From Rev Andrew Smith
Presbytery Minister - Congregation Futures
We all have very different experiences of mission and evangelism. Among us are people for whom it would be unnatural not to share their powerful life-saving experience of the presence of God in Christ in their lives. Others of us find it very difficult to put our faith into words that we think others would like to hear. We also find an avoidance of evangelism because it has been experienced as manipulation, disingenuous, inhospitable, or coming from questionable motives.
I found a recent sermon to be very helpful in how I think about mission and evangelism. It is a sermon by Rev’d Dr Matthew Anstey of the Anglican Church in Adelaide. I plan to draw on his sermon in this article space over the next few weeks in the hope that it might also be useful for you in your approach to mission and evangelism.
The text for his sermon was the account of Philip and the Ethiopian Eunuch in Acts 8:26-40. You might recall this was one of the lectionary readings for Sunday May 2nd. It’s a familiar passage in which an angel of the Lord instructs Philip to go to a certain road. Philip does so, and comes across the eunuch seated in his chariot. Then the Spirit tells Philip to go to the chariot and join it. Philip ran up to the it and heard the eunuch reading from the prophet Isaiah. Following their conversation, the eunuch is baptised. Now that is an amazing example of evangelism!
In his sermon, Matthew draws on how Philip engages with the eunuch to illustrate respectful mission and evangelism. It is evangelism in which Philip respects the integrity of the eunuch. Take for example Philip’s first words to the eunuch. Philip asks: “Do you understand what you are reading?”. Philip starts with where the eunuch is at … with the text that the eunuch is reading. Philip’s stance is one of ‘how can I help?’. When the eunuch asks about who the prophet Isaiah is talking, Philip responds starting with the eunuch’s passage of Scripture. Note that Philip doesn’t start with his own favourite passage (be that John 3:16 or some other) for which he might have a pre-prepared spiel. He starts with what the eunuch is reading.
In this brief time in which the Spirit has led the eunuch and Philip to journey together, Philip joins the eunuch’s journey … enters the eunuch’s chariot … listens to the eunuch’s story … hears the eunuch’s text … responds to the eunuch’s questions … baptises at the eunuch’s request … and then (in the strange ending to the account, in which the Spirit hijacks Philip) leaves him never to see him again. The point being, that through the whole interaction, the integrity of the Ethiopian is respected. Philip does not hijack the conversation, manipulating it and the eunuch for his own purposes. Rather, he follows the lead of the Spirit and the eunuch. Respect.
Matthew notes that the evangelism here that is respectful and consistent with the hospitality of God is not “airy fairy contentless mush”. Rather, it leads to profound conversation. It is a conversation that includes Philip picking up the questions that the eunuch has about the Isaiah passage he is reading, and then starting with this Scripture, proclaiming to the eunuch the good news about Jesus.
From the story of the Isaiah passage (not dissimilar from the eunuch’s own story of slaughter, humiliation and injustice in being taken as a child to be made a eunuch – more about this another time), we’d expect that Philip’s good news about Jesus centred on the slaughter of Jesus. From Philip’s earlier preaching in chapter 8, we might also expect the good news to include this slaughtered one being the anointed one of God (8:5), revealed as the word of God (8:14), and the bearing this has on the coming of the reign of God (8:12). Certainly not air fairy contentless mush.
Given the eunuch’s questioning, for Philip not to have engaged in such a profound conversation would have been disrespectful to the integrity of the eunuch.
As we look toward evangelism, let’s aim for evangelism that is known for its respect.