I wonder what or who it was that had the most influence on you becoming a Christian or continuing in your Christian faith? At the beginning of lent this year we gathered in the South Transept for our Lent Programme and the Dean asked us the same question “What or who has had the most influence on your becoming a Christian or continuing in the Christian faith?” Almost all of the responses involved people.
Some involved members of the clergy or trained ministers, but in the majority of cases it involved ordinary people. It is ordinary people who so often walk with us and share with us their stories of faith.
God has chosen to work through ordinary people to invite others into a relationship with him. It has been said that Churches don’t need sophisticated resources to grow; they need high quality relationships. (Bob Jackson Hope for the Church: Contemporary studies for Growth. Church House Publishing 2002 p54).
Our readings this morning talk about the importance of relationships – our relationship with God and with others, and good relationships enable growth – our spiritual growth and the growth of the kingdom of God.
One of my favourite accounts in the bible is that of Philip and the Ethiopian Enoch.
Philip was a layperson. He wasn’t a famous preacher like Peter, who went and preached a grand sermon and three thousand people were converted in one day. He wasn’t like the famous missionary, like the Apostle Paul, who went with the Gospel of Jesus from nation to nation throughout his world. Today is the story of Philip, a deacon appointed to look after the widows and poor, and how God’s indwelling spirit came down on Philip and empowered him to talk to someone about Jesus Christ and his love for all people.
Philip was with other Jewish Christians in Jerusalem. They didn’t want to go out into the countryside, or out into other villages or out into other nations with the Gospel; these first Christians wanted to remain just in Jerusalem for their own safety.
But the inner voice of God said to Philip: “Get up and go, Philip. Get up and go to Samaria.” Now Samaritans and the Jewish people didn’t get on with each other. There was enormous prejudice between them. Not only did God call Philip to go to Samaria but to Gaza and the Wilderness Road. Called out of a place of safety in more than one way.
And there Philip encountered an Ethiopian eunuch. God said to Philip, “Go and talk to that Ethiopian eunuch.”
Jewish scripture says eunuchs are not allowed to be part of the Kingdom of God. And whilst the Ethiopian was a man holding office as a eunuch, he would remain an outsider. But there was something about the Jewish faith which attracted him, so he made his way to Jerusalem to worship and on his return, with access to scriptures, was reading them. It was not in the place of worship that he found God, but in the desert.
Philip listened to the voice of God and went over to the man in the chariot and asked him, “What are you reading?” The man said he was reading from the Jewish scripture, Isaiah 53, that said the lamb was to be led to the slaughter. Philip asked him, “Do you understand what you are reading?” “No.” “Let me explain.
We don’t have the details of this speech, just as we don’t know just how Jesus opened the scriptures to his friends on the Emmaus road.
We are not told how he would have traced the people’s history, the ongoing relationship between God and people, the feelings of promise and sanctuary and provocation. But I suspect he told him his story which broke into the court official’s heart.
It has been said that storytellers are heart teachers. They unfold roads before us and behind us. They show us where the rough places are and where we might find good water. They accompany us as we walk through our own stories.
Philip followed in the footsteps of Christ and told the story of faith to one who longed to make it part of his road. The act of telling then became part of his journey – and ours too.
We are often under the misunderstanding that we have to be qualified to share the good news of the Gospel and that we have to have the right words, but all we need to do is share our story – our story of faith. What God means to us and how we have known his love in our lives. We and others are richer when we can talk of our faith stories.
Philip told the story of faith to the stranger and finally the man asked, “What is to prevent me from being baptized?” Can wealth, race, sexual status, piety or understanding prevent me from being baptized? And so he was baptized into Jesus Christ by Philip, who from his childhood was carefully taught, who from his childhood has been taught to be well prejudiced against gentiles and eunuchs.
The story of Philip is one of an ordinary man, who was abiding in God, and by abiding in God he not only listened to God, but had the courage to respond. In doing so, the kingdom grew and the word of God bore fruit. It grew in a way which was symbolic of the kingdom of God, inclusive to those often excluded.
In fact the story of the book of Acts is the story about the Holy Spirit and how, when people abide in God, the Holy Spirit guides them in their daily decisions to bear fruit.
The story of Philip is about a man who listened to the inner guiding voice of God inside of him. It wasn’t merely his conscience. It wasn’t an angel with wings; it wasn’t an auditory voice; it was not a dream or a nightmare. It was the inner guiding voice of God, the Spirit of Jesus.
Acts 8:26, says “an angel spoke to me” and in the verse 29 of the same chapter, it says, “the Spirit spoke to me.” The word angel, means messenger; it is a spiritual messenger. An angel, that inner guiding Spirit of Jesus inside of you, who is a messenger from God.
And so we like Philip, should learn to listen to the inner guiding voice, as God talks with us about our lives and decisions. What we need to learn is to listen to the voice of God inside you as you approach your daily decisions. And the more we spend reading our bibles, the more time we spend in prayer, the easier it will become for us to understand what God is saying to us – the more time we remain in the vine the easier it is to hear the voice of the Father.
The story of Philip is about a lay person who shared his faith with a stranger. Abiding in God does not only help us to hear God but it also helps us to have courage for God, which means not only sharing ourselves, our faith and God’s love with those we are the same as, or get on with, but also with those who are different to us, the stranger and those who we may be culturally prejudice against – because as we heard last week, there is a wideness in God’s mercy.
We are called to get up and go to others and share our faith in Christ, what we know and have experienced with Jesus, one on one. We go not because we have been set a growth target by the Church of England, but because we have something worth sharing and because God longs to be in a relationship with people.
We all need to be like Philip, sharing our story of faith with others, some of whom we may find in the wilderness and we will find this much easier if we remain rooted in God.
Let us become story tellers of our faith and pray that rooted in God it can bear fruit.
O God, make us all to be like Philip. Amen.