If we’re really going to do this, we have to get closer. Literally.
Acts 8:26-39, World English Bible
26 … An angel of the Lord spoke to Philip, saying, “Arise, and go toward the south to the way that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza. This is a desert.” 27 He arose and went; and behold, there was a man of Ethiopia, a eunuch of great authority under Candace, queen of the Ethiopians, who was over all her treasure, who had come to Jerusalem to worship. 28 He was returning and sitting in his chariot, and was reading the prophet Isaiah. 29 The Spirit said to Philip, “Go near, and join yourself to this chariot.” 30 Philip ran to him, and heard him reading Isaiah the prophet, and said, “Do you understand what you are reading?” 31 He said, “How can I, unless someone explains it to me?” He begged Philip to come up and sit with him. 32 Now the passage of the Scripture which he was reading was this, “He was led as a sheep to the slaughter. As a lamb before his shearer is silent, so he doesn’t open his mouth. 33 In his humiliation, his judgment was taken away. Who will declare His generation? For his life is taken from the earth.” Isaiah 53:7,8 34 The eunuch answered Philip, “Who is the prophet talking about? About himself, or about someone else?” 35 Philip opened his mouth, and beginning from this Scripture, preached to him about Jesus. 36 As they went on the way, they came to some water, and the eunuch said, “Behold, here is water. What is keeping me from being baptized?” 37-38 He commanded the chariot to stand still, and they both went down into the water, both Philip and the eunuch, and he baptized him. 39 When they came up out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord caught Philip away, and the eunuch didn’t see him any more, for he went on his way rejoicing.
Four Steps to Crossing Cultures
In a fractured society and a vast world, it's hard to foster cross-cultural understanding. Where should we start? As I look through scripture, I see a series of steps again and again that seem to make sense:
Find shared physical space.
Shared space can lead to shared language.
Shared language can lead to shared experiences.
And shared experiences can lead to shared values.
An example of the power of shared physical space as a first step to bridging culture comes to us in Acts 8: 26-39. In the passage, Philip the Evangelist has a significant encounter with a seeker from Africa, which is important enough that an angel and the Holy Spirit both intervene to make it successful. In this encounter, Philip's physical interaction with the Ethiopian convert is one of the most noteworthy parts of the process. I think it also offers an admonition to us that crossing cultures is an intimate business, and shouldn't be attempted at arm's length.
When this story begins in verse 26, an angel of the Lord tells Philip to get moving:
“Arise, and go toward the south to the way that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza. This is a desert.”
This echoes scriptural passages like Genesis 12, where the Lord gives Abram a command to move but doesn't tell him why. In this case though, God's directive is more specific than the one he gave Abram. As we'll see, there's a reason for Philip to be in that place at that time; he wants him to meet a man who is ready to hear about Jesus.
The Importance of Getting Close
By verse 29, Philip is within sight of the man. That's not close enough. The Holy Spirit, who we've seen acting as a cross-cultural translator, tells Philip to:
"Go near, and join yourself to this chariot."
It's a call for Philip to be bold and close the space, both physical and cultural, between himself and the Ethiopian. When Philip does, he's close enough to hear what the man is reading and to strike up a conversation. That shared language quickly leads to a potential experience: The Ethiopian invites Philip to come closer — up into the chariot — and explain the scripture.
This is similar to Paul's experience in Athens in Acts 17. Just as Paul had to physically go into the synagogue and marketplace to "reason" and "converse" to learn shared language, Philip has to join himself to the chariot. And just as Paul's conversations lead to an invitation to speak at Mars Hill, Philip's acts of crossing the physical distance to the Ethiopian's chariot and listening to him — Philip listens before he speaks — lead to an invitation to share an experience. Philip's encounter progresses further than Paul's; the Ethiopian seeker hears about Jesus and believes, and asks to be baptized. The encounter moves from a shared experience to shared values.
At the end of Philip's interaction with the Ethiopian, something happens that we might mistake for a throwaway miracle. In verse 39 the Holy Spirit seems to whisk Philip away. But as I look at this in the context of cross-cultural communication, I think, “Well, that teleportation stuff sounds useful. Why didn't the Holy Spirit just teleport Philip into the chariot seat next to the Ethiopian in the first place?” It would have saved a lot of directions and running on Philip's part. And a miraculous manifestation of a scripture teacher might have been a dramatic and easy way to get the Ethiopian's attention.
But maybe that would have been too easy. Maybe the effort it took Philip to “go near” and get into the chariot was important, not just the fact that he got there. Once Philip went near, he could listen, speak, engage, understand. And after that effort and that encounter, maybe it mattered a lot less how Philip got to his next destination.
It should be elementary, but we as the Church seem to struggle with the "go near" part. Often our communities can be monolithic, and we get used to that. Time and again though, scripture seems to suggest that it's not enough to shout from a distance or to send a sacrificial offering if we want to open up cultural understanding.
We have to "go near" and "join" ourselves to an unfamiliar group if we want to begin to truly engage.
Paul’s Cross-Cultural Example at Mars Hill (video):