Out of Africa: Reflections on the Story of Christian Mission by the Right Reverend Dr James Tengatenga, for the Feast of St Philip the Deacon, 2017. Text of a sermon preached in the Chapel of the Apostles.

For the Epistle: Acts 8:26-40 For the Gospel: Matthew 28:18-20

St Philip the Deacon and the Ethiopian

Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always to the end of the age.

 In 1996, Nelson Mandela’s successor, Thabo Mbeki, gave a poetic opening to his speech during the inauguration of South Africa’s new constitution. It is such a gem! It is Ubuntu, a mea culpa and an embrace of the gospel imperative all in one, such that I cannot help but share a heavily abridged but lengthy excerpt. I quote:

I am an African. I owe my being to the hills and the valleys, the mountains and the glades, the rivers, the deserts, the trees, the flowers, the seas and the ever-changing seasons that define the face of our native land. At times, and in fear, I have wondered whether I should concede equal citizenship of our country to the leopard and the lion, the elephant and the springbok, the hyena, the black mamba and the pestilential mosquito. A human presence among all of these, a feature on the face of our native land thus defined, I know that none dare challenge me when I say – I am an African!

 I owe my being to the Khoi and the San whose desolate souls haunt the great expanses of the beautiful Cape… I am formed of the migrants who left Europe to find a new home on our native land. Whatever their own actions, they remain still part of me. In my veins courses the blood of the Malay slaves who came from the East. Their proud dignity informs my bearing, their culture a part of my essence. The stripes they bore on their bodies from the lash of the slave master are a reminder embossed on my consciousness of what should not be done.

 I am the grandchild of the warrior men and women that Hintsa and Sekhukhune led, the patriots that Cetshwayo and Mphephu took to battle, the soldiers Moshoeshoe and Ngungunyane taught never to dishonour the cause of freedom. My mind and my knowledge of myself is formed by the victories that are the jewels in our African crown, the victories we earned from Isandhlwana to Khartoum, as Ethiopians and as Ashanti of Ghana, as Berbers of the desert.

 I am the grandchild who lays fresh flowers on the Boer graves at St Helena and the Vrouemonument, who sees in the mind’s eye and suffers the suffering of a simple peasant folk, death, concentration camps, destroyed homesteads, a dream in ruins. I am the child of Nongqawuse. I am he who made it possible to trade in the world markets in diamonds, in gold, in the same food for which our stomachs yearn.

 I come of those who were transported from India and China, whose being resided in the fact, solely, that they were able to provide physical labour, who taught me that we could both be at home and be foreign, who taught me that human existence itself demanded that freedom was a necessary condition for that human existence. Being part of all of these people, and in the knowledge that none dares contest that assertion, I shall claim that – I am an African.

 I have experience of the situation in which race and colour is used to enrich some and impoverish the rest. I have seen the corruption of minds and souls as a result of the pursuit of an ignoble effort to perpetrate a veritable crime against humanity. Among us prowl the products of our immoral and amoral past – killers who have no sense of the worth of human life, rapists who have absolute disdain for the women of our country, animals who would seek to benefit from the vulnerability of the children, the disabled, and the old, the rapacious who brook no obstacle in their quest for self-enrichment. All this I know and know to be true because I am an African! …Today it feels good to be an African!

Today, there are many who see Africa as the epicentre of Christianity. They point to the phenomenal growth and fervour of Christianity on that continent. There is a sense of novelty and even surprise about it. This surprise and sense of novelty stem largely from the fact that talk about African Christianity has tended tofocus on nineteenth-century missionary activity, its fruit in sub-Saharan Africa and still more recent movements. Little cognizance has been given to the fact that early North African Christianity was part of the wider history of Christianity. Thomas Oden begins his study of early Libyan Christianity by reminding us that

Libyan Christianity was founded in a nexus of cultures bordering on Egypt, Ethiopia and ancient Nubia, modern Sudan, ancient Darfur (part of Cush), Chad, and Roman Byzacena (southern Tunisia). Ancient Libyan Christianity had close affinities with Coptic Egypt and Ethiopia, and with the Meroe kingdom in Nubia (Sudan). They belonged intentionally to the community of worldwide believers who held to orthodox, apostolic, classical teaching.

The story of Christianity in Africa cannot properly be told or understood until we begin to appreciate that the first thousand years of Christianity in that continent are part of the story of the first thousand years of Christianity in the world. In the eleventh century, perhaps one-tenth of all Christians on the planet lived in Africa, a proportion not reached again until the 1960s. Africa’s relatively small contribution to today’s worldwide theological discourse belies the very significant contribution of African theologians to the early church. The story of theological education as we know it cannot be fully appreciated if one does not take into account the school at Alexandria and the fine theologians it produced. Christian spirituality in its monastic form has its roots in the African soil.

We hear of Africa and Africans from the very beginning. In the gospel accounts of Jesus’ crucifixion, Simon of Cyrene is made to carry his cross (Mark 20b-21; Matt. 27:31b-32; Luke 23:26-32). In Acts, people from Africa are among those present to hear the first preaching and be baptized on the day of Pentecost (Acts 2:10). Christian tradition credits Mark the Evangelist with introducing Christianity to Egypt and establishing Christian churches at Alexandria before his martyrdom there in A.D. 68 (Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History II.16.1). The earliest extant records of Christianity in the region are documents describing persecutions in A.D. 180 (Passio Sanctorum Scillitanorum[1]). This is the church of Clement of Alexandria (150-215), of Origen (185-254), Dionysius (d. 264), Athanasius (296-373), Cyril of Alexandria (d. 444) and Anthony the father of asceticism and monasticism (c. 251-356). The Egyptian church was a key player in the formulation of Christological and Trinitarian theology. It is the church of three African popes: Victor I (189-198), Melchiades (310/11-314), and Gelasius (492-496). It is the church of Tertullian (160-225), Cyprian (c. 200-258) and Augustine (354-430), whose influence on Christianity and Christian thinking is undoubtedly as great as that of any writer outside the New Testament itself. As Oden observes,

What was first firmly established in the Nile valley and the Maghreb became later widely confirmed as classic consensual Christian teaching. The seeds for the scriptural interpretations that became common Christian teaching were first woven on the African continent. The major movement of intellectual history in the second and third centuries was South to North, Africa to Europe, Africa to Asia. This is markedly counterintuitive to the modern mind….  African Christians today have an opportunity to see their present religion from the perspective of two thousand uninterrupted years of classic Christian teaching.

Echoing this sentiment, C. E. Lincoln says of St Philip the Deacon’s conversion of the Ethiopian official described in our reading today,

For persons of black African lineage, the eunuch’s conversion means the inclusion of black Africans among the charter members of the faith . . . all of which symbolizes from the beginning the African involvement in the new faith that spread throughout the world. (C. E. Lincoln [1984] 24)

In the wider scheme of things, this story of Philip and the Ethiopian might seem to be a very small account of an encounter between a faithful evangelist and an inquisitive man. Almost whimsical! A spur of the moment type of thing! But this is what the Holy Spirit in God’s economy does with seemingly insignificant encounters. I am sure that Philip himself, as part of the cloud of witnesses to the explosion of Christianity in Africa, can hardly believe what that encounter has produced. Certainly not all of the spread of Christianity in Africa can be attributed to this encounter, but I have no doubt that it is a significant part of the story.

The passage is not just describing a serendipitous encounter. In it, Luke the evangelist is linking that encounter to obedience to Jesus’ command at the beginning of Acts to “be my witnesses both in Jerusalem, and in all Judaea and Samaria, and to the uttermost part of the earth” (Acts 1.8). As you may notice, this looks and sounds like a version of the “Great Commission” that we heard in today’s gospel reading:

“Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, … I am with you always, to the end of the age.”

No surprise here! As one commentator observes of the story of the Ethiopian’s conversion,

This scene is a fitting climax to the Grecian Jewish Christians’ mission thrust, for here they complete the geographical aspects of the Acts 1:8 commission: Jerusalem (6:8-8:3), Judea and Samaria (8:4-25) and the ends of the earth (8:26-40). Further, it is a harbinger of the full-fledged Gentile mission to come (Acts 13-28).

The early church historian Eusebius certainly saw Philip’s encounter with the Ethiopian as the beginning of the Gentile mission. He wrote of the Ethiopian that,

this man, who was the first Gentile to partake of the sacred rites of the divine Word at the hands of Philip… thus becoming a first fruits of the faithful throughout the world, on returning to his native land was the first to preach the knowledge of the God of the universe and the life-giving sojourn of our Savior among men, so that by him was actually fulfilled the prophecy which says, Ethiopia shall stretch out her hand to God” (Ecclesiastical History II.1.13, citing Ps. 67:32).

For better or worse, however, Acts’ account of the spread of the gospel then goes on to focus on Asia Minor and its progress westward. Later telling of the history of Christianity also ignores the African story and talks about the spread east and northeast from Jerusalem. The African part of Christian history is not picked up again until the period of the so-called “Voyages of Discovery” from the fifteenth to the eighteenth centuries (i.e. the period during which European culture was powerfully affected by extensive overseas exploration). In critique of this narrative Cain H. Felder says that the story of the Ethiopian is a corrective, a “parallel and rival” to the Cornelius story in Acts 10.[2] It is one more testimony to the fulfillment of Hosea’s prophecy, “Out of Egypt”—which is to say, out of Africa—“have I called my son” (Hos. 11:1, cited Matt. 2:15). This surely goes beyond the messianic message and should be heard as a proleptic reference to the future carriers of the Gospel. As Harvey Kwinyani, talking about Reverse Mission, says:

it is important to note that the continent of Africa has been evangelized by Africans. Any faithful writing of the history of Christianity in Africa will have to account for the agency of Africans in its growth. … Naturally, this fact will be of great importance to any understanding of African missionary work since it shapes the African understanding of missions.[3]

Obviously, this begs the question “So what?” Or put differently, “Why does God send people to evangelize others? Once evangelized, what? Is it evangelization for its own sake?” I believe that the aim is to spread the Gospel even farther, so that those prophecies come to pass which say that God will write the Law in human hearts, and that knowledge of the Lord shall fill the world as the waters cover the sea (Jer. 31:33; Hab. 4:14). What that may look like may be what Anglican understanding of mission calls, “by everyone, from everywhere to everywhere”. I believe that this understanding dislodges the privilege of the West and calls for humility from the West to accept evangelization from others. As has been demonstrated, this won’t be the first time the Gospel has moved northward and westward. There was a purpose in the Lord’s choosing to sow the Gospel in Africa even at the very earliest of times.

Will the West stop its condescending attitude to listening and hearing the Gospel and heed the prophecy that says, “Out of Africa have I called my Son”? This is the word to which St Matthew’s infancy narrative points. The African missionary at your doorstep is not the peddler of some exotic and strange message but a bearer of the good news of Christ. Pay attention and receive the Gospel!

Likewise we must ask, will Africa for its part obey, and evangelize the world as it received the commission at the Eunuch’s baptism and in the early history of the Church? Can Africa tell the story of its encounter with the Gospel not merely as if it were a Johnny-come-lately but claiming its proper place in the history of the faith? As such, Africa exemplifies not just the example and heritage of the Ethiopian Eunuch but also the example of Philip the Evangelist, who obeyed the risen Lord’s call to go and encounter foreigners everywhere at the bidding of the Holy Spirit. There is yet more of the Gospel to share with the world! That which we all, African and Westerner, have received we must share. And we must do this not as those who linger to savour the success or fruit of our mission and to gloat, but as those who declare to you,

what was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands, concerning the Word of life – this was revealed, and we have seen it and we testify to it, and we declare to you the eternal life that was with the Father and was revealed to us – we declare to you what we have seen and heard so that you also may have fellowship with us; and truly our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ. We are writing these things so that our joy may be complete. (1 John 1:1-4)

The fruit that comes from this will blow our minds. But alas!—this is also where the challenge will come, if we are so lax as to obey only the first part of the Great Commission (to preach the gospel) and forget the second (to teach what Jesus has commanded us). Here are three voices from across the Anglican Communion:

    1. The former Primate of the Anglican Church in Melanesia, Archbishop David Vunagi said, “We have no problem filling our churches with people, but they need to know what it means to be Christians, that is where we need help.”
    2. In his installation Charge, Archbishop Jackson Ole Sapit of Kenya asked, “If Christians form 80% of Kenya’s population, why are our elections often violence-prone? Why is our society riddled with corruption, nepotism and a great level of social stratification? Why are environmental degradation, poverty and disease still ever-present realities?”
    3. Bishop Steven Croft of the Diocese of Sheffield in England has pointed out that “the Vatican Synod of Bishops (called by Pope Francis in 2014) revealed that the church throughout the world has same struggles to communicate faith, and it’s not just Europe and America (or the West) but even where the Church is growing [read Africa]. There is need to listen and learn from each other within the Body of Christ.”

All this calls our attention to the second part of the Great Commission, which enjoins us to “teach them to obey everything I have commanded you.” Evangelization does not end with preaching/witnessing and baptizing. The depth comes with teaching: and the history of Christianity in Africa has demonstrated that to us all.

Philip obeyed and went. His encounter with the stranger led to the Ethiopian Eunuch’s conversion and baptism and beyond that to the spread of the gospel into Africa, so that from Africa the gospel, theology and spirituality then spread to the north. The example of both Philip and the Eunuch should teach us to obey the bidding of the Holy Spirit. Making disciples is about both proclamation and teaching and thus grounding in the faith “by everyone from everywhere to everywhere”.  Jesus Christ, of whom the prophet said that he had been called by God “out of Africa”, still says to you and to me:

Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always to the end of the age.

[1] Text and translation in Herbert Musurillo S.J., The Acts of the Christian Martyrs (Oxford: Clarendon, 1972).

[2] Cain H. Felder, “The Bible and Re-contextualization” in Gayraud S. Wilmore, ed. African American Religious Studies: An Interdisciplinary Anthology (1989) 164.

[3] Harvey Kwinyani, Go Forth, 51-52.



Christopher Bryan