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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 2 – Two poems and two hymns

 Mark 8: 31-38
  
 Challenge
  
 ‘You don’t need to do that! 
 Why do you put yourself through it? 
 It’s totally unnecessary!’
  
 Wise advice?
 Maybe – in some circumstances. 
 Self-inflicted suffering 
 doesn’t seem to make sense 
 in the everyday world.
  
 But there are times 
 when we have to face the facts – 
 ‘no gain without pain’, 
 is the old saying.
  
 Yet Jesus, 
 making his future clear to his followers, 
 discovered that even the best of them 
 had no idea of what he had to face.
 And, for all the best possible reasons, 
 Peter wanted to spare his friend 
 the horror of the predictions 
 that were being set before him.
  
 ‘Don’t tempt me, you devil!’
 What a response to give. 
 One that rocked Peter on his heels 
 and made him feel hurt and guilty.
  
 Only time would heal that wound, 
 but only as the wounds that Jesus suffered 
 were made evident to them all.
  
 The challenge to suffering for the faith goes on.
  
 And when asked, 
 ‘Why do you put yourself through it?’ 
 is our answer tinged with the temptation 
 to turn and creep away in another direction?
  
©Marjorie Dobson, This may be used personally or for local worship, but not published elsewhere without permission.
  
  
 All the pain and hurt and horror 
  
 All the pain and hurt and horror, 
 loss, denial and mistrust, 
 hovered round as Jesus waited 
 for his friends to re-adjust.
 Lost within misunderstanding:
 thought that love was just a dream, 
 knew that it would be so easy, 
 they’re confounded by Love’s scheme.
  
 Jesus taught that love would conquer 
 only through integrity, 
 that the way his life was pointing 
 tested his humanity.
 Jesus felt that Peter’s challenge 
 undermined his purpose here, 
 spoke quite harshly, underlining, 
 made his need both plain and clear.
  
 Death was now the final payment,
 Jesus spelt out to his friends.
 To them this was not expedient, 
 not the way Messiah ends.
 Love would be denied if actions 
 led to violence or defence, 
 Jesus, lamb led to the slaughter, 
 death the cost of love’s expense.
 
Andrew E 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
Metre: 8.7.8.7D
Tune: LUX EOI
  

 Determination
  
 Nothing could deter him.
  
 Not religious opposition.
 Not the wily Herod. 
 Not the prophetic predictions. 
 Not the Pharisees with their plotting, 
 nor the teachers with their testing, 
 nor the disciples and their doubting.
  
 Nothing could stop him.
  
 For as Jesus wept over Jerusalem, 
 saw their persecution of prophets 
 and their future of desolation, 
 he saw his own destiny of death 
 at the hands of those 
 who set out to destroy him.
  
 Yet he moved on.
  
 And those who walked with him 
 could only fear for his life 
 and try in vain 
 to shield him from his enemies, 
 but knowing deep within their hearts
  
 he was determined to go on.
  
©Marjorie Dobson, This may be used personally or for local worship, but not published elsewhere without permission.
  
  
 Infectious faith 
  
 Infectious faith we demonstrate by action,  
 when words are lived and people feel God's grace,  
 when platitudes are kept in quiet abeyance,  
 and love expressed through every human face.  
 
 
 This is the witness we are called to offer: 
 the smile of welcome and the touch of care,  
 when every neighbour frames the Christ we honour,  
 the angel that we're greeting unaware. 
 
 
 My friend, we cannot claim to grace the Godhead 
 when those who stand in tatters at our door 
 are turned away without a moment's notice,  
 while others sleep upon a stone cold floor.  
 
 
 Our faith and love are nothing, simply empty,  
 just words we fling against a cloud filled sky,  
 when those we see derided, disregarded, 
 are left, without our protest, just to die. 
 
 Are we to be just noisy, clanging cymbals,  
 or signs of hope upon this cold, dark earth?  
 Ours is the calling now to re-imagine 
 the love of God, to sign each person's worth. 
 
 
Andrew E Pratt 
Words © 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.
Metre: 11 10 11 10
Tune: INTERCESSOR
  
   

Covid-19 hymn of Lament – Through every fighting moment and each breath

Through every fighting moment and each breath,
another burdened person nearer death;
and now we sing our prayer that life might last,
this time might be consigned, be something past.

Great God, we cling to hope when all seems lost,
we never thought that love would hold such cost;
and now our loving feels more like a shroud
to wrap the one we we love: we cry out loud!

How long, O God, must suffering prolong
this tension, is lament so very wrong?
Or is our understanding of your care
corrupt, or incomplete, bereft or bare?

Amid our swirling agony and doubt,
God hold us till the sands of time run out;
when light has gone, and darkness hovers round,
we wait the dawning of Love’s solid ground.

Written on 26th May after watching Clive Myrie (BBC reporter) in a ward with people dying of COVID-19.
https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/av/health-52809201/coronavirus-one-week-in-one-hospital

Words © 2020 Stainer & Bell Ltd, London, England, http://www.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.
Tunes: PEEL CASTLE (Manx Fisherman’s Hymn); EVENTIDE (Abide with me)