A Voice From The Isles:
Today is the feast of the Holy Apostle St. Philip. Here is an account from the Acts of the Apostles of one of the saints successful evangelistic encounters with a Gentile, in this case an Ethiopian eunuch.
26 Now an angel of the Lord spoke to Philip, saying, “Arise and go toward the south along the road which goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza.” This is desert. 27 So he arose and went. And behold, a man of Ethiopia, a eunuch of great authority under Candace the queen of the Ethiopians, who had charge of all her treasury, and had come to Jerusalem to worship, 28 was returning. And sitting in his chariot, he was reading Isaiah the prophet. 29 Then the Spirit said to Philip, “Go near and overtake this chariot.”
30 So Philip ran to him, and heard him reading the prophet Isaiah, and said, “Do you understand what you are reading?” 31 And he said, “How can I, unless someone guides me?” And he asked Philip to come up and sit with him. 32 The place in the Scripture which he read was this:
“He was led as a sheep to the slaughter;
And as a lamb before its shearer is silent,
So He opened not His mouth.
33 In His humiliation His justice was taken away,
And who will declare His generation?
For His life is taken from the earth.”
34 So the eunuch answered Philip and said, “I ask you, of whom does the prophet say this, of himself or of some other man?” 35 Then Philip opened his mouth, and beginning at this Scripture, preached Jesus to him. 36 Now as they went down the road, they came to some water. And the eunuch said, “See, here is water. What hinders me from being baptized?” 37 Then Philip said, “If you believe with all your heart, you may.” And he answered and said, “I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God.”
38 So he commanded the chariot to stand still. And both Philip and the eunuch went down into the water, and he baptized him. 39 Now when they came up out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord caught Philip away, so that the eunuch saw him no more; and he went on his way rejoicing. 40 But Philip was found at Azotus. And passing through, he preached in all the cities till he came to Caesarea.
In this reading from the Acts of the Apostles we find St. Philip the Holy Apostle and Deacon reaching out to anyone who will hear, understand and respond to the gospel of Christ. His hearer is an Ethiopian, a civil servant in the royal court. He was probably a Jewish proselyte ... Indicated by his reading of Isaiah in his chariot and he is open to the gospel of Christ so St. Philip explains the reading; the eunuch accepts Christ and is baptised there and then. This story is remarkable because it shows how radically and quickly the good news spread beyond the confines of Israel ... eventually to the whole known world. It has much to teach us about our methods of evangelism and why we so often struggle to make an impact.
First we may note that an angel appeared to the apostle Philip and gave him an instruction. Some think that they can just go up to anybody willy-nilly and strike up a conversation that will lead that person to Christ. This is so obviously false, not because the idea of such a conversation is wrong but on account of the fact that God himself has not initiated the encounter. At the angel’s instigation St. Philip goes off into a not very promising place, a desert in fact, and there he meets the right person at the right time. Our witness to the gospel so often falls on stony ground because we forget this simple and foundational truth… that God alone knows who is near to his kingdom and we have to go to him in prayer to discover both who that might be and when we should speak.
The story next reveals that the eunuch is already reading the Scriptures although he cannot understand all that he reads. This is where St. Philip comes into his own and he is able to sit with the man and explain the meaning of the text. Now of course this is a very special and particular encounter with someone who is already a seeker after truth. It is not the sort of encounter that one has every day on the bus! Nonetheless, even if the person we are speaking to is a complete beginner in spiritual matters we can do so much to help him or her through understanding some basic simple Christian truths so as to take the next step. Of course we need to make sure that we ourselves have the requisite understanding and there is no shortage of provision for that in this community both in Bible study and in Orthodox courses of faith and life.
Some people I know shrink back at this point I would rather not speak to anyone about Jesus. They are nervous about the reaction they might get or perhaps embarrassed to speak when they feel that they know so little. To them I say remember what God promises that he will give us the words to speak; remember that we are to preach the gospel to those whom God has prepared for us. In this context our reluctance looks like a lack of trust and obedience, a crisis of faith rather than a crisis of confidence. As St Paul wrote in his letter to the church at Philippi: “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.” (Philippians 4:13). We need to take hold of that and believe it. We need to test it out in our own experience and find it true. We need to stop making excuses.
The next thing we notice the story is that the Ethiopian eunuch does not prevaricate. It does not say: “I must go away and think about this and maybe tomorrow I’ll do something about it”... No, he exclaims “See, here is water. What hinders me from being baptized?” All that St Philip needs to know is that the man believes “with all his heart” ... and so he does, that is the crucial point. In this one thing is become clear to me over the years, it is that God’s judgement lies heavy on the time wasters. By this I mean people who can talk the talk but not walk the walk. They will gladly tell you how wonderful Orthodox Christianity is and how it is the truth in all its fullness and yet will they take one step themselves into the kingdom? No they will not. There are many possible reasons why this should be so but we should waste no time picking over the entrails. We must shake the dust from our feet from such persons and reach out rather to those who with simplicity of heart themselves reach out to Christ. We must respond to the promptings of the Spirit and bring them in. They will learn a lot more inside the Church that they will outside it after all; but they must be sincere. They must believe with their whole heart.
At the end of the story we note that St Philip and the eunuch go their separate ways but now brothers in Christ. They will never meet again this side of eternity but there is no sadness in this for those who are brothers and sisters in the Lord can never be separated either from each other all from the love of God in the gospel which is called them into this unity. Almost as soon as St Philip was parachuted into this situation he was whisked away by the Spirit to continue his missionary journey and so this is our final lesson. Having completed one work we must always move on with a spring in our step to that which God is prepared for us next. We have but a short time allotted to us here on earth to do His work and we simply cannot afford to get stuck in a rut doing things we have always done, but not now very effectively, since God often calls us to do a new thing for Him. In this way faith keeps us young in spirit even when age takes its toll. Holy Apostle St Philip keep us in that newness of faith that sustained you in your witness to Christ! Amen.