In a trial, a Southern small-town prosecuting attorney called his first witness, an elderly grandma, to the stand. He approached her and asked, 'Mrs. Jones, do you know me?' She responded, 'Why, yes, I do know you, Mr. Williams. I've known you since you were a boy, and frankly, you've been a big disappointment to me. You think you’re a big shot. But, you lie, you cheat on your wife, and you manipulate people and talk about them behind their backs. Yes, I know you.'
The lawyer was stunned. Not knowing what else to do, he pointed across the room and asked, 'Mrs. Jones, do you know the defense attorney?'
She again replied, 'Why yes, I do. I've known Mr. Bradley since he was a
youngster, too. He's lazy, bigoted, and he has a drinking problem. He can't build a normal relationship with anyone, and his law practice is one of the worst in the state. Not to mention he cheated on his wife with three different women. One of them was your wife. Yes, I know him.'
The defense attorney nearly died.
The judge asked both counselors to approach the bench and, in a very quiet voice, said, “If either of you idiots asks her if she knows me, I'll send you both to the electric chair.”
I would say that grandma said a little too much… gave too much information. That can happen in our culture. People seem to speak too freely about so many things… but, not all things. Often, we can be reticent to share the words that matter the most.
Last week I began a sermon series on Christian Discipleship. I explained that our biblical word for “disciple” means “one who learns” and that, in our gospels, disciples of Jesus learn to know God, love God and serve God. I shared that the primary way in which we come to know God is through Scripture, the Word of God.
You may or may not know that some of the most popular and frequently downloaded apps are bible apps. And it is something most theologians and techies never expected. Bobby Gruenewald developed the "Bible" app by YouVersion; an app that focuses on engaging people with scripture. Gruenewald describes it as "a simple nudge to help people on their faith journey.”[i] The YouVersion website says, “God is near, and so is His Word… When the Bible is always with you, it becomes a part of your daily life.” Clearly Gruenewald is a man on a mission to share God’s Word.
But he never anticipated how successful his mission would be. In fact, in an interview he said, "We were afraid people would uninstall the app."[ii] But, they didn’t and millions of downloads began. The pastor initially hoped for 80,000 downloads in the first six months, but the app surpassed that number the first weekend it was released.
Now, why am I rattling that information off to you? Well, I think it’s some pretty clear evidence that people do have an interest in hearing about God and hearing God’s Word. And yet, while bible downloads soar, church attendance across America continues to plummet… which tells me there’s a disconnect. NT scripture makes pretty clear that being a part of a church isn’t optional for a disciple of Jesus. In fact, it is what develops and shapes our identity as followers of Jesus. So, the fact that people are seeking out God’s Word but not seeking out God’s people brings me to the conclusion that some critical step in the process of discipleship is being missed. And I would call that step “evangelism.”
Now, don’t start to squirm in your pew and get anxious. I’m not going to stuff your pockets full of religious tracts before you leave today. I don’t think that’s what evangelism is really about. Rather, evangelism is about sharing the good news of Jesus with those around us: making the move to share God’s Word with friends.
But we can’t share what we don’t know. We have to know before we can make known. We have to know something for ourselves before we can share it with others.
Last week I talked about the fact that disciples of Jesus learn God’s Word because we come to know God through his Word. We learn the Word of God in order to know the God of that Word. Bible study isn’t just about accumulating information; it is about transformation. As God’s Word informs our minds it transforms our hearts and lives.
This morning’s story from Acts is a story about evangelism. In this story Philip, a disciple of Jesus, leads an unnamed eunuch to faith in Jesus. Now, one of the most interesting components of this story is that both of these characters are dubious candidates for the roles they fulfill.
Let’s start with Philip. Now, this Philip is not one of Jesus’ original 12 disciples. Our bible narrator labels him as a Hellenist. Now, that can mean a few different things. It might mean that he is not of Jewish ancestry, but of Greek ethnicity. Or, it may mean that he didn’t live in the geographical region of Judea, an area dominated by Judaism. Rather, he may have come from a geographical area that was dominated by Greek influence. Or, when Philip is described as a Hellenist, it could simply mean that he was influenced by, and to some degree had embraced, Greek culture and customs. But really, no matter how you look at it, his pedigree is questionable. He was no charter member of this apostle club; he has no first-hand witness. In fact, and perhaps this is the most important part – he was never ordained to preach at all. We’re first introduced to Philip back in Acts, chapter 6. There’s some controversy in the early Church surrounding concern that Christian widows of Jewish origin are being given better treatment than Christian widows of Greek origin. Specifically, it has to do with the distribution of food to these widows. Now, whether or not the Jewish widows were being favored, we’ll never know. But, as the cliché goes, perception is reality and these Greek widows are convinced they’re getting the short end of the stick. So, the apostles call a congregational meeting to address this issue. They’re concerned that this food distribution is turning into a time consuming process that will easily detract from their primary tasks of preaching and teaching the gospel. So, they recommend that the Church nominate some men to be commissioned for this particular mission outreach. And one of those men is Philip. So Philip wasn’t ordained to preach; he was called upon to help pass out food… which means, we don’t even know if he was a good speaker. Maybe he was; or maybe he wasn’t because, last I checked, you don’t need to preach a sermon just to fill a bowl of soup, right? But, enough about Philip.
Let’s move on to the eunuch… And wow, where do I start with this questionable character? Well, he also is not of Jewish ancestry. But, here’s the giant red flag… he’s a eunuch; and according to OT law, no eunuch was permitted to enter the Temple. And, if you remember what I’ve said on prior occasions, that’s important because, it was believed that God actually resided in the Temple. So the only way you could really be in God’s presence was to be in the Temple where God lived. You went to visit God at his house, so to speak. But Old Testament law set some pretty high standards for just who was allowed through the door.
So, this Ethiopian eunuch is in the midst of a road trip and where is he returning from? Jerusalem. And why? Because he went there to worship; to visit God at his house. But did he get to go into the Temple to worship? Nope. Now, no doubt he would have loved to enter into God’s presence but fat chance of that. He would have been relegated to the outskirts, to the margins. Imagine how discouraged he must have felt; perhaps he was even beginning to experience some anger and resentment. He wants so badly to be close to a God who, according to what he’s been taught, is beyond his reach. As he rides along in his chariot, he is reading scripture from the prophet Isaiah and it is little wonder that this section of Isaiah has captivated him. Within a couple chapters of this passage, we find these words from the prophet:
4 For thus says the LORD: To the eunuchs who keep my sabbaths, who choose the things that please me and hold fast my covenant, 5 I will give, in my house and within my walls, a monument and a name better than sons and daughters; I will give them an everlasting name that shall not be cut off.[iii]
Now, here is a promise from scripture that has been written for him. This is a promise that moves him from the margins to within the walls of God’s house.
He’s been riding along reading from Isaiah and everything he’s reading seems to be speaking to him… it’s exciting; it’s encouraging… but it’s still a little confusing to him. After all, there is a promise of inclusion; but he has just experienced being excluded from Temple worship. And so, the Holy Spirit tells Philip to go up to this guy and talk to him. And Philip does. He goes to him and he begins their interaction with a question; which is generally a good way to start a conversation. If we want people to listen to us, we first need to listen to them and engage them. Well, long story short, Philip proclaims the good news of Jesus to this eunuch. Philip: not an original apostle, not a guy with any formal training in evangelism. He had been selected to be the guy flipping burgers or filling soup bowls (so to speak) so that others, those apostles, those religious professionals, could focus on the preaching and the teaching. They were the ones everyone assumed were in charge of spreading God’s Word. But, surprise, surprise. The Holy Spirit has some other ideas; the Spirit’s made some different plans for Philip’s ministry. And, thank goodness for the sake of that eunuch, that Philip follows the Spirit’s call. Philip knows the good news about Jesus, he knows the gospel and, because he knows it, he can share it. He knows the Word of God and he knows the God of that Word.
And that’s what this eunuch wants to know and understand, too. He wants to know God’s Word and he knows that he needs someone to help him with that. But, had Philip ignored the prompting of the Holy Spirit, there would have been no one there for the eunuch to ask. His questions would have gone unanswered. He would have just kept on moving down that road frustrated and confused. But God sends someone to join him on his journey to alleviate his frustration and dispel his confusion and – most of all – to bring him into God’s family through the waters of baptism.
Friends, there is a world of people out there who feel alone and frustrated and confused. They want to be close to God but they’re just not quite sure how that works or how that’s going to happen. They may already be reading God’s Word. Perhaps it’s that app on their phone that they scan or skim when they’re on the bus or waiting for their friend to show up at the coffee shop or sitting in the doctor’s office waiting to hear their name called. They may already be reading God’s Word; and they may have a sense that those words have been written for them; and yet they might not understand it. They need to hear and understand the story of Jesus; and they need to hear the story from us. But we can only tell it if we know it. We can only share God’s Word if we know God’s Word. We can only introduce others to the God of that Word if we already know him for ourselves.
People are looking around for someone to bring them good news of great joy. But friends, we can’t deliver information we don’t have. We have to know something before we can make it known to others.
Remember what I said: Gruenewald’s bible app was downloaded more than 80,000 times over the course of one weekend. But here’s another stat for us: the average United Methodist invites someone to come to worship once every 38 years.[iv] 38 years! We may sing, “I love to tell the story” but, judging by the statistics, we don’t. Friends, because Philip knew and understood scripture for himself, he was able to bring this eunuch into an authentic relationship with Jesus; he was able to provide him with exactly what he’d been seeking, a way to draw close to God. Each of us will have unique opportunities to make Jesus known to others. But, unless we know scripture, we will be fearful of evangelism; we’ll be afraid that we won’t say the right thing and we’ll miss those opportunities and be unprepared to offer Jesus to others.
Friends, that grandma on the witness stand said a little too much. But most of us are guilty of not saying nearly enough about Jesus. It seems that grandma had access to a lot more information than people realized. And sadly, friends, most of us have a lot more knowledge about Jesus than the people around us realize. So, it’s time to share it. It’s time to share God’s Word with Friends and it’s your – and my – move.
[i] Statement made in an interview with The Huffington Post
[iii] Isaiah 56:4-5, NRSV
[iv] Statistic taken from the book Get Their Name: Grow your Church by Building New Relationships by Bob Farr and Doug Anderson; Abingdon Press; 2013
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