Few texts in the Bible demonstrate the concept of nurture as clearly as Luke’s story of Philip and the Ethiopian official in Acts 8:26-40. For some it’s a story of conversion, for others an example of evangelism, but for me it’s a classic demonstration of how nurturing faith happens–in candid conversation and honest sharing.
Philip wasn’t one of the original twelve disciples, but he was one of the seven original deacons appointed by the disciples to care for the marginalized in Jerusalem. He himself was an outsider (a Greek) who managed the caregiving ministries of the Jerusalem church. During a time of persecution, the church disbanded for a time, and Philip went down to Samaria to preach and teach.
While he was there, the angel of the Lord sent him on a journey from Jerusalem to Gaza, where he was directed to reach out to an Ethiopian, also an outsider . . . a person of color and complex gender, and the treasurer for Candace, Queen of Ethiopia. The eunuch had come to Jerusalem to worship and was returning home, spending his travel time reading the prophet Isaiah. Philip hadn’t necessarily volunteered enthusiastically for the assignment, but being Spirit-led, he caught up to the chariot and assertively asked the official if he understood what he was reading. The Ethiopian responded with the first of his three questions:
“How can I understand unless someone guides me?”
So Philip, the deacon, sat beside the Ethiopian eunuch. They read Isaiah (53:7ff) together, and Philip told the eunuch the good news about Jesus. The Ethiopian had the wisdom to ask for help, and Philip stepped forward to be his guide. He didn’t refer him to someone else or tell him everything he had ever learned. Instead he listened to the official’s questions and then, inspired by the Spirit, he shared his own insights about the significance of Isaiah’s teachings.
This encounter reminds those who nurture faith that they need to take the hearer of the story into account. Philip started to tell the story at the point where the Ethiopian was ready to hear it and accommodated his message to the eunuch’s needs and reality. According to Jewish law, a eunuch could never be a full member of a Jewish worshipping community, yet this God-fearer had just returned from worshipping in Jerusalem. Even though he knew he would probably be turned away by the religious establishment of the day, the Ethiopian sought to worship God anyway.
And Philip found an opportunity to question and learn what seeking and serving the Lord looked like through the new, inclusive community of Jesus Christ. Philip’s experience teaches us that nurturing faith often involves being open to questioning, and reaffirms the surprising ways that God works to bring people together.
When the eunuch asked Philip a second question, the focus of the story shifted to its center:
“About whom, may I ask you, does the prophet say this, about himself or about someone else?”
“Then Philip began to speak, and starting with this scripture, he proclaimed to him the good news about Jesus.” (Acts 8:34-35, NRSV) . Philip’s interpretation of the text is important, because it was the first time that the suffering Servant image in this section of Isaiah was linked with the passion of Jesus, thus connecting the two passages with a distinctively Christian perspective. As a social outcast, the eunuch identified with the humiliated Servant. That Servant, Jesus, led him to hope for a different future than the one assigned him by official Israel.
Those whom God provides as partners in nurturing faith–laypersons, pastors, seminaries, educators, families, local congregations, resource centers, community agencies–are never called to do so for their own credit, but always for the building up of the body of Christ. The Scripture teaches us that “God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us,” (Rom. 5:5, NRSV), and through our belief in Jesus Christ, we are empowered to share the good news formally and spontaneously, traditionally and digitally. When we trust in the power of the Word and allow our lives to be shaped by its truth, we learn and practice lessons of caring and compassion that nurture the journeys of those around us and reach beyond
these circles into our community and the world. Philip’s example teaches us what it means to encourage and to affirm one another to live in the good news of the God of Israel whom Jesus revealed and taught with integrity and confidence.
The Ethiopian’s final question was this:
“What is to prevent me from being baptized?”
Philip knew that a good teacher not only imparts the truth, but also inspires eternal values which change perspectives and encourage believers to follow the way of Christ in service to God’s people. The eunuch really did understand what he was reading. He understood so well that he believed the impossible: that God loved him, exactly as he was. His request to be baptized presumed that he accepted Jesus Christ as his Lord and Savior (a reality deemed necessary for baptism, but not specifically outlined in this text). And encouraged by Philip’s inspiration and teaching, he was ready to claim the promise of new life and wholeness. Afterwards, refreshed and reborn through the power of God’s Spirit, the two men joyfully ventured forth to engage in Christian mission.
Each of us is called to live our faith, not just to study it. The ministry of education is an essential component of the Christian faith, and even as we declare its importance, we affirm that the best education doesn’t happen in isolation. Nurturing relationships and welcoming people of all age into dialogue and the exploration of God’s Word are hallmarks of effective spiritual formation. The essence of our ministry is relational, not programmatic, when we become vulnerable to one another and allow ourselves to be transformed by the Word and Spirit of God.
Lynn Jostes is Associate Pastor for Christian Nurture at the Chevy Chase Presbyterian Church in Washington, DC. She is a Certified Christian Educator in the Presbyterian Church (USA) and a proud member of APCE for 36 years.