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Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Gospel Expansion (Acts 8:26-40)

Sunday, May 3, 2015

            The Angel of the Lord told Philip, “Get up and go.”  And he did.  And we do.
            We are a few weeks removed from Easter Sunday, but we always Easter people.  Every day of the year, we are resurrection people. 
            This means many things.  This year, our focus has been on the words of Jesus in Acts 1:8 and how these words shape our understanding of who God is calling us to be.  “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”
            The statement is loaded. First, it is an imperative.  Jesus is not making a suggestion, but rather an assertion.  You will receive power.  You will be witnesses.  If we wonder where he gets the authority to say such things, well, he’s been resurrected. He was dead, buried, and now he stands alive, never to die again.
            Second, his words contain a promise, and what a promise!  We’re going to receive power from the Holy Spirit!! What does that look like in our lives? 
            Third, Jesus is specific.  We are to be witnesses.  Witnesses testify.  As resurrection people, it is inherent.  We are people who tell about Jesus, about His kingdom, and about how each person who comes to faith in Him has life in His name.  With the power of the Holy Spirit of God, through actions, through words, and through the approach we take to people, we testify to the Gospel – salvation in Jesus Christ.
            Fourth, the statement the risen Lord makes in Acts 1:8 is expansive.  He tells the disciples, you’ll be witnesses in Jerusalem.  This occurs in that season of Passover and then Pentecost.  It’s a time of year when Jews from all over travel to Jerusalem to worship.  Even though they are all Jews, they are not all from Jerusalem.  Many don’t even speak Aramaic or read Hebrew as their everyday language.  In Acts 2 when the Holy Spirit fills this diverse crowd and then Peter preaches, it is a fulfillment of the command of Jesus in chapter 1.  It is also a first step in the spread of the Gospel.
            Then throughout the rest of Acts, the movement is seen – Jerusalem, Judea & Samaria, and the ends of the earth.  In Acts 3 – 5 the gospel is preached in the city.  In Acts chapters 6-7, a conflict occurs between Aramaic speaking Jewish Christ-followers and Greek-speaking Jewish Christ-followers.  Such a dispute might threaten a young movement, but the church is the gathering of people who worship Jesus and have their life in Him.  The Holy Spirit leads the leaders to find a solution that not only preserves the life of the community but actually grows it.
            They appoint the first deacons – Greek speakers.  And these deacons, starting with Stephen join in the work of bearing witness, telling the story of life in Christ. 
            The beginning portion of Acts chapter 9 shows another boundary crossed.  This time the gospel expands not to another people group or a new language or across an ethnic divide.  In Acts 9, the story of Jesus breaks through to a Jew – the Pharisee who had been leading the persecution of Christians, Saul.  He meets the risen Lord in a flash of light.  Saul the Pharisee and Christian-killer becomes Paul the Apostle.  He does not ever stop being Jewish.  He simply understands every bit of life in the light of Christ. We’re all called to do this.  We don’t just become new creations in Christ.  We interpret our history based on who we are in Him.  Paul went from enemy to witness.
            Acts 10-11 give the story of Peter first sharing the good news with Gentiles, specifically the Roman centurion Cornelius.  A voice from Heaven pointedly tells Peter it is a new day and in this new day even those who are not of Israel can benefit from Israel’s Messiah because he is the Lord of all creation.  Even non-Jews can come to life in Jesus.
            So we see the statement and hear the word of Jesus.  “You will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”  We follow through the chapters of Acts and we see it happening – Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, the earth.  The Kingdom of God expands as the story of Jesus is told and people come to faith in Him.  But, you notice we have skipped over Acts chapter 8.  There we see the Gospel expansion by way of a less-known witness in a direction not frequently considered.
            Acts 8 begins with one of those Hellenists ordained in Acts 6.  This is not Philip of the 12 disciples.  This is the deacon Philip.  He gives his witness in Samaria.  Samaritans and Jews did not like each other.  They were ethnically related, but as often happens with half-brothers and cousins, the closeness bred enmity.  Jesus touches on this when he makes the hero of a parable a Samaritan instead of a denizen of Jerusalem.  Part of Jesus’ point is that his way is so radically transforming that former enemies, like Jews and Samaritans, become brothers who love each other when they are his followers.
            Philip preaches Christ in Samaria and many believe including a magician named Simon.  So many barriers are broken down in a simple story.  A Greek-speaking Jews, Philip, share Jesus with Samaritan, a Samaritan practitioner of black magic, and that person becomes a believer.  The Gospel expands even beyond what the first believers would have imagined.  But the Holy Spirit does more than that.  In the latter part of Acts 8, the Gospel expands beyond what the first Christ-followers even considered.
            Then as now, Africa is often overlooked, forgotten.  But it is an enormous continent of millions of people made in the image of God.  Every African was on Jesus mind as he went to the cross.  Acts 8:26-40 is a Biblical reminder that this wonderful place and the people there are so important to the Lord, the story of the Gospel could not be told without mention of them.
            The angel of the Lord addresses Philip directly.  Philip is sent to a wilderness road, a remote, dangerous place.  There he sees an Ethiopian, a court official.  This man is in charge of the treasury of the royal house of Ethiopia.  His position gives him enormous power.  But, he is also a eunuch.  Deuteronomy 23:1 severely limits the participation of eunuchs in Israelite worship.  Provisions would have been made to allow some level of involvement.  But in the Jerusalem temple, this man of royal power would be a second class citizen.  He was gentile.  And he was a eunuch.  Why was he interested in Jewish religion in the first place? 
            I don’t know, but he clearly had a very strong attraction to Jewish religious practice.  He had traveled to Jerusalem to participate in Passover and Pentecost.  Now, as he rode southward in his royal procession, headed home, he continued reading scripture.  The Holy Spirit essentially put Philip there so he could bear witness to this “other.”  The Spirit sent the disciple to a gentile and one who could not carry on the normal sexual life of a healthy male.  He was asexual. 
            To him, Philip “proclaimed the good news about Jesus.”  This is the center of this story.  Philip told the Ethiopian court official about Jesus.  This is the core idea of the books Acts.  Philip bore his witness.  It is to this that we are called; Jesus makes us his witnesses. 
            We are also called to be that Ethiopian eunuch.  We are most ready to receive the good news of Jesus when we recognize how removed from God we are.  This gentile, this mutilated man – he had no trouble seeing himself as one who desperately needed God.  When Philip helped him see that the scriptures point to Jesus, he was thrilled.  When they came to a stream, he stopped the entire procession so Philip could baptize him. 
            And then, the Holy Spirit snatched Philip away.  What did the Ethiopian think at that point?  He was so fully open to God, he was too happy to be surprised.  Acts 8:39 says he went on his way rejoicing.  It was a natural as anything he could imagine.  God’s Spirit sent him a man to help him see salvation and once he got it, then God’s spirit whooshed that man away to bear witness somewhere else.  Of course!
            Christianity in Ethiopia is ancient.  I have often imagined that the eunuch went back home and told everyone about his new life in Christ.  Upon hearing him bear witness, I imagine the royal court becoming Christian.  I have searched for documents that tie the Ethiopian church back to this story, and I have not found any connections.  The earliest documentation of Christianity in that country is from the 4th century AD.  Ethiopian Christianity is different than any of the threads of the faith you might know: Catholicism; Eastern Orthodoxy; Protestantism.  It does not fit in any of these categories.  Nor is there an easy connection to Philip and that eunuch.
            Still, I believe that’s where faith in Jesus was born in that place, on that Wilderness Road.  Philip the deacon testified, the Ethiopian Courtier believed and received Jesus, and there was a baptism and a new birth in Christ.  It all came about because of Jesus’ words in Acts 1:8.
            Today, the expansion of the Gospel continues as the church continues to bear witness.  Have you received salvation with the innocent joy that the Ethiopian had?  If you have not, today would you open your heart and ask Jesus in?  Would you give Him all your sin and let today be the day of your rejoicing as everything else fades from view and all you can see if Him and all you can feel is the love he has for you?
            If you have received Christ, then today, would you make yourself available so the Spirit can carry you as Philip was carried and place you?  And once the Spirit has placed you, will you testify there as Philip did, whether it is Samaria or a wilderness road or the street where you live.  What is at the heart of your story or my story?
            Jesus tells us the heart of our stories is power and testimony.  To us says, “You will be my witnesses.”  We are his witnesses.  We have a story to tell – the story of the Kingdom of God.  When we leave today, may we go ready to give testimony that will point the world to Him.


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