Toorak Uniting Church

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Living as witnesses

Acts 8: 26 – 40   1 John 4: 7 – 21   John 15: 1 – 8
Rev. Anneke Oppewal
10 May 2009

I’d like to start this sermon with a bit of an experiment. You will need to use your imagination, but since I know you all like doing that, this should not be a problem.

Now imagine: A Christian filled with enthusiasm for the gospel meets someone on the road. They get talking and somehow the Christian manages to transfer some of his enthusiasm to the person he has just met and this person indicates he wants to follow Christ. What does the Christian do?

I would like you to think about three possible scenarios:

Does he:

  1. Convince this person to come with him to meet the people of his Church and join other new recruits for a discipleship course, so he may be baptised, if he still wants to, a year and a bit later at Easter, after he has come to Church every Sunday, has paid his stewardship and has become involved in at least three committees or task groups?

  2. Go with him to make sure he is taught all the principles of faith properly and then set up a new Church plant in the other person’s place of residence, encouraging him to keep multiplying Churches in that way?

  3. Baptise the person and leave?

I know what the advice of the Uniting Church would be, I know what the practice of many evangelical mega Churches is, and I can tell you it is not option c: To baptise the person after a chat and leave them to their own devices after that.
That however is exactly what happens in the story of Philip and the Ethiopian and what started what was probably one of the most successful mission efforts in Early Christianity: The Ethiopian Church. Very special, very different, but still alive and well today.

Once you start to think about it this story goes against everything we think we know about mission and growing Churches. First of all: There is no planning on Philip’s part. He finds himself on the road, he finds himself in a chariot with an Ethiopian and he finds himself confronted with a couple of questions, the last one being if he will baptise this man in a pond that happens to be on the side of the road. NO planning at all.
Then the Christian Education this Ethiopian receives is completely random and totally directed by his questions and Philip’s enthusiasm. NO fundamentals that need to be worked through.
Philip baptises the man without the permission of or even consultation with his home Church. NO organisation, NO formal structure, NO red tape, NO bureaucracy. Just two men, a couple of questions, an ounce of enthusiasm and a pond.
Philip leaves the man immediately after the baptism. He doesn’t ask him to come to Church, he doesn’t make sure he will be alright, he doesn’t direct him to a Christian community before he goes, one minute he is there, the next minute he is gone and the Ethiopian travels on alone.
And still it works!

I don’t get it. We who try so hard to plan, to provide proper education, invite people into our community, make sure they are on our roll and are encouraged to become involved in the work of the Church and follow up after baptisms and other points of contact with people along the way, see the Church getting emptier and emptier and here is Philip, starting a whole new branch of the Church in under an hour!

Now before I go any further I don’t want you to get me wrong: I think we are doing all the right things and should keep doing them. Like the Church in Jerusalem, Philip’s home Church, was doing at the time. But! I think what this story is trying to tell us is that perhaps there are other ways that can be equally or even more successful.

First: In this story Philip is not in control. The Spirit is. He has to content with being pushed and pulled and even whisked away. And Philip listens to those irrational, random whisperings of the Spirit and takes them seriously. Something he would have found a lot more difficult had he been constrained by the rigorous rules and red tape of a more institutionalised Church. Most probably, in our Church today, the baptism of the Ethiopian would not have been valid, unless Philip was an ordained minister, which he wasn’t.
Second: Philip meets the Ethiopian where he is at. He gets into his chariot, travels alongside him and answers his questions. He shares his enthusiasm about his faith, but only after he’s been asked and after he has listened to the other man’s question.
Third: Philip or his home Church does not gain anything by this exercise. The Ethiopian continues on his way and Philip returns home after an exciting chat. That’s really all as far as Philip and the Church in Jerusalem are concerned. No bums on seats, no boost in numbers. They probably never heard from the Ethiopian again in their life time.
And have you realised where the places of worship are in this story? Sure enough: In Jerusalem a community is meeting, not once a week, but every day of the week, to share stories, to pray and to praise. A worship centre alive with activity on every day of the week. But in the meantime there is worship going on in the countryside as well, an along the road, and in a carriage where two men talk about the gospel and pray together, and in a pond along the road where one baptises the other with no one else present, and later on when the Ethiopian continues on his way, worshipping and praising God.

There are many ways and means, many places where worship can take shape. There is more at stake than the growth of the home turf. There are other ways than through well organised and well regulated programs for the Spirit to be able to do her work and change the world.

Here in the grounds I can see the Spirit at work every day, and you can see it too if you open your heart, eyes and ears. The place is alive with people during the week, and there are countless opportunities for a chat, to share life experiences, to struggle over the basic questions of life, to show our enthusiasm for the Church and share other people’s enthusiasm for what they have found out about life and God. The Spirit is whispering all the time, in Kindergarten, in Kinross, in John McCrae and even in the hall complex, and in and through our Sunday services. There is worship with schools, with groups, with individuals, at funerals, weddings, in pastoral care, at home, in hospital, in the memorial garden and even under the tree at times.

Would it be possible that some or even most of these people are not meant to be sucked into our organised, institutionalised setting and put bums on our seats to help ease our anxiety about the future, but are there to force us out of our entrenched old habits and help make room for something new?

Is it possible that here and there we are setting an Ethiopian on his or her way to come up with a very special, very different way of being Christian? A way that may survive the next two thousand years?

I don’t know. All I know is that the only thing we are asked to do is to abide. To abide in Christ and let the whisperings of the Spirit warm the blood in our veins so it can flow further and further into the world around us. What that will exactly look like and how it will work is not up to us. The only thing up to us is to listen, like Philip did, to the whisperings of the Spirit, and to open our hearts and minds to those we find on the road trusting that the vine will find a way to keep flowing once the connection is made.

© Rev. Anneke Oppewal, 2009

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