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Sunday, 27 May 2012

Pentecost 2012

Between writing this on the Friday and preaching it on the Sunday we watched a television programme about a whole fieldful of skeletons discovered in Peru, so that was mentioned in context, as was a discussion we'd had about the trees on Clapham Common and their regeneration since the Great Storm of 1987!
Do you follow football? I know some people do. I don't, personally, but it's actually quite difficult to be totally ignorant of it! For instance, I do know that last week, Chelsea were playing Bayern Munich in the final of the UEFA cup, and Chelsea won on penalties. And I remember another UEFA cup final some years ago, which also starred Bayern Munich, who were playing, I think it was Manchester United. Anyway, Bayern Munich were winning and winning, and the poor Manchester United fans were quite despairing, and then suddenly, in the final moments of the game, Manchester United scored twice to win, quite unexpectedly. Somehow the spirit had come back into the team, and they were able to turn certain defeat into victory.

Also last Saturday it was the final of the Heineken Cup, and because Ulster were in the final, Robert treated himself to a ticket and went, but Ulster were never going to win, and were, in the end, very soundly thrashed. Robert said that the Ulster fans were leaving in droves before the match had even finished. The spirit had gone out of them.

It was like that for the field of bones in Ezekiel's vision. No spirit. Not even any flesh.

Can you imagine a field of bones? We’ve all seen skeletons on television, of course, and some of us may have visited ossuaries on the continent, which are usually memorials to soldiers who fell in the first world war, and they put the bones of soldiers who have got separated from their identity into the ossuaries to honour them. And the older ones among us may remember seeing pictures of a huge pile of bones in Cambodia after the Pol Pot atrocities of the 1970s.

I think Ezekiel, in his vision, must have seen something like that. A huge pile of skulls and bones…. “Son of man, can these bones live?”

And, at God’s command, Ezekiel prophesied to the bones, and then he saw the skeletons fitting themselves together like a jigsaw puzzle, and then internal organs and tendons and muscle and fat and skin growing on the bare skeletons. I’m sure I’ve seen some kind of computer animation like that on television, haven’t you? But for Ezekiel, it must have been totally weird, unless he was in one of those dream-states where it’s all rational.

But once the skeletons had come together and grown bodies, things were still not right.

It must have been a bit like those television programmes where they take someone's skull and build it up with clay to show you what they might have looked like – they never look very like anything, because they are not alive. There is no life in their eyes, no spirit.

And when they first started doing those CGI programmes about dinosaurs, the models were never very alive or realistic, although they've improved in recent years. But the early programmes had no life in them.

And that’s what Ezekiel saw in his vision – there were just so many plastic models lying there, no life, no spirit. Ezekiel had to preach to them again, and they eventually came to life as a vast army.

And then Ezekiel was told the interpretation of his vision – it was a prophecy of what God was going to do for Israel, which at the time seemed dead and buried. God was going to bring Israel back to life, to breathe new life into the nation, and put His Spirit into them.

Of course, the reason why this has been chosen as the Old Testament reading for today is that it is Pentecost. The day we celebrate the coming of the Holy Spirit. The birth of the Church.

It was, of course, a Jewish festival. Even today it is still celebrated – they call it Shavuot, and according to a Jewish friend of mine, what you do is eat cheesecake – don't know why you should do that, but it is apparently the tradition to do so. The festival celebrated the coming of the Torah, the Law of Moses so it was a very appropriate day for the Holy Spirit to come.

But I wonder what it would have been like, up there in the upper room. They'd been told to wait, but they had no idea what they were waiting for. They had said a final goodbye to Jesus; they knew that if and when they would see him again, it would be very different. And they had been told that the Holy Spirit would come. I wonder what they thought that meant. Perhaps some gave up and went home, in despair. But a good 120 of them waited and waited, and when the day of Pentecost was fully come, the Spirit came.

It must have been a pretty dramatic visitation. The tongues of flame, the rushing mighty wind. And the immediate explosion of praise, and when they ran out of words those other words, words of praise that, in this instance, turned out to be words in "in our own native language?

Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabs – in our own languages we hear them speaking about God's deeds of power." Thus the bystanders. They might not have seen the tongues of flame, or heard the rushing mighty wind, but they certainly saw the results.

Some were puzzled – were these people drunk, or what? So Peter, glorious, wonderful Peter, who never used to be able to open his mouth without putting his foot in it – they used to say he only opened his mouth to change feet – Peter jumps up and lets out this terrific bellow which shuts everybody up, sharpish. "No, no, no, no, no, no, no," he goes, "we're not on the sauce – come off it, it's only nine a.m., what do you take us for?" And he goes on to explain that this is what Joel was talking about, this is what they'd all been expecting. And, as you know, he preached so powerfully, and God's presence was so overwhelming, that three thousand people got converted that day alone!

Thus the story. We know it so well, don’t we? Every year, this passage from the book of Acts is read. We could probably quote a great deal of it off by heart, and the bits we can’t quote – all those nationalities, I can never remember them without looking – we know what they say, even if we don’t know the words!

One way of seeing it is that it’s the Church’s birthday. The day we celebrate the anniversary of the explosive growth from a tiny handful of believers – barely over a hundred – to several thousand, and on down the millennia to the worldwide organisations and denominations that is the Church today. But there again, that’s just history, rather like we celebrate our own birthdays.
Pentecost is more than that. I think that much of it is one of those things that doesn’t go into words very well – what is officially called a “mystery” – the Church’s word for something that words can never fully explain.
After all – a mighty wind, and what looked like tongues of fire? We know the damage that both wind and fire can do; we've seen it all too often. 1987 was a long time ago now, but I still remember clearly the devastation caused both by a fire at King's Cross Underground Station and a huge gale that destroyed vast swathes of woodland. Even today you can still see traces of the damage it caused, if you know where to look.
But the wind and flame from God were not sent to destroy, but to cleanse, to heal, and to empower. Some of the empowerment was pretty spectacular – the speaking in other languages, the healings, the preaching that brought thousands to Christ in one go.... some of it, of course, would have been less so. And then there were the other side-effects – the changes in people’s character to become more the people God meant them to be. The fruit of the Spirit – Paul, in his various letters, reminds us both of the various gifts he saw in use (the tongues, the prophecies, the healings and so on) and the fruits he saw develop in people’s characters: "love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control".
But above all, the Spirit gives life. Jesus said “I am come that you may have life, and have it abundantly!” In Ezekiel's vision, the Spirit of God breathed into the dry bones and both clothed them with flesh and then brought them to life.

For Ezekiel, it was a vision that God would breathe new life into the people of Israel.

This year is so horrendously difficult for us all, having to leave the churches that have been home to us for so many years. We don't know what the future holds, nor where or how we shall celebrate next Pentecost. Except I think I shall eat cheesecake – I like that idea!

But seriously, God is still God. The Holy Spirit still gives life. It's so sad, and scary and horrid – but God hasn't gone away. And the Spirit that inspired Peter's preaching that sunny morning in Jerusalem will lead us and guide us and give us life. God knows where we are needed and wanted, and will lead us there. Amen.

Sunday, 6 May 2012

The Ethiopian Eunuch

“Here is some water. What is to keep me from being baptised?”

This is an odd little story, the one we heard from Acts, isn't it? I wonder who these people were, what they were doing, and, above all, why it matters to us this morning.

Well, finding out who these people are is probably the least difficult part of it. The man was, we are told, a eunuch who held a high post in the government of the Queen of Ethiopia. Now, we do know a little about her – her official title was Candace, or Kandake, or even Kentake – nobody is really sure, but if you know somebody called Candace, that's where the name comes from. Anyway, this one was called Amanitore, apparently, and her royal palace of Jebel Barkal in the Sudan is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Her tomb is also in the Sudan, in a place called Meroë. Confusingly, the area that our Bibles call “Ethiopia” or “Kush” is actually in what is now Sudan, and present-day Ethiopia was then the Kingdom of the Axumites! Anyway, the Queen isn't important, except that you should understand that she was a ruler in her own right, not just a regent – Amanitore, for instance, was co-ruler with Natakamani, who may have been her husband, but was more probably her son. The Candaces were very powerful, and could order their sons to end their rule by committing suicide if necessary. So a senior treasury official in her government would be a pretty high mucky-muck back then.

We know rather more about his employer, though, than we do about the treasury official himself. He might not even have been a Kushite, which is the more proper term for Ethiopians back then – the word “Ethiop” in Greek basically just means someone from sub-Saharan Africa. He probably was a eunuch, though; many people in positions of authority were, in those days, rather like in the Middle Ages in this country they were usually in holy orders of some kind. Basically they were people who were celibate, for whatever reason, so as not to have divided loyalties between their job and their families – with all the stuff one hears about work-life balance, and the sort of hours people who work for American companies are expected to put in, maybe they had a point! Anyway, our friend was probably a slave, or at least born into slavery, and brought up to eventually get this high and trustworthy position. There is, of course, plenty of form for this – look at Joseph, who was sold into slavery in Egypt but ended up as a hugely influential administrator in Pharoah's court.

And the same was true for this man. We don't know his name, which is unfortunate as I don't like to keep referring to him as “The Eunuch” as though it were the most important thing about him, so let's call him “The Treasurer”. He was probably born into slavery, maybe into a family who belonged to the Ethiopian court, and raised from an early age to serve the Royal Family. I have no idea what sort of education he would have had, but he obviously was an educated man; he could read, which was not very usual in that day and age, and what is more, he could read Greek or Hebrew, I am not sure which, but neither could have been his first language.

And when we meet him, he has just been to Jerusalem to worship God. Again, I have no idea how he became what's called a God-fearer, a non-Jew who worships God without converting to Judaism, but he could not have been a convert, or proselyte as they were known, because he was a eunuch, and the Old Testament forbids anybody mutilated in that way to enter the Temple. And now he is on his way home – he must have been a pretty high-up official to have been allowed to go on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, don't you think?

I wonder whether he bought his copy of the Book of Isaiah during his visit? I don't know whether it was in the Greek translation known as the Septuagint, or whether he had been able to read Hebrew and buy one of the Hebrew versions. Jewish men could all read, because they were expected to read the Scriptures in their services, but elsewhere the skill was not that common long before printing was even thought of, when all manuscripts had to be copied by hand. So a copy of the book of Isaiah would have been very valuable. And he had one, and was reading it during his journey, but not really understanding what he read, and doubtless wishing for someone to come and explain it to him.

That someone turned out to be Philip the Evangelist. Now, this isn't the Apostle Philip, the one who tends to be partnered with Bartholomew in the lists of apostles; he's a different Philip. We first meet this one early in the Book of Acts, when the gathering of believers is getting a bit large, and the Jewish and Greek believers are squabbling over the distribution of food. Philip and seven other people were appointed deacons to sort it out for them. Philip would have been Greek – it's a Greek name – but he might also have been Jewish, since he was fairly obviously resident in Jerusalem around then.

He, incidentally, is the chap who ends up with four daughters who prophesy who entertains St Paul on his way back to Jerusalem later on in Acts.

But for now, he is wanted on the old road between Jerusalem and Gaza and, prompted by the Holy Spirit, he goes there and walks alongside the Treasurer in his carriage – I expect the horse was only going at walking pace. Back then, the concept of reading to yourself was, I believe, unknown, and everybody always read aloud, even if only under their breath, so he would soon have known what the Treasurer was reading, and was intrigued:

“Do you understand what you're reading?” This man, an obvious foreigner, someone who obviously wasn't Jewish, probably didn't know the traditions at all – what on earth was he finding in the book?

And the Treasurer admits that yes, actually, he is a bit lost.... and Philip explains it all, and explains about how the prophet was referring to Jesus, which of course meant explaining all about Jesus. And so the Ethiopian challenges him: “Okay, there's some water. Any reason I shouldn't be baptised?”

He couldn't be accepted in the Temple as a Jew – would these followers of the Way – they were barely called “Christians” yet – would they accept the likes of him, or was this going to be another disappointment? I can hear a challenge in his voice, can't you? The Authorised version, which I know some of you still like to read, claims he made a profession of faith, but apparently that's not in the earliest manuscripts available and has been left out of more recent translations.

“Why can't I be baptised?” Well, there was no good reason. Jesus loved him and died for him, and Philip knew that, so he baptised him. And then left the new young Christian to cope as best he could, while the Holy Spirit took Philip off to the next thing.

It is a strange story, and I know I've spent rather a long time on it, but it intrigues me. You can't help comparing it with the story of Cornelius, a couple of chapters later. Cornelius, too, is an outsider, a member of the Army of Occupation, a Gentile – but he, too, loves God and wants to know more. And Peter is sent to help him, although Jewish Peter needed a lot more persuading than Greek Philip to go and help. And again, it is clear that God approves, and Cornelius and his household are baptised.

The thing is, this was an age when the Church was gaining new converts every day – three thousand in one day, we're told, after Pentecost. How come these two are picked out as special?

I think it's because they are special. These are the outsiders, the misfits. They aren't your average Jewish person in the Holy Land of those days. Cornelius is a member of the hated Roman army; but at least he lives in Caesarea and might have been expected to pick up one or two ideas about local culture and so on. But the Treasurer? He is not only a Gentile, but of a completely different race, and a different sexuality. A total and utter outsider, in fact.

But he is accepted! That's the whole point, isn't it? There was nothing to stop him being baptised. The Holy Spirit made it quite clear to Philip that this man was loved, accepted and forgiven and could be baptised in the nearest puddle. Or perhaps there wasn't a puddle - he would have had water with him in a carafe of some kind, perhaps they used that!

How difficult we make it, sometimes. We agonise over who is a Christian and who isn't. We wonder what behaviour might put people right away from God. And sometimes we cut ourselves off from God by persisting in behaviour, or patterns of thought, that we know God doesn't like, and we aren't comfortable in God's company. And yet God makes it so simple: “Here is some water. What is to keep me from being baptised?” And the answer, so far as God is concerned, is “Nothing”. Anybody, anybody at all, who stretches out a tentative hand, even a tentative finger, to God is gathered up and welcomed into his Kingdom. I don't know what happens when it's people like Richard Dawkins who really don't want God to exist – I suppose that when people say “No, thank you!” to God, God respects their wishes, even if that means He is deprived of their company, which He so wanted and longed for.

The Treasurer, the Ethiopian Eunuch, was the most complete outsider, from the point of view of the first Christians, that it was possible to imagine. And yet God accepted him and welcomed him, and he went on his way rejoicing. We aren't told what happened to him. Was he able to meet up with other Christians? Was he able to keep in touch with the early Christian communities and learn more about early Christian thinking? We don't know. We aren't told anything more about him – but then, I don't suppose Philip ever heard any more. Our Gospel reading minded us that unless you abide in Jesus you wither away – or perhaps more properly that your faith does – and perhaps that happened to him. We will never know. But perhaps he did abide in Jesus. Perhaps, even without fellowship and teaching and the Sacrament and the other Means of Grace we find so important, perhaps he still went on following Jesus as best he knew how. I hope he did. Maybe his relationship with God would have been purer and stronger than ours is, because there wouldn't have been anybody to tell him that he was doing it all wrong.

“Here is some water. What is to keep me from being baptised?” We have, I think, all been baptised; possibly as babies or perhaps when we were older – but what keeps us from entering into the full relationship with God that this implies? My friends, if there is something between you and God, put it down now – come back to God and rest and rejoice in Him. There are no outsiders in God's kingdom – everybody is welcome, and that includes you, and that includes me! Amen.