Scripture: Acts 8:26-40
When the very first modern Olympic Games were held in 1896, fencing was one of the sports included and it has been part of every Olympiad since. Fencing only really coalesced as a sport shortly before those first Olympics. The first officially recognized fencing tournament was not held until 1880, and it was not until 1894 that an internationally agreed upon rule set for fencing was adopted. Starting in 1894 three different forms of fencing were recognized: foil, epee, and saber. However, in 2019 the road was opened for a new fencing style. In 2019 The French Fencing Federation, which is one of the more influential international federations, formally recognized lightsaber as an official fencing technique. With this recognition they created standards, rules of play, and all of the other trappings that are part of international fencing. This means in France, lightsaber dueling is an officially recognized sport. It also means that over time more national fencing federations around the world might also recognize lightsaber dueling so that someday it could even be an Olympic sport.
What I find interesting about this is that fencing originally evolved from actual fighting with centuries of tradition that influenced the technique. Lightsaber dueling has inspiration that begins in 1977. The official rules for lightsaber dueling make it so that it really does require a different skill set than traditional fencing. Also, the polycarbonate lightsabers that are used for lightsaber dueling did not start becoming available until around 2009. The cheaper plastic toy lightsabers available before then were not strong enough to stand up to any kind of serious use. Lightsaber dueling as something that could be considered a possibility for serious competition has been around for just over a decade. This means by definition the lightsaber dueling “masters”, the ones who are teaching classes, developing forms, and creating techniques that win tournaments are all self-taught. They have literally created and are beginning to standardize something new. The people who are among the best lightsaber duelists in the world have likely put in hundreds and hundreds of hours to reach that point while honing and developing this as a sport. It is a reminder to me that if we are passionate, if we are dedicated, and if we invest our time then we potentially reach a mastery level –a level where we can teach others- in just about anything. This morning’s scripture reminds me that is true for our faith as well. Most of us have had more time and experience at being a Christian than Phillip had at this point, yet he was able to teach and lead the Ethiopian official in understanding the scripture and becoming a disciple. I think this morning’s scripture should cause us to ask ourselves a couple of key questions. First, who are you teaching and leading to deeper discipleship? Second, if you do not have an answer for the first question, then why not?
As we reflect upon these questions we should consider the story of Philip presented in scripture. When we hear this morning’s scripture being read, we might naturally assume that Phillip is one of the apostles, one of Jesus’ original twelve disciples. This is an understandable assumption to make, especially because in the gospels a Phillip is listed as one of the disciples. However, that Phillip is not the same Phillip that is featured in this morning’s scripture. The Phillip we are focused on is first introduced in Acts 6. At this time the apostles tell the growing church to choose seven people to oversee the distribution of food to the widows. Among these seven servants or “deacons” is Phillip. In Acts the narrative then spends some time focusing on these deacons, first Stephen and then Phillip. After persecution scattered the church, Philip found himself in Samaria, north of Jerusalem, where he successfully preached and healed. After an encounter with a sorcerer earlier in chapter eight we get to this morning’s scripture.
I think Philip’s background is significant to what happens here. We do not know a lot about Philip but we do know that he was not one of the twelve. He did not travel everywhere with Jesus, he was not part of the conversations that Jesus had with only the twelve, and he would not have been as well versed in the teaching of Jesus as the apostles. It is possible that Philip was part of the small group of Jesus followers, around 120, that existed after the resurrection. However, it is just as likely that he became committed to the way of Christ on Pentecost with the first large group of converts. This means that at the point of this morning’s scripture Philip would have been a disciple for a matter of months to maybe a couple of years at most. Even then, Philip would not have the same breadth of experience as apostles like Peter and John. Yet the scripture records Philip doing wondrous acts on the same level as the apostles.
It is clear that Philip took following Jesus seriously. Like all of the believers in the very early church, he learned from the twelve disciples. Philip must have soaked all of this in. Not only did he learn the theory behind following Jesus, but he must have put into practice which is why he was chosen to be a deacon. From his few appearances in the book of Acts we can see that not only did he seek to live a faithful life but he really devoted himself to the Way of Christ. He took discipleship seriously enough that he went from just learning about Jesus to being able to teach about Jesus. We see that clearly in this morning’s scripture. In obedience to God’s leading, Philip goes along a wilderness road, encounters the official from Ethiopia and is able to use the scripture starting with a passage from Isaiah to teach him the good news about Jesus. Philip and his fellow deacon Stephen are the first two instances in the bible of people outside of the original apostles teaching others the gospel. They were not the last though. The only reason why Christianity spread beyond a small sect and lasted more than one generation, is because faithful believers took following Jesus so seriously, they grew in discipleship so much that they got to the point where they could confidently tell others about their faith and teach others about following Jesus.
In this regard I think that Philip should stand as an example for us to follow. About the early church Acts 2:42 records, “They devoted themselves to the apostles teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer.” Philip could have stayed in that place. He could have just come and listened to the apostles talk, enjoy fellowship with other people like him, and practice personal piety in prayer. In obedience to God his faith grew beyond that though. There are times in our lives and in our faith when we are the novices, we are the learners. However, if we have a vibrant, growing, and fruitful faith then there should also be times like Philip we become the teachers. Just like the new lightsaber masters reached that level through passionate dedication and time, our faith should mature to a point where we are the people who can share the good news with others.
In this scripture Philip was able to explain to the man that which he did not understand. Philip played a crucial role in the discipleship journey of the Ethiopian official, and served as a faith mentor. In my life there are numerous people who have taken the time to care and invest in my faith development, but I can specifically think of three people who acted as a mentor, and I can honestly I would not be the same person of faith I am today without them. Ron Hubbard was my Sunday school teacher when I was in middle school. Even though I was full of anger and doubt he did dismiss my feelings outright. He taught me that is ok to have question our faith, and it is ok that sometimes the answer is “I don’t know.” Mark Whited was a campus minister at the college I attended. He led the Student Christian Fellowship that I participated in, but he also invited me to meet with him during the week, and from him I learned the importance of personal holiness, the importance of living what we claim to believe, and having an authentic faith that is not just for show. Finally, Pastor Karen Devaisher was the senior pastor at the church where I was the youth ministry during my residency in ministry period. She saw gifts for ministry in me that I did not fully realize, and she encouraged me to develop them and willingly gave me the opportunities to do so.
While there are numerous people I owe so much to in my faith development, I can easily see the profound impact that those three had on me at various points in my life. It is likely that in your own life experience you have mentors in faith. These are people who through action and deed showed you what it a life changed by grace looked like. These are people who invested you and clearly cared about your faith development. Perhaps for you it was a grandparent who never missed church and lived a life of quiet faith. Maybe it was a pastor or Sunday school teacher who made the scripture connect with you like never before, or maybe it was a faithful disciple who lived out their faith with a boldness in action that you had never seen before. Whoever it was those people no doubt had a profound impact on you. They did so, because like Philip they were obedient to God’s leading to come along side you and teach you an aspect of being a disciple that you did not yet understand.
This brings us back to those two key questions that this scripture brings us to reflect on. Who are leading into deeper discipleship and being a mentor for? Remember the people who teaching lightsaber dueling started from scratch a decade ago or less. In that time they mastered the skills enough to get to the point where they could teach others. Many of us have considered ourselves a Christian for a lot longer than that, but in the same way our faith should be developed to a point where we can teach others. Now that does not mean, that we should have it all figured out. It is likely that none of us have yet reached Christian perfection. We likely still have growing edges, but we all likely have areas of discipleship where we no longer need to be the ones sitting and learning we can be the one’s teaching. We can be the person who is a mentor to leading others to be a more faithful disciple.
There are many ways that we can do this. We can be a mentor in a formal setting such as being a Sunday school teacher, VBS volunteer, or lead a bible study. We can set up formal mentoring relationships, where we meet with a younger person (or a younger in faith person) regularly to be a resource for them. We can also do this informal ways. If you regularly perform acts of Christian service or if you are involved in the community as part of your Christian witness then invite someone to ride shotgun with you. Taking these actions allows us to invest in the faith development of other people. In doing so, you will eventually find yourself in a situation like Philip where you are the person who out of obedience to God is now in the right place at the right time to explain a key aspect of discipleship to someone who needs to hear it.
That leads us to the second question, which is if you are not currently being a mentor for someone else in faith, then why not? The mission of our church, the reason why we exist in the first place, is to make disciples. So if we are not actively mentoring someone, if we are not actively disciplining someone then we are failing at our mission. The only reliable way disciples are made is by one disciple mentoring another. This morning’s scripture shows that this is true from the very beginning. This does not necessarily require us to find a brand new Christian or convert someone. We can learn from each other and grow in discipleship from one another. If the reason why you are not currently investing in the faith development of someone else is because you do not believe your faith is to the place where you can do that, then it is likely that you yourself need a mentor, someone to invest in your life. If that is you, then let’s talk about it. Because even if I am not the right person to help you with the ways you know you need to grow as a follower of Christ, I will commit to helping you find that person. However, if you know that your faith is mature enough that you can be the mentor to someone else and you are not doing so, may you prayerfully consider who God is calling you to invest in.
Mark Whited, the campus minister who was one of my mentors, often said that his greatest prayer is that the students he worked with would grow in faith and discipleship so that they would make a greater impact for God’s kingdom than he ever would. He wanted the students he worked with to be more like Jesus than he ever would be. He served as mentor to countless students over a 20+ year career and it was his goal to be what the students grew beyond. That should be the goal of anyone who serves in a mentoring role. The goal of all discipleship is to become like Jesus in action, thought, and word. How amazing is it that God the father and Jesus the Son have equipped us with the Holy Spirit to play a part in that. May you faithfully consider who you can invest in, and who you can lead into deeper discipleship. Because if we take seriously that task, then we will be a church that makes disciples capable of transforming this world.