Sunday, 31 May 2009

The Holy Spirit: how he guides us

Pentecost is very special. We have heard the story of the coming of the Holy Spirit, and we celebrate the work of the Holy Spirit.

And it is good to be here together today: first time in the reordered St Peter's. There is something very encouraging about being together, and we need the encouragement of each other.

It is hard to be a follower of Jesus Christ today. In fact it is, at times, a bit like a hard long slog. 

1. You have to be prepared to be different, to live by a different agenda. To live for the things of Jesus Christ and not for the things of this world (wealth, comfort, status, satisfaction of our physical desires)

2. There are times when we experience opposition - or at least feel that we have become an unappreciated or unloved minority. Whereas 100 years ago, legislation was on our side; today we are increasingly finding we have to struggle against that legislation. Our church communities seem to be increasingly isolated from wider society. 

One of the interesting things that is happening is that although overall church numbers are getting smaller, some churches and congregations are growing much larger. I don't think that is necessarily a sign that people are turning back to God, or that they are being more faithful than the smaller churches. I suspect that it is a sign that believers are feeling increasingly isolated and wish to be part of a large body of people. 

3. There are times when someone who has chosen to be obedient to Christ can find life harder than someone who has not. It is the Psalm 73 syndrome: 'God, look at how the wicked prosper!'. 
I think of the person who chooses to remain faithful to an unfaithful husband or wife; who does give significantly - and so has less money to spend on themselves or their family; who chooses to have the child; who does give up a Sunday morning lie in to come to church; who does choose to forgive; who remains a virgin and becomes an object of mockery; who gives up a highly paid job in order to work for a church, a mission agency or charity; who chooses to move onto a council estate in order to be part of a Christian community seeking to transform that place from the inside; who do choose quite literally to give up the possibility of a family, or a career, or a decent income, or a home, or even their life for Jesus and for others.  
I should add that choosing obedience to Christ also brings great benefits - even in this world. Jesus said that. He said that whoever gave up home, family, field for him would receive homes, families and fields in this world as well as the next. 

4. There are times when, because we have known intimacy with God, we really do struggle when that intimacy goes.That is obviously particularly the case when God seems to go AWOL, or we experience suffering. 

Why am I talking like this?

Jesus in our passage is talking to discouraged disciples. In fact they were in a far worse position than us. They are a tiny tiny minority. The world has praised them, but it is starting to get hostile. He has just told them that one of them will betray him; that Peter will deny him; and that he will leave them. 

But in John 14:1, Jesus says, 'Do not let your hearts be troubled. Trust in God; trust also in me'. And he goes on in the next three chapter (14, 15 and 16) to tell them why they do not need to be discouraged. And he ends, in chapter 17, with a prayer that the disciples will be filled with love and joy. 

And I would like us to look at 4 versesJohn 16:12-15, where Jesus gives us two reasons why we do not need to be discouraged. 


We have a guide - the Holy Spirit. 

The Holy Spirit is a person, not a force. He is one of the Trinity. These verses sing Trinity to us. The Spirit will come; the Spirit will glorify me, says Jesus (the Son of God). All that I have (says Jesus) has been given to me by the Father

In the Lent course, we looked at the icon of the Trinity painted by Rublev. 

It helps us to understand the relationship between the three persons. I won't explain this today - but I note that the Spirit cannot be separated from the Father and the Son; but he also must not be confused with the Father and the Son. 

And the Holy Spirit is our guide. He will guide us into all the truth

Truth for John is about a right rational understanding of reality. Holy Spirit will guide the disciples and us into the truth about God, about ourselves, about reality and the world, about the future. The Holy Spirit brings to us the word of God. It is what he does. He speaks. He speaks through the bible; he helps us understand the bible and he speaks directly to our hearts. 

But for John, truth is more than that. 

It is also about ultimacy. The true one is the real, absolute, ultimate one. Jesus, the Son of God, is the ultimate one. He does not define himself by anything else (except the Father). Everything else defines itself by him.

We have a Gustav Klimt on one of our walls. Sadly, it is not an original. It is a copy of an original. 
And we are all pale imitations of the true life, of Jesus. 
But the Spirit guides us into all truth so that we might become like the original in every way. 

Our hope is that the Holy Spirit will make us one with the Father as Jesus is one with the Father

And truth is about transparency. If someone is true there is no falsehood, no shadow, no dark side to them. 

We are far from this sort of truth. We are messed up; our motives are incredibly complex, but the Holy Spirit guides us so that we might become like Jesus - transparent, pure in heart.

And truth is about honestyIf someone is true they are honest, they are faithful. In fact, in the Old Testament, the word true when it is applied to God is used most of the time in this way. God is truth, because God is true, honest to his promises. And the Holy Spirit works in us and guides us to become people who are faithful and honest. 

And our guide, the Holy Spirit: 'will declare to you the things that are to come' (John 16:13)

There are some who say that this is only talking about the New Testament, that is still to be written. Everything we need to know about the future is here in the bible. The bible talks about the suffering and resurrection of Jesus. It talks about the suffering of God's people here and now and the future glory then.

In one sense I think that is true. The problem with predictive prophecy (which is what some people say this is about) is that it is very difficult to know what to do with it when someone does claim to be able to predict what will happen. The test is if it does. And history is littered with tragic tales of people who have given up everything because one person is convinced that God has spoken through them and told them what will happen. 

But at the same time, there is a role for the Spirit to speak to the people of God, and to each one of us, to guide us and to encourage us. 

Paul in his conversion is told, 'And I will show you how much you must suffer for my name'. In Acts 20:23 he says, 'And now, compelled by the Spirit, I am going to Jerusalem, not knowing what will happen to me there. I only know that in every city the Holy Spirit warns me that prison and hardships are facing me'. In Acts 21 we are told of a prophet called Agabus, who tells Paul specifically that he will be arrested and bound in Jerusalem. 

But the two are connected: the speaking of the Holy Spirit through scripture and the speaking of the Holy Spirit to our hearts and through men and women today. Jesus tells us that we will suffer. He's been talking about that in John 16:1-3; In Timothy we're told that whoever wishes to live a godly life will be persecuted. And even here (v12) Jesus says that the reason that he has not told us everything now is because we cannot bear it now. We need to know what we need to know when we need to know it. 

And I can think of several occasions when the Spirit discloses the future/points us to the future: (Peter Gibson's wife, St John's hall). There are times when we need to wait on God. But the reason that he does it is to guide and encourage.

So I think of Paul going to Jerusalem. When he was arrested, he knew that God had not abandoned him. 

I guess what I am talking about is the difference between big picture stuff and little picture stuff. 
From the perspective of the little picture, it would be fantastic if every time we had to make a decision, or we were to go through suffering, God spoke to us directly - he treats us with far more respect than that. There may be times when he guides directly, but most of the time he says, 'You're adults. You can choose'.  
But when we look at this from the perspective of the big picture, he has spoken to us, our future has been told: if we wish to live for Jesus we will face opposition and suffering - but that after that there is resurrection and glory. 

So we are not on our own. We have a guide, who will be with us, who will teach us, who will change us, who has spoken to us and told us what will happen and who may even do so here and now, in his way and in his time. 


The Holy Spirit will show us the glory of Jesus. 'He will glorify me because he will take what is mine and declare it to you. All that the Father has is mine'.

I find this very exciting. Everything has been given to Jesus. John 13:3,  'Jesus knew that the Father had put all things under his power, and that he had come from God and was returning to God'. 

As we grow as Christians, the work of the Holy Spirit is to show us that everything belongs to Jesus: creation, the stars and planets, rivers and oceans, people, art and music, architecture, politics and economics, wealth, work, love. 

It is the Holy Spirit who speaks to us and opens our eyes. He shows us that there are no no-go areas for the Lordship of Jesus. We begin to see a beautiful sunset not just as a beautiful sunset, but as Jesus sees it: as something that belongs to him, that declares his glory. We look at people, and rather than seeing them as objects who can make my life better or worse, more secure or more at risk, we begin to see them as Jesus sees them: as people who belong to him. They may be in rebellion against him, they may be blind to him themselves, but they still belong to him. And as we look at all things belonging to Jesus, we glorify him. 

And even though today we do not see all things as if they belong to him, one day we will. Our eyes will be opened. 

I'd like to use a you tube clip, from the BBC news a few days ago. It is about Ranulph Fiennes returning to base camp  having had a little walk up a hill with a friend called Lak Pa Tundu. 

We're on a journey - at times it will be beautiful; but at other times simply an incredible slog. At one point Fiennes said that all he could do was put one step in front of the other. But he said he was kept going by two things. 

The first was his companion - Tundu - who knew the mountain. Tundu was his guide. Tundu was able to speak with authority because he knew the mountain. He knew some of the dangers, he knew what was round the corner and he knew how hard it was going to be. And Tundu carried the heavier part of the burden. 

The other thing that kept him going, that made him try it a third time, was the hope of getting to the top. 

And there will be times when we are greatly encouraged in our Christian walk. But there will also be times when it gets incredibly hard. And at those times we need to remember that there is one with us who will be our guide, the Holy Spirit. And we also need to remember that there is a hope: one day, with Jesus, we will be standing on the top of his world, and we will see it with his eyes and we will be overwhelmed with his glory.  

Tuesday, 26 May 2009

What does it mean when we say Jesus Christ is Lord?

Acts 1:15-26

Last week - we celebrated the ascension.

Jesus ascends into heaven. I find it very hard to imagine. So did the disciples: they stand open-mouthed.

The world in which they lived had suddenly got very much bigger. They couldn't make assumptions. There had to be an openness about what could be possible. And very very obviously, they realised that when Jesus said, 'All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me', he was speaking the truth.

But so what? How was this going to change the way that they lived, especially now that Jesus was not with them?

And what we read here in this rather unusual reading in Acts is the first attempt of the church to live in the light of the ascension; to live in the light of the fact that Jesus is Lord.

And that is very helpful for us. What does it mean for us to live as servants of Jesus Christ? Yes, it might mean that we are part of the church, that we do church things; but what else? How does it affect what we do on Monday? How does it affect how we live our lives, how we treat other people, how we do business, how we study? How does it affect how we behave as children or parents? How does it affect our interests, our sex lives, our spending, our holidays, our politics, our fitness, our friendships and our enmities? How does it change the way that we make our choices?

And I note three things

1. Because Jesus is Lord, we submit to the authority of the bible
For the apostles, the bible was the Old Testament. But what makes it important for them is not just the fact that they were brought up in a tradition that said that the bible was important.
What makes it important for them is the fact that Jesus sees it as authoritative, and that it points to Jesus and to his life, death and resurrection.

We see that in this passage. The church meets together to decide what to do now that Judas is no longer one of the 12. Peter takes two passages from Psalm 69 and Psalm 109 and understands both of them as referring to what happened to Jesus. In Psalm 69 the person who prays the psalm is scorned, disgraced and shamed. He prays God's judgement on those who revile him: 'May their place be deserted'. In Psalm 109, the person praying is returned evil for good. He prays that his enemy's place of leadership will be taken by another. And Peter sees these verses as pointing to what happened with Judas. He says, 'Judas place is deserted. Another should take his place.' Indeed, Peter goes further and says: 'Therefore it is necessary' (v21). Why? Because scripture says so. And, as Jesus said, 'the scripture cannot be broken'.

The first Christians just had the Old Testament. We have the Old Testament and we have the New Testament. Both of them for us point to Jesus. The New Testament tells us how the Old Testament points us to Jesus - we don't need to do that work again. The New Testament points us, much more obviously, to Jesus - both the Jesus who lived 2000 years ago, and the Jesus who reigns today. And as people who submit to the Lordship of Jesus, it is only right that we should submit to the authority of scripture.

And so to live under the Lordship of Jesus Christ really is about living in submission to what the bible teaches.

People argue that the bible contradicts itself. I disagree. Yes, there are a few places where one instruction seems to go against a different instruction. And then we do need to do a bit of background work. But the main message of the bible is amazingly consistent. It is about Jesus Christ, the Son of God; his death and resurrection. It is about trust in Jesus, repentance and faith, forgiveness, the promise of the Holy Spirit, the hope for the coming Kingdom, love. It is all there. It was Mark Twain who said, 'It is not the bits of the bible that I cannot understand that give me difficulty. It is the bits of the bible that I can'.

And the bible is about great ideas, but it is also desperately practical. It is about what or who is at the centre of our lives; how our attitudes to others can be changed; about our priorities in life; it is about living in honest and right relationships. But I do wish to add this. Obedience to the bible is not about primarily about following a new set of rules. Obedience to the bible is first of all about coming to Jesus, trusting him and beginning to live as he lived.

So as people who submit to the ascended Christ, we live under the authority of the scripture. We spend time reading the bible, studying what it says, reflecting on what we are taught - and seeking to live it. There were three friends arguing about which translation they preferred. One said, 'The NIV'; the next, 'The NRSV'. The third said, 'My mother's!' 'What. Has your mother translated the bible?' 'No, but she lives it'

2. Because Jesus is Lord, we pray

This might sound rather basic.
But in v23 and v24 we are told that the disciples who have a decision to make - who should be the new apostle - proposed two people (Joseph and Matthias) and then they prayed.
Very very stupid. What they should have done is made an assessment of the strengths of the existing team, and worked out who would be the most complementary. They should have done some psychological profiling. They should have taken up the references. They should have given the candidates a task to do: perhaps ask them to preach.

And what do they do? They pray!
I am being a bit simplistic. Of course the other things are important. Last week I was with a group interviewing for a deputy head for Guildhall Feoffment. It is important that we do what we can. We have been given minds, each other and a bit of common sense and we need to use that. Certainly the apostles did. They know the job description: they are looking for someone to be an apostle, a leader in the new church, and to be a witness of the resurrection of Jesus. They have a person spec: someone who has been with Jesus from the very beginning.

But having got that; and having shortlisted. They do what we forget to do - or, in many situations, are not allowed to do. They pray.

Prayer, of course, is deeply subversive. It is about acknowledging the sovereignty of God. [The baptism commission] The very fact that we do pray means that we think that there is someone to whom it is worth praying.

I'm not talking about the sort of thing that goes under the heading of spirituality or prayer today - which is about centering in on yourself; being still. If we are talking about prayer simply as a way to quieten ourselves down, so that we will think clearer - then we should be more honest and talk about relaxation and breathing exercises. And I'm not knocking it: I crashed as a curate primarily because I had never listened when people talked to me about how to breathe correctly. And of course when we breathe correctly we are calmer and more focussed.

But prayer, Christian prayer, is not about yoga and about breathing correctly. Christian prayer is about being bothered to spend time - even when we are breathing correctly, especially when we are breathing correctly - seeking one who is bigger than us.

And this is not just about praying for church appointments or decisions. You can pray in the classroom or in the meeting room. You can pray in the interview room (out loud if it is permitted; silently, if it is not). You can pray when you are making a decision about whether you should buy a house or a car or a computer or a dress. You can pray when you are going to meet someone.

And when we pray - in this way - and submit our decision and/or what will happen to God - we recognise the authority of Jesus Christ. Otherwise it is a totally pointless exercise. And the very fact that we do not pray - or that we keep prayer for church or for church meetings - actually implies that we think that Jesus is Lord of church life and of church people, but that he doesn't have much say in what goes on out in the world. Indeed when we do not pray, and think that it is up to us, we are to all intent purposes, atheists.

Prayer is subversive. Remember Daniel. He was thrown to the lions den because, in praying, he acknowledged a greater power than the power of Darius, the ruler of the then known world. Prayer is the acknowledgement that this world is not controlled by political leaders or by blind fate. It is not ultimately controlled by the principles of natural selection or survival of the fittest, or even by the bigger principle of entropy. It is the acknowledgement that this world is controlled by Jesus Christ

3. That leads me on to my third
point, which is the most difficult.

That to submit to the Lordship of Christ is to believe that God is ultimately in control.

The apostles, having thought, having prayed, then draw lots.

There are two ways of looking at this.

The first is to say that for the Christian there is no such thing as chance.

Now please do not hear me as saying that everything that happens has been determined. Far from it. God gives us far more choice than I think we could possibly dream of. Our decisions do change things. Our prayers change things. And yet, by faith, if Jesus Christ is Lord, we cannot say that there are things that happen by chance.

I am also aware that when I say that God is ultimately in control, it raises very sharply the question of evil and suffering.
If Jesus is in control, then WHY?

Today is not the day to try to answer that question. All I will say is that the belief that there is no such thing as chance is, I would hope, liberating.

If the world is ruled by chance then there is no cause or reason in suffering. Why, for instance, does that parent lose that child? There is no 'why'. It just happened. And don't say that it is not fair, because there is no ultimate criterion of fairness.
If, however, a loving God is in charge of the world, then at least we know that the question that we ask is a valid question. And even though we will probably not find the answer this side of heaven - we believe that there is an answer

As I said, this takes us into areas that for this morning it is better not to go. I am not even sure that I know clearly what I think.
But what I do know is that by choosing to pray and draw lots (in v24), the disciples were not resigned to leaving the decision up to chance. They believed that God would be in the decision.

The second way of looking at this is to say that actually, in the ultimate scheme of things, and in choosing to draw lots, the apostles realised that it did not really matter which of the two was chosen. Of course it mattered to the two people, certainly for the immediate future. It may even have made a difference in the direction that the early church went. But in the ultimate scheme of things, it did not matter for the two men and it did not really matter for the church.

The belief that Jesus is reigning means that we can trust that ultimately his purposes for us and for this creation will be fulfilled. That is why, for instance, we are called to give thanks to God in all situations and for all things. There is nothing that can happen that can frustrate his purpose for the world or for us.

So often we get bogged down with the details. We're like people on a high speed express from London to Edinburgh worrying about which seats we are occupying. It makes absolutely no difference to the final destination of the train. And when like Matthias the lot falls to us, we do get chosen, we do seem to be in the right place at the right time, we really need to remember that. There is no place for pride. And it is also very liberating for us when like Joseph we are are not chosen or we are not in the right place at the right time. It doesn't ultimately matter, because God still loves us, and his final purpose for us - that we will be transformed into the image of his Son will not be frustrated. That is why we are able to give thanks to God in all situations. He is in control.

So to conclude: There are three implications for saying that Jesus is Lord.
1. We believe and obey the scriptures: because Jesus did, and because they point to Jesus
2. We take time to pray: because prayer recognises that Jesus Christ is reigning
3. We trust in God's love, even when we face big disappointments, because nothing can frustrate his loving and good purposes for us and for the world.

Wednesday, 20 May 2009

Ascension day 2009

We meet in ruins. It could be a picture of the church today. A once mighty institution that has been humbled. A church in a culture that is happy for us to stand as a monument to a past by-gone age, but that has very little place for it. 

And yet we meet to celebrate the ascension of Christ, that Jesus Christ has been made Lord of all things. 

I guess we can look at the story of the death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus, and dismiss it as a fairytale. Of course the story has a meaning, just as every fairytale or myth has a meaning - but there is no reason why this myth is more privileged than any other myth
Or we can stand with the disciples and as Jesus goes up, as a cloud hides him from our site, gaze open-mouthed, and begin to realise that the world is a much bigger place than we first thought. 

It is our choice. We can look at the ascension in the light of the world's wisdom,  or to look at the world in the light of the reality of the ascension.

And Paul prays in Ephesians, that we will do the second. 
'I keep praying that [God] will give you the Spirit of wisdom and revelation'
'I pray that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened' 

He prays that God will open our eyes. And specifically, he prays that we will see three things:

1. He prays that we will look up: to the hope to which he has called us (v18). 

Christ is seated at the right hand in the heavenly realms. 

Of course this is picture language. We cannot begin to talk of a reality which is beyond our categories of space and time in anything but the language of space and time. 

We have a hope. The hope that the Jesus who went away from us at the ascension, is now reigning and will one day return. 

He is reigning. To ordinary eyes his rule is virtually invisible. We see glimpses of his kingdom when astonishing things happen: when people give themselves in self-sacrifice, when they kneel down and wash the feet of others, when they extend hands of friendship across cultural barriers, when they forgive the unforgivable, when astonishing things happen and people are healed or released from something that has held them in bondage, when we experience moments of heaven, when God gets hold of individuals and lives are turned around - dramatically or slowly - it does not matter. His kingdom is seen in our daily struggle to let go of our pride and self-sufficiency, to receive his love, and to submit our lives to Jesus Christ so that he will reign in us and through us. The reign of God is seen in the miracle;  it is also seen when a man or woman simply gets up in the morning, and rather than do one of the millions of things that are demanding to be done, stops and either comes to communion or picks up their bible, reads, reflects and prays

Our hope, and the hope of creation, is that one day this kingdom will be visible: that as Jesus ascended and went from us, so one day there will be a day, an event, when he returns. On that day everything will be laid bare. It is a bit too easy to point the finger at politicians. On that day, everything will be laid bare, and the finger will be pointed at us. He will come as judge. But he will also come with mercy. He will bring his rule of peace and right-ness. I cannot imagine it. No one can. He will bring a  transformed, a transfigured space and time. But it will be glorious.

2. He prays that we will look around: the riches of his glorious inheritance in the saints (v18)

There is some question as to whether Paul is saying that the saints are the inheritance; or that the saints are the vessel which holds this inheritance. I suggest that it might be both. 

Ephesians suggests that the inheritance is the message of Jesus Christ. The church, the people of God, has been given the message of reconciliation: that because of Jesus there is a new humanity.  We have been made one in Christ. So the message is this, 'You can become a new person, part of a new creation. We who were enemies of God can become friends of God. We who were blinded so that we could not see the things of God can begin to see. We who are sinners can find forgiveness. We who despair whether there is a future - either for ourselves or the world - because of him do have a future.
It is the message that as part of this new creation, we are placed within a new network of relationships.  The barriers that existed between God and us, and between you and me have been broken down by his death on the cross. I no longer need to define myself by my biological family, nationality, colour, sex. I can define myself by Jesus Christ, by his love for God, for me and others. 

But more than that - it is the church that embodies this message, that is this message lived out.

So look around here: people from different churches and different traditions, united by our common confession that Jesus is Lord. We are not here because we are friends, although I hope we are friendly. We are not here because we agree about everything: we probably disagree about most things - politics, music, about church orders, liturgy, baptism, what godly living is all about, how we should understand the bible and many other things - but we are still here - together - because we acknowledge the Palestinian Jew crucified on Good Friday, risen on Easter Sunday has now been made Lord. And we recognise that in some mysterious way, we belong to each other, we are part of each other: that what happens to you actually does affect me; and that our destiny as children of God is ultimately tied up together.

And of course, it is not just us here. It is bigger than us. Our destiny is tied up with those who confess the name of Christ in other places and in other times. We stand in a place where men and women have confessed Jesus Christ for over 1000 years. Our eyes may just see ruins. But look! We are surrounded by, we are part of , countless angels worshiping God, and thousands upon thousands who are worshiping Christ. 

3. He prays that we will look in: his great power working in us (v19)

The power of God that brought Jesus Christ back from the dead, that makes him supreme over all things (in other words, that is greater than all things), is working on our behalf.

This is the power that means that when things look out of control, they are not out of control. This world, this universe is not controlled by blind fate; it is not ultimately controlled by the laws of natural selection, survival of the fittest, or by principles of entropy; it is not controlled by an absentee god or gods.
This world is ultimately controlled by the Son of God, who loves us, who became a human being, who suffered and died, who was raised from the dead and who has been made Lord over all.

And this power is available for us.

This is the power that can take us: self-centred, fearful, weak, messed up human beings and begin to transform us into sons and daughters of God. 
This is the power that gives us the faith to pray, the passion to act, the courage to persevere despite suffering, the boldness to speak
This is the power that takes self-centred individuals and begins to build us together into one people 
This is the power that will transform our frail and mortal bodies so that they will be like his glorious body
This is the power, Paul says later, which enables us to begin to know the love of God, and to be filled with the love of God. 

So today we pray that God will open our eyes; that he will help us to look at this world with a new vision, in the light of the ascension; that we will see beyond the ruins; and that we will look in - to the power of God at work in us and for us; look around - at Christ's inheritance; look up - to our hope: the risen ascended Christ who will one day return in glory.  

Friday, 8 May 2009


Acts 8:26-40

I'd like to look at this passage from the perspective of the Ethiopian eunuch.

Here is a man who as far as the world is concerned is an insider. He is a top banker. He is in charge of the treasury of the Queen of Candace - actually Candace is the name of a dynasty and a province within Egypt. He is being driven in a chariot. He is a man of influence.

But here is a man who as far as his faith is concerned is an outsider.

We presume that he is a Jew: there was a large Jewish community in Egypt. But he does not live in the land that God had given to the Jewish people. His ancestors would have been the people who disobeyed what God said through Jeremiah, and chose to move to Egypt at the time of the exile. They chose to live in a different land. And the land of Israel was so important to the Jewish people. He would have been a welcome visitor to Jerusalem, but very much a second class visitor.

And secondly, he is a eunuch. He has been castrated. And that would mean that he would not be allowed into the temple. Nobody who was disabled or not 'whole' was allowed into the temple precincts. His worship could only have been at a distance.

I just wonder whether there was a particular reason that the passage from Isaiah had struck him: 'In his humiliation he was deprived of justice. Who can speak of his descendants?'

So although he is an insider as far as the world is concerned, as far as his faith is concerned he is an outsider.

I think that many of us can feel insiders as far as the world is concerned, but outsiders as far as faith is concerned. In the community, at work, we are respected people, we have or have had influence.

But when we come to church, there is something missing. We feel on the outside. Perhaps we think we are not from the right sort of background for church or God; we hear people talk of a particular way of relating to God, or of having certain experiences, or of using a special kind of language, and we think, 'I am not there'. And we long to belong. We get miffed when the vicar goes to see certain people but not me, when others are given responsibility, but never me. We feel an outsider.

The interesting thing about our Ethiopian is that, whether he feels an outsider or not, he has a hunger for God and for the things of God.

He has travelled from Ethiopia to Jerusalem for worship - big journey

On his way home, he is reading the bible. He is reading it intelligently, using his mind, thinking about what it is saying.

Henry Martyn points out several things that we can learn from this man

1. It is a good thing to read the bible

2. It is wise to make good use of our time. This man is sitting in his chariot. He has not much to do. I presume he has a chauffeur. He hasn't got any tapes. So he is reading the bible.

Well we may not have the chariot or the chauffeur - and I wouldn't recommend reading the bible while driving. But there is no reason why we cannot make good use of time in the car, or even walking to work: you don't have to just listen to Heart or Radio 2 or 4, or whatever. It is a great opportunity to pray, listen to talks or even the bible: You can download an audio bible MP3 for free.

3. He is coming back from worship and he is taking time to reflect on what he has heard. Possibly the passage that he is reading was one of the passages that he had heard read back in Jerusalem, and he needed to do a bit more thinking about it. I love it when people come up to me and say, 'I went home and I looked again at that passage - and you were wrong!'

So here is someone who is interested in the things of God: He goes to church, he reads his bible, he thinks about things.

As he is travelling along, this stranger comes up, hears him reading from the bible and asks him, 'Do you understand what you are reading?'

And in reply the Ethiopian asks three questions. And those are questions are extremely helpful for us.

1. 'How can I unless someone explains it to me?'

The Ethiopian could have told Philip to get lost. It is probably what I would have done: 'It's all right. I'm OK'. We're British: self-made people who worship our creator. Islands of respectability who are paralysed by the fear of embarressing ourselves or other people.

He could have told Philip, 'Well what this means to me as a eunuch is ...'

But he knows that is not enough, and he knows that he needs help if he is going to understand the passage.

So he asks Philip to explain the passage to him.

Now we believe that the message of the bible is clear. But we do need help in order to understand what it means. We need help from the Holy Spirit and we need help from the people of God. We cannot separate the bible from either.

Someone coming to the bible for the first time, and reading parts of the Old Testament, might think - for instance - that it is right to destroy a house if it has mildew, stone someone who has committed adultery or commit genocide. We might feel very uncomfortable about that - that is the work of the Holy Spirit in us - but we need the church, the people of God, to help us understand those passages, and many others, in the context of the message of the whole bible, as understood for the last 2000 years by the people of God.

That is why the historic creeds are so important. Yes, we test the creeds in the light of the bible, but we read the bible in the light of the creeds. That is why when we preach, we should aim to help people understand the message of the bible; it is why it is good to meet with others more experienced in the faith to read together, to ask what is going on here.

It is why homegroups are a vital part of our life together as a church - although I have to say that I am not really a fan of those groups where people read a passage and say, 'What does it mean for you?' That is not what the Ethiopian asks Philip. He asks, 'What does it mean?' And yes, of course, for each of us, there will be different things that God says to us through a passage - different connections we make within a passage because of the way we think - different ways in which we are called to live out the passage - but in the end it is not about what I think it means that is important, but what it actually does mean that is important (even if I recognise that this side of heaven we can never fully understand what it means).

So we need our Philips. We need to listen to the saints and the scholars and the communities of the past and the present to understand the passage. We need to listen to the voice of the church, the people of God. Do not separate the bible from the teaching of the church.

2. 'Tell me please, who is the prophet talking about, himself or someone else?'

One of the standard essay questions that is still given to students studying the book of Isaiah is, 'Who is the servant mentioned in Isaiah 53?'

And we are told that, 'Philip began with that very passage of scripture and told him the good news about Jesus'.

The reason that we seek to understand the bible is not to gain a better knowledge of the bible. The reason that we try to understand the bible is because the bible points us to Jesus.

That is the key.

The passage that the Ethiopian reads is a gift passage. He is reading from Isaiah 53:7-8.

If you look at Isaiah 53:7-8 in our bible it is slightly different. The reason for that is because the Ethiopian was reading from the equivalent of the then 'TNIV', a contemporary version of the bible (called the Septuagint - using common Greek). That warns me against getting too hung up about particular versions of the bible - and certainly about hanging large doctrines on particular words that are used in a particular version. The important thing is that the passage points us to Jesus.

We don't know exactly what Philip says, but if it was similar to his message earlier on, he preaches the good news of Jesus Christ and the Kingdom of God:

Jesus, the son of God, who came to live among us, as one of us, puts up no resistance when they come to arrest him, is unjustly condemned and executed. But he died for us. He died so that we can be forgiven, and so that we might have the opportunity to live a completely new life. God raised this Jesus from the dead; and now he is Lord. His Kingdom is over all nations, and is for all people. Now it is mainly invisible. One day it will be seen. But the good news is that we can become part of Jesus' kingdom now by turning to him, by repentance, by receiving his Holy Spirit, and the mark of baptism.

It really is all about Jesus.

One of the reasons that the eunuch is able to go on his way rejoicing, even though he will be the first Christian in Ethiopia, is because he has understood the single most important fact about interpreting the bible. It is all about Jesus. He only had the Old Testament to go on, but for him, whenever he read it, he would read it with Jesus shaped spectacles.

3. 'Look, here is water. Why shouldn't I be baptised?'

It is an interesting question. He does not ask, 'What must I do to be baptised?' The person who asks that question has not quite got it. They think that they have to do something. The eunuch's question is the other way round: 'Why shouldn't I be baptised?'

In other words he is saying, 'if Jesus died for all people; if he died for me; if because of him there is forgiveness of sins and new life, why shouldn't I be baptised?' And the answer is, 'if you are at that point, then there is no reason why you shouldn't be baptised'.

You could have said that there were many reasons why he should not have been baptised.

In the eyes of the law, he was not a complete human person.
He couldn't possibly understand after only one conversation.
He was a wealthy banker: there were no doubt several things that were not right in his life, probably including his pension.
There was going to be no follow up.
There was no-one to support him when he got home.
Yet Philip, with complete irresponsibility, goes ahead and baptises him.

He should have known better. In verse 13, he has baptised Simon the sorcerer. By verse 18 Simon is showing his true colours, and is in big trouble with no less a person that Peter.

If a male wished to become a Jew, he needed to be circumcised
If you wish to become a citizen of this country, you need to prove you can speak English, take an exam and go through a citizenship ceremony.
If you wish to become a citizen of heaven, a subject of Jesus Christ, you need someone, preferably someone whose authority is recognised beyond the local church community, throw some water over you.

It is grace. The second century church struggled with this story. If you look in some of our bibles you will see that later versions add in a simple confession: 'Philip said, 'if you believe with all your heart, you may.' The eunuch answered, 'I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God'. Maybe he said it, maybe he didn't. What is significant is that the earliest texts do not have that.

He has heard about Jesus, he wants in, and he asks to be baptised.

What Philip and the Ethiopian understand is that this is all by grace. Grace: God giving us what we do not deserve, completely and totally as gift. GRACE: God's Riches At Christ's Expense.

The whole point is that here is a man who doesn't meet the requirements of the law, who has not got his life sorted out, who doesn't fully understand, who won't be supported when he gets home - but in whom the Holy Spirit of God is profoundly working.

The Ethiopian hears the good news - notice it is called 'good news' four times in this chapter (v12, 25, 35, 40): it is about God's love for the one who is outside as far as faith is concerned: it is about forgiveness, it is about a friendship with God, it is about a new life and a new direction, it is about being part of God's eternal kingdom.

And a man who has been sympathetic, but as far as faith is concerned on the outside all of his life, suddenly realises that because of Jesus, he can become someone on the inside, simply by receiving.

And for those of you who feel or who know that you are on the outside, that you are not good enough or worthy enough for God, that you don't know enough, that you don't speak the right language - the good news is that because of Jesus you can become an insider, simply by receiving. You receive forgiveness and you receive citizenship in the Kingdom by receiving Jesus, just as you would receive someone throwing water over you.

It is about the bible and the church, it is about Jesus and it is about Grace.