Getting More Than You Meant To Get (Acts 8:26-40)
by Chris Burton
In college I spent a lot of time in the student union. Any time traveler or sitcom flashback would find me in my college days doing something in the union. I had meals there, was always in meetings there, and during my days in student government, often slept there. There were weeks when I saw that place more than my dorm. Of all my favorite things in the student union, the best kept secret for me was a quote outside of the room named in C. Shaw Smith’s honor. Smith was the college’s first college union director and his words struck me so deeply I asked a friend on campus to text me the exact words so that I could share them with you. Smith said, “The campus is a place of serendipity, education itself is, because you get more than you meant to get. Serendipity–making an unsought for but happy discovery by accident. Coming to the union for a burger and having a life changing experience. Looking for a bridge partner and finding a partner for life.”
Getting more than you meant to get. There’s elements of providence in serendipity. The coincidence, the life changing experience, all evidence of the Spirit moving. Those of us who can attest to these episodes of serendipity can share the joy of these beautiful encounters. Conversations shared, events witnessed and participated in that you can just feel something click. Like, “Ahh, this is why I’m here.” You might have thought you were just getting a quesadilla but nah, serendipity brought you an encounter where someone asked you the right question.
How is God inviting you to participate in God’s life? It is presumptive I suppose to assume that you are invited to participate in God’s life but friends I am quite sure that you, yes you too are cordially invited to participate in God’s life. When we look at Scripture, we do not see a Creator who is unaffected by human history. God does not choose to sit on the sidelines of human history, God places God’s self in the midst; comforting the afflicted, delivering God’s people, reminding them, through presence and power that they are not alone.
In the gospel of John, Jesus promises not to leave his followers alone. He promises that the Father will send the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, who will teach them everything and remind them of what Jesus said. And so we see evidence of this promise in our scripture today as Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch were beneficiaries of this promise on their encounter with serendipity. Their getting more than they meant to get.
Funny things happen in the wilderness. Moses encountered a bush that was burning but not consumed, voices cry out from there, the Savior is tempted there. But in this instance, on this wilderness road between Jerusalem and Gaza, the Spirit compelled Philip to go over to the chariot. Now I often appreciate how relatable characters in the bible are. They often prove, as the poet Propaganda once put it, that God often “uses crooked sticks to make straight lines.” But in this instance Philip is not like us. He doesn’t hesitate or explain to the Spirit why he couldn’t or shouldn’t approach the chariot. Philip does not ignore the spirit’s prompting; he is infused by it.
Running toward the chariot. Philip does not lean on his own understanding. He hears and obeys. Conversely, the Ethiopian eunuch responds to Philip’s actions by inviting him. Their encounter blossoms. The Ethiopian eunuch goes from reading scripture he does not understand to asking a transformative question. “What is to prevent me from being baptized?” This transformation leads the eunuch on his way rejoicing. The Spirit snatches Philip and he finds himself at Azotus proclaiming the gospel as he passed through the region.I thank God for this moment of serendipity. This conversion story, the first of three individual conversions in this narrative, is a powerful example for us.
The Lukan account is unafraid to deal with difference. It does not fake color blindness nor does it look amicably upon assimilation. We have so much to learn from Acts. So much to learn about how we ought to treat one another, how we extend hospitality to the other. I fear what we would do in Philip or the Ethiopian eunuch’s shoes. The assumptions we would make. The prejudices we would harbor. The deafening silence of purposes unrealized and relationships never made. What happens when we lean on our own understandings? What is the byproduct of neglecting serendipity? Why ignore the Spirit and let unreadiness rule the day?
I often wonder and sometimes worry about those times I let serendipity pass me by. Those times I should have said something but didn’t, those times I should have acted but could not work up the gumption to do so. Sometimes we reduce our brokenness and only focus on the wrong things we do. There is not enough said about the moments we miss. The opportunities to be a blessing that we forsake because we feel unqualified, unready, unwilling.
We cannot afford to reduce the calling Christ places on our lives. The Spirit resounds; what does the Lord require of you? What does it look like when we love mercy? When we do justice? When we walk humbly with our God? What sorts of healthy dissatisfactions begin to blossom? What happens when our righteous indignation speaks truth to power? When our love of mercy is magnetic our doing of justice is further kinetic. We cannot walk humbly with our God without walking with the least of these.
I’m fascinated by the scripture that the Ethiopian eunuch was reading. This introduction to Jesus as a lamb silent before its shearer, one who was humiliated and one who was denied justice. I hear this and know this tragedy is held in tension with Christ’s triumph. I hear this and am reminded that Christ’s life, death and resurrection is the greatest act of empathy I could ever know. I hear this and endeavor to share this message of hope in Ferguson, in New York, in Cleveland and every town where our black brothers and sisters know the painful delay and dismissive denial of justice. I hear the Spirit resounding in the words of our fallen brothers and sisters and while the temptation to despair is formidable, the Spirit imbues us with hope. Hope that answers the question, “How long?” by the confident response, “Not long.”
Brothers and sisters there is no room on the sidelines of Christianity. Ideally, when one hears Christ beckoning them to follow, they realize that this following is an active thing. Discipleship is poorly performed passively. In Dr. King’s “Drum Major Instinct” sermon he assures everyone, in spite of the seemingly insurmountable obstacles that they too can participate in God’s life. They too can be enabled to serve. Dr. King said, “Everybody can be great…because anybody can serve. You don’t have to have a college degree to serve. You don’t have to make your subject and verb agree to serve. You only need a heart full of grace. A soul generated by love.”
It’s no secret that Dr. King did not live the life he planned for. As portrayed in the film Selma, he and his wife Coretta had hopes to be in a college town, leading a small church there with ample space for their four children to grow. As tantalizing as that dream was with its trapping and comforts, Dr. King realized that it paled in comparison to the leadings of the Spirit. On April 3, 1968, Dr. King told that crowd in Memphis, “Like anybody, I would like to live–a long life; longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land. So I’m happy, tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.”
As aforementioned I am encouraged by the broken sticks. The cloud of witnesses who were used as God’s instruments. They were not perfect. Did not have it all figured out. In many cases they did not even sign up for this. But the bush burns, the daughter in law refuses to leave your side, the teacher compels you to become a fisher of men. As a mentor of mine once advised me, “God does not call the qualified. He qualifies the called.”