The story of Philip and the Ethiopian Eunuch is an incredible story if we appreciate its context; The Jesus movement started out as a small band of Jewish followers. They were Jews living in what we now call collectively the Middle East rooted in the unique traditions of the Jewish people who believed that they had a special relationship with God the Father sealed in an ancient covenant or pact that God had made with their ancestor Abraham. Salvation belonged to the Jews and their traditions, practices and beliefs were closely guarded and protected against the rest of the largely hostile world.
The followers of Jesus, though, soon realized that the message that Jesus embodied would not be and could not be contained within just a single group of people. This was modelled and hinted at by Jesus’s teachings and interactions but after the day of Pentecost the followers of Jesus were driven by the Holy Spirit away from their homes and their familiar surroundings to spread the good news of Jesus further afield. So the Holy Spirit led Philip to an Ethiopian, an African, an encounter that quickly led to a baptism. This was somebody on a journey away from Jerusalem (where he had visited the temple) and familiar with Jewish writings as he was reading the book of Isaiah but we should not under-estimate how significant this encounter was that Philip should share the good news of Jesus and then baptize someone who wasn’t a Jew and who was from a different cultural background. The special relationship the Jews had with God was to be transformed into an invitation for the whole world. Of course the early Christians rooted in their Jewish life would have had their reservations about this, and there were contentious and thorny issues that had to be dealt with but it was the Holy Spirit that compelled them and showed them where they needed to go and who needed to hear the Good news. God was on the move.
It was God’s work and purpose to drive them into unchartered waters and away from their comfort zone. We shouldn’t romanticize those early Evangelists: those people that were sent out to tell people about Jesus. They made lots of mistakes as we do. I am sure there were times when they felt disheartened, and questioned what they were doing. They also disagreed with each other a lot about this and that, and we only have to read Paul’s letters to see early Christian communities that were rocked by wayward leaders, questionable behaviour and confusion at what exactly to believe but the book of Acts and Paul’s letters describe a church that had an urgent, Spirit led mission to see people come to know God and to meet people where they are. There was little distinction between being a worshipping Church and what we call Mission, which means God’s saving work on earth. Everything was mission because the Church had a special purpose to help build God’s kingdom.
One of the things that I think is special about St Michael’s is our willingness to try new things. I’ve been thankful and blessed in my time here by a real ‘can do’ attitude when it comes to change or doing things in a different way. I appreciate that probably does drive some people mad, and of course I have made quite a few mistakes and wrong turns. That permission to try new things and more importantly that permission to make mistakes, as we try to be a Church in Byker, is a really precious thing and in keeping with our task as a Church to sometimes go out of our comfort zones. Scripture Union, who we have a close connection with, has a campaign this year that recognises the startling statistic that 95% of children and young people in this country do not go to Church. Maybe that figure will be unsurprising to you but it does demonstrate the enormity and urgency of our task together. In the next year, I’d like us to keep on striving as a Church community to find new ways we can communicate our message to Byker. This is not about doing the things that people can do for themselves. It’s not about charity though compassion, support and encouragement are much needed in Byker. It’s more about finding ways like Philip with the Ethiopian that we can be with people where they are and be in places where we can have an impact. This may not be instant. There may not be any fast track Baptisms but we never know what might happen, especially when God is involved. We might never see the fruits of the things that we do but we should still recognise our task and calling.
I would love to be a Vicar with a huge Church congregation, with hundreds coming and maybe that will happen! I would love to organise huge successful events where thousands of people hear God’s word in Byker, but I think I know that where the Church can make a lasting impact and can show people God’s love is through small, local activities and opportunities where we are a presence in in our community. (e.g using Boris the prayer cart, detached youthwork). These are times when we are not running around busy but simply enjoying being with people where they are. This takes a lot more courage I think than inviting people to events. It demonstrates a Church on the move, willing to listen as well as speak and a Church open to where God is telling us and directing us to go. Thank you to everyone at St Michael’s for all your support and encouragement this year.