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.
The Worship and Faith Development Team decided on the topic of Evangelism for this year’s Discipleship Month to encourage all West Epping members to know that everyone has a story of faith to share (not just the super-holy Reverends like myself), and to help members grow in confidence to share their stories with others as effective evangelists. Today, we are going to put that goal to the test. Before we do though, let’s spend a bit of time thinking back to what we have learnt over the last few weeks.
The topic of Week 1 was Why Bother, or Why Evangelise. We took a step back and actually defined some terms that we so often use: evangelism is the act of telling the story of Jesus; conversion is God’s in-breaking into a person’s life such that that person becomes a Christian; salvation is what we believe happens when people put their trust and faith in God; baptism is the act of welcoming someone into God’s family; proselytism is forceful evangelism. And then we talked about the Good News being such a wonderful gift we have received that we cannot keep it to ourselves – in fact, keeping our faith to ourselves decreases its worth. We also evangelise to take our place in the 2000 year relay of faith, so that the story continues to generations to come, and includes more and more people.
In Week 2, we tried to figure out what the Good News actually is that we are called to share. We looked through the New Testament, and found that the Good News for Jesus was the radical, world-turning-upside-down nature of the Kingdom of God; for the apostles it was that Jesus is risen from the dead; and for Paul it was that salvation is open to anyone, Jew or otherwise. With these variants in the biblical gospel message, we then tried to figure out what the constants are in the gospel: first, the gospel is GOOD news; next, the gospel is good NEWS; next, the gospel is about God’s action; and last, the gospel is future-looking. We are called to preach, as we read in Mark 1:1, the Good News of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.
And then last week, we went deeper into the idea that evangelism is storytelling, following the greatest storyteller of all, Jesus. Sometimes we are called to tell the stories of Scripture, that contain so much hope and wonder and Good News in them. But sometimes we are called to tell our own stories of faith and doubt and trust and joy and pain, because they are perhaps much more accessible to others. And then I told you a few stories from my own life, purely as an example of how everyone has stories with great power in them to heal and transform and plant seeds of faith in others.
And so we come to this week, the final week of this series. And if it hasn’t reached you as yet, let me spell it out for you one more time: Christian evangelism in its purity is storytelling. It is telling the story of Jesus, as found in Scripture, and as found in our own lives. But in the world we live in today, in our post-Christendom, post-truth, Royal Commission-y society, we can no longer model the evangelism of the past, where the evangelist was a seemingly perfect, confident holder of the gift and the truth and the hope and the joy, and the other was simply someone to receive all of that. The Royal Commission into Institutional Sex Abuse taught us that there is no point in acting like everything is wonderful and lovely in the church, and churches that do so are inevitably hiding some wounds and scars. Precisely because the institutional Church is so much less trusted these days, our evangelism has to be real and grounded in the muckiness of life. A story of how your faith got you a million dollars isn’t going to move my heart as much as a story of how your faith got you through the heartbreak of losing a loved one, or how you sometimes doubt and question, or how sometimes you really just don’t know the answers to the curly questions some people may pose you. We all have that blessed assurance, we all hope beyond all hope that in Christ we are redeemed, and that our death will not be the end of our stories. But our lives still have moments of both joy and sorrow, both pain and laughter, both doubt and faith, both anger and forgiveness. This, in a nutshell, is why we have a Prayer of Confession every week at church.
Real, effective evangelism today is about creating a safe but vulnerable space, sharing your real, unairbrushed stories of faith and life, listening to the stories of the other, finding points of connection and shared wisdom together, and then allowing the Spirit to work wonders in both you and in the other. Remember, your job is to share the story and plant the seeds. Whether those seeds sprout into faith and discipleship is between the person and God.
I was talking with Bruce Noble the other week about lots of things, including his experiences with cancer, treatment and prayer last year. Some would say that his healing at that time could be attributed to medical science at its best, while others might say it was just luck or coincidence. Bruce believes in the power of prayer and in the presence of miracles, and that is how he explains that story. That, in a nutshell, is his evangelism – that his story of blessing and healing is for him entirely attributed to the workings of God in his life.
In fact, in my entire ministry here at West Epping, there have been countless stories of wondrous times when I have been able to plant seeds of faith in others, simply by sharing my stories, listening to their stories and organically finding ways to reference Jesus. Like the Muslim Playgroup mum who couldn’t believe that the people who run our Playgroup are unpaid volunteers (unlike back home in Iran), and asked why, to which we replied, because we love Jesus and this is how we live out that love. Or like the struggling mainly music mum to whom I simply say, I’m praying for you. Or like the recipients of our Community BBQs who ask why this hospitality is free, and we say, because it’s what Jesus would do.
That, in a nutshell, is what I am encouraging you to do, sisters and brothers – whether it be in your workplace, friendship groups, cafes, families, neighbourhoods or mission activities – share your stories in humility and generosity, listen humbly to the stories of others, and find organic ways to plant seeds of Christ in them.
To that end, we are going to put everything we have learnt this month, particularly last week and this week, into practise, right now. In a moment, I will ask you to pair up – I don’t mind who with; you can move out into the hall or stay here. Then, I’d like one of you to share a story of faith from your life; it could be a situation in your life at the moment, or a memorable anecdote from your past; it could be happy or sad or confusing. If you can’t think of a good story, these questions might help: why are you still a Christian? Have you ever experienced a miracle? What is your favourite Bible passage and why? What is your favourite hymn and why? Share something, and I want the other person to just listen – no interruptions, just listen. And then at the end, I’d like the other person to respond with some sense of evangelism, like “your story reminds me of this Bible passage”, or “I’ll pray for you”, or “it sounds like God has worked a miracle in your life”, or “have you thought about…”, and so on. And then I’ll get you to swap. This is a safe place, and hopefully this is safe enough for you to be able to practise this skill among friends. I’ll draw you back in around 10 minutes.
This is a fairly artificial situation this morning, and may have felt awkward and clunky. But I wanted the end of this series to be practical in nature, in this, hopefully safe place, among your friends, to practise sharing your story and listening to the stories of others.
But there is a hard word that hasn’t been touched on as yet, that I need to say before wrapping up. That is, to be an authentic evangelist, one must have an authentic life of faith. If your faith isn’t real and grounded and lived out, what stories do you have to share to others? If you are not reading your Bible, how can you tell the stories of Jesus to others? If you are not learning more and more, how can you impart knowledge to others? If your discipleship is just reserved to Sunday mornings, when do you evangelise? There are three commandments we are called to take very seriously, and they all relate to each other: love God, love neighbour, and tell the world about Jesus. If you are lacking in your response to any one of these commandments, the rest will suffer.
Sisters and brothers, I believe you have everything you need to be effective evangelists. So go forth, and tell the Good News to your family, your friends, your neighbours, your colleagues, your shopkeepers, the people who engage with our community engagement activities, and so on. Tell the Good News because you are commanded to, but more because the news is so very good that it cannot be kept to yourself. Ensure that the Gospel you tell is good, is news, is about God, and is about the future. Tell the stories of Scripture, and tell the stories of your life, and be humble enough to listen to the stories of others. Plant seeds of faith and hope, and see what miracles God can grow. Amen.