Horizons — The Ethiopian’s encounter

Rosalind Banbury's seventh reflection on the 2023-2024 Presbyterian Women/Horizons Bible Study.

Sacred Encounters: The Power and Presence of Jesus Christ in Luke and Acts 
Lesson 7: Acts 8:26-40

It made for a fun and engaging vacation Bible school (VBS). For the Bible stories, I used a good bit of motion. When the disciples were in a boat during a storm, the children rocked back and forth; when the wind howled, we roared; when Jesus said to the wind and the storm, “Be still,” we stopped. Among the children was a 10-year-old girl with blonde hair and freckles. She had never been to church or Sunday school. When her grandmother asked what she liked about VBS, the girl replied, “The Bible stories were the best! I want to learn more.” It pleases me to remember how wonderful the Bible can be to those who know nothing about it.

To engage in Acts 8:26-40, we might imagine a sandy wilderness road and the feel of dust on our sandalled feet. Philip is moved by the Spirit to take that road and sees a well-dressed man, obviously well-educated because he is reading Isaiah aloud in Hebrew. The man is an Ethiopian finance minister who has been to Jerusalem to worship. Again, the Spirit moves Philip, and he talks with the man about how Isaiah applies to Jesus. Forced by persecution in Jerusalem to spread out, followers of Jesus continue to talk about the risen Christ.

Presbyterians have long relied on Sunday school, worship and VBS to share the good news of Jesus. In my memory, we have never focused on reaching those unfamiliar with words like “gospel” and “covenant.” The very word “evangelism” makes us anxious and resistant. We imagine knocking on doors and talking with strangers, like the Jehovah’s Witnesses or Mormons. Such an action makes us break out in a cold sweat. We don’t want to offend or be pushy. We don’t want to be like the people who ask us if we are saved.

As a child in the church and an adult in seminary, no one taught me how to reach beyond the church doors nor how to share my faith with grace and gentleness. It was assumed people would show up at church for good preaching and children’s programs.

Those days are gone. According to the Pew Research Center, about 30% of U.S. adults are not interested in faith. In five years, Christian faith declined four percent (13.27 million people) in the United States, and 10% over the past 10 years (33 million people). The largest loss, Pew notes, is among non-evangelical Protestants, who have been in decline since the 1960s.

I was taught that we show our faith through our actions. We also need to use words. Evangelism is helping people grow closer to God and into community.  We can begin this by asking to be filled with God’s love and to be attuned, like Phillip, to the voice of the Spirit. We can pray to find those who might be open to God’s word. We pray for our world, which needs Christ’s way of compassion, mercy and justice.

A nephew who was not raised in the church asked me about faith. I did a poor job of it. First, I did not ask what his questions were. Dumb. I also used churchy code words, like “faith,” “sin,” and “grace,” which made no sense to him. We can unpack these words and translate them into plain English that we and non-Christians can understand. We can practice faith-sharing by gathering, not to find the right answers, but to explore what it means to us to be a follower of Christ. We can ask questions such as these:

  • God is described in many ways in the Bible: shepherd, father, mother, rock, fortress, creator, potter, judge, full of steadfast love. What word(s) describe who you believe God is?
  • What do you love about Jesus?
  • Who is a person, who by word and deed, showed us the goodness of following Christ?

(A good resource for this is Martha Grace Reese’s excellent book, Unbinding the Gospel, Real Life Evangelism.)

I wish I had a sure-fire program or just the right words to share the love we have for God, but I don’t. We must pray to be attuned to the opportunities God provides.

You can purchase the PW/Horizons Bible study book through the PC(USA) Church Store.

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