May 3, 2015

Acts 8:26-40
1 John 4:7-21

“Mission as Evangelism”

Have you ever wondered what happened to the Ethiopian man after Philip baptized him beside the road and then disappeared from sight? The story in the Book of Acts doesn’t tell us, but the tradition is that he carried the gospel back home to Ethiopia and founded the church there.

I’ve always liked this little story in Acts 8 because it’s very personal – it’s the story of how one person heard and began to understand the good news about Jesus Christ because a believer took the time to listen, to share, and to discuss it with him.

But it’s also the story of the gospel going out into all the earth. Once the disciples had received the gift of the Holy Spirit and the power to proclaim the gospel in all the languages of the world, it began to spread… throughout countries and cultures, crossing borders, and being shared from one person to another, from one community to another – the fulfillment of the mission that Jesus gave to his disciples.

Even as we gather here to worship nearly two thousand years later, we might pause and give thanks for those first evangelists like Philip, and like the Ethiopian man whose name we don’t even know. Because it was through their witness, through their courage, and through their listening to the Spirit’s guiding that the gospel spread, and eventually that each of us came to know that we are God’s children, that God is FOR us.

Through their faithfulness in sharing, we came to understand that God sent his Son, Jesus the Christ, to reveal God’s perfect love and amazing grace through his life, ministry, death, and resurrection. Through their sharing, we had the opportunity to hear God’s voice calling us to follow Jesus with our lives, to devote ourselves to his teachings, and to experience the peace and joy that comes with living in relationship with our loving God.

The story of Philip and the Ethiopian make mission and evangelism seem very simple and straightforward. I love the part of the story where the Ethiopian asks to be baptized: “Look, here is water!” he shouts, “What is to prevent me from being baptized?” I love his enthusiasm and his excitement about his newfound faith.

We know, of course, that Christian mission and evangelism has not always been so simple or so joyous through much of our history. We must acknowledge with regret the times when the gospel got mixed up with a particular culture, language, or way of life that Christians attempted to push or even force on others. Rather than the good news being received and enculturated in particular communities of people, the church often pushed European cultural practices and norms as if they were the content of the gospel.

One contemporary response to this problem is to cease doing mission, or to keep our mission only to helping with practical needs through disaster assistance and development work overseas, and through food banks, soup kitchens, and poverty reduction strategies locally.

But to make that choice is to abandon a very significant part of our Christian mission. Yes, we are called to love our neighbours and to demonstrate that by helping and giving in practical ways. But we are also called to love our neighbours by sharing with them the good news about Jesus that has transformed our own lives.

“Living Faith,” our church’s statement of Christian belief, emphasizes that our mission includes both evangelism and service:

9.1 Our Mission
9.1.1 As God sent Christ to us,
so Christ sends us into the world.
We are here to proclaim Christ in word and deed.

9.1.2 Mission is evangelism,
the offer of salvation to all people
in the power of the Holy Spirit,
to be received through faith in Christ.
It asks people to repent of their sins,
to trust Christ,
to be baptized,
and to enter a life honouring Jesus as Lord.

9.1.3 Mission is service,
a call to help people in need and
to permeate all of life with the compassion of God.

For most of us, mission as service probably seems easier than mission as evangelism. Although it requires great commitment and generosity, it doesn’t require us to accept the kind of vulnerability that comes with trying to put our faith into words and to share it with another person.

We may worry about whether people may judge us, reject us, or be offended by what we might say. We may wonder about what will happen to our relationships with our co-workers, neighbours, or family members if we take the risk of telling them about our faith or inviting them to church.

In a way, it may have been easier for Philip to share his faith with the Ethiopian on the road. Chances were that he would never see that guy again, so perhaps it didn’t seem so risky. But if our lives have truly been transformed by our coming to know God through Jesus the Christ, then don’t we want our friends and neighbours to share in our joy?

And if we have received the gift of the Holy Spirit poured into our hearts, we must be assured that evangelism won’t just be a really hard thing that we must do alone, but we will be led, and guided, and helped along by the Spirit of God just as Philip was as he approached the Ethiopian’s chariot.

“Living Faith” encourages us to approach evangelism in a spirit of humble faith sharing:

9.2 Our Mission and Other Faiths
9.2.1 Some whom we encounter belong to other religions
and already have a faith.
Their lives often give evidence of devotion
and reverence for life.
We recognize that truth and goodness in them
are the work of God’s Spirit, the author of all truth.
We should not address others in a spirit of arrogance
implying that we are better than they.
But rather, in the spirit of humility,
as beggars telling others where food is to be found,
we point to life in Christ.

9.2.2 We witness to God in Christ
as the Way, the Truth, the Life,
and invite others to accept from him
the forgiveness of God.
We are compelled to share this good news.

Today, as we celebrate “Global Church Sunday,” and as I look around our congregation and notice the great diversity of age, background, culture, language, and experience, I cannot help but give thanks and praise to God for guiding Christians by the power of the Holy Spirit to share the good news about Jesus throughout the world.

But I am also challenged by the scriptures today to think about how we are called to keep on sharing the gospel today and in the years to come. The first letter of John reminds us that we cannot love God whom we have not seen, if we do not love our brothers and sisters whom we have seen.

In other words, we cannot be content to gather together to worship and praise God, or to engage in our personal prayers and devotions, if we do not also show love for our neighbours through service and evangelism.

Our own congregation gives us a great opportunity to practice loving our brothers and sisters whom we do see. With all the diversity of our backgrounds and experiences, we have to work hard to get along, to make good decisions together, to take care of each other’s needs, and to help each member of the community to participate and share their gifts in the work of the church.

But I’d like to think of the loving and sharing that we do in this place as the warm up or the training ground for what we do when we go out into the world.

First John says, “Those who say, ‘I love God,’ and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen. The commandment we have from him is this: those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also.”

So our challenge is to go out and to engage in the mission that Jesus gave to his first disciples, that folks like Philip and the Ethiopian began – to love our sisters and brothers by engaging in mission as service and mission as evangelism, humbly sharing our faith and inviting others into relationship with God through Jesus Christ.

Let us give thanks for the gift of the Holy Spirit who will guide and help us as we seek to be faithful to the mission that we have received. Amen.