- Rev. Sarina Odden Meyer
Mission Awareness Sunday
We will be following the Lectionary readings for the next several weeks. In the calendar for the Presbyterian Church in Canada, today is Mission Awareness Sunday. We often think of mission as something that a tiny number of people do in places that are very far away. That was generally true when the church was the cultural center of Canada. But now that Canadian culture has shifted to become mainly secular, we find ourselves in a very different situation. Church leaders are now talking about the church in Canada needing to become MISSIONAL. In a missional church, everyone is involved in mission in their own communities at home. There is still a small number of people who do mission work in far away places. But in a missional church, everyone does mission in their own community at home. Since most of our neighbours, co-workers, friends, and everyone else we know don’t go to church, and identify themselves as secular, we all find ourselves in situations in which we are doing mission work. So what is mission?
I like to think of mission as living the love of God. I put it like this because mission is a combination of both evangelism and service, which we will see later in our statement of faith from Living Faith. Living the love of God means that we tell people the good things that God is doing in our lives through Jesus and by the power of the Holy Spirit. Living the love of God also means that we serve people out of gratitude for how God has served us. At our Maundy Thursday service we saw that Jesus washed his disciples’ feet and calls them to wash the feet of others. We are also called to serve, in Jesus’ name.
Another reason why I like to call mission “Living the Love of God” is that living in a context that is secular, that requires mission on a regular basis, can feel overwhelming. Don’t missionaries get special training? Aren’t missionaries supposed to know what to say in any situation? What if I don’t want to do mission? Well the reality is that we do it everyday whether we want to or not. Frankly, the best way to do mission work at home is to live our faith. To be ourselves, to be who we are in Christ. To be imperfect, to live authentically, but overall to love others as God has loved us - to live the love of God. People know we are Christians, and before they will ever come to church or talk to me, they learn about who God is from knowing you.
Carlo Carretto wrote in his book, Letters from the Desert, which I found in my prayer book, that “Every hour of the day is useful and may lead to divine inspiration, the will of the Father, the prayer of contemplation - holiness. Every hour of the day is holy. What matters is to live it as Jesus taught us. And for this one does not have to shut oneself in a monastery or [go halfway across the world]. It is enough to accept the realities of life. Work is one of these realities; [parent]hood, the rearing of children, family life with all its obligations are others.” And I also think of going to the grocery store, volunteer work, interacting with the people who work in your retirement home, taking your car to the mechanic. Every hour of our lives is holy, what matters is to live it as Jesus taught us. When we live the love of God we are always ready to share the love that God has for us in Jesus, whether through words or through service in any given moment, when anything can happen. This is what it means in John 15:4, to abide in Jesus who is the true vine. Every hour of our life matters. Every hour of our life is holy. And we are all called to live an authentic life that embodies the love of God, warts and all.
Our passage from Acts this morning demonstrates what it’s like to live the love of God quite well so we will look more closely at that passage today. Before we get going on these particular verses, we need to know who Philip is. It’s a bit confusing because one of the twelve apostles is named Philip so I always assumed that this Philip was one of the apostles. But actually, one of the deacons was also named Philip. In Acts 6, the Greeks complained because their widows were being neglected, so the twelve called the community together because, it says in Acts 6:2 that they did not want to “neglect the word of God in order to wait on tables.” In response to this, the church appointed seven people to ensure that service was carried out justly and fairly in the church. We call these seven deacons. Philip was one of these deacons. Then in Acts chapter 7, Stephen, one of the deacons, was killed and Saul (who becomes Paul) starts to persecute the church. At the beginning of chapter 8, in verse 1, it says, “That day a severe persecution began against the church in Jerusalem and all except the apostles were scattered throughout the countryside of Judea and Samaria.” This means that the twelve apostles stayed in Jerusalem, while everyone else was scattered. So, the Philip we encounter in our text this morning was Philip the deacon, assigned to waiting on tables and ensuring that the distributions to the widows were handled fairly and justly.
Essentially, we would not have expected, as it says at the beginning of our passage this morning in Acts 8:26, that Philip the deacon, assigned to waiting tables, would be going “south toward the road that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza.” But, he found himself there because of the circumstances of his life: the persecutions in Jerusalem forced him to leave and the angel of the Lord sent him to that road. I am so grateful to the author of Acts (who is Luke) for recording this situation with Philip because, like Philip, most of us don’t expect to be in a situation in which we will be doing mission work, but we find ourselves in mission situations all the time because of the circumstances of our lives: living in a culture that is mostly secular. I find Philip to be encouraging for us. He was NOT chosen to devote himself to the word of God or to preaching. He was chosen to wait at tables and ensure that the distribution to the widows was handled fairly. AND YET, he found himself called by God to talk about the love God has for us in Jesus.
So, we would not have expected Philip to be there, and yet he was.
We would also NOT have expected the angel of the Lord to lead Philip to an Ethiopian eunuch. First of all, the Ethiopian was a gentile, a foreigner. Up until this point in Acts, the Gospel had not yet extended to Gentile foreigners. Moreover, eunuchs were excluded from worship according to the law (Lev 21:20, Deut 23:1). But in Isaiah 56, God’s restoration includes eunuchs and Gentile foreigners so the book of Acts is saying that Philip’s encounter with the Ethiopian eunuch is evidence that the death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus has started God’s ultimate restoration of the world. And that this ultimate restoration includes everyone who had formerly been excluded. (Daniel J. Kirk: https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3633)
We wouldn’t have expected either Philip or the Ethiopian eunuch to be there, but God called them both there in that moment. When Philip approached the chariot in verse 29 & 30, he didn’t have an agenda. It says that he heard the eunuch reading the prophet Isaiah. He listened first, and then asked the eunuch if he understood what he was reading. But, in asking that question, Philip did not have an agenda. Instead, his question invited the eunuch to ask his own question, which was, in verse 34, “About whom…[is the prophet Isaiah writing,] about himself or about someone else?” Then Philip responded to the question by explaining about Jesus. It is important to note that Philip didn’t bombard the eunuch with information. Instead, he listened, he asked questions, and he responded to the eunuch. He was living the love of God. He interpreted the Scripture and told him about Jesus because that’s what the eunuch asked for.
When we talk to people and God comes up, it is important to answer the questions that they ask and respond to the things they are curious about. We don’t know how the Holy Spirit is working in someone’s life, but we do know that God has called us to that moment in order to live the love of God and be the face of Jesus. Just as Jesus listened to the disciples on the Emmaus road and responded to their need, so Philip listened to the eunuch and responded to his need. So we are called to listen to those around us, and respond to their needs. Just as Philip, who was NOT assigned to the study of the word and preaching was called by God to do this, so all of us are called as well.
What does this look like in the lives of real people? Well, I thought I’d share something from Corrie Ten Boom’s The Hiding Place because I always find her story inspiring and miracles happen in it (and since Philip disappeared and reappeared in our passage this morning, I thought an example with a miracle would be in order). Corrie Ten Boom was a Dutch Christian living in Holland during the time of Hitler. She and her family hid Jews and eventually were arrested. She and her sister found themselves being transferred to a concentration camp. Corrie was terrified because she had a Bible and a bottle of vitamins in a bag that she wore around her neck, concealed underneath her clothes. She was worried that those things would be confiscated when they were stripped. Corrie found a stack of old wooden benches covered in mildew and swarming with cockroaches to hide the Bible and vitamin drops behind. She thought it was furniture from heaven! (pg. 192). After they were soaked in the cold communal showers, they dressed in the thin dresses provided to them. Corrie put the Bible and vitamin drops under the dress, but the bulge was obvious. However, she “had a feeling that this was not [her] business, but God’s,” and that all she had to do was “walk straight ahead” (pg. 192). She wrote: “As we trooped back out through the shower room door, the S.S. men ran their hands over every prisoner, front, back, and sides. The woman ahead of me was searched three times. Behind me, Betsie [her sister] was searched. No hand touched me.” So she made it into the concentration camp with the Bible and the vitamin drops. She then used them authentically, living the love of God in that hell of a place.
Corrie and Betsie shared the comfort they received from reading the Bible with the other women in their dormitory - they lived the love of God in word. They also shared the vitamin drops with the other women, too - living the love of God in deed. Miracles attended both acts of mission. These missional acts were not intentionally missional. Corrie and Betsie were simply living authentically. Through their authentic living, they shared God’s love with everyone around them.
They were transferred to a dormitory that was full of fleas and lice. But just like the rotting, mildew and roach infested furniture, the fleas and lice were a blessing from God. None of the guards would enter that dormitory, which freed them to use their Bible. Even in the midst of increasing misery and suffering, Corrie wrote, “from morning until lights-out, whenever we were not in ranks for roll call, our Bible was the center of an ever-widening circle of help and hope” (pg. 194). “Because only the Hollanders could understand the Dutch text we would translate aloud in German. And then we would hear the life-giving words passed back along the aisles in French, Polish, Russian, Czech, back into Dutch. They were little previews of heaven, these evenings beneath the light bulb” (pg. 201). Even though there was heavy surveillance all around, the guards never came near their dormitory.
And finally, they shared the liquid vitamin drops. Corrie’s sister was sick and needed the drops, but the bottle was almost empty. Corrie wanted to save it all for Betsie, but there were other women in need of the medicine, too. She “tried to save it for the very weakest, ...but it was hard to say no to eyes that burned with fever and hands that shook with chill.” Soon, twenty-five women were taking drops. Corrie wrote, “every time I tilted the little bottle, a drop appeared at the tip of the glass stopper. It just couldn’t be! I held it up to the light, trying to see how much was left, but the dark brown glass was too thick to see through.” And Betsie reminded her of the story of the widow at Zarephath in Sidon in 1 Kings, whose jar of oil never emptied during the famine. Corrie wrote, “Well - but - wonderful things happened all through the Bible. It was one thing to believe that such things were possible thousands of years ago, another to have it happen now, to us, this very day. And yet it happened this day, and the next, and the next, until an awed little group of spectators stood around watching the drops fall onto the daily ration of bread” (pg. 202).
You can see how Corrie and Betsie, and Philp (!), were simply living out their life of faith. The way they lived embodied the love of God, and they shared that love with everyone they met, in word and in deed. As we go out to live our lives, in our secular context, I hope that we will be encouraged that we, too, can be missional. Living the love of God simply means being our authentic selves in Christ, sharing our life in God with others, both in word and in deed, in all circumstances. We don’t have to be perfect; we are simply called to love others as God has first loved us. Amen.