Meadowbrook Congregational Church
“Where Paths Cross”
Rev. Art Ritter
April 29, 2018
Then an angel of the Lord said to Philip, “Get up and go toward the south to the road that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza.” (This is a wilderness road.) So he got up and went. Now there was an Ethiopian eunuch, a court official of the Candace, queen of the Ethiopians, in charge of her entire treasury. He had come to Jerusalem to worship and was returning home; seated in his chariot, he was reading the prophet Isaiah. Then the Spirit said to Philip, “Go over to this chariot and join it.” So Philip ran up to it and heard him reading the prophet Isaiah. He asked, “Do you understand what you are reading?” He replied, “How can I, unless someone guides me?” And he invited Philip to get in and sit beside him. Now the passage of the scripture that he was reading was this: “Like a sheep he was led to the slaughter, and like a lamb silent before its shearer, so he does not open his mouth. In his humiliation justice was denied him. Who can describe his generation? For his life is taken away from the earth.” The eunuch asked Philip, “About whom, may I ask you, does the prophet say this, about himself or about someone else?” Then Philip began to speak, and starting with this scripture, he proclaimed to him the good news about Jesus. As they were going along the road, they came to some water; and the eunuch said, “Look, here is water! What is to prevent me from being baptized?” He commanded the chariot to stop, and both of them, Philip and the eunuch, went down into the water, and Philip baptized him. When they came up out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord snatched Philip away; the eunuch saw him no more, and went on his way rejoicing. But Philip found himself at Azotus, and as he was passing through the region, he proclaimed the good news to all the towns until he came to Caesarea.
One of the surprises of my thirty-three years of ministry is the pleasure I have found in writing funeral eulogies. I don’t mean to sound morbid. I have actually found it to be an interesting privilege just to sit with a family and learn more about the life of the deceased; to hear memories of situations that I had not previously heard; and to share in the laughter and tears that such storytelling tends to produce. I try my best to relate what I have been told into a larger story which paints a brief yet important picture of someone’s life.
I have a colleague in ministry who has just retired. Part of his retirement activity is a new business that he has started. He writes eulogies for people. Although much of his work is done quickly, when a family contacts him following the death of a loved one, a surprising amount of his business is coming from people who are constructing their own stories of their own life – a story that will be read after they have died. The business is something that my colleague enjoys and it is filling a need since most eulogies today are given by family members and friends rather than the clergy. He has told me something which reaffirmed my belief – a good funeral eulogy is a story, the story of a life and touches upon the stories of everyone who is there to remember and celebrate a life.
In her book, The Dead Beat: Lost Souls, Lucky Stiffs, and the Perverse Pleasures of Obituaries, author Marilyn Johnson writes about the pleasure and pain and complications of those who compose obituaries for newspapers. Johnson interviewed Richard Pearson who was the obituary editor for The Washington Post. Pearson said that there are times in which people complain that there isn’t enough in an obituary and sometimes that the obituary pages are too thin. His reply, which Johnson says is probably over the desk of every obituary editor in America was, “God is our assignment editor.”
This Easter season we have been reflecting upon stories of the early Church taken from the book of Acts. These stories are something we might tend to avoid because they feature the power of the Holy Spirit, a mysterious force with which we are not often comfortable. These stories are also tales that we might overlook because they illustrate the power of belief in the Risen Christ, a power that challenges and even convicts us when we too easily accept the ways of the world and the forces of death and darkness that control us. I am fascinated by the book of Acts because in its pages the writer clearly associates Easter behavior with behavior motivated and fueled by Spirit. The once disheartened and fearful disciples become a brave and vibrant force. The good news of Jesus Christ began to spread across the world. The influence of resurrection and new life embraced all within its grasp.
Today we read the story of Philip. An angel of the Lord spoke to him and told him to get up and move to the road that went from Jerusalem to Gaza. The author noted that this was not a well-travelled road. It was a wilderness road. It was a road that went right through the barrenness of a desert. It is important to remember that this journey was not Philip’s idea. He was called to go there by the angel, by God’s Spirit. There in the heat of the desert, Philip encountered a rather strange sight, an Ethiopian, a member of the court of the Queen of Ethiopia, a man probably of a different race, a man of an uncertain gender or sexual orientation, a man of some power and influence since he was in charge of the Queen’s treasury. The man was in a chariot, again something rather odd for the desert, and was reading not the latest best-seller or the morning newspaper. He was not checking responses to his latest Tweet or his Facebook status. He was reading a scroll containing the words of the prophet Isaiah- which just so happened to be Jesus’ favorite author.
The Spirit spoke again to Philip. “Go over and talk to that man.” It is fascinating to me to see the Spirit pushing people to do things beyond their comfort zone! Go over to that chariot and talk to that man, that man who has nothing in common with you! A great invitation, right? And Philip did just that. The Ethiopian admitted that he was having trouble understanding what he was reading and so Philip, whose life with Jesus informed him a great deal about what Isaiah was talking about, filled the Ethiopian in on the meaning of the prophecy. It is about Jesus and how Jesus died. Philip didn’t do or say anything too spectacular. He simply told his story and related what he knew. He told the story of Jesus and let the Spirit do the rest.
Philip must have done a pretty good job because after hearing these words, the Ethiopian man asked to be baptized. Philip explained that that would be rather impossible since baptism required water and they were in the middle of the desert. Deep down inside he was probably relieved because baptizing this strange man who was so different from the stereotypical early Christian would not be a comfortable thing to do. And then, wouldn’t you know it. Miraculously an oasis appears with a pool of water. Every excuse was removed! Philip and the Ethiopian get into the water and the Holy Spirit descends. Philip just disappears and the Ethiopian leaves rejoicing as a new disciple.
I ask myself why this narrative is there in the book of Acts. What was the writer trying to teach the early followers of Jesus and what could we learn from it today? Clearly it is a story of evangelism. It is a tale of conversion. When Philip explained the Isaiah passage to the Ethiopian, the man who was outside the faith understood and was baptized into the faith. Yet Philip was also the target of evangelism. He discovered the power of the Spirit to move him to places he didn’t think he could go, to knock down walls that he believed kept him from doing things, to give him the ability to use his story and his experience to speak to the story and experience of others. Philip was the example of how God works in the intersection of human lives and of how God speaks where human paths cross.
This is a story that informs you and me about how we can be an evangelist. The sharing of the gospel isn’t as difficult or complicated as we think it is. It doesn’t have to be an organized program with a clever slogan and appointed calendar dates. Evangelism doesn’t have to be sparked by award winning sermon and altar calls. Evangelism is something that involves each and every follower of Christ. Evangelism is what keeps the church interesting, outward focused, challenged and evolving. Evangelism is the power of our story that touches the story of others in the places where paths of people cross in everyday life.
At the recent Ministers’ Convocation that I attended, our speaker from Western Theological Seminary Dr. Kyle Small mentioned that the local church and ministers are often frustrated by lack of growth and low attendance. The truth, Dr. Small said, is that the church is growing but we aren’t noticing it. We don’t notice it because it just doesn’t look like us. In order to grow we have to model the spirited risk that Philip took and look outside the room to places of everyday life.
There is a perhaps apocryphal story about Martin Luther who allegedly claimed that he led the Protestant Reformation, by sitting in the tavern drinking good beer and minding his own business. Luther said that the Holy Spirit did the rest.
Perhaps it really wasn’t that easy. But whether or not the story is true, we can often forget that the church is not the product of our most creative and earnest efforts but the product of the Holy Spirit which works in our ordinary story and activity. We are the evangelists, the proclaimers of the good news, led by the Spirit into places and situations where we are challenged to share of our story, on the road in the midst of life’s deepest problems.
In her book Bread of Angels, Barbara Brown Taylor writes, “Under the power of the Holy Spirit, shy people have been known to step up onto platforms and say audacious things. Cautious people have become daredevils, frugal people have become philanthropists and people who used to be as sour as dill pickles have become rich with friends. There is no limit to what the Holy Spirit can do. You just cannot hold your breath, that’s all. You have to keep breathing, keep paying attention, and keep responding to whatever crazy idea you come up with next. Some people call it intuition. Others call it inspiration. Forever and ever, the church has called it Holy Spirit.”
Be attentive to where the spirit leads you. Pay attention to those who may cross your path. Be ready to tell your story in whatever way you can.