Scriptures: Acts 8:26-35; Acts 26:12-18
by Pastor Tracey Leslie
When I started seminary, Intro to Old Testament was one of my first courses. Classmates were surprised that I seemed to be familiar with every little strange, obscure story contained in those ancient texts. Now, they were a firm part of my memory because my mom loved those stories. Growing up, she would often share them with me at bedtime. My mom always read the bible before bed. Once I got into high school and college, my mom often went to bed before I did. So, I would go into her bedroom to tell her goodnight and she would talk to me about the bible story she’d been reading. She asked me questions too. “Didn’t that story sound strange? Why might they have treated women that way? Why did they seem superstitious? Was I surprised by so much sibling rivalry and mishaps?” I think my Mom’s questions were cleverly designed to get me thinking about those stories. My mom instinctively knew that everyone loves a good story. Everyone loves a good story. Stories are, generally speaking, the most effective means of communication. They’re engaging and imaginative. Whether raised in an ancient tribal village or a modern suburb, stories have never lost their appeal.
Last week I began a new sermon series called Built to Last: How the Church Can Thrive in Today’s Culture. As I’ve mentioned – and as we’ve all noticed – church attendance is not what it was in the 1970’s. Nevertheless, Church – as a community of disciples gathered around the message and mission of Jesus – is God’s idea and so we know that Church – as a community of disciples gathered around the message and mission of Jesus – won’t ever fail. The Church is built to last… but perhaps, not always in the format we envision or are accustomed to.
In his book Lasting Impact: 7 Powerful Conversations That Will Help Your Church Grow, Pastor Carey Nieuwhof talks about how today’s culture impacts the Church and its mission. One section is titled “5 Things Netflix is Showing Church Leaders about the Future.”
Now, I remember a time when I very young and my mom took me with her to church choir rehearsal and on that particular evening, rehearsal ended early. And why? Because there was going to be an Elvis Presley concert on TV and no one wanted to be late for the broadcast. And why? Because if you missed it, you missed it. Live viewing was all there was. No VCR’s, no “On Demand,” no NetFlix original series that you can consume on your own schedule whether you consume it over the course of one weekend or one year.
But here’s the most significant thing Nieuwhof points out: great stories are still alive and well; well-appreciated and able to impact people’s lives. And that, my friends, is good news for us because we have a handle on the greatest story ever told. But the way in which it is most effectively told and received is impacted by cultural context.
Here’s the thing – like it or not – people no longer think they should have to show up at a particular place at a particular time to hear this story [the bible story]. So consider what that means: If, as a congregation, we depend solely or even primarily on me on Sunday morning to be the only story teller of the gospel story, then the number of people hearing the story is going to be severely limited.
Families used to gather round the TV to watch a show together. Decades ago, people’s only movie viewing option was a public movie theatre. But today, we can watch a movie on our laptop at the end of the work day in our home office after the kids are in bed. So we’ve grown accustomed to hearing stories in more individualized and personalized venues.
Finally, we’re no longer in a culture where we rely on trained professionals to communicate a message or tell the story. People want to hear a story told by someone like them. With You Tube, anyone can produce almost anything. Stories and presentations don’t need to come from professionals but are often most valued when presented by ordinary people who have lived the story. The lesson in that should be pretty obvious to us: people don’t want religious stories to be the sole property of religious professionals.
Finally, the explosion of social media reveals that people want to interact with the story teller and, while I honestly wouldn’t mind if one of you stopped me to ask a question during a sermon, it’s likely that most of you wouldn’t feel comfortable doing that in this setting. So we’ve all got to be able to tell the story in a variety of contexts.
So friends, it is up to all of us in all kinds of times and places to communicate the story of Jesus, the good news. And to do that, we need to be story tellers of, primarily, two intersecting stories: 1) the story of Jesus; and 2) the story of our relationship with Jesus and the difference he has made in how we live.
The story in the Book of Acts about Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch is one of my favorite bible stories. Now, the stage is set for this interaction because Philip is responsive to the leading of the Holy Spirit. And while I don’t imagine that many of us hear audible angel voices, I do believe that we are today still led and directed by the Spirit.
An example: a few months after I began my ministry in Gary, I learned of a couple who’d visited the church several times prior to my arrival and the wife had been diagnosed with cancer. Now, they had come from a church tradition that did not accept women in lead ministry roles. But I began to visit with them and we looked at scripture together; they returned to worship and after some time told me they would like to join our church. I visited with them one morning in their home to talk more about church membership and they were eager to join that very next Sunday. Well, I really like people to be in a membership class when they join the church so they feel more connected to the community. Also, that next Sunday was a communion Sunday and there was something else special taking place in the service that day and I thought, “Oh my word, we’ll be in church all day. I should tell them that we need to wait just one more week.” But in that moment, I felt God’s Spirit guiding my spirit and I felt like I needed to honor their request. That Sunday they joined the church. Six days later, Janice succumbed to her cancer and died. Her husband, who many of you have met when he worshipped here, told me that it was so important to Janice to join the church before she died. He went on to be one of my strongest ministry leaders in that church. Friends, the Spirit can and does direct us in how to respond to people.
And so the Spirit directs Philip and he encounters this Ethiopian eunuch who he overhears reading from Isaiah, chapter 53, a passage of scripture often referred to as the 4th Suffering Servant song. Although the scripture was undoubtedly applied to Israel in its original context, it came to be understood as finding additional meaning and ultimate fulfillment in the life and death of Jesus. And that later interpretation and application is what Philip begins to share with the eunuch.
But notice how Philip opens the conversation. He simply asks, “Do you understand what you are reading?” That question gives Philip an opportunity to dip his toe into the evangelistic waters, so to speak. And when the eunuch’s response expresses a desire to learn and know more, Philip responds to his expressed desire and invitation. Friends, questions were how my mom drew me into those bible stories as a child. A question is how Philip opens his dialogue with this eunuch. Questions are always a great way to open dialogue with people… so long as we’re honest and really want to hear what people have to say. And so, by opening with a question, Philip is able to share with this man the story of Jesus.
So, as I’ve said, we need to be able to share with others the story of Jesus. But we can only effectively do that if we (1) are attentive to the Spirit leading us and (2) test the waters to see if people are open to hearing the story through sincere questions that we ask. Cramming Jesus down people’s throats… or stuffing Jesus into their ears uninvited… is hardly a very useful or respectful approach to sharing the story. So, we approach with care and we test the waters.
But here’s what is perhaps most critical of all: we must know the story of Jesus for ourselves. We can’t tell others what we don’t know. Many people say that they don’t talk to others about the bible because they don’t feel like they know enough about it. Well friends, there’s a super easy solution to that problem: join a study group and study the bible because if we’ve never taken time to really read and study scripture, it’s gonna be hard to tell the story and harder still to field questions we receive. What an incredible blessing and gift it can be to tell someone the story of Jesus: God’s love, grace and forgiveness made flesh.
Now, here’s one final thing I want us all to notice about this encounter between Philip and the eunuch: this eunuch was a religious outsider, an outcast because a eunuch was judged to be unclean or impure in the first century Jewish/Christian world. Now, how one became a eunuch was a mixed bag. Some eunuchs were born that way, some were compelled to become eunuchs and some chose it for themselves. And we have no idea about this man because Philip isn’t focused on that; he isn’t repelled by it, he isn’t fixated on it; it doesn’t concern him. Philip’s attention is focused on sharing the story of Jesus with someone who is eager to hear it.
Friends, it is up to all of us in a variety of times and places to be story tellers to any who are interested in hearing the good news of Jesus. And again, to do that, we need to be able to tell two intersecting stories: 1) the story of Jesus; and 2) the story of our relationship with Jesus. Philip’s encounter with the Ethiopian eunuch is a beautiful account of Philip sharing the story of Jesus.
And our second scripture this morning, from Acts 26, is Paul’s story of his relationship with Jesus and the difference Jesus has made in his life. It is interesting to note that, through the course of Acts, the story of Paul’s conversion is told three times… and each time just a tad bit differently. Incidentally, none of those accounts include a horse. This morning’s reading is the final telling of Paul’s conversion and it’s told in an important context that impacts the telling. Paul is near the end of his life we think. He is under house arrest by the Roman authorities. Festus, a newly appointed Roman procurator of Judea inherits this prisoner Paul and he quickly recognizes that the root of Paul’s imprisonment is connected to turmoil and dispute among Jewish leadership. The Romans weren’t stupid. They knew it was always a challenge to exercise the proper amount of control over the Jews. With too loose of control, they might become emboldened and rebel against Rome and with too oppressive of control, they might determine that holy war was their only option to defend their faith. But Rome’s management of the Jews had become even more difficult since this Galilean rabbi named Jesus had been put to death and – according to his followers – rose from the dead just as he’d promised he would. This was for Rome a problem that just would not go away. And so when Herod Agrippa and his sister – who are themselves marginal Jews, secular Jews we might call them – come to visit Festus, Festus is eager to get their take on this prisoner Paul who has been zealous in spreading the message of Jesus. Paul’s imprisonment is, for Festus, a political problem to be solved. But Paul’s imprisonment is, for Paul, yet another opportunity to tell the story of how his life was forever changed on that day on a Damascus road when he was encountered by Jesus and called into ministry. Now, there is quite a bit that precedes and follows the verses I shared this morning. I would really, really encourage you to read on your own Acts, chapter 25, beginning at verse 23 and reading through the entirety of chapter 26. Chapter 26 ends with these words spoken by Herod Agrippa to Festus: “This man [Paul] could have been set free if he had not appealed to the emperor.”[i] But here’s the thing: Paul is already free and he is unconcerned about whether he is in prison or cut loose. Paul’s only concern, his driving passion, is to tell the story of Jesus; that is what he lives for and is willing to die for. And so he delivers a nearly chapter long speech about how his life has been spent answering the call he received from Jesus that day on the Damascus Road. He talks about the person he was before Jesus encountered him on that Road and he talks about the person he has become because of that encounter. Paul tells a powerful story; but he can only tell it because he’s lived it.
Folks, everyone loves a good story and we ought to – each of us – have two incredible stories to tell. We should celebrate them with one another and share them with others. The first church that I pastored after seminary had a children’s gospel choir and one of their favorite songs to sing was “Everybody Oughta Know”… everybody oughta know who Jesus is.
And friends, it is up to all of us in all kinds of times and places to be story tellers of two intersecting stories: 1) the story of Jesus; and 2) the story of our relationship with Jesus and the difference he has made in how we live… because everybody oughta know. Amen.
[i] Acts 26:32
By Pastor Tracey Leslie
As some of you are aware I was on vacation last weekend in Cincinnati with my sister. On Saturday we visited the Freedom Center. At the museum I read the remarkable story of a young African man born the son of a tribal king and then snatched up by traders, stored in a slave castle, carried across the ocean chained in the hull of a ship and subjected to slavery on a southern plantation. Can you imagine being born a prince and becoming a slave? While in Cincinnati, my sister and I rented the movie Saints and Strangers, the story of the settling of the Plymouth Colony. A character in the story was a Native American named Squanto from the Patuxet tribe. He too was captured and enslaved during an early European expedition to America. It’s estimated that he made the Transatlantic voyage six times during his life. On his first return voyage, he discovered his tribe was nearly extinct having been wiped out by disease. In the movie, there is ambiguity surrounding Squanto’s cause of death. He was ultimately viewed with suspicion by the natives and the pilgrims. Squanto spent much of his life in a sort of cultural “no man’s land”; no longer belonging to the nearly extinct culture of his birth, but never finding a home in the culture of the European settlers. In one scene in the movie he speaks to a pilgrim about his feeling of longing for home even while physically present in his native land.
Identity is a powerful thing. Today more than ever in history, people find themselves moving among cultures. Immigrants, in particular, often struggle to define and describe their identity. Where does identity come from and to whom do we belong? Is identity about nationality; our family of origin; our ethnicity? How is it influenced by our level of education, our economic status or the belief system in which we are indoctrinated? What prejudices, stereotypes and biases do we carry in relation to the various categories that combine to construct identity for ourselves and others? Studies reveal that many who are unable to establish a clear sense of identity succumb to substance abuse and depression. Likewise, those prejudices and biases we hold with regard to the identities of others often play out through violence and oppression. Few questions are of more critical importance than the question of identity.
For several weeks now, I’ve been leading a Sunday morning study on the gospel of John. All of the gospel writers – and especially John – seek through their gospel narrative to reveal the true identity of Jesus. The decision we make about the identity of Jesus is critical to our own identity. In naming ourselves “Christian,” we reveal that who we are is dependent upon who we understand Jesus to be. Our identity is wrapped up in the identity of Jesus. Certainly, there are many factors that contribute to identity. But, if we name ourselves “Christian,” it means that no other influence – no other factor, no other role, no other relationship – can be allowed to take precedent over that primary identity established through our relationship with Jesus. We may be children, parents, spouses, teachers, bosses, Democrats, Republicans, conservatives, liberals… but none of those can be allowed to take precedent over our primary identity: Christian; an identity discovered and established in the context of relationship with Jesus. To the fundamental question of identity, the question “Who are you?” we respond “Call me Christian.”
So, what does it mean to you, to us, to be called Christian; to define ourselves in relation to Christ? Is it truly the identity that supersedes all others; the primary identity that shapes, guides and defines our words, our values, our thoughts, our behaviors and our character?
Today begins a new sermon series called Built to Last: How the Church Can Thrive in Today’s Culture. Friends, today in America, fewer and fewer people attend church. Research has shown that some view that label “Christian” in a very negative light. They feel no attraction to Christ because they have had hurtful, harmful encounters with those who bear his name. And research has shown that for many people, the definition of Christian may have little to do with how that identity is described and defined in scripture. Today in American, there is cultural confusion about what a Christian is, what it means to self-identify as Christian and that is exercising an enormous – and sometimes negative – impact on those already in the church and, especially, on those we are trying to reach. We are now in a culture where we can no longer afford to assume that people share a common, biblically-based understanding of what it means to be a Christian.
So, what does it mean? Even for many of us raised in the church, the biblical and theological understanding of Christian may be ambiguous.
Now in truth, in our gospels, Jesus never uses the term “Christian” and the word “Church” appears only a couple times in the gospel of Matthew. But I do think that today’s gospel reading sheds important light on the meaning of Christian because it incorporates two terms or titles that would have been crucial to understanding the identity of Jesus and, therefore, his followers within the early Church. Those two terms, those two titles are “teacher” and “Lord.” Jesus affirms that those two terms are appropriately descriptive of who he is. He says to the disciples, “You call me teacher and Lord – and you are right, for that is what I am.”[i] And so Christians, folks like you and me, are unable to understand our own identity without having a clear understanding of what it means for Jesus to be our teacher and our Lord.
The scripture I read this morning is John’s account of Jesus’ final evening with his disciples before his arrest and crucifixion. Jesus is sharing a meal with them. Now, feet got especially dirty in the ancient Mediterranean world. The average peasant’s only form of transportation was their own two feet; shoes were open sandals, and roads were dusty. Feet got pretty nasty. Usually, people washed their own feet when they arrived at someone’s home. It was common courtesy to have water and a basin available for ones guests to wash their feet. If a guest was especially important, their host might honor them by having a servant wash their feet. But Jesus shocks his disciples, in fact he makes them quite uncomfortable, when he – their teacher and Lord – gets up from the table and begins to wash their feet. One would never wash the feet of a subordinate. Now Jesus knows the disciples are struggling with this; finding it hard to accept. Peter comes right out and objects. But after Jesus has served them in such a humble way, he interprets his own actions. Jesus will clearly explain what those humble, sacrificial actions he has just performed imply for them and for him. You see, by this point in the gospel story, the disciples – and the gospel readers for that matter – have come to some conclusions about who Jesus is. They do consider him their teacher, their Rabbi, and they acknowledge he has great authority. They call him “Lord,” a word meaning master or one who is in charge of another, who has authority over that one. By calling someone Lord, the one who employs the title gives up their individual rights and independence; they acknowledge that the one who they have addressed as Lord is the one who has the power to call the shots in their life. “Lord” in the first century Mediterranean world was a position of power and influence and so, the disciples don’t have a way of mentally merging the “power title” of Lord with the demeaning, humiliating act of foot washing. The two simply do not belong together. They are polar opposites… until Jesus makes clear that they are not. He is their Lord; he is everything he says he is and everything they have acknowledged him to be. He is a Lord and a Master; but the way in which Jesus has demonstrated and taught the meaning of authority is through humble, sacrificial acts of love and service. And yes, by the way, he is also their rabbi; a word that means “teacher.” They are his disciples, his students; learning from him how to behave toward others. And this is the master’s lesson: if he considers it fitting and appropriate to perform such a humiliating, lowly act of service; then they, as his students and followers ought to also demonstrate their association with him and their commitment to him through humble acts of loving service. To name ourselves “Christian” means we live in loyal commitment to and in faithful imitation of Jesus, our Teacher and Lord.
Friends, just imagine for a moment what our world might look like, might be like, if all who identified themselves with Jesus allowed Jesus to truly be Lord over their lives, to exercise authority over them. And imagine for a moment what our world might look like, might be like, if we learned from Jesus, our Rabbi, that even the mightiest and most influential are to follow the example of Jesus and seek out ways to serve others both humbly and sacrificially. That is what it means to call ourselves Christian; to live as Jesus lived. “I have set you an example,” Jesus says; an object lesson in what it means to tie our own identity – Christian – to that of Christ, our teacher and Lord.
Many of you have heard me talk about how important it is for us to use our resources wisely at Trinity. Our church – like many others – is not as big as it used to be and that’s why it’s more important than ever before that everything God has entrusted to us is focused on loving and serving others; on following the example of Jesus. It’s about relationships. That’s why our Vision Statement is “growing in love and service through relationships with God and community.”
Friends: buildings, committee structures, budgets… all of those things exist as resources for what is of ultimate importance: living out our commitment to Jesus as teacher and Lord by living, loving and serving others just like Jesus did. Today is as good a day as any for each of us – individually and as a church – to examine our lives to determine: are we loving and serving in ways that reveal our loyalty and obedience to Jesus.
As I close my sermon this morning, I want to give a couple ideas for ways we can put the teachings of Jesus into practice here and now.
Here’s one: Look around the sanctuary before you leave this morning and don’t just look; see. Perhaps you see someone new you don’t recognize. Welcome them, introduce yourself, find out who they are, invite them to join you for lunch after worship.
Or, perhaps as you look around, you see someone you know has been going through a tough time – difficulties with their health, their finances, or a family member. Jot yourself a note and call them this week and let them know you care, pray for them over the phone; ask if there is anything you can do to help.
Here’s a second idea: Think of a young family you know that is struggling – here in our church, in your neighborhood, where you work. Maybe they’re having trouble making ends meet or maybe one parent works out of town and the other parent feels like they’re at wits end. Do something gracious this week to serve them. Do a McDonald’s run and drop off dinner for them. If you used to teach, offer to help one of the kids with their homework. As most of you know, we’re working toward becoming a site for Head Start this fall. But we don’t need to wait for something “official” to show the young families of this community that we care about them.
Here’s a third idea: in two weeks we’re going to recognize local law enforcement. It’s tough to be in law enforcement these days; it’s often dangerous and thankless. So, along with some other churches in our community, we’re going to have a brief service of thanksgiving and blessing on May 15 & 17. All the details are in your bulletin and your newsletter. So, get involved in a way that allows you to serve those who “protect and serve.”
Friends, those are just a few ideas. But don’t stop there. When we name ourselves “Christian” we need to love and to serve others in humble, sacrificial ways because how we love and how we serve will show the world what it means to say “Call me Christian.”
[i] John 13:13 NRSV
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