Philip, Deacon and Evangelist
‘Hey! Do you go to church? Why?’ ‘Are you a Christian? Why? Just tell me in a few words.’ What would you say? If you only had 30 seconds, a kind of ‘elevator speech’, what would you say? ‘I go to church because…’ If you don’t say anything, you may have lost an opportunity. St Peter in this first letter tells us, ‘Always be ready to give an account for the hope that is in you.’ So, what would your 30 second account be?
Today we give thanks for a man who was always ready to give such an account. His name was Philip, and along with Stephen and five others, he was chosen by the apostles to be one of the first deacons in the church. Each of the seven men chosen exercised their vocation in different ways, but Philip was above all, an evangelist. And he must have been a wonderful evangelist because in the whole of the New Testament, filled with apostles and teachers and prophets, Philip is the only person to be called an evangelist. In Acts chapter 21, St Paul writes that, ‘When we came to Caesarea, we went into the house of Philip the evangelist, one of the seven, and stayed with him,’
We don’t know much about Philip and his work as an evangelist, except for one very memorable story which we have just heard read. An angel of the Lord commands Philip to leave Caesarea and turn south and take the desert road down to Gaza. He does so, and as he walks he comes across an extraordinary sight. He sees an Ethiopian eunuch, a court official of the Candace, queen of the Ethiopians, in charge of her entire treasury. This man was traveling the same road, but seated in a chariot. This is actually one of the stories I remember from Sunday school. We had to draw it and color it in. In the middle of the barren desert there was this magnificent chariot carrying a great man in charge of a fortune. He had just been to Jerusalem to worship and as he traveled the road he was poring over the Hebrew scriptures – the prophet Isaiah, which he couldn’t really understand. So, Philip, inspired by the Spirit, accepts the eunuch’s invitation to come sit next to him and help him understand. Philip, the great evangelist, proclaims to him the good news about Jesus, and the eunuch comes to faith there and then, and eagerly says to Philip, ‘What’s to stop me being baptized now?’ The chariot stops by some water and Philip baptized him. An amazing story.
But it is a story I think that tells us how we, even though we may feel quite inadequate, might become better evangelists ourselves. St Paul, in the 9th chapter of his first letter to the Christians in Corinth says, ‘Woe to me if I do not proclaim the Gospel.’ That’s a text that’s sometimes written on pulpits, just to remind the preacher! But it’s not just for preachers. It’s a text which we might all be wise to take to heart. How, by my words – maybe just 30 seconds – and my actions do I proclaim the gospel? Would anyone know, by my words and actions, that I follow Jesus? If you feel challenged to be a better witness to Jesus in your daily life, this story about Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch has a lot to teach us. What made Philip such a good evangelist?
I think first of all, Philip was a man of prayer. He kept in close touch with Jesus in prayer. He spent time listening to God’s voice so that he did not miss the moment. In the story we read that, ‘an angel said to him, “Get up and go south to the Gaza road.”’ Then later we read, ‘The Spirit said to Philip, “Go over to the chariot and join it.”’ Philip did not spend time thinking up methods of evangelism, he spent time in prayer. He kept close to the Lord in prayer, and so heard clearly when God called him, and he acted on the word.
Secondly, Philip was completely at God’s disposal. There is a French theological word which I find helpful. It is the word ‘Disponabilité’, which is hard to translate, but it is about being fully available for God. It’s about having an interior freedom, free of attachments. It is something Jesus demanded of his disciples, if they wanted to follow him. Fr. Benson our founder, knew all about ‘disponabilite’, when he challenged his brothers to be ‘men of the moment’. Philip was a man of the moment. He was interiorly free enough to drop his plans and suddenly go where the Spirit was leading him. Perhaps this is a challenge to us and to the whole church, to be less wedded to structures and traditions – ‘We’ve always done it like this…’ and more available, more open to the Spirit.
Then thirdly, Philip was a good evangelist because he was obedient to God’s call. The angel tells him to pack up and go south. He could have said, ‘Look, I’m already preaching here in Samaria, and wonderful things are happening. Many people are coming to faith. I can’t leave now. But he was obedient, and did as the angel asked. This obedience to God was not sullen or grudging; it was a joyful obedience. I love the way that when the Spirit tells Philip to go over to the chariot and join the Ethiopian, the text says, “Philip RAN up to it’. This ‘running’ suggests that for Philip, to obey God’s will and to preach the Gospel was a joy and delight; like the Psalmist, who loved to ‘run the way of your commandments.’
So today, much thanksgiving for the life and witness of Philip the Evangelist. Philip, a man of prayer, Philip, a man who had the inner freedom to follow God’s call, Philip, a man who was joyfully obedient to the call to preach the Gospel. Perhaps his life may be an inspiration to us as we respond to Peter’s challenge: ‘Always be ready to give an account for the hope that is in you.’
So, when you are asked that elevator question about your faith, your 30 second reply could change a life.
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