A Significant Invitation

This past Sunday we got to celebrate new journeys after Jesus by baptizing some of His followers. It was a pretty exciting day. Below is the challenge I gave to the church once we were finished. It is one for you to consider as well. May this point you – and your church – in the direction of becoming more fully who Jesus made you to be.

A Significant Invitation

Days like this are why we do what we do. 

Days like this one get right to the heart of what it means to be a follower of Jesus. That applies both for folks in and out of the tank this morning. For the folks I had the privilege of baptizing a little while ago, they were being directly obedient to Jesus’ command that those who follow Him be baptized. For this church, we were commanded as Jesus’ followers to make disciples and baptize them. Here we are. What’s more, we’re doing all of this right out in front of God and everybody. If you are a follower of Jesus, this is what you should be all about: seeing people profess in about as public a way as they possibly can that they are a follower of Jesus. 

In light of all of this, there are two things I want to make sure we all understand about today. In order to help us all get our minds around the first, let me tell you a story. 

There’s something about the beginning of an adventure that feels right. When you’ve gotten off on the right foot out of the gate, everything is running like it should. In the earliest days of the church, this was certainly the case. The apostles were being faithful to the Lord’s command, and they were relying on the Spirit’s help to do their work. It was a pretty exciting time. Even when things started to get dicey and the believers were all driven out of Jerusalem for fear of their lives at the hands of the Jewish religious authorities doing everything they could to shut down this growing movement, everything was still running on track. Jesus had told them this was going to happen and here it was unfolding just exactly like He had said it would. Instead of simply running in fear for their lives, though, the believers took the Gospel with them, proclaiming the risen Christ everywhere they went. 

Dr. Luke, the greatest historian of the early church, documented one story in particular for us that I want to take a quick look at with you. This story comes from his record of the growth of the early church that is sometimes called the Acts of the Apostles, or Acts for short. If you have a copy of the Scriptures with you this morning—whether in digital or analog form doesn’t matter—find your way to Acts 8:26, and let’s take a look at this together. Here we find Philip the Evangelist, one of the original seven deacons installed by the church to help deal with some member care issues the early church was dealing with (and not to be confused with the apostle and one of the original twelve disciples by the same name), called by the Holy Spirit to leave the Samaritan town where he had been proclaiming the Gospel to a great response from the people, and go out into the middle of nowhere between Jerusalem and Gaza. 

Listen to how this went: “An angel of the Lord spoke to Philip: ‘Get up and go south to the road that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza.’ (This is the desert road.) So he got up and went. There was an Ethiopian man, a eunuch and high official of Candace, queen of the Ethiopians, who was in charge of her entire treasury. He had come to worship in Jerusalem and was sitting in his chariot on his way home, reading the prophet Isaiah aloud.” 

Talk about a divine encounter. It would have been hard for Philip to come to any other conclusion than that God wanted him to have a conversation with this man. As for who “this man” was, he was something like the secretary of the treasury for the kingdom of Ethiopia. The fact that he had been to Jerusalem to worship and was on the way home suggests two things. He must have been a high official indeed to be able to take such a trip in the first place. Second, it meant he was at the very least a God-fearer. These were folks who were interested in the God of Israel, but hadn’t gone all the way to becoming full Jewish converts. These folks also provided some of the most fertile ground for the Gospel-advancing work the early missionaries had started doing. 

Another detail worth at least a mention here is that his reading from a scroll suggests he was very, very wealthy. Scrolls were incredibly expensive in that day. They were usually only owned by a whole community. That this man had one that was his to read whenever he pleased—and apparently “whenever he pleased” included while he was taking a pit stop on the side of the highway while going back home—suggests a staggering personal wealth on his part. This was someone who, if he became a follower of Jesus, was going to be positioned to share the Gospel with folks from the upper echelons of society. And indeed, church tradition holds that he took the Gospel back to Ethiopia with him, and that’s where the church in Ethiopia got its start. 

Unfortunately, possessing a scroll did not automatically mean one understood its contents. In this case, he didn’t understand it at all. Verse 29 now: “The Spirit told Philip, ‘Go and join that chariot.’ When Philip ran up to it, he heard him reading the prophet Isaiah, and said, ‘Do you understand what you’re reading?’ ‘How can I,’ he said, ‘unless someone guides me?’ So he invited Philip to come up and sit with him. Now the Scripture passage he was reading was this: ‘He was led like a sheep to the slaughter, and as a lamb is silent before its shearer, so he does not open his mouth. In his humiliation justice was denied him. Who will describe his generation? For his life is taken from the earth.’ The eunuch said to Philip, ‘I ask you, who is the prophet saying this about—himself or someone else?’ Philip proceeded to tell him the good news about Jesus, beginning with that Scripture.” 

So, this Ethiopian official was sitting there reading a passage of Scripture that we understand on this side of the cross to be all about Jesus. Philip understood this as well. The Ethiopian man did not. But Philip was there and the man was genuinely curious, so Philip got the chance to explain it to him. So often, God will put us in just the right spot to share the Gospel with another person if we are only willing to take the opportunities when they land in our laps. 

Philip went on to explain the Gospel to the man, starting with this very verse. This is a bit of a daunting thing to think about, but if the apostle Paul was right about all of Scripture’s being inspired by God, you can get to the Gospel starting from any part of it. You just have to point to Jesus, which is exactly what Philip did. Well, when he did, including apparently the part about being baptized once you start following Him, the Ethiopian official happened to see a little pond on the side of the road. He was ready to follow Jesus, so he didn’t see any reason he shouldn’t be baptized right then and there. Philip didn’t either, so they took care of it. 

Look at verse 36: ‘As they were traveling down the road, they came to some water. The eunuch said, ‘Look, there’s water. What would keep me from being baptized?’ So he ordered the chariot to stop, and both Philip and the eunuch went down into the water, and he baptized him. When they came up out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord carried Philip away, and the eunuch did not see him any longer but went on his way rejoicing. Philip appeared in Azotus, and he was traveling and preaching the gospel in all the towns until he came to Caesarea.” 

That last part might indicate that God somehow miraculously transported Philip from there to another place. But it may also more simply indicate that they parted ways at this point and did not meet again in this life. The point, though, is that this Ethiopian official began following Jesud and was baptized. This was exactly what Jesus had told them to do and here was Philip faithfully doing it. The fact that Philip did this should not be lost on us. Without Philip’s involvement, perhaps the man would have eventually reached the conclusion that he needed to be following Jesus on his own, but there’s no guarantee of that. The truth is: this man started following Jesus because Philip invited him to do so. 

You know, I actually think we can make a generalized rule out of that idea. The rule is this: People follow Jesus because someone invited them to do it. Very, very few people start following Jesus entirely on their own. There are indeed a few stories of that happening, and they are uniformly pretty incredible stories of God’s miraculous intervention in someone’s life. But in the vast, vast majority of the cases of someone starting a journey after Jesus, they began that journey because someone invited them to take it. The number of different people it could have been who did the inviting are as numerous as there are unique faces in the world. The exact identity of the person doesn’t matter. The key point here is that someone invited them to follow Him and so they did. People follow Jesus because someone invited them to do it. 

For each of these six individuals we baptized a few minutes ago, there was someone who invited them on the journey that is only beginning. In actuality, there were probably several someones along the way, but there was at least one for all of them. Maybe you were one of the people on that list. Almost no one starts following Jesus without being invited to do that. People follow Jesus because someone invited them to do it. 

Here’s the point I really don’t want you to miss, though: If we are going to see more people baptized in the weeks, months, and years ahead of us, in each and every instance, it will be because someone invited them to do it. If we want to see more, still more people will have to do the inviting. If we want to see the frequency of baptisms we celebrate as a church increase, that is entirely possible. We simply need people to invite them to do it. Now, every invitation won’t end in a baptism. That’s never been the case at any point in the history of the church. Some people simply aren’t going to follow Jesus. We love them anyway. But when people do follow Him, it is because they were invited. People follow Jesus because someone invited them to do it. So then, who are you going to invite to follow Jesus? Yours may be the invitation that pushes them over the edge. It may not be. But your invitation will at the very least play a role in the process. An important role at that. You’ve simply got to play it. Play it and play it well because people follow Jesus because someone invited them to do it. It could be that you invited them to do it. 

Imagine that we were having to baptize people twice a year…once a month…every week? because as a church we were so committed to inviting people to follow Jesus. It’s certainly possible. We simply need to invite. It doesn’t have to be big or flashy or fancy. A simple invitation will do. The invitation is the key. People follow Jesus because someone invited them to do it. 

That’s the first thing I wanted to tell you this morning. Here is the second: Just because someone has accepted an invitation and started following Jesus doesn’t mean they’ll keep following Him. It may be that they commit to the idea of Jesus as Lord only to sit there and not really do much of anything with it. They were given leave to believe that a baptism like this is the end of the journey rather than merely its beginning. No, the truth is that once someone begins following Jesus after professing faith in Him, they have to start growing in that faith. The thing is: growth doesn’t happen on its own. 

In the physical world, the law of inertia basically says that when something is in a particular state, it will tend to stay in that state unless something external to it causes it to change somehow. In other words, when something isn’t moving, it isn’t going to suddenly start moving on its own. In a frictionless environment, something that started moving wouldn’t ever stop moving. We don’t have that kind of environment on earth, though, so even when something starts moving, it takes constant additional input of stimuli to keep moving, otherwise it will slow to a stop. 

The same kind of idea applies to our spiritual lives and our journeys after Jesus. Just because someone has started following Jesus doesn’t mean they’ll keep doing it forever. The sin in the world and in our own hearts acts as a kind of spiritual friction that will eventually slow us down to a stop unless something external to us keeps us going and growing. Someone who has fairly recently started following Jesus needs to have the personal discipline of engaging regularly with the Scriptures and prayer in the larger context of the local church. But if their church doesn’t come alongside them to encourage and direct them on to further advancements in their faith, then the worldly inertia of sin is going to slow them down to a stop. People follow Jesus because someone invited them to do it. They grow in Jesus because someone invited them to do that too. 

Church, there are six individuals you witnessed this morning take an important step forward in their still-nascent journeys with Jesus. You need to be the church to them. We need to together make sure they are being invited and called to grow in their faith to the point that they are helping other people grow in their own faith. Applauding today and moving on simply won’t do. Today is an invitation for you to get involved. Get involved in the lives of these six. Get involved in the life of someone else in this church you know is still growing in their faith. Get involved in the life of someone you know isn’t following Jesus yet so that you have the opportunity to invite them to do that. After all, people follow Jesus because someone invited them to do it. People grow in Jesus because someone invited them to do it. We need to be an inviting church. The church at its best has always been an inviting church. The kingdom of God has always grown by invitation. Who are you going to invite? 

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