Photograph by Josue Michel via Unsplash

The Spirit goes ahead of the church

May 28, 2024

The late preacher Fred B. Craddock was a master of storytelling, as often evidenced in his sermons. One story he told arises from his own life, drawn from an experience years ago when he attended a meeting of scholars that happens each November. These joint meetings of the Society of Biblical Literature and the American Academy of Religion assemble what is most certainly the largest gathering in this country of academics teaching religion in seminaries and universities. (And their grand exhibition hall of books is surely a foretaste of heaven for religious bibliophiles….)

One year, as Craddock was walking around the convention center, he spotted a woman walking through the hallways with a large Bible in hand. She looked a frantic, anxious figure, out of place in the hustle and bustle of scholars hurrying from one meeting to the next.

Craddock stopped to talk with her, and he learned that she had come to the meeting to get help. She said, “I’ve wasted my life—I would like to be a Christian.” Craddock knew that she would not find the type of help she was searching for during these meetings geared more to the academic nature of the scholars at their work.

Craddock took her aside and for an hour spoke pastorally with her about being a Christian. He noted some places in the Bible she should read and then they parted ways.[1]

It does not sound like much, to sit and talk with somebody, yet if somebody had not stopped and answered your questions, or been willing to sit down and talk with you about faith, would you be here today? As we talk so often in the Baptist tradition of the importance of one’s personal accountability and choice (i.e., to say for ourselves that we wish to follow Jesus as our Lord and Savior), we would be remiss if we did not give due credit to those who helped us with our faith journey. Our faith is to be handed down, to be engaged with thoughtful conversation. Conversation helps aid conversion!

In my own life: If it were not for Verna Foster, would I have learned my first stories about Jesus? A devout farm wife, Mrs. Foster felt strongly that the farm kids should have a Vacation Bible School offered. We were hopped up on Kool-Aid, yet those stories of Jesus walking on the water or gathering his faithful like a shepherd gathers his flock started there. It may not have sounded that impressive, yet the seeds were cast by a person faithful to what it means to be a Christian, one who shares the faith.

Think about your own story of why faith factors into your life. It is not necessarily a string of events “all about you.” One’s faith journey is graced by many persons who have shared the faith, explored questions with you, and wandered alongside you as we make our way through life where faith and doubt intertwine. Without them, would you have been encouraged to go on?

It does not sound like much, to sit and talk with somebody, yet if somebody had not stopped and answered your questions, or been willing to sit down and talk with you about faith, would you be here today?

In Acts 8:26-40, the disciple Philip finds himself in the middle of this type of moment. He is on his way to one place when God has somewhere else in mind. His redirected mission: to speak to a stranger about faith.

By now, you may be wondering a bit about this story. What sort of reaction would you have if an angel showed up and the Holy Spirit talked to you? That is a bit fanciful an idea for this early in the morning, isn’t it? Furthermore, the mission at hand seems a tall order. Many Christians I know confess a reticence to share their faith with others. (“I don’t know what to say,” “I feel nervous doing it,” “Who am I to do this work?” and so forth.)                  

What we forget is the story of Acts may be about the flourishing and rapid expansion of the faith, yet for all this talk of angels and the Spirit at work, the gospel spreads as much by the people who populate the stories, not all of them especially gifted or naturally talented. Through people who love Jesus yet who are down to earth and just as able and unable as the next person, the Church spreads its word of the Good News. In other words, you and I are just as important in sharing the good word as anyone else.

What Philip does is surely the same work carried out by old Mrs. Foster teaching farm kids Bible stories or Dr. Craddock reaching out to a woman who felt lost along the pathway of life. It is the same work you know as you have received it too, recalling with due credit a parent or a pastor, a friend or an acquaintance who helped make your faith journey come alive or be kindled anew. Philip engages in the best and most accessible type of evangelism: he is open to God prompting him to go places, even beyond those of his familiarity or comfort. What Philip discovers is a great learning opportunity for himself as well: wherever God sends us, we come to realize God has been there already, preparing the way for the gospel.

As for the story of Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch, you will find that the story appears in a little run of stories about baptism. Just before this story, there’s a group of Samaritans, people who are historically deemed suspect, who are not only welcomed, but they are also baptized! On the other side of this story of Philip and the eunuch, we encounter a Roman centurion being baptized—a Gentile of all things!

We are reminded yet again that the Spirit goes ahead of the Church, even as the Church is in its earliest days, somewhere between the missionary impulse (“go to the ends of the earth” with the gospel) and the necessary questions of what happens when you put down roots and become “local congregations” (sorting out questions of authority, orthodoxy, and identity). The book of Acts is a time of new growth and developing what it means to be counted among the faithful. Some would argue that this era is still underway.

The Ethiopian eunuch’s question echoes down through the ages: “What is to prevent me from being baptized?” The Church might find all manner of answers, yet what is the one given by the Holy Spirit?

The Rev. Jerrod H. Hugenot serves as Associate Executive Minister for the American Baptist Churches of New York State.

The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of American Baptist Home Mission Societies.

[1] Craddock Stories, edited by Mike Graves and Richard F. Ward, St Louis: Chalice Press, 2001, p. 81.

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