Good News for All (Acts 8:26-40)

11th century Byzantine depiction of Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch

An angel from the Lord said to Philip, “Get up, and take the desert road that goes south from Jerusalem to Gaza.” So Philip went.

An Ethiopian man who had come to Jerusalem to worship was on his way home. The man was a eunuch, a high-ranking official in charge of all the treasures of Queen Candace of Ethiopia. As the official rode along in his carriage, he was reading the prophet Isaiah out loud.

The Spirit said to Philip, “Go to that carriage, and stay close to it.”

Philip ran to the carriage and could hear the official reading the prophet Isaiah out loud. Philip asked him, “Do you understand what you’re reading?”

The official answered, “How can I understand unless someone guides me?” So he invited Philip to sit with him in his carriage.

This was the part of the Scriptures that the official was reading:

“He was led like a lamb to the slaughter.
He was like a sheep that is silent
when its wool is cut off.
He didn’t open his mouth.
When he humbled himself,
he was not judged fairly.
Who from his generation
will talk about his life on earth being cut short?”

The official said to Philip, “I would like to know who the prophet is talking about. Is he talking about himself or someone else?” Then Philip spoke. Starting with that passage, Philip told the official the Good News about Jesus.

As they were going along the road, they came to some water. The official said to Philip, “Look, there’s some water. What can keep me from being baptized?”  The official ordered the carriage to stop. He and Philip stepped into the water, and Philip baptized him. When they had stepped out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord suddenly took Philip away. The official joyfully continued on his way and didn’t see Philip again.

Philip found himself in the city of Azotus. He traveled through all the cities and spread the Good News until he came to the city of Caesarea. (God’s Word Translation)

We are in the Christian season of Epiphany – a time of celebrating that the light of the Lord has been given not only to Jews but to Gentiles, as well. The good news of mercy, forgiveness, salvation, and peace in Jesus Christ is for everyone, and not just some.

So, we have a very appropriate story in today’s New Testament lesson illustrating God’s grace for those who have been typically the “outsiders” when it comes to the worship of God.

God’s grace is really a merciful divine intervention into another’s life, providing something a person or group needs, yet cannot obtain on their own.

Philip, one of the original twelve disciples of Jesus, received instructions from the angel of the Lord. Take a certain road. That’s it. No other explanation. The command is, however, full of grace. Most of us don’t do all that well with multiple instructions given at once. We do much better with a single imperative at a time.

And so, the next piece of guidance came as Philip was taking the road from Jerusalem south to Gaza. Go hang out around a certain carriage. Philip needed no more direction after that; he took to what was happening.

Philip and the Ethiopian Eunuch by Herbert Boeckl

Maybe reading the story from our contemporary perspective hinders us from seeing just how scandalous and unthinkable the story was for people in the first century. Jews and Gentiles didn’t hang out with each other; and, if they did, there were all sorts of rules regulating how the interaction would go.

We really don’t have any of this with Philip. He simply emulates his Lord and ignores societal and cultural mores to meet the need of someone very different than himself.

An Ethiopian man was in Jerusalem and heading back home. He was an official in the Queen of Ethiopia’s court, and a eunuch (a castrated official). He was a person of color with a mutilated body and could have very well been of a different gender than Philip was used to. In other words, he was about as foreign from Philip as one can get.

Yet, what better way to communicate that the gospel is for everyone? Philip had learned from Jesus not to adopt the divisions of race, religion, and gender that others did. See, instead, with spiritual eyes to the heart of a person.

And this Ethiopian eunuch had a heart curious about God, a mind trying to understand God’s words, and a gut that told him this guy approaching me for whom I don’t know and isn’t from my country is perhaps God’s messenger to me.

That’s what I call a divine appointment.

Those divine encounters always result in changed lives. I believe both the Ethiopian and Philip were changed that day. The only way that any of us truly changes is through the interaction with others different from ourselves.

The good news of Jesus is for all. If, however, we remain in a closed system which is not open to others of differing cultures and communities, then we harden into believing the gospel is for us, and not them.

Christianity is not, therefore, an exclusive club made up of insiders who demonize outsiders as not looking, acting, or thinking like we do. We already have plenty of that insidious junk in the world. At its inception, Christianity was different. And, I believe, it needs to keep that edge of reaching out to all persons with a life-giving message of salvation and peace – not a death-dealing sermon of Christian cultural hegemony.

Good news for all people everywhere means that proclamation of the gospel of Jesus Christ needs to occur for all nations and ethnic peoples. It’s a message of grace, not judgment; of mercy, not threats; of open love, not closed hate.

Philip and the Ethiopian show us the way through their sensitivity to the divine, their open dialogue with one another, and their shared commitment to doing what is right and serving the Lord. Philip was a guide, not a conqueror. And the Ethiopian became a follower of Jesus, not Philip.

Let’s make sure to keep it straight; and to keep reaching out.

Lord God, thank you that in love and mercy, you reached out to us – and that when we were dead in our sins, you sent Jesus to make us alive. Thank you that you have a heart that seeks the lost. Thank you for saving us.

Give us hearts that care for the people who are in darkness and need the light of Christ. Teach us to care for them as you do. Grow us to care for the common good of all humanity. 

Help your Church everywhere to know and love you; and to invite others into your divine dance. May our conversations with others be seasoned with salt and full of grace; may our relationships show people the love of Jesus. May our hearts reflect your own heart, through Jesus Christ our Lord, in the strength of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Prayer Is the Heartbeat of the Church (Acts 1:12-17, 21-26)

“The Forerunners of Christ with Saints and Martyrs” by Italian painter Fra Angelico (1395-1455)

Then the apostles returned to Jerusalem from the hill called the Mount of Olives, a Sabbath day’s walk from the city. When they arrived, they went upstairs to the room where they were staying. Those present were Peter, John, James and Andrew; Philip and Thomas, Bartholomew and Matthew; James son of Alphaeus and Simon the Zealot, and Judas son of James. They all joined together constantly in prayer, along with the women and Mary the mother of Jesus, and with his brothers.

In those days Peter stood up among the believers (a group numbering about a hundred and twenty) and said, “Brothers and sisters, the Scripture had to be fulfilled in which the Holy Spirit spoke long ago through David concerning Judas, who served as guide for those who arrested Jesus. He was one of our number and shared in our ministry….”

Therefore it is necessary to choose one of the men who have been with us the whole time the Lord Jesus was living among us, beginning from John’s baptism to the time when Jesus was taken up from us. For one of these must become a witness with us of his resurrection.”

So they nominated two men: Joseph called Barsabbas (also known as Justus) and Matthias. Then they prayed, “Lord, you know everyone’s heart. Show us which of these two you have chosen to take over this apostolic ministry, which Judas left to go where he belongs.” Then they cast lots, and the lot fell to Matthias; so he was added to the eleven apostles. (New International Version)

So, what do you do when you don’t know what to do? And what do you do when you have a problem or challenge?

Good old American ingenuity, the Protestant work ethic, and fixing things is the reflexive response of many people. In the belief that we can solve anything, what typically gets left out of the equation is seeking God’s presence and power in order to rightly discern next steps.

But that wasn’t the response of the earliest church. When faced with their small numbers and a large mission to accomplish, they prayed. They more than prayed. They continually got together, just to pray. Prayer was the air they breathed. The believers understood they needed God (not simply to rubber stamp their plans) for moving forward in mission and ministry.

Christians need the vision and imagination that can only come through consistent daily prayer. Otherwise, they will not choose wisely and find themselves in a quandary of their own making.

Imagine not having to purchase what you need the most today.

Maybe you’re in a real pinch. Your financial budget isn’t budging. Perhaps you’re wondering what items you need to do without for a while. It could be that the bills aren’t all getting paid. Or maybe you’re concerned with how in the world you’re going to buy Christmas presents for the family.

Imagine having all the love you need today without working to earn it.

Maybe you have a strained relationship. It might be that you’re hurt from a marriage or a love that has gone sour. Perhaps a friendship is on the rocks, or a family member won’t talk to you. You’re wondering if it will ever be better, wondering if love will find you again.

Imagine continually having a church experience of being full of the grace of Jesus, the love of God the Father, and the power of the Holy Spirit.

Maybe your church has a legalistic bent. Perhaps the church is withdrawn into cliques and special interest groups. It could be that the Spirit hasn’t shown up since 1959. You’re tired, weary of the chronic sameness and status quo of a stagnant place.

For all these things, and so many more of life’s problems and situations, there is good news… really good news!

Prayer is the currency to what you need most, the means of receiving and giving love, and the path to a gracious and powerful Christian and Church life.

Prayer is the heartbeat of the church. The promise of prayer still stands. God gives. We receive. But we must ask!

You didn’t choose me, but I chose you. I have appointed you to go, to produce fruit that will last, and to ask the Father in my name to give you whatever you ask for. (John 15:16, GW)

Sometimes God just gives without us asking. That’s great. Yet, God wants so much more for you and me and our faith communities. God longs for us to be vitally connected to Christ, and that connection happens through prayer. We can bank on the answers to our prayers when we:

  • Stay joined to Jesus (John 15:4)
  • Let Christ’s teachings become part of you (John 15:7)
  • Remain faithful to Christ’s love for you (John 15:9)
  • Obey Jesus (John 15:10)

Imagine having your will align with the perfect will of God.

Stay joined to me and let my teachings become part of you. Then you can pray for whatever you want, and your prayer will be answered. (John 15:7, CEV)

Perhaps you are skeptical. You’ve prayed a long time with nothing happening. You’re discouraged and feel like prayer doesn’t work, or that something is wrong with you. 

There is a mysterious and mystical aspect to prayer that we will never quite understand. However, I do know that Jesus didn’t put a timetable on the answers – they will come when they come. And they will come. 

Maybe we’ll discover that what we want and need the most is to let God’s will and way be done in us, no matter what it is. Perhaps the point is to change us, and not always to change our circumstances.

We have an incredible privilege; we get to ask, without having to buy answers to prayer.

We don’t have to do backflips to get God’s attention. We simply ask. 

We don’t have to try and work to earn God’s favor. We don’t have to draw up detailed plans like some sort of architectural design to see a fruitful, loving, and powerful church. We just ask and remain closely connected to Jesus. 

O Lord, grant me to greet the coming of this day in peace. 

Help me in all things to rely upon Your holy will. 

In every hour of the day, reveal your good and holy will to me. 

Bless my dealings with all who surround me. 

Teach me to treat all that comes to me throughout the day with peace of soul and with the firm conviction that your will governs all. 

In all my deeds and words, guide my thoughts and feelings. 

In unforeseen events, let me not forget that all situations, no matter what, are sent by you. 

Teach me to act firmly and wisely, without embittering and embarrassing others. 

Give me the strength to bear the fatigue of this day with all that it shall bring. 

Direct my will; teach me to pray; pray you yourself in me. Amen.

 –A Prayer from St. Philaret of Moscow (1782-1867)

Keep Your Conscience Clear (Acts 24:10-23)

When the governor motioned for him to speak, Paul replied:

“I know that for a number of years you have been a judge over this nation; so I gladly make my defense. You can easily verify that no more than twelve days ago I went up to Jerusalem to worship. My accusers did not find me arguing with anyone at the temple or stirring up a crowd in the synagogues or anywhere else in the city. And they cannot prove to you the charges they are now making against me. 

However, I admit that I worship the God of our ancestors as a follower of the Way, which they call a sect. I believe everything that is in accordance with the Law and that is written in the Prophets, and I have the same hope in God as these men themselves have, that there will be a resurrection of both the righteous and the wicked. So I strive always to keep my conscience clear before God and man.

After an absence of several years, I came to Jerusalem to bring my people gifts for the poor and to present offerings. I was ceremonially clean when they found me in the temple courts doing this. There was no crowd with me, nor was I involved in any disturbance. 

But there are some Jews from the province of Asia, who ought to be here before you and bring charges if they have anything against me. Or these who are here should state what crime they found in me when I stood before the Sanhedrin—unless it was this one thing I shouted as I stood in their presence: ‘It is concerning the resurrection of the dead that I am on trial before you today.’”

Then Felix, who was well acquainted with the Way, adjourned the proceedings. “When Lysias the commander comes,” he said, “I will decide your case.” He ordered the centurion to keep Paul under guard but to give him some freedom and permit his friends to take care of his needs. (New International Version)

Without exception, everyone has a conscience. It is our internal moral compass, an intangible guidance system.

Conscience is humanity’s hard-wired epistemic sense of knowing what and what not to do, beyond the five senses. The still small voice inside us continually gives discernment that transcends objective facts – even though we may not be able to articulate or explain why we know something is right or wrong.

Our conscience keeps us from being morally empty, bereft of direction, and aimless in this world. Paying attention to our conscience serves us quite well. The conscience is the angel on our shoulder, directing us to do and be better; it is the inner compunction to live a beautiful, good, and ethical life.

By allowing the conscience to chart for us a course forward, we can then avoid inaction in the face of stress, as well as immoral words and actions. The conscience tempers our inbred fight-or-flight syndrome so that we might respond wisely to adverse situations. 

The Apostle Paul, as was usual with him, was in a pickle. Yet, Paul never seemed to be shaken with circumstances which most of us would probably consider so distressing as to fall into despair.

In today’s New Testament lesson, Paul is in custody. While standing trial before Governor Felix, Paul used the opportunity to give a clear and rather relaxed testimony to his Christian faith. 

I suggest that the Apostle was able to give a cogent apologetic for his life and ministry – not because he was trying to get off the hook or because he thought it was his duty – but because of his well-attuned inner compass. That inner guidance system led him to say:

“I have committed myself to maintaining a clear conscience before God and with all people.” (Acts 24:16, CEB)

Statue of St. Paul in St. Peter’s Square, the Vatican, Rome

Living with an awareness of the conscience, and carefully listening to it, creates the ability to speak from that place of insight.

There’s no need to do all sorts of mental gymnastics or spin-doctoring. Although Paul gave a clear defense of his actions and attitudes, he did it without having an insecure defensiveness. Because of his conscience, he could articulate truth and steer clear of white lies and propping-up his ego.

I also suggest that the Apostle Paul’s effective engagement with others came from his God-given inner conscience. So, I wonder: 

  • How might my life be different if I shared the same concern as Paul to always have my conscience clear before both God and others? How might the world be different if this was a dedicated commitment?
  • What would happen if I sought to continually be in dialogue with my conscience and make decisions based on that connection? And what if I consistently brought before God the musings and inklings of my conscience?

The human conscience is not static but dynamic. It can be strong or weak. If it doesn’t get regular use, the conscience withers, eventually becomes calcified, and results in a hardening of the heart.

The following are just a few ways of gaining a healthy conscience and keeping it clear and clean:

Acknowledge

Make an acknowledgment of God. The Lord gave us an internal conscience of law and also an external code of law. They are both meant to operate together. The conscience needs to be formed from God’s revelation, that is, God’s written and natural laws; and then, we live life as God intends. 

The conscience is like a law written in the human heart. And it will show whether we are forgiven or condemned. (Romans 2:15, CEV)

“Conscience is like God’s herald and messenger; it does not command things on its own authority, but commands them as coming from God’s authority, like a herald when he proclaims the edict of the king. This is why conscience has binding force.”

St. Bonaventure

Let us draw near to God with a sincere heart and with the full assurance that faith brings, having our hearts sprinkled to cleanse us from a guilty conscience and having our bodies washed with pure water. (Hebrews 10:22, NIV)

Affirm

Let your own good deeds and the works of others be affirmed. Have realistic expectations. The lack of affirmation slowly and imperceptibly poisons the soul and infects the conscience.

“I give thanks to God, whom I serve with a clear conscience, as my ancestors did. I thank him as I remember you always in my prayers night and day.” (2 Timothy 1:3, GNT)

Ask

Petition God for help. Pray for divine resources to assist you. Divine wisdom guides human affairs. Divine authority governs human community. Divine love gives shape to the human conscience.

Pray for us. Our consciences are clear, and we always try to live right. (Hebrews 13:18, CEV)

Allow

Let other people into your life, whether Christian, or not. Sharing thoughts and ideas, feelings and emotions, concerns and celebrations, are all a path toward a healthier spirit, a better awareness of self and others, and a stronger conscience.

If someone who isn’t a believer asks you home for dinner, accept the invitation if you want to. Eat whatever is offered to you without raising questions of conscience. (But suppose someone tells you, “This meat was offered to an idol.” Don’t eat it, out of consideration for the conscience of the one who told you. It might not be a matter of conscience for you, but it is for the other person.). (1 Corinthians 10:27-28, NLT)

Acquire

Develop the necessary spiritual skill set of wisdom and holiness to feed the conscience. Let grace be the primary teacher.

We can say with confidence and a clear conscience that we have lived with a God-given holiness and sincerity in all our dealings. We have depended on God’s grace, not on our own human wisdom. That is how we have conducted ourselves before the world, and especially toward you. (2 Corinthians 1:12, NLT)

Pay attention to your conscience. Keep it clean and clear. It’s there to serve you well. So, let it.

Gracious God, you provide everything we need for life and godliness in this world. Help me to keep my conscience clear in all my words and actions; and keep it tender toward your will so that, through me, others might experience through the life-giving message of Jesus Christ, in the power of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

What’s On Your Wish List? (Acts 26:24-29)

Before Paul finished defending himself, Festus shouted, “Paul, you’re crazy! Too much learning has driven you out of your mind.”

But Paul replied, “Honorable Festus, I am not crazy. What I am saying is true, and it makes sense. None of these things happened off in a corner somewhere. I am sure that King Agrippa knows what I am talking about. That’s why I can speak so plainly to him.”

Then Paul said to Agrippa, “Do you believe what the prophets said? I know you do.”

Agrippa asked Paul, “In such a short time do you think you can talk me into being a Christian?”

Paul answered, “Whether it takes a short time or a long time, I wish you and everyone else who hears me today would become just like me! Except, of course, for these chains.” (Contemporary English Version)

The Apostle Paul was quite the guy – a zealous, indefatigable, intense, Type-A dude. Yet it wasn’t those characteristics that Paul wanted others to see in him. He simply desired others to see Christ in him. 

Having been arrested for preaching the good news of forgiveness and new life in Jesus Christ, Paul found himself before King Agrippa, engaging in a DTR (define the relationship) talk; and making a strong apologetic for the Christian faith. 

Agrippa asked Paul, “In such a short time do you think you can talk me into being a Christian?” Paul answered with confidence and conviction, “Whether it takes a short time or a long time, I wish you and everyone else who hears me today would become just like me!” 

“Trial of the Apostle Paul” by Nikolai Bodarevsky, 1875

I wonder how many of us could boldly say the same thing as Paul. 

Are we the sort of Christians that others could emulate? 

Has our faith journey led us to the place of being a solid model of what a follower of Christ should look like? 

Do we expect others to change while avoiding change ourselves? 

Do we deeply desire and work toward others coming to know Jesus? 

So, what is on your wish list?

  • I wish each Christian everywhere would spend their relational and emotional energy making this world a better place by living into the words and ways of Jesus Christ.
  • I wish every person I encounter would have the privilege of knowing Christ as I have.
  • I wish all my parishioners and patients would become what I am, except, of course, for my self-made chains.

Perhaps we all must look in the mirror and examine our true desires. It’s easy to put our energy into good yet lesser wishes in life. Yet, if Christians are to become like their ancient forefather in the faith, the Apostle Paul, we will begin focusing our energies into things such as the following:

  • Making outreach a priority. We do what is most important to us. That’s probably self-evident. But churches and believers that do not make outreach a primary priority are really making it no priority, at all.

Paul said, “Do the work of telling the Good News. Do all the duties of a servant of God.” (2 Timothy 4:5, ERV)

  • Mentoring others into the words and ways of Jesus. Many church laypersons believe that training other Christians is what we pay the clergy to do.But this is really the responsibility of every believer.

Paul said, “You have often heard me teach. Now I want you to tell these same things to followers who can be trusted to tell others.” (2 Timothy 2:2, CEV)

  • Taking responsibility for spreading the good news. Blaming and shaming gets us nowhere. Pastors complain about churches. Churches bellyache about Pastors. And both attack the culture, the denomination, or some other external scapegoat. It’s time for all of us to own what needs to be said and done.

Paul said, “Be ready to spread the word whether or not the time is right. Point out errors, warn people, and encourage them. Be very patient when you teach.” (2 Timothy 4:2, GW)

  • Connecting prayer with telling the message of Christ. It doesn’t take a lot of energy to pray for Aunt Mable’s bunions to go away. It’s altogether another thing to pray sustained, focused, and passionate prayers for the people in my life to know Christ and him crucified, risen, ascended, and coming again.

Paul said, “Don’t forget to pray for us, that God will open doors for telling the mystery of Christ… Pray that every time I open my mouth I’ll be able to make Christ plain as day to them.” (Colossians 4:3-4, MSG)

  • Being compassionate and kind, like Christ, to others. There not only needs to be a clear articulation of the gospel, but also a clear demonstration of basic human kindness. Many Christians never get the opportunity to share the gospel because they’re just downright obnoxious.

Set Christ apart as Lord in your hearts and always be ready to give an answer to anyone who asks about the hope you possess. Yet do it with courtesy and respect, keeping a good conscience. (1 Peter 3:15-16, NET)

  • Establishing every Christian ministry as an opportunity to share the gospel. Intentional effort and energy toward proclaiming the gospel in both word and deed needs to go into everything we do.

Paul said, “So take special care how you conduct yourselves. Don’t be unwise but be wise. Make use of any opportunity you have because these are wicked times we live in.” (Ephesians 5:15-16, NTE)

  • Caring, not at all, that new Christians will change our lives or our church too much. I’m serious. I’ve heard the line many times by church folk in my years of pastoral ministry that new believers come in and change things we like. Come on, man. Get over it. Change is built into the Christian experience. God said:

I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth; do you not perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert. (Isaiah 43:19, NRSV)

You don’t need a personality like the Apostle Paul to live into your calling as a Christian. You and I only need to put our will and energy into things that matter most to God.

Risen and ascended Lord, you are the king of all creation. May your rule and reign take over my life to such a degree that everything that comes out of my mouth, and every action I take would be worthy of emulation in your way of love. Amen.