“An Unsung Hero” – Acts 8:26-40
Easter 4 – May 7, 2017
- Unsung Hero
A week ago, an unlikely hero emerged in the hockey playoff game between the Ottawa Senators and the New York Rangers. The Senators were down 5-4 with just over a minute left in the game. Jean-Gabriel Pageau, who had already scored two goals for Ottawa, notched his game-tying third goal to send the game into overtime. Then, in the second overtime period, Pageau scored again to give Ottawa the win. It was the first time since 2010 that a player has scored 4 goals in one playoff game. And who was it? Jean-Gabriel Pageau! I don’t watch a lot of hockey, but I’m not even sure I had heard his name before. He really was an unsung hero, not the guy you’d expect to almost single-handedly win the game. Sydney Crosby maybe, or Alex Ovechkin… but Jean-Gabriel Pageau
But sometimes that happens. A person in some sport has a career day, with a great pitching performance, several goals or touchdowns, or an amazing play at just the right time, and it usually determines the outcome of the game or the championship.
- Unsung Bible Heroes
The Bible records stories of some unsung heroes – men and women who we wouldn’t expect to have such a dramatic and significant impact on events relating to God’s people.
Moses grew up in Egyptian privilege, was identified as a murderer, was a self-confessed stutterer with few qualifications, but God picked him to lead the people of Israel out of Egyptian slavery.
Jael was the unassuming woman who was met one day at her tent by Sisera, the captain of the Canaanite army. She gave him a jug of milk and let him sleep in her tent, but then she killed him, bringing victory to the Israelites.
David was the youngest of eight sons of Jesse, just a shepherd lad, but God gave him courage to fight and defeat the Philistine giant, Goliath.
Unsung, unexpected heroes – all of them.
- Philip – unsung hero
In the New Testament, Philip was an unsung hero. Who? Philip! This was not Philip the disciple of Jesus, but the Philip who, along with Stephen from last Sunday, became one of the seven men who looked after the social ministry of the Christian widows in Jerusalem. He was not one of the marquee attractions in the early church. No Sydney Crosby or Alex Ovechkin was he. Compared to the big name apostles like Peter or James or John or Paul, Philip was a relative unknown, a background player. He didn’t have any multi-conversion crusades, or TV evangelism shows on his resume. He was known for some signs and healings in Samaria (not Jerusalem), but other than that Philip was a behind the scenes guy, mentioned only three times in the Book of Acts.
Maybe that’s how you feel at times. You’re not the guy who reads the sermon when the pastor is on vacation. You’re not the woman that inspires people with the angelic voice on a worship team. You’re not the Bible reader or the person who comes up with profound answers when the congregation is asked a theological question. But the success of the church, the success of the Gospel message is not dependent on celebrities. It’s dependent on ordinary people who are filled with the Holy Spirit and skilled by the Holy Spirit and willed through the Holy Spirit to be extraordinary witnesses for Jesus Christ. That’s what we see in Acts 8. Let’s have a look at the story…
- Philip and the Ethiopian
Philip was actually minding his own business when an angel of the Lord and that Holy Spirit of the Lord orchestrated an opportunity for him to share the good news about Jesus. He was told to travel south on the desert road from Jerusalem to Gaza. [Gaza is still in the news in our day.] There he came upon an Ethiopian man, the accountant for the Queen of Ethiopia. The Ethiopian had been in Jerusalem to worship, so he must have had some sense of the God of the Jews. As he was riding his chariot back home, he was reading the Old Testament book of Isaiah, and specifically the passage referring to the lamb who was silent before the one who was shearing it.
Observing the situation, Philip asked a simple question: “Do you understand what you are reading?” The man replied, “I need someone to guide me,” and then he asked, “Who is this lamb referring to?” Then comes the key verse in the whole story – “Then Philip began with that very passage of Scripture and told him the good news about Jesus.” Beginning with that passage, but not ending there. Philip gave him a crash course in theology, with an emphasis on Jesus who, he no doubt explained, was Isaiah’s silent lamb led to the slaughter, a reference to Jesus’ suffering and death on the cross for us. Earlier in that Isaiah passage, it said that “He was pierced for our transgressions… crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was upon Him, and by His wounds we are healed.” This was the servant of God suffering on our behalf.
We don’t know what else Philip told him, but that wasn’t all. Remember it said beginning with that passage. But Philip would have taken the Ethiopian to other parts of the Old Testament that pointed ahead to God’s Messiah, God’s Saviour. [Oh, yes, the New Testament story of Jesus’ life hadn’t been written yet, so everything that Philip said about Jesus came from the Old Testament.] But he would have also given testimony to the resurrection of Jesus from the dead, which was the core message, the linchpin, of the early Christians’ faith. As Philip spoke simply and plainly, the Holy Spirit was working faith in the Ethiopian man’s heart. When the time came for the man to put it all together, to respond in faith, the Holy Spirit conveniently had some water along the road, and the man asked, “Can I be baptized?” Now that’s verse 36, and your Bible will jump from there to verse 38. That’s because the oldest manuscripts of Acts 8 don’t include verse 37. But if you are persistent you can find it as a little footnote in your Bible. And it’s worth being persistent about, for in it Philip says, “You can be baptized if you believe with all your heart.” And the man replies with a strong profession of faith, “I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God.” So then he is baptized, and the two quickly part ways with the Holy Spirit taking Philip to his next, unknown to us, assignment, and sending the Ethiopian back home rejoicing at his new-found faith and assurance of salvation thanks to God’s grace and forgiveness through the Lamb of God.
So, Philip wasn’t a celebrity, he wasn’t a big name apostle of Jesus, but he was faithful in telling what he knew about Jesus. That day he became an unsung hero… for at least one man, and maybe for an entire nation. When I was a pastor in Calgary, we had an Ethiopian group worshiping at our church, and they traced their Christian roots back to this one man.
- Effective Faith-Sharing
We could learn something from Jean-Gabriel Pageau about scoring goals… things like – work hard out there, skate fast, make yourself open and available for a pass, shoot accurately.
Let me share with you some Acts 8 pointers from Philip about sharing your faith.
First, remember, Philip wasn’t a celebrity. He wasn’t Peter or Paul – the famous guys. I’m not a celebrity either. My middle name is not Billy Graham or C.S. Lewis or Desmond Tutu or Martin Luther. And I don’t think any of you are celebrities. You don’t have to be. But God calls each of us to gently and genuinely share our faith.
Second, be sensitive to God’s “nudge.” Philip felt a “nudge” from God to go over and talk to the Ethiopian. In the story, it seemed audible, but it wasn’t a bright light vision like the one we’ll hear in the story of Saul / Paul in two weeks. When I was a 22 year old math teacher, I felt an “elbow nudge” from God to head off to seminary to “teach a different subject.” God didn’t appear to me in a dream. He didn’t talk to me in a deep voice. He just “nudged” me with some events and opportunities and words from the Word that all lined up! Have you ever felt a “nudge” from God? It probably won’t be splashy, so you’ll have to pay attention. If it’s not illegal, immoral, unethical, or unbiblical, and if it has the potential to bring God into a conversation or into a person’s life, consider it a “nudge.” Be open to God the Holy Spirit leading you and providing you with opportunities to share your faith.
Third, start where the person is. Philip didn’t start with some deep doctrine, nor did he start with a lecture. He didn’t even start with an agenda. He started with a question: “Do you understand what you are reading?” The man said, “No, I don’t get it. Can you tell me what it means?” Philip started with the man’s questions, the man’s struggles, the man’s uncertainties. I think I’m finally getting it. In 33 years of being a pastor, when I had some people who wanted to learn about the Bible, I always started with a course – basically a lecture. In the last year or two, I have changed my approach. It seems counter-productive for me to be answering questions that people may not be asking. So, right now, we’re kind of starting with questions people have about God, about Jesus, about the Bible, about the church. Just like the Ethiopian man, the participants are driving the agenda, the topics, the learning.
Fourth, take time to explain what the Bible teaches. The episode with Philip had a great starting point – that “sheep to the slaughter” passage from Isaiah 53. Even so, Philip was faithful in explaining that to the Ethiopian man. Remember the key verse: “Philip began with that very passage of Scripture and told him the good news about Jesus.” He got to the heart of what we are to believe, namely, that Jesus was that sheep led to the slaughter for our forgiveness, for our salvation. Your conversations with others may not begin with a Bible passage. They may start with a question about abortion, or medically assisted death, or the question about innocent suffering, or a seemingly harmless comment like “Well, all religions lead to heaven.” Engage with people. Don’t let those opportunities pass by without pointing people to Bible truth and to the person of Jesus. Last August one of my neighbours – after learning that I was a Lutheran pastor – asked me what was the difference between Lutheran and Catholic. So, I told him! Like Philip, I told him the good news about God’s love and grace in the person and work of Jesus.
Fifth – and this isn’t something that comes from the Philip story, but it is a great way to effectively share your faith – encourage a friend or neighbour to join you in a group Bible Study. I stopped in for a few minutes on Tuesday evening to visit one of our small groups studying the E100 book. One of the comments I heard from a participant went something like this: “Since I started coming to this Bible Study, I’ve learned more about the Bible than by going to church and listening to sermons.” It wasn’t meant as a critique to my sermons, and I didn’t take it that way. In fact, I agreed – you CAN learn more by getting into the Bible and by asking questions (like the Ethiopian man did) and, as a group, and perhaps with some study resources, answering those questions in a way that is faithful to the Bible’s teachings. If you invite a friend or neighbour to join you in a group Bible Study, it gives you (and your group) a natural and non-threatening way to share your faith with that person. Who knows whether that person will one day make a confession similar to that of the Ethiopian – “I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God.”
Philip didn’t tell the good news about Jesus to be or become a hero, not even an unsung hero. Neither do we share our faith to be a hero, or an unsung hero. We do it to be faithful to who God is, to be faithful to who we are in Him, and to be faithful to what God wants us to do. Remember… the success of the church, the success of the Gospel message, is not dependent on celebrities. It’s more dependent on everyday, ordinary people, unsung heroes – like you – simply telling the good news of Jesus. But it is most dependent, ultimately dependent on the Holy Spirit – to “nudge” someone from questions to faith, and to send them on their way rejoicing in that new-found faith and hope and life… in Jesus. Amen.