Let me paint a picture for you.
You are on a business trip, flying from Texas to the East Coast. You are seated next to a 30-something-year-old black woman near the front of the airplane. Her hair is a shock of bright neon green, shaven short on one side. She is covered in tattoos and piercings. As for her attire, she is dressed in the finest dress suit one could purchase at any New York boutique. She is reading a book next to you, engrossed in it, yet she seems to be puzzling over it. Turns out it’s a copy of a Gideon New Testament she was handed at the airport by a kindly old man who didn’t even talk to her.
You notice what page it is that she’s reading; it’s Acts chapter 8, this very same story of Philip and the Ethiopian Eunuch. She notices you glancing at her book over her shoulder; it’s hard to be subtle on an airplane after all. You grin sheepishly at her, at having been caught, and innocently ask her what she’s reading. She responds kindly, cordially, recounting the chance encounter at the airport.
You begin to talk, and of course, the usual niceties are exchanged. You learn she’s going back to Boston; she’s coming back from a tech conference in Houston. She’s running a tech startup business, you see, and looking to implement what she learned and teach it to her team back home. Anyways, running into the Gideon at the airport jogged her memory back to her youth going to her grandma’s church in Alabama. She had fond memories of it, but after growing up and moving out, she’s drifted away from the church. Not that the church would have her back–she had a habit of speaking her mind, and sometimes asked questions people didn’t want to answer. She didn’t really feel welcome back there, anyways.
So here she is, looking back at this story, of all stories, wondering where she is. Who she is. What she’s doing. Wondering why, if there are stories like this in the bible about reaching out to the other, the alien, the non-conforming, why she had received so little of that in her life. She may have had faith at one point, but without someone to walk with her along that path, how was she ever going to feel like she even belonged in the faith in the first place?
It makes one wonder, she muses. She goes back to her reading. A calm silence falls between you too as the hum of the airplane drones on.
An Outline for Action
One of the last things Jesus ever said to the apostles turned out to be an outline for the entire book of Acts:
“But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” (Acts 1:8)
It’s helpful for us to realize that, when we look at a book like Acts, as we have for the past few weeks, the central thrust of the whole book is the de-centralization of the story of God.
Let me try to explain that concept. For the entirety of the Hebrew Scriptures, we see a singular focus on who God primarily acts for and upon, that being the nation of Israel. For the millennia spanning history of the Hebrew people, the literature of the Old Testament talks about their nation, its purpose, place in the world, and so forth. However, when it comes to talking about other nations, it is usually in the context of Israel being triumphant over them, Israel being enslaved by them, or God using them to teach Israel a harsh lesson in obedience. The prophets use countless metaphors explaining the relationship between Israel and God. This, brothers and sisters, is why Acts is so revolutionary.
With the proclamation of Jesus that the apostles would be his witnesses throughout the world, the focus no longer is tied to a single place. The message is now made available to people not from Israel.
So today, we talk about this story about a man on the road doing literally God only knows what, and his chance encounter with another like-minded seeker of truth.
The question for us becomes this: who is the one being ministered to, Philip or the Ethiopian? And perhaps better yet–who are we in the picture? Where is God telling us to go? What exactly are we called to do?
The Name-tag on the Gospel
Perhaps the best question one can ask today is “who is the gospel for in the first place?” Gospel, evangelion, good news– it’s obviously meant for someone. So who is it for?
Philip was a second generation apostle. He was not in the original twelve, but simply someone who received the good news after Jesus had risen. So in essence, someone had to give him the good news first too. That’s someone that we ought to remember first off: we are not firsthand witnesses of the good news. We are countless generations removed from the events of the Passion of Christ. What we have has been handed to us from our ancestors and forbears.
In essence, Philip was originally a recipient of the good news. As the case was, Philip became a passionate apostle through the encouragement of the Holy Spirit, and sent to others to share the news.
The other person we encounter in the story is an unnamed Eunuch from Ethiopia. Eunuchs were a government order in most nations at the time, and often wielded quite a bit of power. We know that he was an emissary of the queen of Ethiopia. We also can gather that he was an educated man– he was reading in a time when most people couldn’t. We can also gather that he was not ignorant of the traditions of Judaism; having access to a scroll of Isaiah and possibly many more, he was well versed in other cultures and religions, as one must be in the course of working as a diplomat.
Above all that, though, he is primarily identified as a eunuch, a man who was castrated and unable to procreate. On the face of it, that identifies him as an “other,” a non-normative, non-conforming person. When thrown into the context of Judaism, it gets hairier. You see, in Deuteronomy, eunuchs are forbidden access to temple activities. The best he could do to experience a faith he was interested was to sit outside the gates and read the scrolls. Always a spectator, never allowed inclusion.
As you can see, we already have a couple of people who perhaps may not have all that much in common. And yet, because the Spirit saw to it in such a way, we get this story of Philip doing a simple act: Sitting down, listening, and talking on a real level with this man.
Listening, Talking, and Authenticity
So the question comes back: who was doing the ministering in this story?
On the face of it, we are tempted to say it was Philip. He was, after all, the apostle in the picture. He had experience in the faith that the eunuch was asking about, and he even performed a baptism. We like to see ourselves as Philip, tasked with going forth and converting the masses.
However, we forget that with this is the notion that, at some point, Peter was like the eunuch. He didn’t have the frame of reference for understanding God. Someone had sit down with him and talk about it too. Likely, Philip would not like to consider himself so different from the eunuch in this sense, and even more so not the hero of his story.
When we read this story about a eunuch on the side of the road, we need to remember that though it wasn’t given, he had a name, just like you. He had a story–probably a lot of stories!– and no less unique than Philip’s. He had a past. He had a future. He had thoughts, feelings, friends, and relatives. He saw himself as the hero of his own story too.
In this story, we see a chance encounter, the good news being shared, and the Spirit at work. Nobody is the lesser in this situation. In sitting down and talking, being authentic, being real, something miraculous happened here. And to this day, it’s can still happen.
I gave the hypothetical about the woman on the plane because, in this day and age, we don’t have Ethiopian Eunuchs, chariots, and even regal emissaries; not like in the story. What we do have is coders. Bloggers. Mechanics. Chemists. Teachers. Legal advocates. Business owners. The titles may change, but there is a common bond to them all; they’re people. They have stories. The have desires. They are not objects to be counted or interacted with, nor are they notches to be gained or trophies to be won for whatever imaginary soul-winning contest you may think evangelism is.
Evangelism is not like we imagine it to be. It’s not about handing out pamphlets, or even New Testaments like the Gideon in the story. Giving people a handout is not evangelism. While these things aren’t bad things to do, they aren’t necessarily sufficient to doing evangelism. It takes more.
In fact, I would venture to say evangelism isn’t really a transactional process. It’s about sitting down and being authentic. It’s about giving nothing less than your time and your spirit to another person. It’s about making an honest connection with another human soul. It’s about listening to their story, and finding where you can interact.
At any given time, the Spirit offers opportunities to minister, and to be ministered to . All you have to do is make yourself available, pull up a chair, and be ready. Amen.