A Sermon preached at the Mint Methodist Church by the Minister Rev Andrew Sails at 10.30 am on Sunday 29 April.
The first of four Circuit wide services on Mission.
A Service including the Rededication of Pastoral Visitors
"Mission to the Seeker"
This is the first of four Sundays in which we will be looking at the Mission and calling of the Church today – and we will be doing so (in Methodist Churches across the Exeter area) by looking at incidents in the very earliest Church as recorded in the Book of Acts.
Our situation is not the same at that of the 1st C, but if we can better understand how they did Church then, it might help us do Church better now.
This week we look at the story of Philip and the Ethiopian
Let me offer 4 thoughts -
1. In this, as every story in Acts, what happens in the Church is not ultimately down to human genius - it is the result of God's action and God's power and God's guidance.
God’s Spirit sends Philip, tells him where to go, what to do.“Go South on the Gaza Road…”
As far as the author of Acts was concerned, the reason for the spectacular growth of the early Church from such tiny and inauspicious beginnings was down to one thing – the willingness of the first Christians to trust in the power and follow the promptings of God’ Holy Spirit.
As one commentator puts it -
“Against a static church, unwilling to obey the guidance of the Holy Spirit, no ‘gates’ of any sort are needed to oppose its movement, for it does not move. But against a church that is on the move, inspired by the Pentecostal spirit, neither ‘the gates of hell’ nor any other gates can prevail”
(Bishop J.E.Fison, Fire upon Earth, 1958, p.79).
The Church doesn’t always remember this.
John Taylor comments “While we piously repeat the traditional assertion that without the Holy Spirit we can get nowhere in the Christian mission, we seem to press on notwithstanding with our man-made programmes. I have not heard recently of committee business adjourned because those present were still awaiting the arrival of the Spirit of God. I have known projects abandoned for lack of funds, but not for lack of the gifts of the Spirit.”
(John V Taylor, Go Between God SCM 1972 p5)
As a Church we are good at committees – I have not a few in my diary – we need to be as good as discerning the direction of the Spirit.
2.God has a tendency to send us to all shapes and sizes of people. Most of us have a tendency to prefer to go to PLUs – people like us.
Philip as far as we know is a working class Galilean –
God’s Spirit sends him to the Chancellor of the Exchequer of the Queen of Ethiopia
different nationality, different social standing, and a Eunuch to boot –
one suspects well well outside Philip’s natural comfort zone.
I wonder how willing we are to step out of our comfort zone? –
The man in the story was a financial bigwig and also a government official – how about sharing the Gospel with Bob Diamond or George Osborne?
He was an Ethiopian national – how about sharing the Gospel with Ethiopians here for the London Marathon last weekend?
You get some idea of the unpredictable and possibly daunting
demands of the Spirit on Philip -
how easy it would have been for him to say -
I’ll leave that guy to someone else.
I wonder how we measure up in those terms?
And incidentally –
when we do meet others we like to meet them on our own terms.
You know the stories of Victorian missionaries taking a harmonium on the boat up the Congo so that they could teach their new converts the songs of Zion- and there are stories of pith helemeted white clergy gathering in tropical clearings to sing “See amid the winter’s snow”
And how so we do there –
do we like to discuss the faith in our own terms,
get everyone to sing from our hymn sheet – literally and metaphorically – or are we open to exploring the faith
in terms of the other person’s culture, concerns and questions?
3.It isn't enough to quote scripture - you have to interprest it
The Ethiopian Statesman had read the Scriptures but hadn’t understood.
When I was at school I studied Latin. I still remember Caesar’s De Bello Gallico Book 4 and 5 – I used to look at chunks of this in class, and think “Its all Greek to me”
What I needed was for the Latin master to come and find the verb and the subject for me and get me going, and give me the pointers and clues from which suddenly light dawned.
And when I went into the English lesson we were reading Orwell’s “Animal Farm” and the first time I read it I thought here’s a funny story about pigs and horses. Then the teacher told us about the Russian Revolution and how the book was actually an allegory – and gradually I began to read and understand on a deeper level, and I went back and read the book again, and found it hit me in a totally new way. The same words, new meaning.
We need to go back again to the old worn pages of scripture,
and read them again and suddenly discover in the same old words
the new understanding and power
that comes when the Spirit guides our eye and our understanding.
The Ethiopian says to Philip –
I can read the words, but I don’t know what they mean.
Like Philip, we need not only to find the meaning of Scripture for today -
but also help others discover it.
We have to unpack what the ancient story means for each individual–
It’s not just a matter of retelling the Jesus story-
it’s showing how his Gospel,
his call to holy living,
relates to our lives and our world.
4.A final thought about words and deeds
You can’t divorce the two.
If our evangelism and Bible proclamation is not backed up by the way
we live, it will be as nothing – a mere clanging cymbal or hollow bell.
You don’t buy hair restorer from a bald man
You don’t endorse a gospel of justice and peace
if preached by a selfish or bigoted man
You don’t accept the vision of the glorious Kingdom of God
in which all are at one in Christ
when preached by a fractured, sectional, racist or simply unloving Church
We proclaim Christ and word and deed – or we do not proclaim him at all
I rejoice in the work of our pastoral visitors – today you rededicate yourselves in this role we ask God’s blessing on you.
As a Church we are called to be evangelists –
but part of being an evangelist is to be a pastor, a shepherd,
caring for those within the Church and indeed
supporting the Church as we care for all God’s children everywhere.:
As the old saying has it “Preach Christ, and if necessary use words”
I pray God’s blessing on our Pastoral Visitors and indeed all of us
as we seek to proclaim the Gospel through lives of mutual care & compassion
Well these thoughts beg a lot of questions – and that is OK –
because as part of our month looking at passages from Acts, we are having a Wednesday evening discussion session here at the Mint to tease out some of the issues further.
So let me invite you to use what we’ve shared today as a starter for ten -
and go on to reflect more on these questions –
and maybe come and discuss these among others on Wednesday
How do we interpret the Bible – and if we are not fundamentalists (as most of us aren’t) what criteria do we use to establish its meaning today?
How do we share the Gospel effectively over cultural divides?
How do we know what exactly the Spirit of God wishes us to do?
I suspect that all those questions will be “work in progress”
Let’s discuss them more on Wednesday
Meanwhile let’s give the best provisional answers we can
and get going in the power of the Spirit -
There is a world to save and no time to lose.