August 30, 2020 Cycle of Discipleship Sermon—The Cycle Continues
Scriptures: 2 Corinthians 5:11a, 14—6:2; 1 John 1:1-9; Acts 8:26-40
Today’s sermon concludes our consideration of the cycle of discipleship. We’ve been trying to understand how Jesus made and continues to make disciples. I’m calling discipleship a “cycle” because those whom Jesus makes to be disciples he then commissions to make other disciples. That is the design Jesus describes when he instructs his disciples to “go into all the world and make disciples” (Mt 28:19a). Discipleship, as Christ intends it, is an organic reproductive process, almost like a plant dropping seeds and so replicating itself in a new generation in the next growing season. The key difference between a plant and a disciple, in that comparison, is intent. Jesus’ disciples intend to make disciples of others.
For the past seven weeks, we have focused on Simon Peter as an example of how Jesus interacted with an individual to bring that person to faith, to fill that person with grace, and then to extend his grace through that individual to others.
We have heard Jesus invite Peter: “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people” (Mt 4:18-20; cf. Luke 5:1-11). We have seen Peter inspired by Jesus’ call to climb out of a boat in the middle of a storm and actually walk on water—until he takes his eyes off Jesus. And when Jesus reaches down and saves Peter, we are told that the disciples worshiped Jesus (Mt 14:22-33).
Peter is invited and inspired. Then over and over in the Gospels Peter gets schooled. Peter is prone to speaking boldly, asking rude questions, vowing promises he can’t keep. And every time he does, Jesus uses the occasion to teach Peter—the truth about Jesus and the truth about Peter himself—until Peter’s faith education gets its final exam. The resurrected Jesus asks him three times, “Simon, son of John, do you love me.” And Peter replies, “Yes, Lord, you know I love you” (Jn 21:15-17).
As they became disciples, Jesus educated and equipped Peter, with the other disciples, to proclaim his message of love, to cast out demons, to participate in the miracles of feeding and healing. And we see Peter showing his love for Jesus as he loves and serves others in those ways (Mk 6:7, 12-13).
And, of course, the most dramatic appearance of Peter is in the final stage of disciple-making, when he and the others who had waited in prayer were empowered when the Holy Spirit came upon them on the Day of Pentecost. Then, just as Jesus promised, Peter became a witness.
Scripture shows us not only how Jesus transformed a lowly fisherman into a powerful disciple, but we also see how, through Peter, that Jesus’ pattern of disciple-making was repeated. And in that process, we see how God used the person Peter was: Peter’s invitations sound more like commands. He inspired whole crowds when he preached. In dozens of incidents retold in the New Testament, Peter shared his eyewitness testimony about Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection. Peter was a unique and powerful example of how a person who is made a disciple then becomes a disciple-maker.
But those qualities can cause Peter’s example to be a problem. Someone might look at Peter and sadly conclude, “I could never be like that. I don’t want to be like that. Maybe this whole discipleship thing is not for me.” And that’s definitely not where we want this to end. So that’s why it’s very good news that God gives us another example of a disciple in the act of disciple-making. And so we turn to the account of Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch.
I’m glad God included this story in Scripture for so many reasons. Peter was such a big and blustery man. He loved Jesus, and he became a faithful disciple. But we never see Peter quietly listening to the Holy Spirit—except one time, when he’s asleep. But Philip, as we see him, was a disciple of a different type. He listened; he asked questions that invited a response; he waited. And the Holy Spirit prompted Philip to engage not with a multitude but, in our Gospel reading, with only one man.
Who was that man? Well, get the picture: This person was North African, Nubian—as we might say, black. Furthermore—although I am using masculine pronouns–this person was a eunuch. He had been castrated, probably as a child, so that he could be trusted to work around women. And he did. In fact, this person was in charge of the entire treasury of the Candace, his country’s ruling queen. When we see him, he is riding in chariot, not a poor man. He is reading, not an illiterate or uneducated man. And the eunuch was a “God-fearer.” In other words, he worshiped Israel’s God but he was not a Jew.
This eunuch couldn’t become a Jew. Even though he had spent a great deal of money and effort traveling to Jerusalem to worship, and had, therefore, put himself into social and religious settings where he would have been despised and excluded, he wasn’t welcome in the Temple because he was a eunuch (Dt 23:1). Now he was returning home. But such was his spirit that, on the journey home, he was reading the word of God.
And on that road too is Philip, traveling with the Divine GPS. And when he gets within sight of this eunuch in the chariot, the Holy Spirit says to Philip, “Go over to that chariot and join it.” I might have thought, What in the world are you talking about? But I love Philip’s response. He is a disciple of Jesus Christ, under orders from the Holy Spirit. It seems not to matter to Philip that he is being directed to approach a complete stranger.
And the one in the chariot could hardly be “stranger.” The eunuch is completely different from Philip: absolutely other, a different race, different culture, different class, different level of power, and a very different gender. But Philip doesn’t argue with the Holy Spirit. He doesn’t say, “Well, I just don’t know that I’ll have anything in common with that guy.” Philip just runs up to the chariot. As he comes within earshot, Philip hears the eunuch. And he calls out to the eunuch with a question: “Do you understand what you’re reading?” So the man says, “How can I unless someone explains it to me.” And when he’s invited, Philip just hops right up into the chariot where his mission awaits.
Okay, let’s stop right here to get hold of several important truths:
First, you don’t know whom the Holy Spirit is going to direct you to when you commit to disciple-making—maybe your next-door neighbor, maybe a stranger on the street. You may be in the comfort of a natural setting, or you may hear the Spirit’s whisper when you are totally out of your element. So you may be wise to start now asking the Lord to fine-tune your attitude toward people who are “other” than you. If you are immediately put off by people who look different, talk differently, believe and behave differently—that’s going to be a stumbling block in your doing what God calls you to do.
And then notice that Philip approaches this person by asking a question. Philip doesn’t go in loaded for bear with a big prepared “Jesus speech.” Instead, any anxiety he may feel, he lays in the hands of the Lord, and simply asks a question. Philip could have seen Jesus do that time and again. It’s a great way to get on common ground with another person. Open the conversation with a non-threatening question. It allows the two of you to get acquainted in neutral territory, instead of your immediately trying to own the meeting ground by asserting your position. Go to where they are.
And then a third observation: I wonder whether Philip realized this when he heard the passage the eunuch was reading, but I noticed and perhaps you did, too. The passage from the prophet Isaiah that the eunuch was reading actually describes the eunuch himself: “Like a sheep he was led to the slaughter.” Almost certainly this man was castrated against his will and in great pain and suffering. “And like a lamb silent before its shearer, so he does not open his mouth. In his humiliation, justice was denied him.” Can you imagine, especially you men, the humiliation he must have lived with—all his life? And finally, “Who can describe his generation? For his life is taken away from the earth” (Is 53:7-8). This man’s generation, his ability to procreate, had been taken away from him.
The Holy Spirit doesn’t make mistakes; and in the wisdom of God there are no coincidences when it comes to our ministry of reconciliation. This man was reading a Bible passage that seemed almost to describe his very self. That’s the way God works. He brings his disciples into contact with people who are looking for understanding, looking to be accepted and valued. And when we recognize that in a person and remember that Jesus understands, accepts, and loves every single one of us so much he went to the cross in our place—that’s when we can begin disciple-making.
So when Philip sits down beside him, the eunuch says, “Who is the prophet talking about—himself or someone else?” And that’s when Philip has something to say: He “began to speak, and starting with this scripture, he proclaimed to him the good news about Jesus.”
To this one who had been barred from the Temple, robbed of his sexuality and gender; this one who was despised by Jews because of the color of his skin—Philip says, The Good News of Jesus Christ is for you. He knows your suffering. He was rejected, too. But he opened his arms wide and died for you and for all people. And he lives in those who will receive him. And, no doubt, Philip invited the eunuch to repent and be baptized.
We know that, because when the chariot wheels had kicked up a little more sand, they came to some water. And the eunuch said, “Look, here is water! What’s to prevent me from being baptized?” And I believe Philip looked him right in the face and said something like, Absolutely nothing, buddy. Let’s get down from here and glorify God.
We talk about making disciples, continuing the cycle, but we’re not always sure what that means. The Bible sums it up this way: “All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation . . . . So we are ambassadors for Christ, since God is making his appeal through us” (2 Co 5:18, 20). That is the cycle of discipleship.
Neither Philip nor Peter, nor any of Jesus’ original disciples, ever took a seminary course or had a title before their names, or wore a clerical collar, but they were ambassadors for Christ, ministers of reconciliation in his name. And that is what Jesus calls each of us to be—listening to the Holy Spirit, walking into the unknown in God’s strength, and sharing the Good News about Jesus Christ whenever he gives us the privilege. “This is the message we have heard from him and proclaim to you” (1Jn 1:5).
All Contents (except quotations) Copyright 2020 Beverly C. DeBord.
All Rights Reserved.