In today’s reading from Acts, we meet a couple of great characters, Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch. This is the third time Philip has made an appearance in the book of Acts. He was one of the Hellenist followers of Jesus in Acts 6, chosen to take over the distribution of food from the Hebrew disciples as they went forth to proclaim the gospel. Now Philip, the Greek food distributor, is headed away from church headquarters in Jerusalem and finds himself is an absorbing interaction with our second main character, a eunuch, an official of the queen of the Ethiopians, a man who had come to Jerusalem to worship and was returning home.
When Acts was written, “Ethiopian” was a generic term for dark-skinned people who lived south of Egypt. We also know this official was not a practicing convert to Judaism; in order to perform his duty in the queen’s court, he had been castrated, and Deuteronomy 23:1 makes it clear that anyone in his situation was to be excluded from the worshiping assembly. So when we read that an Ethiopian eunuch was in Jerusalem to worship, understand that this would have leapt out as a provocative juxtaposition to a first-century reader of Acts: eunuch and worship, they don’t go together. So, here we have Philip and a God-seeking eunuch unable to become part of the covenant community because of Church law.
Fast forward to today. Our society is filled with people who are curious about God and interested in exploring theirs and others’ beliefs, but most, like this Ethiopian eunuch, due to experience or hearsay, cannot make their way through all the requirements or traditions or perceptions that characterize a worshiping community. A recent survey revealed what young, non-churchgoing Americans think of when they think of Christians. Here are the top three: (1) anti-gay, (2) judgmental, and (3) hypocritical. True or not, those are the barriers that we face.
In light of those barriers, I believe this exchange between Philip and the Ethiopian is an archetype – that is, model – for healthy, respectful, effective faith sharing and learning. Just follow the verbs.
Go – not to church, but away from church. Rather than inviting people to dine in, we need to get on our Christian bikes and practice spiritual takeout and share the good news wherever we are.
Join. Once Philip has left Jerusalem and noticed the eunuch’s chariot, God simply tells him to go over and join it. Before we say anything, we go and we join. We can’t expect people to join our church if we have not taken the time to join in their lives and traditions and experiences of others. And joining can take a while.
Listen and Ask. Philip heard the Ethiopian reading Isaiah. Philip had gone, he had joined, and then he listened and asked a question.
There are many, many people who are seeking answers about God. And many of them are not necessarily going to come through the doors of this or any church to find the answers. They, like the eunuch, may believe – or, sadder still, may have been told – that they just don’t go together with the church. Or they, like the eunuch, may try to figure out the answers themselves using many different things to fill the void in their life that they are seeking to see fulfilled.
So many people have never heard anything about Jesus Christ and the good news of His saving mercy and grace. They travel through life seeking answers wherever they think they’ll find them. They may look to possessions, money, drugs, alcohol, sexual pleasures, idols of many kinds. They may even try being a great humanitarian and do wonderful things for people but somehow it never brings real satisfaction, real peace, real comfort.
What they need is for someone to come alongside their chariot and ask them a good question like Philip did. He asked, ‘do you understand what you’re reading?’ Maybe a simple ‘hello, how are you?’ could lead to someone actually giving us an honest answer and telling us that they are really feeling somewhat empty inside and don’t know how to fill that void? Another good opening question is, “Can I ask you a question?” Obvious, right? But how often do we miss a God-given opportunity by not even taking this simple step?
Questions are an excellent starting point because they take much of the pressure off the whole situation. They put the ball back in the other person’s court. If God is not leading in that situation, then the person can simply reply, “Not right now,” “I’m busy,” or “No, thank you.” No harm, no foul. If, however, God is in this conversation, you will know very quickly because the person will respond with interest and may even give you an indication of what your next question should be.
And that is the point of, and a second advantage to, questions. Questions help you gather information about the person and the situation. Sincere questions are friendly and flattering; they show that you are interested in the person. They tell someone you want to understand their position and they keep you from being accused of distorting that position. Furthermore, with questions you control the direction of the conversation without being pushy or threatening since the person you are talking to always has the option of declining to answer.
If, as with Philip and the Ethiopian, the other person makes a statement, whether meaning to start a conversation or not, a good question is, “What do you mean by that?” For instance, if someone says, “All religions are basically the same. They all talk about loving each other. Christians shouldn’t tell others how to live or what to believe,” you can respond with “Have you studied other religions to compare the details? Are there no significant differences? Isn’t telling other people to love one another just another example of telling them how they should live and believe?” The first two questions are variations on “What do you mean by that?” and the third one may get them to think of the fallacy of their argument. You can also ask if they think Jesus thought that all religions were the same.
Now, there are times, of course, when discretion is the better part of valor. For example, if your wife calls you an idiot, don’t ask “What do you mean by that?” She may be all too willing to clarify.
Also remember that we, as believers, are not the only ones required to defend our views. We don’t have to refute ever idea someone manufactures. We are free to, and should, ask questions like, “Now, how did you come to that conclusion?” Surprisingly, often people have not given much thought to what they believe and cannot explain why they believe it. We can then be there to help fill the vacuum. A great book on sharing your faith through questions is Tactics by Gregory Koukl; from which I got most of these examples.
Most of us excuse ourselves from sharing our faith before we even try, because we think we have to do it all. The fact is, faith sharing is already happening and God is doing all the real work. We just need to go and join and listen and ask good questions. God leads, and we follow.
I believe that one of the main reasons that people do not come to faith in Christ is because they do not understand what it means to be a Christian, a child of God. The fact that this generation, and the one previous to it, have had much less exposure to the gospel than many before them is a huge contributor to the fact that more kids can identify the logos of most fast food restaurants than can name the four gospels, much less know who Christ is. Those a little older may have preconceived ideas about ‘the church’ and think it’s all about religion, a bunch of do’s and don’ts and give us your money, when the truth is that it’s all about a relationship between us and God.
Some have been hurt in the past by someone in the church, or the church as a whole. Maybe love and forgiveness, mercy and grace, hope and truth, were not evident in the lives and ministry of people they had once trusted…and that broken trust lead to broken faith.
Perhaps they need someone to come alongside and ask them what they understand about God, about Jesus, and then really listen to their answer. And, as the Spirit leads, then tell them what you know about God, about how we have all hurt God by living lives for ourselves, how He loves us so much that Jesus died to pay for our selfishness and sin, that He rose again, and that He is still alive and will be forever, as can we if we will put aside our selfishness, accept His forgiveness, and live our lives for Him and for His glory.
Those who have not become full devoted followers of Christ need to meet up with someone who has. People need to know that God really does make the difference between being fulfilled, and just cruising through life on a chariot that’s headed nowhere. Philip sits with and gently guides the eunuch to faith in Christ. We often hear it said that we need to “lead people to Christ.” This might be the case sometimes, but usually, especially in today’s world, a better metaphor is to midwife. We simply assist the natural process starting with belonging and moving toward belief as the Spirit leads.