St. Mark’s Presbyterian Church – The Rev. Bart Smith
The Fourth Sunday of Easter (May 7, 2017)
Acts 8:26-39 – “Tell the Story”
An angel from the Lord spoke to Philip, “At noon, take the road that leads from Jerusalem to Gaza.” (This is a desert road.) So he did. Meanwhile, an Ethiopian man was on his way home from Jerusalem, where he had come to worship. He was a eunuch and an official responsible for the entire treasury of Candace. (Candace is the title given to the Ethiopian queen.) He was reading the prophet Isaiah while sitting in his carriage. The Spirit told Philip, “Approach this carriage and stay with it.”
Running up to the carriage, Philip heard the man reading the prophet Isaiah. He asked, “Do you really understand what you are reading?”
The man replied, “Without someone to guide me, how could I?” Then he invited Philip to climb up and sit with him. This was the passage of scripture he was reading:
Like a sheep he was led to the slaughter
and like a lamb before its shearer is silent
so he didn’t open his mouth.
In his humiliation justice was taken away from him.
Who can tell the story of his descendants
because his life was taken from the earth?
The eunuch asked Philip, “Tell me, about whom does the prophet say this? Is he talking about himself or someone else?” Starting with that passage, Philip proclaimed the good news about Jesus to him. As they went down the road, they came to some water.
The eunuch said, “Look! Water! What would keep me from being baptized?” He ordered that the carriage halt. Both Philip and the eunuch went down to the water, where Philip baptized him. When they came up out of the water, the Lord’s Spirit suddenly took Philip away. The eunuch never saw him again but went on his way rejoicing.
Philip told the eunuch the story of Jesus. But first, before he could truly hear it, the eunuch began to see himself in that larger story.
Will Campbell was a Baptist preacher, author, and early white civil rights activist. In his autobiography, Brother to a Dragonfly, he tells a story about how an old friend and fishing buddy, P.D. East, had been challenging him to summarize of the Christian faith in a “nugget.” The friend didn’t want some long theological treatise, just something short and sweet.
“I’m not too bright,” he told Campbell. “Keep it simple. In ten words or less, what’s the Christian message?”
Campbell obliged his friend: “We’re all [jerks] but God loves us anyway,” he said. [He didn’t use the word “jerk,” but I shouldn’t use the word he used in the pulpit.]
To which East replied, “If you want to try again, you have two words left.”
Campbell clearly thought that a pithy version of the good news needed to begin with some account of the bad news… Campbell and East were friends in the midst of the civil rights struggle in the South in the late 1950s. Their lives had been defined by the racism, violence and moral evasions that pervaded that segregated society. Campbell did not exempt himself or his friend from that reality. Indeed, he thought that naming the dark side of humanity is an essential part of the Christian message: “We’re all [jerks]” 
Something similar is going on in this odd encounter between Philip and this high-ranking Ethiopian official on his way to Jerusalem. He was likely what they called a “God-fearer,” someone who was drawn to Judaism yet wasn’t a full convert because, as a eunuch, he had not undergone the rite of circumcision. Yet something in the passage he’s reading from Isaiah, something about the story of a person who was humiliated, also on the margins, drew him in. He asks Philip to help him makes sense of it, so Philip tells him about Jesus.
“the Ethiopian is someone wealthy enough to ride in a chariot, educated enough to read Greek, devout enough to study the prophet Isaiah, and humble enough to know that he cannot understand what he is reading without help. He is also hospitable… the Ethiopian invites the talkative pedestrian to join him in his chariot. For a modern parallel, imagine a diplomat in Washington, D.C. inviting a street preacher to join him in his late model Lexus for a little Bible study. The inclusion in this story runs both ways.” 
It’s invitational. There’s an invitation to us in this, as well. Where do we find ourselves in the story? Not in this particular story from Acts, but in the larger story of faith? If given seven to ten words, how would you summarize the gospel in a way that is authentic to yourself?
You might notice that I’m dancing around a word here. It’s the “e word.” It’s a word Presbyterians don’t use that often. Do you know what word I’m thinking of?
When we think about evangelism, we probably picture the people yelling from street corners about how everyone is a terrible sinner, or those awful billboards on Interstate 10 southbound that say we’re all going to hell, or someone knocking on your door, handing you a pamphlet, and saying, “Have you heard the good news?”
That reminds me: when my brother was working in the call center at Geico, a customer on the other line asked him, “Have you found Jesus?” My brother’s a really funny guy. He replied, “No… I didn’t know he was missing!”
Even though that’s how some people choose to share faith, that’s not the only option out there. Evangelism, from my perspective, is sharing our faith in word or deed. One way to do that is to tell the wider story of Scripture in a way that is personally meaningful to us.
That’s the key: it has to be authentic to us and true to our lives if it is to be compelling to other people. It’s not trying to warp other people into a version of ourselves. It’s not converting people to our way of thinking. It’s invitational. Testifying to God’s presence in our life helps other people name it in theirs.
I was at retreat in Green Valley last weekend along with other pastors in our presbytery. Our presenter was Dr. Tom Long, a former preaching professor at Emory’s divinity school. He told us a story about a man named Marshall. Tom and his spouse, Dr. Kimberly Bracken Long, attend a church in downtown Atlanta right across from the Georgia Capitol, a church that’s known for it’s homelessness outreach and social justice advocacy. They got to know Marshall at an inquirer’s’ class when they joined the church.
As part of the introduction at the beginning of the class, participants were asked the classic question: “What drew you to this church?” People had different answers, of course, but many of them were along the lines of “ I really love the preaching,” or “The music is excellent! We love the choir.” “It’s so easy to park here!” one couple said. “We heard that this youth group is top-notch, we have teenagers,” another said.
Round and round it went. And then they got to Marshall. “This place saved my life!”
Marshall went on to explain that he first found his way to the church through their outreach ministry. This program helped Marshall get his basic needs met—food, a shower, a safe place to sleep—when he needed all that more than anything else. Then he started to volunteer in the program, helping others to get what they needed. He became a known presence in the outreach center, and he was really good at what he did.
But then right around Christmastime, he was M.I.A. Folks at the outreach center and in the church didn’t know what happened to him. And then Tom got a call: Marshall was in jail.
Feeling compelled to support Marshall through whatever was going on, Tom decided he needed to visit. So Tom went down to the jail and sat in front of him, staring through one of those plexiglass windows. He picked up the phone, “What happened, Marshall?”
Expecting all kinds of answers—drugs, alcohol, arrest, something like that—Tom was shocked to hear Marshall’s answer.
“I had an outstanding warrant from years ago, and after being at the church a while, I knew I needed to turn myself in and make things right. But in two more months, I’ll get out of here and back to the outreach program, ready to get back to work!”
Confession and forgiveness. The overflowing grace and mercy of God. The promise of new life in Jesus Christ. Marshall found himself in that story and was eager to draw others in.
A professor of mine in a comparative religions class in seminary challenged students to come up with an “elevator speech.” The prompt question was, “I see you’re wearing a cross necklace there. Are you a Christian? What’s in this for you?” We might not ever find ourselves in that position, but it’s a helpful exercise.
- What’s in this for you, this faith thing?
- Why worship here at St. Mark’s?
- Why commit to a community, as frustrating as that can be sometimes?
- Why try make a difference in the world here, and not somewhere else, like the Red Cross?
How would you tell the story?
 David Heim, “The gospel in seven words,” The Christian Century, August 23, 2012.  Barbara Brown Taylor, Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year B, Volume 2 (Lent through Eastertide), p. 457.