Sometimes it’s the smallest, most simple act that brings about the most profound change. It is easy to read Acts 21 simply as an aside in Paul’s larger story. His ministry to the gentiles and his journey to Jerusalem seem to be the narrative that grabs our attention. In fact, lectionary readings (those resources the larger church uses to guide us through teaching and preaching most of the Bible in a three year period) skips this scene. But there is actually a lot Philip can teach us about our day to day commitment to the gospel at our local level. Is there truly any insignificant service on behalf of Christ?
Our study material outlines Philip’s act of profound hospitality and encouragement to Paul and his fellow travelers. Philip should have every right to be angry with Paul, recoil at the thought of greeting him and dwell on the memory of Paul’s former activity that helped drive him and many other Christians from Jerusalem. Instead, (probably through the help of time and distance) Philip was able to see how God worked everything for good. Phillip had a moment in ministry which he was in the epicenter of the new thing God was doing. That’s pretty awesome! It all started, however, by being forced from Jerusalem, which must have been awful. Through being open to God working in new ways, Philip opened the gospel story to hungry ears of the Samaritans and to the Ethiopian Eunuch. And then God called him to Caesarea, to ministry in that place and to a family. Philips story moved to the background as God equipped Paul to carry on the spread of the gospel to a much larger scale.
So when Paul, coming off of yet another successful mission trip, seeks hospitality from the local Christian community in Caesarea, who could blame Philip if he passed on the opportunity? Instead of holding a grudge from the Saul era or struggling with jealousy as Paul’s ministry eclipsed his own, Philip keeps faithful to the gift God blessed him with all along – service. Philip and his community received him and encouraged him. But none of this could have been accomplished without a faith first that God was working in the situation, no matter what.
What I’m learning from this particular story is that God can do amazing things through his servants who don’t hold on too tightly to ambition but rather to God’s love for all people. We too often hold on to things like status, a place, a job or a role. These things begin to define us above and beyond the fact that we are God’s beloved children. These titles can begin to take a life of their own and become idols. For Philip, at least in the stories we have of him, his identity was wrapped up in God’s love for him and his neighbor. It allowed him the flexibility to serve God in creative ways. This responsiveness would not have occurred if Philip would have been hung up on his identity as a citizen of Jerusalem or in the status of converting the first gentiles to faith in Christ.
- What status keeps us from truly embracing our identity as God’s beloved child? How does this identity as a beloved child change the way we respond to challenges in our life? How does this identity empower us to serve God no matter our circumstances?
- What does it look like to offer encouragement to fellow Christians today? How do we offer encouragement in our church to one another?
- What does it look like to share success (successful ministry) with others in our community? Why is it hard to share ministry with others?
- When one opportunity of ministry ends, how do we know what God wants from us next? Do we ever stop publicly living our faith and serving among other Christians?
Perhaps it is precisely during this time of transition – this liminal time that we grow the most. Violent threats moved Philip from one place of ministry to witnessing among the Samaritans and to an Ethiopian Eunuch. Then, just when his “world-wide” evangelism got started, God called Philip to another specific people and place. But in every place, Philip was faithful to God by continuing to work out of his calling – to serve others for the sake of Christ. That never changed.
- How do you continue to use your gifts for God and for the church, even when your circumstances change?
HRBC is in a sort of transition time. (Really, churches are always in transition – we are never static.) Some of our dedicated lay leaders have transitioned to new homes away from Richmond and we have celebrated the lives of a few leaders during their funerals. Some have simply moved from one area of ministry in our church to a new one. How does HRBC react when talented leaders respond to a new ministry calling? Are we able to celebrate their faithfulness to God in that time and place? Like Philip, how do we faithfully carry on ministry when circumstances change around us? Might there be some exciting new opportunities to serve right in front of us?
- List examples of life changing events. How can we be like Philip and see this change as a new opportunity to serve God and God’s people?
- Move to a new town
- Promotion, new work responsibilities
- Welcome a new baby
- Carrying for children
- Empty nest
- Time to rotate off of ministry team
- Long-term illness
- Death of a spouse
The message I am find from this series of lessons is:
- Like Philip, we need to be responsive to God at work around us, in any situation.
- How we work together matters – is it for God’s glory or ours? (This is so often so hard to distinguish.)
- God can use us during any life stage and situation. Often, we cannot anticipate what our future circumstances will be but we can learn to trust fully in God every day. When we do this, it becomes reflexive to respond to God’s call, no matter the circumstance.