NB: Before you read, it might help to know that this is the text of a message I shared at Toowong Uniting Church, August 9th 2015. It refers to a story from Acts 4:26-40. The context at Toowong is that they are preparing to plant a new congregation. If you’d rather listen than read…skip to the end of this story for the mp3 file.
It seems to me that this life that we live is made up of moments.
If you think back over your life, I’m sure you can identify a few of them.
I think of the moment I saw Sheridan walk into a friend’s 21st birthday party and I instantly knew that I wanted to spend the rest of my life with her.
I think of the moment I made a bad decision and tore up my knee, ending up in surgery just weeks before our first child was due.
I think of the moment I learned a huge lesson about leadership, as I sat quietly to one side during an outdoor education program I was helping to run.
I think of the moment when I woke up one morning and realised that for the first time in 6 years all the kids had slept all night.
Some moments are wonderful, some not so much.
Some are extraordinary, while others are just the moments of everyday life.
Some moments, like my encounter with Sheri at that 21st birthday party, change our lives instantly. And we know it in the moment (or at least, I knew it…you’ll have to ask Sheri about her experience of that moment).
Others take a while to reveal themselves – and sometimes it’s only with the benefit of hindsight that we can see the power of that moment. Such is the story for my learning about leadership on that outdoor education program. The moment actually passed unremarkably that night…but the more time passes, the more I reflect on that moment…the more it means to me.
This life that we live is made up of moments. I’m sure you can identify a few of them.
In this passage today, this story of Philip and the Ethiopian (read it here Acts 8:26-40), there’s a lot going on, and we’ll work our way through some of those things over the rest of our time.
But at the heart of it is a moment. A chance encounter. The intersection of two people’s lives that changed both of them forever.
Such is the importance of a moment. And this life that we live is made of them.
I wanted to work our way through this story today, because I think it’s a timely one for us. We know that it’s vision month here at Toowong UC. A time when we are endeavouring to lift our eyes to the horizon, to hear the spirit of God speaking to us. A time when we are setting ourselves to go to new places and do new things. A time when we are gathering ourselves, giving of ourselves to see the kingdom of God extended.
And I think this story speaks to us in this moment.
The first think I want to say is that It’s always worth noticing the context of a biblical story. Sometimes they stand alone, but so often the context of the story makes it all the more powerful. Before this encounter, Philip had been preaching and teaching, doing a good job. He was one of the first to take the gospel into the world beyond the Jews – into places that seemed unlikely. Far from setting up a church and then resting on his laurels, Philip was not done. He was never finished with his call to mission and ministry. He was always on the way to the next place. There is so much for us to learn there. We need to constantly take the gospel to new and unexpected places. We are never done. We are always on the way.
In the Basis of Union – the founding document of the Uniting Church, we describe ourselves as a pilgrim people, always on the way. It seemed true for Philip. I wonder, could it be true for Toowong as well?
Secondly, one of the obvious characteristics we see in Philip’s story is obedience. When he hears the spirit of God speaking to him, sending him, Philip goes. As this story begins we see just that. God sends, Philip goes. Even if it seems like a strange journey to make, along a wilderness road. Philip goes.
And even as he goes ‘on the way’ to the location God had sent him, Philip keeps an eye open – to see who he might encounter, to notice where God might be at work. This commitment to noticing, to seeing what is going on around him is vital for Philip, and it’s vital for us. Philip is on his way somewhere else, and the encounter with the Ethiopian almost seems incidental….but quickly it becomes the main story. And it’s because Philip goes with his eyes open. May it be so for us as well.
Thirdly, we need to think for a moment about the Ethiopian. Philip’s encounter with this person is truly remarkable. And for more reasons than just that it’s a chance encounter in the desert. First, the Ethiopian is a gentile, a non-Jew. Second, he is a wealthy and powerful official of a far off country. Third, he is a Eunuch. That, essentially, is three strikes. This is a man whose gender identity alone would see him outlawed from the temple by the laws recorded in Deuteronomy. We gloss over this part of his identity sometimes when we hear this story, but lets stay here for a moment. This powerful, wealthy, gentile Eunuch was on his way home from Jerusalem where he had been to worship. To worship….. In Jerusalem. A place he was not welcome. Why was he there? What on earth possessed a wealthy foreign Eunuch, one expressly forbidden, from going to Jerusalem to worship. And here Philip finds this character sitting in his chariot, reading the book (or the scroll) of Isaiah. Where did he get that from? Why did he have it? It’s not like he could have dropped into Koorong, or downloaded it from Amazon to his kindle. Here indeed is a must unlikely seeker. And a person most unlike Philip himself. This is not a ‘normal’ encounter – and it would have surprised, or even shocked Philip that it happened. US pastor and theologian Nadia Bolz Weber points out that it just may be that the Ethiopian is not the only one who has a conversion experience in this story….that both of them learn something remarkable in this moment.
Who are the unexpected people in our community that we meet along the way? Who will be the people who come wandering in here on a Sunday night, searching, seeking, unexpected? Will we allow ourselves to be changed by their story, just as Philip must have been?
Fourth, we come to this lovely moment in the middle of this story where the Spirit of God tells Philip “Go to that chariot and stay near it.” I love this phrase, “Go to that chariot and stay near it”. It’s an instruction to Philip to loiter. To loiter with intent. To hang about. To create an opportunity for something to happen, for a moment to occur. Loitering gives us space to get to know people better. Loitering lets us see God at work. Philip is sent by the spirit of God to loiter – to create opportunity for relationship to develop. Go to that chariot and stay near it. We’re a long way from working out what this Sunday evening community might look like, who we might connect with. But I fancy there might need to be a bit of loitering that goes on. Where we notice people around and about, and stay near them. Just to see what happens. Just to create the opportunity for a moment to occur.
How about for you? Where can you loiter this week? Where can you create the opportunity for a moment to happen?
Next we see Philip offering to help…and it’s important that he does so. But even more importantly, it is the Ethiopian who invites him into the chariot. It’s his space, not Philip’s. It’s his to extend the invitation “please help me, I want to know more”. Philip doesn’t pressure, just loiters, and offers. The Ethiopian is the actor in this story. Philip lets him set the pace.
Once in the chariot, Philip doesn’t suggest a different starting point for the Ethiopian than what he was reading. Doesn’t offer a 3-point plan. Doesn’t correct him. He just starts with where he is, with what he’s thinking about, with what he’s reading. He opens up a conversation with that natural starting point and connects the gospel story with the Ethiopian’s search. Remember this guy is seeking, he’s wondering. He’s just travelled from Ethiopia all the way to Jerusalem to worship in a place where he isn’t welcome.
Philip leads the Ethiopian along in his discipleship journey. Doesn’t start him on it. Doesn’t deliver him all the way to Christ-likeness. But starts with where he is at, points to Jesus, and helps him learn a little more. Theirs is a discipleship relationship for a season.
The story seems to me to accelerate at this point, progressing quickly with the end in sight. As they travel along, chatting side by side in the chariot, the Ethiopian spots some water, and you have to love his question: “Why shouldn’t I be baptised?” I love the immediacy. I love the confidence. And I love that once again it is the Ethiopian who takes the lead here. He takes responsibility for his own spiritual journey, his own discipleship. Philip just joins in.
I love too, that baptism in this story happens quickly. It’s been only a short conversation – but he is ready, and Philip agrees. Of course he has more to learn, more to unpack, more to think about in what it means to be a disciple in his own context…..but that can come after. This baptism doesn’t mark an end point in the story…but a special moment along the way.
There is so much here for us to remember as we imagine our way toward the future. Who will we meet? What will their story be? How will we point them toward Jesus? What will be the moments that we share with them?
These are the questions that will power our vision. That will enable us to be bold, courageous, generous. To be a community that thinks beyond itself.
I want us to think here not just about what we are wondering about doing together, about the opportunity we want to give for a new faith community to develop, but also to think about our own lives, the relationships we already have, the people we will meet this day. The opportunity to point toward Jesus when the moment arrives.
This is Philip’s story. A story in which he is obedient to the Spirit of God; a story in which he creates an opportunity for a moment to occur in the life of another; a story in which he lets his new friend take the lead, set the pace; a story in which just maybe he is changed just as much by the moment when it arrives as is the Ethiopian.
It is also the Ethiopian’s story. The story of a wealthy, powerful, foreign Eunuch who persists against the odds in his search for God. Who travels long distances, who reads the scrolls, who looks for answers. And who opens himself up to a stranger. Who sees the way to follow Jesus. Who spots the water and asks “why shouldn’t I be baptised?”. Whose own openness creates the opportunity for the moment at the heart of this story.
Here in their story, we eavesdrop on a moment that changed lives. Maybe two, maybe many more. A moment that continues to challenge even today; a moment that impacts our story.
As we think about our own lives as individuals, and particularly as we think about our life as community, about this vision that is before us….this is the image I want to leave with us.
What will be the moments that occur because the Spirit of God sends us. Because we decide to be obedient. Because we decide to be generous. Because we decide to loiter with intent. Because we decide to point toward Jesus? Because God reveals God’s self?
And so we finish right back where we started. This life that we live is made up of moments. Let me invite you to imagine a few.
Here’s the audio file if you’d rather listen than read: