by Mike Kuhn
As I look back over the posts I have written on this blog, the trail of my mental meanderings on mission is evident. I was dealing with the academic critique of mission’s collusion with colonialism.[i] In doing so, the goodness of the good news grew murky. I’m happy to report that I did not stop there.
Returning to the early accounts of the community of Jesus-followers has renewed my vision and hope for mission. They are in the book of Acts—phenomenal stories of normal fishermen and followers living those intense days just after Jesus’ ascension and the fresh empowerment of the Spirit at Pentecost.
There, the “sent” nature of the community is fresh and new—a spontaneous overflow of the Spirit’s energy that had so captured them. It is a “sentness” without pretense: trust-filled, devoid of political power play, yet brimming with the Spirit’s renewing power.
The eighth chapter has particularly grabbed my attention. The Apostles had just “fixed” the problem of the Jerusalem church. The Greek-speaking widows were complaining of being overlooked in the daily food distribution. They resolved the conflict by appointing seven new leaders—”of good repute, full of the Spirit and wisdom” (Acts 6:3). The Apostles would thereby be freed to focus on the ministry of the word and prayer.
The first two mentioned in the list were Stephen and Philip. The list is comprised of Greek names. These were Hellenized Jews, a suitable choice to provide what was lacking in the care of the Greek widows.
With the conflict resolved, it was back to status quo, which was good…very good. “The word of God continued to increase, and the number of the disciples multiplied greatly in Jerusalem, and a great many priests became obedient to the faith” (Acts 6:7).
But that pleasant state is about to be disrupted. Saul of Tarsus is on the prowl. He presides over Stephen’s public execution by stoning in the streets of Jerusalem. He proceeds to “drag off men and women,” incarcerating them. The result is that the believers, thousands of them, scatter (Acts 8:1-4).
Luke, the author of Acts, informs us that the scattering was purposeful. As they went, they preached the word (Acts 8:4). One of the seven—Philip—is his case in point. He goes up to Samaria where his preaching of the word bears tremendous fruit. From there, he is sent to a desert road inconspicuously opening Africa to the gospel. I’ll avoid retelling the whole narrative, but will alight on a few points that help ground me as one who is “sent” into our world.
First, Philip was doing exactly what Jesus told the twelve to do. Acts 1:8 provides the book’s outline and the template of gospel expansion—Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria and the uttermost parts of the earth.
Is Luke’s narrative a subtle scold of the apostles? Did Philip, in his proclamation, do what the twelve were intended to do? Was Acts 1:8 a mandate for the entire church? The narrative leaves us to draw our own conclusions.
Later, the apostles hear the news that Samaria received the word and “send” Peter and John. Better late than never. The Samaritans received the Spirit, just as happened to the Jewish followers in the upper room. Thus, the vision of Jesus’ original foray into Samaria—that the twelve would reap where they had not sown—is fulfilled! (See John 4:37-38.)
Jesus was there first. The “unreached people group” of the Samaritans had already been prepared for the gospel proclamation of Philip. The result was a movement of people into gospel reconciliation and life—“much joy in that city!” (Acts 8:8).
Having spent most of my adult life in Muslim majority settings, I’ve noticed that Jesus usually has staked a claim long before I arrive in a particular unreached group. The gospel witness comes through the airways, the internet, the immigrant population, the near-culture community of Jesus’ followers; even the religious systems in place often point to redemptive analogies that prepare the way for the gospel. While there is no indigenous church in a particular people group, the groundwork is in place. Jesus has already shown up and is at work before we ever get there. That takes nothing from the fact that he sends us. We go in collaboration with a multi-prong expansion that the Lord of the harvest is engineering.
I love that Philip does not stay in Samaria to pastor the new community there. Wouldn’t he be the obvious choice for Pastor? He is “sent” yet again, this time to a desert road. The eunuch is portrayed as a powerful finance minister of the Ethiopian Candace (queen). I think there is an untold story there, however, as eunuchs in that day were typically made eunuchs to ensure that their competency would not become a threat to their owner/employer. Without a family, the eunuch cannot pass his wealth and power on to anyone. It is a way of guaranteeing that the wealth and prestige of the owner stays within the family circle.
So the eunuch is a “disempowered powerful person.” He wields influence, handles wealth, etc., but none of it is his and none of it will ever pass to his progeny. Luke assumes his reader understands this reality which is largely unknown to the modern reader.
That contextual note also helps us understand why Luke cites this passage from Isaiah 53. The early portions of that chapter speak of the servant’s death in our place— “bruised for our iniquities, crushed for our transgressions,” etc. But the passage Luke quotes and from which Philip proclaims the gospel portrays the suffering servant as a voiceless victim—like a sheep before its shearers or a lamb to the slaughter.
Again, without specific comment, we are left to surmise that the eunuch saw his own exploitation reflected in the victimization of the suffering servant. He opened not his mouth. His generation (i.e., offspring) was taken from the earth—an uncanny expression of the eunuch’s experience. As Philip proclaims Jesus to him from that passage, he wants in. “Here is water. What prevents me from being baptized?” (Acts 8:36) This traveler to Jerusalem would have been prevented from entering the assembly of the Jews at the temple (see Deut. 23:1), but in Christ, he was a welcome son through the waters of baptism.
Once again, the principle of a prepared people is evident. The eunuch was existentially prepared by his own exploitation, not to mention his previous exposure to the Hebrew faith, about which we know nothing. He immediately identified with Jesus.
For the masses of displaced and crisis-afflicted people of our world, the gospel of the suffering servant is still heard as good news.
I was recently in a south Asian nation. The ruling political powers had sought to subjugate a minority language group. Part of their brainwashing involved distributing shortwave radios so the people could listen to their propaganda. But those radios also carried broadcasts of the gospel. This happened in the late 80s, so it is an old technology in today’s world, but I was stunned by their ready acceptance of the good news as they heard it. They took down their religious shrines, stopped their prayers and sacrifices to their ancestors and began associating together in churches—all before a gospel messenger had come into their villages. Thirty years later the number of house churches in that region is impossible to count.
They heard it like the eunuch or the Samaritans—as stunning good news!
So while the post-modern critique of mission goes on unabated, the peoples of the world are still finding the gospel to be good news—liberating, dignifying, beautifying good news.
There is a time, I suppose, to engage with the academic, post-colonial critique of mission. But the “sent” nature of the early disciples was devoid of political power and exploitation. Hearing those powerful stories of Acts restores my hope that the gospel is joyful good news that liberates the oppressed people of our world, filling them with hope and dignity, calling them into the family of God as sons and daughters. It is refreshing, good news, desperately needed in our chaotic and alienated world. Jesus has come to do for us and for the world’s peoples what we could never do for ourselves. He has reconciled us to God and, in turn, reconciled us to one another across boundaries of gender, race, social class, language, economic and political ideology. That is stunning. It is the good news we’ve been “sent” to share.
Mike is a Christian author and educator who spent most of his adult life in the Middle East and now lives in the U.S. His recent book, In Quest of the Rock: Peter’s Transformative Journey with Jesus, explores many dimensions of Jesus’ discipleship of Peter.