Saturday, January 10, 2009

Baptism Barrier

Acts 8:26-38

What’s the scariest thing you can think of? Is it a monster under the bed? Probably not – unless you’re very young. Could it be jumping off the high dive into a swimming pool? Possibly, but I’ve done that – I’ve even jumped off a cliff into a creek. But I was younger then. Or maybe it’s skydiving. Now that’s scary! Jumping out of an airplane at I don’t know, 3000 feet, with nothing standing between you and the ground except a lot of air. Yes, there’s that parachute on your back, but what if it doesn’t open? I think I’ll pass! Just thinking about it is scary enough!

Now, here’s my question for the day: Would you put evangelism on that list of scary things? Is evangelism the terrifying “E-word?” I mean, is this word – evangelism -- so terrifying that you’d rather we not talk about it?

For some reason telling people our faith story is frightening. Perhaps it’s because our relationship with God is personal and we’re not sure how to talk about such things – openly. Or maybe it’s because we’ve had a bad experience with someone trying to push their religious beliefs on us and we don’t want our friends to think we’re that kind of person. It’s not that we don’t believe in God, or that we don’t think that our faith is important. It’s just that we don’t know how that other person is going to receive our story, and we’d rather not put up barriers between ourselves and others. So, we keep quiet.

1. Taking the “E-Vent” Journey”

In the coming weeks we will set out on a journey together. We’re calling it an “E-Vent” because it’s an evangelism event. Whether or not you like the term “e-vent,” I think you’re going to find this journey enriching and transforming. This is a journey that we’re going to take together. We’re going to put pretty much everything else on hold for about six weeks while think through our relationship with God and with the world. We’re going to talk about prayer and evangelism.

It’s possible that this journey will take us outside our comfort zones, but then that’s what it means to be missional. For centuries the church has operated with a “build it and they will come” understanding. We’ve expected that people will come to us if they’re spiritually inclined. But the world has changed and what was once considered “Christendom” is now a mission field. Instead of operating with a “come to” understanding, it’s time to start thinking “go to.” We have heard God’s call to go to where God is at work – and as we go we share our faith in both word and in deed.

2. Baptism – the beginning of a journey

Our journey begins, as it did with Jesus, in baptism. According to the gospels, his ministry began with his baptism by John. At the moment that he emerged from the water he heard the voice of God say to him: “You are my Son, the beloved, with you I am well pleased” (Luke 3:21-22). From that moment on Jesus began to preach, teach, and heal. And as he did this, he revealed God’s presence in the world.

But Jesus isn’t the only person who begins ministry in baptism. If you turn to the book of Acts, as we’re doing in Bible Study, you’ll find baptism front and center in the story. It begins with Pentecost, where 3000 believed and were baptized. Later on Philip baptized the people in Samaria, and Peter baptized Cornelius and his household, opening whole new vistas of God’s work in the world. Of course, Paul did a bit of baptizing himself. And then there’s this story, the one we read in Acts 8, where Philip gets another chance to do some baptizing. Luke says that the Spirit whisked Philip away and set him down in the middle of a deserted road, where he encountered a man from Ethiopia. This man was heading home from Jerusalem, reading from the book of Isaiah. Philip started up a conversation, jumped up into the chariot, and began to share the good news of Jesus with this man.

What’s interesting about this particular man is that he was a eunuch. Because he had been castrated, he got an important job, but as far as the religious community of his day was concerned, he was an outsider. He wanted to enter the circle of the faithful, but a barrier stood his way. Like many in our own day, he was looking for a community, but couldn’t find his way inside. St. Francis is well known for saying: “Preach the Gospel at all times. Use Words when Necessary.” In this case deeds aren’t enough. This man needs to hear words, words of grace and invitation.

I don’t think this Ethiopian man is unique. I think he represents great numbers of people in our own community. They’re seeking for God and they’re seeking a community that will surround them, encourage them, embrace them, and empower them. But they need to hear an invitation first, because they don’t know where to look. That’s because there’s a barrier that has been put up between them and their goal.

In this story, Philip lets the man know that Jesus is in the business of welcoming everyone into his family. And so when the man saw a pool of water along the road, he said to Philip: “Hey, what’s keeping me from being baptized?” And Philip said, stop the chariot! When the chariot came to a halt, they got out, went down into the pool, and Philip baptized him in the name of Jesus, and then Philip sent him on his way so that he too could share the gospel message himself, in both word and deed. On that day, as he was baptized, he crossed the barrier and began his ministry.

Indeed: The man said what prevents me? And Philip said, “why nothing!” And so it is.

3. Evangelism – Opening the Door

Like I said, there are a lot of people out there, who are just like the Ethiopian eunuch. They want to know and experience God’s presence. They’re looking for a community that will welcome them. But they don’t know where to look!

The other day I was doing some demographic research, and I discovered that within our 5-mile radius, 40% of the people are not involved in a faith community. That’s a huge number, and I expect that many of them are just waiting for someone to invite them into a community that is welcoming, compassionate, honest, nurturing, and willing to listen to their questions and concerns. I believe that we can be just that sort of community.

We’ve committed ourselves to being a missional congregation. We may still be learning what that means for us, but at the very least it means this: We’ve been called by God to open the door, step outside the walls, and share in God’s work in the world – both in word and in deed. Evangelism is nothing more than opening a door so that someone else can walk through it and begin enjoying the presence of God. We don’t have to have all the answers to everyone’s questions. We simply need to open the door by sharing our story and then loving that person with a love that flows from the heart of God. People will have questions, and in time they will get the opportunity to explore those questions with us, but in the beginning, it’s just a matter of taking down the barriers that keep people from experiencing the grace of God.

4. Unbinding Our Hearts

On February 22nd we will begin our forty-day Lenten emphasis on prayer and evangelism. We will be using Martha Grace Reese’s book Unbinding Your Heart as our guide. There will be sermons and studies and opportunities for prayer using a forty-day prayer guide. As we take this journey together, I expect that we will draw closer to God through prayer and we will learn how to share our stories of faith with people who are yearning to experience God’s presence.

In a moment Christine Michael will give you some instructions about how you can get involved. Today is Sign Up Sunday, which means you get to sign up for a small group where you can study and pray together during our six-week Lenten season. Before Christine comes up and talks more about the sign up process and the book we’ll be reading together, I want to introduce the rest of the team. Anne McCauslin and Nancy Barnes are heading up the prayer focus. Tim Morehouse and John McCauslin are overseeing the formation of small groups, Diana Payton is working with our young adults, youth, and children. Of course, Christine is chairing this E-Vent!

So, to Christine I turn for more information!

Preached by:
Rev. Dr. Robert D. Cornwall
Pastor, Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
Troy, MI
January 11, 2009
1st Sunday after Epiphany

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