to the man in his chariot and asked, “ ‘Do you understand what you are reading?’” (Acts 8:30).
This took a lot of boldness on Philip’s part. This took a lot of faithfulness. The court official was a complete stranger. The Ethiopian might believe in God, want to know God’s word; however he was not the same nationality as Philip; he was not the same status as Philip; he was not the same race as Philip.
Philip could have used any of those reasons to be intimidated by the Ethiopian court official or to disdain the him. It is so easy for us to come up with reasons why this person, this person that God has put right in front of us, is not a person we are called to welcome, a person we are called to share the good news of God’s love with.
They have tattoos and body piercings. They are busy with young children. They are a government official or a vice president of a company. They are pushing a shopping cart with their belongings. They might judge me or stop being my friend. They don’t live in my town. They don’t live in my state. They don’t live in my country.
It is so easy for us to come up with reasons why this person, this person that God has clearly put right in front of us, is not a person we are called to welcome.
Philip could have come up with so many reasons to just keep walking, and yet, he opened himself up and listened to the Spirit. He boldly and faithfully walked over to the Ethiopian court official and began a conversation. Then Philip nurtured the man’s relationship with scripture, nurtured the man’s relationship with God, and “proclaimed to him the good news of Jesus.” (Acts 8:35)
The Ethiopian court official was so inspired by the Holy Spirit, so excited that he too could know such unconditional love in his life that he said, “ ‘Look, here is water! What is to prevent me from being baptized?’” (Acts 8:37). And the royal official called for the chariot to be stopped and Philip baptized him right then and there.
God calls us to cross all sorts of boundaries to share the good news of Christ’s love with the world. God calls us to step over and step beyond the geographic, racial, socio economic and gender boundaries we have created that keep us from sharing the good news, especially with others who do not look and act just like us. In this encounter between Philip and the Ethiopian official, we see that God calls us to welcome all, literally all, baptize them, and nurture their relationships with God through Jesus Christ.
However, not baptize, nurture, and welcome them so they can join one church community. It’s important to notice that as soon as Philip baptizes the court official, Philip is “snatched away”, spirited on to nurture, baptize, and welcome others to know Jesus Christ.
As a local church pastor, who has served only 2 congregations in 22 years, I want to gather people in. I want to develop life-long relationships in which I can nurture people’s faith and strengthen their relationship with God. It’s a blessing to me to walk with you on this journey of life and faith.
I am discovering though that brief, yet holy encounters with people, like the one between Philip and the Ethiopian official, can also be great blessings because it isn’t the length of the encounter that is important. I cannot know what God is doing in the 3 minutes that someone listens to part of one of my messages; what the Spirit is doing when we baptize a child; what change Christ is making in someone’s heart after a prayer shared, a scripture meme posted. I cannot know. I can only trust that God is nurturing this person through this brief and holy encounter.
As Jesus’ believers were being called to new paths of being community, so, too, are we being called to new ways of being the Church, new ways of welcoming and sharing the good news. Sometimes, that new path might lead us to someone unexpected. Sometimes, that path might lead to a brief and yet deeply holy encounter.
All of these paths lead us right where we should be – nurturing, baptizing, and welcoming others into a relationship with our God of love, made known through Jesus Christ.