Just passing through – Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch – conversion? membership of the church? accepting others

Just passing through…
Bristol evening © Andrew Pratt

Although the title of the latest Methodist hymn book, Singing the Faith, suggests that there is just one faith the more people I meet the more I feel that there are almost as many expressions of faith as there are people. As you read this, reflect back on how you came to faith. Who influenced you? How did you learn? In what ways is your life different because of your faith. 

The poet Dylan Thomas once said that he loved hearing about people’s stories, but they had better be quick or else he’d be talking about his. So excuse me if I indulge myself a bit. Though I didn’t go to Sunday School as a child I did go to church with my parents until I was eleven. I didn’t really go again with any regularity until I was in my twenties. In spite of this I remember two influences, impressions if you like, which have remained with me. Our head teacher was our RE teacher. I found him boring and not very sympathetic. On the other hand my botany teacher enthralled me. I still have little memory or knowledge of botany, but I do remember him saying, ‘I can see some good in any body’. We pushed him on that. He insisted that he could. Not only that, but he lived it out as an example to us. 

Why do I bore you with this? Simply because that impressed me and made me have a different outlook on others. Though I came to faith through something of a mystical experience (more of that another time perhaps) my ‘conversion’ was as much ethical as religious. I changed paths, pulled out of biological research. Attending a new church as I began to re-train as a teacher, after one visit, I asked the minister how I might join that church. I was just passing through – a one year teaching certificate, living partly in a bed-sit, partly commuting 20 miles home each evening depending on my parents’ health. 

Only later did I come across the story of Philip and an Ethiopian (Acts 8: 26-40). The Ethiopian was a government treasury official. He was also a eunuch. He would have assumed that, in a religious sense, he had no ultimate hope. But he was curious. As he travelled he had been reading Hebrew scripture, as we now know it. Philip explained something of what he was reading. It was a passage from Isaiah. It spoke of someone led to the slaughter, who would not open his mouth, to whom justice would be denied, whose life had been taken away from the earth. Hopeless. 

Philip explained that this spoke of Jesus and that Jesus, in some way offered hope. If you read this passage in some translations verse 37 is missing. Let me explain. The Ethiopian, we do not know his name, asked what could prevent him from being baptised. The missing verse says this: Then Philip said, “If you believe with all your heart, you may. And he answered and said, ‘I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God.’” The reason that this verse is missing from, the New Revised Standard Version and other translations, is that it is not in all the original manuscripts from which our New Testament has been translated. Some scholars, and I would agree with them, feel that the original is just too scandalous to be accepted. How can anyone be baptised without a confession of faith? and, no certainty of the belief of the person? See how it reads without the missing verse:

v. 38 He commanded the chariot to stop, and both of them, Philip and the eunuch, went down into the water, and Philip baptized him.
v. 39 When they came up out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord snatched Philip away; the eunuch saw him no more, and went on his way rejoicing.

It has often passed through my mind that if Philip had been a Methodist he would surely have offered a course of study, have asked the Church Council whether they were accepting of this person. Of course, he’s black, that might have been a problem. I hear you saying ‘of course not’. Listen to black people sharing their experience of the ‘welcome’ they have so often experienced in our churches, not to mention the recent disclosures about racism in the church of England (a similar story might be told in many other churches). Don’t dismiss what has been said and what people say they have felt. But this story speaks of someone of a different language, colour, ethnicity, faith.

And so I return to a bedsit in Exeter and a minister sharing coffee with me, this student ‘just passing through’. We spoke for an hour, I suppose. Apart from attending one service we’d never met before. There was no confession of faith, not that you’d recognise as such. And what did the minister say, ‘Ok I’ll make you a member’. I asked what people of the church might think? He answered that what they thought didn’t matter, it was between me and God. I never did find out what they thought, or said to the Minister.

I wasn’t going to be involved in that church, not for long anyway. But I’ve been in the church ever since, moving from place to place, some more welcoming than others, some where I’ve felt at home. Some not. Strange though, those that have mirrored best that open, trusting attitude of Philip, not counting numbers or treasuring buildings, just accepting anyone even if they are just passing through, seeing something good in everyone; those places felt most loving, most Christian. And the others, so often, sadly, seemed to want people like themselves and to control who could belong, and who they’d prefer not to. I think it was Jesus, of all people, who said, ‘My father is the gardener’ the one who chooses, who prunes, who casts dead wood on the fire. Not you or me. 

I thank God for the minister who welcomed me and who I learned much later, behaved like Philip with the Ethiopian. He didn’t know me or where I had come from, nor where I would go, but accepted me as I was. Without him I would not be writing this fifty years later. As the author of Acts records it, as the Ethiopian ‘came up out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord snatched Philip away; the eunuch saw him no more, and went on his way rejoicing’. 

I’m still here in the Methodist Church. And I pray that we might continue to welcome strangers, no questions asked, no hurdles of belief or creed to jump over – something good in all of them, sending them on their way rejoicing…

And may the community where you meet be one of unconditional love…

A temple where all people will be welcome, 
a city where all poverty will end, 
a promise of an unexpected future, 
a depth of love we cannot comprehend.

For love is all we ever need to offer, 
no vast cathedral, pinnacles of light; 
but shining love illumines every morning 
while scattering the shards of dying night.

New every morning is this love's creation;
new every day, our hope will be reborn, 
until Your people stumble from the darkness 
and recognise that this is love's new dawn.

And seeing how such love infects our being, 
transforming fear, eradicating hate, 
we praise You for your loving understanding, 
and pray our loving may not come too late.

A Prayer: May we see good in everyone, meet Christ in all and offer love without question to every person so that when we sing ‘All are welcome’ it will genuinely reflect what we live in our lives. Amen.

Poem/Hymn Andrew Pratt © 2016 Stainer & Bell Ltd, London, England, copyright@stainer.co.uk 
Please include any reproduction for local church use on your CCL Licence returns. All wider and any commercial use requires prior application to Stainer & Bell Ltd.

LENT 5 – Two Monologues and Two Hymns

Hebrews 5: 5 – 10 

Monologue: The order of Melchizedek

Now there’s a great name for a High Priest, if ever I heard one.
Good strong name. Starts with an ‘M’ – a thrusting letter – pushing the word out into the waiting world.
And it’s got four syllables – very impressive, that. Knocks all those single syllable names, like Tom and John and Will, for a six.
And it’s difficult to spell.
And not easy to say.
And it’s got both a ‘Z’ and a ‘K’ in it.
Certainly a magnificent name for a High Priest. 

Jesus doesn’t sound anywhere near as impressive a name as that.
Very common, for his day, was the name, Jesus. Still is in many parts of the world – which comes as a shock to people who think the name is confined to only one man.
Doesn’t matter, though. ‘Cos Jesus – the Bible one - never claimed to be a High Priest. Didn’t want anything to do with that hierarchy, juggling for power and trying to make a name for themselves.
No, Jesus was just an ordinary man. Different, but ordinary. He mixed with all sorts and got a reputation for it. 
But he did know how to take on the authorities – especially the religious ones - who should have been doing a good job but were really just full of self-importance.
He really got their backs up. Which is why they made him suffer and eventually killed him.
But the irony was that, because he had given his all for God and the people, God then named Jesus as the greatest High Priest of all time – the one who would always be a way back to God for those who needed to find that.

Now that’s what a High Priest is meant to be – even if his name isn’t Melchizedek!
©Marjorie Dobson

Psalm 51: 1-12

Hymn: We each hold within us a trace of the God-head 

We each hold within us a trace of the God-head, 
the grace of forgiveness, the power to plead;
the crisis before us the choice and the challenge: 
to cultivate hatred, or nurture love’s seed.

It's not that we're guilty, You made us for goodness, 
but having the will to build up or break down.
We need to admit in the light of your presence
deception, hypocrisy – part of our ‘crown’.

And so God we worship, not courting your mercy,
but owning quite openly all that we are. 
God take us, forgive us, renew our intention, 
to live by your spirit; God heal every scar. 

Andrew Pratt
Words © 2012 Stainer & Bell Ltd, London, England copyright@stainer.co.uk . Please include any reproduction for local church use on your CCL Licence returns. All wider and any commercial use requires prior application to Stainer & Bell Ltd ©  Stainer & Bell Ltd

John 12: 20-33

Monologue: Those poor Greeks

Those poor Greeks must have got a bit of a shock.
Granted, they were in town for the Passover festival – and strange things often happened at festivals.
Granted, they were Greeks – and their thirst for knowledge was well-known and, mostly, respected.
Granted, they were curious – wanting to see this remarkable teacher.
Granted, they approached him in a respectful way – going first to Philip, who had a reputation for being open-minded and not being biased against foreigners, whether they were Jews or not.
Granted, they were probably prepared to listen to anything that Jesus had to say – however strange, or progressive it may be.
But it still must have been a shock when he suddenly started talking about death and glorification and others losing their lives for the sake of following him.
On top of all that there was the booming voice from heaven – rather indistinct to most people, who thought that it must be thunder.
But they must have been near enough to make out the words. They clearly heard Jesus say, ‘Father, glorify your name.’
And that was strange in itself. What right had he to call God ‘Father’?
Stranger still was the reply – ‘I already have and will do so again.’
What on earth did they make of that?
Did they wait long enough to hear Jesus say that when he was lifted up – even if it was in death – that he would draw all people to him?
It must have given them hope if they did – foreigners as they were.
But it could be that they’d slipped out of the crowd long before that – puzzled by what they’d heard, apprehensive of what they’d seen and needing to give the matter a great deal of thought and discussion before they made any decision about their response.
Jesus still affects people like that.
His words are not always easy to swallow.
But those who never listen, never learn.
And the truth is that the suffering and death of Jesus was inevitable.
But so was the resurrection.
©Marjorie Dobson

John 12: 20-33

Hymn: A troubled soul, the Christ of God

A troubled soul, the Christ of God, 
humanity exposed, 
with all the turmoil that we feel, 
when choices are proposed.
The monumental choice he faced, 
the crisis must be met, 
to take the path of love to death, 
or turn away, forget.

The riddle of the grain of wheat 
was told with fear and dread, 
yet mention of new fruit gives hope 
that God might raise the dead. 
The loss of life, the gain of life 
are tangled in this game, 
yet those who live in love of God 
are held within love's frame.

So Jesus chose and we must choose, 
which path we are to take, 
the one which will deny God's love 
or cause the earth to quake.
God give us courage to deny 
the self that harbours hate, 
to trust in your eternal grace, 
before it is too late.

Andrew Pratt
Words © 2012 Stainer & Bell Ltd, London, England copyright@stainer.co.uk . Please include any reproduction for local church use on your CCL Licence returns. All wider and any commercial use requires prior application to Stainer & Bell Ltd ©  Stainer & Bell Ltd
Tune: DCM

Covid-19 and communion – Methodist Recorder May 1st 2020

The following article was submitted to the Methodist Recorder and published under the head: The crucial challenge facing us all. It expresses a personal view but is written from the perspective of Methodism in the UK. I am re-publishing it here, being aware that not everyone reads the Methodist Recorder.

Central to our faith is an understanding that God is love, and an expression of this is our capacity to see Christ in others and represent Christ to them. If Christians use this as a lens to test their response to Covid-19 it might produce some interesting reflections. An early response to the virus was to set up networks to distribute food to vulnerable people. That makes sense in that it mirrors early Christian care in Acts. Following Peter’s Pentecost sermon the people repented and began an exploration of what it meant to live differently. They met to share their meals in their homes, with the affirmation that they held all in common and distributed help to those who would otherwise be in need.

This has led me to wonder how different the church might be after Covid 19. Just how willing are we as individuals, and as an institution, to risk embracing change, renewed after some form of repentance, or will we reassume our old ways.

As we approached Easter, the denominations entered discussion and debate as to how, in lockdown, they could worship. Hitherto this had been corporate, taking place in dedicated buildings with formalised liturgies and, sometimes elaborate, ritual. The degree to which this formality had been concretised over millennia was evidenced by the form and tradition of the words and the actions that accompany them. In addition, in some denominations liturgical dress itself has been determined down to the nature of the garments, how they are prepared and worn. For some this is significant, but it lacks the simplicity that I read of in Acts or the Gospels.

As Christians sought to celebrate the Eucharist this Easter we witnessed the Archbishop of Canterbury in his kitchen with his wife presiding at a liturgy while fully robed. Nothing could be further from an ordinary meal shared in a family home and it had the feel of having crossed over into a TV cookery show. I don’t say that in criticism of the Archbishop who is as much captive to culture, tradition and expectation as any of us. Others tried to ‘gather’ virtual congregations who were expressly directed not to share bread and wine and were, by definition, separate from one another. Still others provided recorded presentations of worship or contemplation. At the same time those who can’t access the internet have been offered varied fare by radio, television or in print.

All of our attempts to maintain worship are laudable, but perhaps miss a crucial challenge. The first worship of the early Christians was, arguably, under lockdown, took place in family homes, with no sense of hierarchy or superiority of any participants. Probably they decided amongst themselves who would break the bread. Maybe culture dictated the eldest male. I’m not sure it was a religious or theological choice. Perhaps Mum decided?

(See https://twitter.com/ruthmw/status/1256317999792832512?s=21)

For us at Easter, and for the immediate future, a truly refreshing sense of repentance of misunderstanding could be to encourage the acted parable of people sharing a meal of bread and wine organised by and participated in by family members, or individuals, themselves at home. This might be regarded as radical or innovative, if not wrong, yet it would actually be more closely historically grounded than our authorised acts of worship to which we have become accustomed Sunday by Sunday.

All this would lack would be an assurance of ‘authenticity’. It would be outside of the authoritarian control of those who ‘know’ how it should be done. We still haven’t learnt the lessons of colonialism from a negative point of view, or liberation theology as a positive. Putting it another way we seem to have re-learnt the Pharasaism that Jesus criticised. I recollect a story of Jesus. A beast of burden had fallen into a ditch. But it was the Sabbath. Human rules said it should be left there. Jesus countered that. Our human rules say that special authorised people like me have to Preside at communion. Far nearer to Pharasaism than to Jesus, I think. Reading scripture carefully, from where we are under lock down in a 21st century world, might well take us to a very different place than that in which the church finds itself. There is talk of a new Reformation. Interestingly, some other denominations are nearer to this than Methodism. Perhaps we are clinging too much to John Wesley’s authoritarian governance, rather than owning his willingness to risk breaking rules when this is what the Gospel, the love of neighbour, required.

Rev Dr Andrew Pratt (Supernumerary Presbyter and one time Acting Principal of Hartley Victoria College).