Sunday, July 24, 2011

The Grace that makes all the difference ... the story of Onesimus and Philemon

It’s going to be wonderful.

You’ll be able to see it in ways you haven’t seen it before.

The National Trust announced this week that it has won more funding for its re-development of the Chedworth Roman Villa site. You will be able to see the mosaics in a way that you have never seen them before as walkways are built to enable you to look down on them. Along with a new visitor centre a re-designed museum and all sorts of other improvements to the site it promises to become one of the National Trust’s star attractions.

What excites me about it is that it gives you a little bit of a feel for the kind of house that hosted many a house church in the days of the New Testament. And it looks very much as if Chedworth Roman Villa, perhaps towards the end of the Roman occupation of these islands was home to just such a church.

In the top corner of the site the spring still deposits water in the octagonal pool that was the shrine to the Roman gods, revered by the first occupants of the house. It is on the paving slabs that originally surrounded the pool that the very first chi rho Christian symbols in this country were discovered. I hope they will take up a more prominent position in the new museum than they did in the old. You had to get down on your knees to see them.

From the shrine the water from the spring was then channelled to the boiler house and to the baths, passed the dining room to the latrines at the lowest point in the villa complex.

What’s interesting about the layout of the house is the way it highlights the sharp divide in such a Roman house between the house-holder and the slaves who kept the household going. The Householder and the family would have used the shrine. The slaves would have been stoking the furnace. The householder would enjoy the baths, the slaves would have been stoking the furnace to keep the water warm.

It’s in the dining room that the divide becomes most apparent. Half the floor is a beautiful but simple mosaic in geometric design. That’s where the table would have been. The other half is a wonderful pictorial mosaic of the four British seasons, complete with a hooded figure for winter.

The householder and the family would recline at the table. The slaves would serve at table … the householder and family would from time to time during a banquet excuse themselves to use the latrines outside. The slaves would keep the latrines clean.

The divide was great between house-holder-and-family and the slaves who kept the household going.

It is against this kind of backdrop that we should try to visualise the house church that meets in the home of Philemon in Colossae. Far away, hotter climate, but basically the same social division.

This had been a household where there had been friction. And maybe that should come as no surprise.

Maybe it was his birth name. Maybe it was a name given to him by the householder, Philemon, but Onesimus had at one time been ‘Useful’ by name and ‘Useful’ by nature.

He was a hard worker. He got things done. And usually he didn’t complain.


But something had happened.

He didn’t just complain.

He ran.

He ran away as far as he could.

And he ran away to the place so many runaways run to.

The great city.


An anonymity in the greatest of crowds.

An exciting city, a dangerous city, a scary city. Rome – where the power of Rome was at its greatest.

And where there were all sorts of underground movements, offering a different way of life.

Maybe that was what drew Onesimus to one particular circle of friends. There was an openness about them that he hadn’t discovered before. They came from all levels of society, but there was something different about them. The lowest of the low slaves were treated as equals with the most influential and powerful.

Luke was a physician, a doctor, who was willing to share his expertise and reach out his healing hands not just to the well-off who had plenty of money, but to the poorest of the poor, to slaves as well.

Maybe Onesimus had had something wrong with him. Something that really troubled him. Maybe Luke had been the only one to help. Who knows. But Luke was a kindly person. Onesimus got on well with him.

And then there was Mark, he had been hard at work writing up an account of someone they all spoke of. They spoke so highly of this person. He had lived in the far-off Eastern frontiers of the great Roman Empire among the Jewish people.

Onesimus wanted to learn more of this Jesus and the difference he made in people’s lives. Aristarchus, Demas, Mark and Luke knew just the person who would be able to tell Onesimus all he needed to know.

There was, however, a snag.

He was in prison, along with Epaphras.

In prison is putting it a bit strongly. He was under arrest, under constant guard … but kept in a house, a secure house. The circle of friends could come and go, take him his meals, even share a meal with him. And he could host small numbers of people and tell those stories of Jesus, and explain what it takes to follow in his footsteps and the difference it can make.

Would he have time for Onesimus? Of course, Luke, Mark and the others insisted.

And so it was Onesimus made his way, no doubt under cover of dark, to the house where Paul was being held under arrest. He was an old man by now. But still as lively as ever.

That first evening, Onesimus would never forget. Paul spoke of the teachings of Jesus, the love he had for all, that sense those followers of his had that getting to know Jesus was touching the very nature of the God who created the heavens and the earth.

Putting your trust and faith in this Jesus meant a transformation in your life. Paul was sure of that.

It was like getting rid of all the dirty, mucky, horrible clothe – Onesimus thought of those duties he had to do mucking out the latrines and knew exactly what it was to long to get out of the stench of filthy clothing.

He also knew the world of abuse where a slave could be used for the gratification of his master: it made him shudder to think of it, he knew the world of impurity, passions gone wild, and as for the world of greed, the world of lying. He knew it all … so well.

An end to all that, said Paul. To put all your trust and faith in jesus Christ, to see him as Lord, to see him as Saviour, to see him as Son of God – Onesimus knew how dangerous such talk was. No wonder the Romans were holding Paul captive – Lord, Saviour, Son of God – those were words reserved for the Emperor himself.

Look to Jesus as Lord and Savior – he died at the hands of the Romans at their cruellest – but not even death could hold him down. He had risen again. And what’s more all who follow him can be raised to a new life and become a new creation.


Onesimus could scarcely believe his ears. Was this something for everyone? Could all be raised to new life in Christ?

Paul was adamant.

In that renewal there is no longer Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave and free; but Christ is all and in all!

No longer slave and free. This was a teaching Onesimus had not encountered before. In his world the lines were too strictly drawn. You couldn’t cross them.

There was a newness of life for everyone.

Paul was sure – it was like getting out of those stinking clothes, being completely washed clean, and then stepping into a new set of clothes.

As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience. Bear with one another and, if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other; just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in the one body. And be thankful. Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly; teach and admonish one another in all wisdom; and with gratitude in your hearts sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs to God. And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.
That night, Onesmus knew there was nothing else for it.

He committed himself, stepped out of those old clothes, was washed clean with whatever water of baptism was available, and he stepped into that new set of clothes.

He so wanted to go back. And he did. Over and over again. He became really useful to Paul. Paul began to look forward to his visits. He really was Onesimus, useful by name, useful by nature. And then, slowly, Onesimus began to open up to Paul.

He told of his roots in Colossae. Of the fall-out he had had with his master.

Colossae. That’s a place Paul had visited. He knew it well.

Onesimus felt a little uneasy as Paul asked him the name of his master.


Philemon, Paul exclaimed. And then he began to tell Onesimus of his visits to Colossae, of that circle of friends, an open, welcoming circle that he grown up in of all the houses in Colossae, Philemon’s house.

You must go back! Said Paul.

Onesimus wanted to stay. But the big city was scary, a fearful place.

To think there was such an open, welcoming circle back in Colossae, in Philemon’s house, a house he knew so well.

Could he start all over again.

Yes, you can. You will no longer just be a slave, though no doubt you will be as useful as ever to Philemon, you will be brothers together, more than that you will be beloved brothers.

I’ll write a letter, I’ll write two, Paul said.

And so it was Onesimus found himself travelling in the company of someone who was one of Paul’s beloved brothers, a faithful minister, and a fellow servant in the Lord – Tychicus was wonderful company. He was always bubbling over with conversation. And he guarded those two letters with his life.

News went ahead of them and as they arrived in Colossae the whole of that circle of friends had gone to Philemon’s house. They were packed into the courtyards, every available space. And they were eager to hear all the news.

Onesimus lost his nerve. How would he be received? He held back. Lost in the crowd. Tychicus thought it wise too. There was no telling how Philemon might respond. They agreed, Tychicus would present himself alone, Onesimus would stay as anonymous as he could. He had changed so anyway.

Tychicus handed over the larger of the two letters … and listened as the familiar words Paul had dictated were read with excitement and attention …

Paul an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, and Timothy our brother, To the saints and faithful brothers and sisters in Christ in Colossae. Grace to you and peace from God our Father.

In our prayers for you we always thank God …

Onesimus could hear at a distance – the teaching was so familiar – Christ the image of the invisible God

You have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above.

It’ll be the clothes next, he thought. And it was

Put to death whatever is earthly in you – all that abuse, the lying, the greed.

He looked around and could scarcely recognise the house he knew so well. It seemed somehow different. In the distance through the crowd he could just about make out the householder, Philemon. He too was changed. Had he really put off those old clothes and put on the new. Maybe he had.

As God’s chosen one holy and beloved clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness and patience. Bear with one another, and, if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other; just as the Lord has forgiven you.

Was it possible? Was Paul right? Would Philemon forgive … Onesimus?

He hung back even more.

Hoping the shadows would swallow him up.

Tychicus will tell you all the news about me.

The person reading the letter must be getting to to the end by now. Onesimus could see his travelling companion Tychicus was bursting to tell everyone all the news and more.

“he is a beloved brother, a faithful minister and a fellow servant in the Lord. I have sent him to you for this very purpose, so that you may know how we are and that he may encourage your hearts.

Onesimus was beginning to relax a little – but alongside Tychicus he felt so inadequate. He hoped the shadows would swallow him up.

Then it came like a bombshell. He hadn’t been expectinig it. Tychicus hadn’t told him what was in the letter.

The person reading, came to those fateful words …

“… he is coming with Onesimus.”

You could hear a gasp as those in the inner circle, closest to Philemon, instantly recognised the name.


Could it be THE Onesimus.

There was nothing else for it … he stepped out of the shadows as the words echoed in his ears

He is coming with Onesimus, the faithful and beloved brother, who is one of you. They will tell you about everything here.

Onesimus scarcely heard the rest of the letter. But something deep inside him said it would be all right.

Tychicus was holding forth by now, and everyone wanted to hear all the news. And then Onesimus could see Philemon was inching his way through the crowd. Tychicus must have seen it too. He was one to encourage the heart of anyone.

Tychicus broke off from what he was saying and called across to Philemon – there’s another letter here. It’s a personal one. It’s for you.

Philemon took it and, standing there on the edge of that circle of friends that was so much a part of his transformed household, he began to read it.

And as he read, Onesimus could tell, that everything would be all right.

And this is what Philemon read …

From Paul, a prisoner for the sake of Christ Jesus, and from our brother Timothy —

To our friend and fellow-worker Philemon, 2 and the church that meets in your house, and our sister Apphia, and our fellow-soldier Archippus:

3 May God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ give you grace and peace.

4 Brother Philemon, every time I pray, I mention you and give thanks to my God. 5 For I hear of your love for all God's people
Philemon raised his eyebrows and a smile spread across his face, he sneaked a look at Onesimus, the runaway slave …

I hear of your love for all God’s people and the faith you have in the Lord Jesus.

6 My prayer is that our fellowship with you as believers will bring about a deeper understanding of every blessing which we have in our life in union with Christ. 7 Your love, dear brother, has brought me great joy and much encouragement!
There’s that word again, thought Philemon.

Your love, dear brother, has brought me great joy and much encouragement.

You have cheered the hearts of all God's people.
All God’s people … Philemon stole a glance at the figure behind him. A lot had happened since last they met. And both of them had changed. He could see that. He read on …

8 For this reason I could be bold enough, as your brother in Christ, to order you to do what should be done.Philemon knew Paul could give his orders …

9 But because I love you, I make a request instead. I do this even though I am Paul, an old man and at present a prisoner for the sake of Christ Jesus.

10 So I make a request to you on behalf of Onesimus, who is my own son in Christ; for while in prison I have become his spiritual father.
Philemon glanced at Onesimus once more … did he know what was written in this letter?

11 At one time he was of no use to you, but now he is useful, useful by name, useful by nature, both to you and to me.

12 I am sending him back to you now, and with him goes my heart. 13 I would like to keep him here with me, while I am in prison for the gospel's sake, so that he could help me in your place. 14 However, I do not want to force you to help me; rather, I would like you to do it of your own free will. So I will not do anything unless you agree.

Philemon knew there was nothing else for it. More than that he knew it was the right thing.

15 It may be that Onesimus was away from you for a short time so that you might have him back for all time. 16 And now he is not just a slave, but much more than a slave: he is a dear brother in Christ. How much he means to me! And how much more he will mean to you, both as a slave and as a brother in the Lord!

17 So, if you think of me as your partner, welcome him back just as you would welcome me. 18 If he has done you any wrong or owes you anything, charge it to my account. 19 Here, I will write this with my own hand: I, Paul, will pay you back. (I should not have to remind you, of course, that you owe your very self to me.)

A smile had been creeping across Philemon’s face. But now he was serious. How right Paul was. He too was a changed person. He could tell Paul was getting old, his writing was shaky, so different from the confident script the rest of the letter had been written in. He wondered who it was had acted as Paul’s scribe this time.

This time when he looked at Onesimus he saw him through changed eyes. He read on …

20 So, my brother, please do me this favour for the Lord's sake; as a brother in Christ, cheer me up!
21 I am sure, as I write this, that you will do what I ask — in fact I know that you will do even more. 22 At the same time, get a room ready for me, because I hope that God will answer the prayers of all of you and give me back to you.

23 Epaphras, who is in prison with me for the sake of Christ Jesus, sends you his greetings,
24 and so do my fellow-workers Mark, Aristarchus, Demas, and Luke

25 May the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with you all.

That day, there could be no doubt about it, it was the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ that made all the difference to Onesimus, to Philemon and to them all.

In what way will the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ make all the difference to each one of us, to our families and to those we are linked with this week?

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Barnabas - the one who encourages

AFter 3 and half years, Becky, has completed her time at Highbury as our Pastoral Assistant.

During our services on 17th July we said 'farewell' to Becky and wished her every blessing for her future, celebrating a wonderful time at Highbury.

Four years ago when we took the decision to appoint someone full time for more than a year it seemed so wonderful to have the prospect of working long-term alongside someone else in ministry. The last three years and a term have exceeded my expectations in all sorts of way … but in one respect they disappoint me. The time has flown far too quickly. I was excited to welcome Becky … but find it very difficult to say fare well!

There’s a very real sense of coming to an end and also seeing things come to fruition and grow.

Becky has helped shape three of our church weekends away and with Felicity has organised the children’s work there. As this last weekend came to an end in our worship on Pentecost Sunday Sheila Grimes came up to me and said how much the weekend had meant to her and how she wanted to become fully part of the family and enter into church membership. - so I have one last job for Becky to do when we receive Sheila and James into church membership – but we’ll come to that later.

It was great when Becky emailed me an updated list of all the children linked with the church and there were 34 names on the list … and there was one new name this week – Poppy Archer – great that Becky has seen a number of youngsters in their first three years … and supported so many others in so many ways.

So much has started, so much has become very much part of our church family. Just think of the last week – and how much we have done in this last week we are so indebted to Becky for … It’s been great to see Transformers get off the ground in partnership with St Luke’s and was wonderful to share in such a vibrant Sunday Special last week and such a lively Messy Church last Tuesday evening. Becky ha played a key part in Hy-Tec too, with last night’s bar-b-q, if not the sleepover!! The lunch on Wednesday and the community café on Thursday both came out of the community action group that Becky helped us put together. Prayer emails are very much part of the church family – but came out of the course on prayer that was one of the very first things Becky shared with us.

Becky has shared with us in the joys of new arrivals to the church family – but also the sadness of those who pass on. Today we think specially of Vic – but as we welcome Sue back we cannot help but remember Cecille who with Sue gave Becky such personal support in settling into the church family here at Highbury.

We owe a great big thank you to Becky for all sorts of things in the last three years and a bit.

So what is there to share?

Our Church Weekend away focused on Pentecost. Pentecost is the celebration of the coming of the Holy Spirit. It is a festival that cannot simply come and go – it must remain with us. In our Christian faith we look to God creator of this wonderful world, to Jesus Christ who sets out a way of life for us to follow and brings God’s love close to our hearts. But then in the Holy Spirit we have a strength from beyond ourselves that is unseen yet very real and that strength makes all the difference to the living of our lives.

Since then we have been looking at the stories in Acts of people who came to follow Jesus and found the strength of the Holy Spirit so important in the living of their lives.

Today’s story is the story of Joseph, the Levite from Cyprus. It seems to me an appropriate story to share today of all days in all sorts of ways.

We first encounter Joseph, the Levite from Cyprus very early on in the story of the early church – he shared his all with the others and got himself a nickname.

From that point on they called him Barnabas which means literally, the Son of Encouragement.

Sharing of our plenty and giving to each as any has need is at the heart of Christian discipleship. To be an encourager is something all of us can aspire to … it is something that Becky has shared with us all, especially with me. Becky has that special gift of being able to work with people in a way that en-courages and em-powers – and that’s something very special for us to share.

Maybe that’s why Barnabas played such a key part in encouraging the church in Jerusalem to accept Paul, and in empowering Paul at the very outset.

After Saul made his escape from Damascus he went down to Jerusalem only to find that the disciples there were all afraid of him. They did not believe that the Saul who had been so vicious in his persection of them could have become a follower of Jesus himself.

Only one person believed in Saul, or Paul as he came to be known.

And that was Barnabas. “Barnabas took him, brought him to the apostles, and described fro them how on the road he had seen the Lord, who had spoken to him, and how in Damascus he had spoken boldly in the name of Jesus.”

By now Barnabas really was living up to his new name and was an enormous encouragement to everyone in Jerusalem, not least to Paul. Sadly, however, they were facing immensely difficult times. Paul took time out and returned to his home town of Tarsus.

The church in Jerusalem heard that a group of followers of Jesus needed particular support in Antioch … and so they sent Barnabas – “when he came and saw the grace of God, he rejoiced, and he exhorted them all to remain faithful to the Lord with steadfast devotion, for he was a good man full of the Holy Spirit and o faith. And a great many people were brought to the Lord.

But Barnabas knew he needed help in building up the church in Antioch and so he travelled to Tarsus and brought Saul back to Antioch.

So it was that for an entire year they met with the church and taught a great many people.

It’s fascinating catching a glimpse of the significant part played by this Son of Encouragement – in partnership for a short period of time.

But things happen … and things stick even after such a short period of time.

It is here in Antioch that another nickname is coined. This time it is a name for all the followers of Jesus Christ.

It was in Antioch that the disciples were first called “Christians”.

Then we come to one of the most powerful part s of the story.

Saul as he is still known and Barnabas have a very powerful message to share. They are engaged in teaching to help the disciples grow.

But teaching is never enough on its own.

A prophet, Agabus, comes to Antioch, with the leading of the Spirit, he predicts that there is going to be a very sever famine that will devastate many parts of the Roman world. The disciples determined that according to their ability, each would send relief to the believers living in Judea; this they did, sending it to the elders by Barnabas and Saul.

Practical help alongside the teaching.

One of the things Vic has done until very recently has been to be one of our church visitors. Among those he would visit was Hilda Read. Hilda asked me to call round to see her this week. Unable to get out of the house, she told me how she had been profoundly moved by the pictures of the famine spreading through East Africa at the moment. She wanted to do something about it and had put aside some money she wanted to give. I got on the phone from Hilda’s to Mary Michael – and we have re-jigged our Communion Collection so that through August we will support Christian Aid’s response to the emergency in East Africa with our special collections.

Discipleship involves a message to share, practical help to give – it is only possible through the strength of the Spirit – and we need people to be our ‘Sons of Encouragement’.

There’s one more dimension to the Barnabas story I want to mention.

It is from that church in Antioch that Saul and Barnabas are commissioned by the people in the church to take the Good News of Jesus Christ to Cyprus and on into the Mediterranean world.

It is the first of Paul’s great missionary journeys. But Paul does not make that first journey alone. He goes with Barnabas.

And the two of them are a partnership.

I guess that’s what I have valued most about these last three and a bit years – the very real sense of working in a partnership together with Becky.

There is, however, a twist in the tale of Barnabas and Paul as they part company.

It’s not the same reason we are parting company – but church work does have its downs as well as its ups. Reading the story of the church in the New Testament it always has been the case – and because we are people all of whom are blemished I guess it ever will be thus!

Paul loses patience with young Mark, and Barnabas ever the encourager insists in sticking together with him. They part. And from Acts 16 we don’t meet up with Barnabas again.

Or at least, not quite.

We have to wind the clock forward to the point at which Paul is in prison. He writes one letter to the church in Ephesus telling them to put on the whole armour of God – a wonderful passage that cropped up in Sunday Special last week and again at Messy Church. Another letter is written to Philippi and two more to the church at Colossae – the church itself, and to the person who hosts the church in his home, Philemon. In Colossians 4:10 it looks as if once more Barnabas’ work of encouragement has borne fruit, Mark and Paul are back together again.

For us today, it is my prayer that we all of us will have encouragement from others, that we will give encouragement to others – above all that Becky will take encouragement from our church family here at Highbury for whatever lies in the future.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Paul, Damaris and Culture

Special events come … and then they go and they are gone.

You can look forward to an anniversary, a special birthday, a family celebration… it’s ages coming, then it’s upon you … and then it’s gone.

The same happens with sporting events. You are looking forward to Wimbledon, or the Cricket Festival … and then suddenly it’s upon you and it’s gone.

Yesterday worked like that in two ways for me – a family celebration as the daughter of a cousin got married – excitement, the day is there and then it’s over in a trice. We went early and stayed overnight with Natalie’s former headmaster and his wife – we know them better as Martin and Liz Blazey.

Of course, yesterday was a great sporting occasion – one we have been looking forward to for almost a couple of months – the new-look Robins first game of the season – you look forward to meeting Cirencester Town – and then it’s over in a trice – or at least 90 minutes!

The major festivals of the Christian year are just like that … you look forward to Christmas, count down the days, you look forward to Easter and mark Lent – then the festival is there and it’s over in a trice.

Or it is?

A game is over and complete – Wimbledon has come and gone for another year. That’s the kind of event you look forward to and then it’s all over.

But a wedding is different – you look forward to it, build up to it … and then it’s over – but it continues to shape the rest of your lives together.

Do you see the difference?

I think we should treat the Christian festivals like that – especially the one that’s just past. Pentecost.

We celebrate it at our weekend away – we look forward to that weekend away – and then it’s all over. In the past. And Pentecost with it.

But no … Pentecost is an event that then has reverberations afterwards. Indeed it was an event that went on to shape the rest of the lives of the first followers of Jesus.

The round of Christian festivals we observe because they shape the rest of our lives.

That’s why I wanted to take the story of Pentecost forwards – and see how people’s lives are shaped not just by what happened at Pentecost but by the life and teaching, the death and resurrection of Jesus and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit.

That’s the story of Act. But what’s interesting about the book of Acts is that it contains not just an account of the things those first followers of Jesus did. It also contains a number of the speeches they gave to explain their faith, all it meant to them and the impact the whole Christian faith can have on people’s lives.

It gives you a fascinating glimpse of the preaching and the teaching of the first followers of Jesus.

The genius of Paul is that he is able to relate his faith in Jesus Christ to very different sets of people. There are occasions when he meets with people steeped in the Jewish religion and in what we think of as the Old Testament, the Hebrew Scriptures. On those occasions he makes references to those Scriptures, demonstrates as do those other followers of Jesus that Jesus is the fulfilment of the Law and the Prophets and that through is death and resurrection and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit a presence is let loose into the world that doesn’t just shape what we do in the world, but it gives us a new dimension to our lives.

But then there are other occasions when Paul engages with people who have no knowledge of the Hebrew Scriptures and are in an entirely different culture, the culture of the Greek-speaking part of the Roman emperor with its own traditions and ways of thinking about life. On those occasions he doesn’t quote from the Bible, but instead draws on that culture and shows how it too speaks in some way of God and he then shows that into that culture Jesus has something enormous to say.

He arrives in Athens and straightaway you see the two sides of Paul – there’s a Jewish community there and so he goes to the synagogue and there he draws on all his skills as a Pharisee, his rabbinic training, and he argues from the Hebrew Scriprtures that Jesus is indeed the fulfilment of the Law and the Prophets.

But then he goes into the market places and there engages with anyone who happened to be there. That’s the civic centre, the Agora. There he engages with Epicurean and Stoic philosphers who debated with him. He arouses curiosity, and they bring him to the Areopagus – the hill of Ares and there they want to listen to him in full. In some ways the place were disputes were settled.

What is fascinating is that you see this process going on in Athens today. When you see what is happening in Syntagma Square in the heart of Athens at the moment, it is fascinating that what is going on there has its roots in the ancient world of Athens. Faced with major problems today campaigners, politicians, union leaders, writers, thinkers have taken over Syntagma Square. There in different parts of the square lively discussions and debates are taking place as people try to work out how to respond to the crisis in Greece at the moment.

That’s what you catch a glimpse of Paul doing here in Athens.

It’s fascinating to see his approach. He starts where the people are.

He touches their sense of the religious – and interestingly he does it in a respectful way. He has found an altar with an inscription ‘to an unknown god’: he takes that as his starting point and sets his stall out, “What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you.”

If we want to engage with people around us and share what’s important for us, we need to start where they are. There is a sense of the ‘spiritual’ – we need to respect that. Start where people are … and move on to explain something more.

Think of people around – is it some sense of the spiritual, some sense of something there?

Paul starts with the immensity of the world in all its beauty. The immensity of the God who made the world and everything in it, the Lord of heaven and earth – and the impossibility of tying such a God down into shrines made by human hands.

That resonates for me … the greatness of God – the sheer sense of awe and wonder.

It is the last time the shuttle will take astronauts up the Space Station. Russia takes over where the USA leaves off in getting people up to the Space Station. Their descriptions of the awe they have at seeing the curvature of the earth, encased by that thin blue line of the atmosphere is a wonderful sense of awe and wonder.

The universality of the sense of ‘the other’ the sense of the divine. In all ages. In all parts of the world. Some sense of the other.

Paul has read the poetry of the time – and he quotes one of those poets – In him we live and move and have our being.”

I love that way of talking about God. As the one ‘in whom’ we live and move and have our being. The being of God, being itself, God as the ground of our being. All ways of thinking of God that go back half a century and more and speak powerfully.

I sometimes it would help if we got away from the non-biblical view of God as the Designer, the clock-maker, and re-discovered a more biblical way of thinking about God such as Paul offers here. God as the one in whom we live and move and have our being. The being of God, being itself, the ground of all being. Those were vogue words half a century ago, but they have their value now.

Interestingly in the debates among scientists over God, John Polkinghorne, a phyusicist, cosmologist, a vicar and a Christian thinker suggests we should get away from the idea of God as a designer that dates back only a couple of hundred years to someone called William Paley, the thinking that was rejected by Darwin, and seek another way of thinking about God. He suggests thinking of God as ‘one who is the ground of the fruitful order that makes any process possible at all.” [John Polkinghorne, Theology in the Context of Science (SPCK, 2008), 62]

God as the one in whom we live and move and have our being.

Then Paul turns to Jesus Christ – and what he suggests that Jesus provides a yard stick, a measure by which to judge right from wrong. He appeals to the teaching of Jesus – the thought that right and wrong matter.

His speech reaches its climax with mention of the resurrection.

No mention of the name of Jesus.

Some scoff. Some are intrigued. Paul finishes.

The moment has passed – but for some that moment becomes a life-changing moment that shapes the rest of their lives.

But some joined him and became believers., including Dionysius the Areopagite and a woman named Damaris, and others with them.

Just a handful of people whose lives were touched, changed and for ever afterwards shaped by this Jesus. Two of them named.

That’s the task. Let’s keep to it. And if only a handful are shaped by what is at the heart of the faith – that too is precious.

These two were touched by Paul as he spoke to them through their culture.

And Damaris has given her name to a website that emails out a culture watch – and aims to relate the Christian faith to the culture of today. The task we each of us are called to rise to.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Discipleship with Philip and the Ethiopian Eunuch

I have quite a pile of books waiting to be read. But I won’t be taking all of them away on holiday with me. I guess holiday reading is rather special. I have one thriller lined up – it’s the last in the Martin Beck series, the original Swedish crime novels. I might take a book of biographies away with me, I’m not sure, but it is written by my old history teacher, so it’s quite an attraction. And then there’s the story of I’m sorry I haven’t a clue. I mustn’t forget a geology book or three … Oh … and maybe one of those theological books I have waiting to be read. And I won’t forget my Bible.

How fortunate we are to have access to books.

Things weren’t like that in the time of Jesus.

Books were far more difficult to come by. The cost of papyrus, the length of a scroll. They were being produced in Jerusalem – a hoard of them was discovered more than 60 years ago in caves at Qumran just by the Dead Sea.

That’s what makes this story so fascinating.

With the martyrdom of Stephen the persecution of the Jerusalem church intensified under the leadership Saul who was before very long ‘ravaging the church by entering house after house; dragging off both men and women and committing them to prison.

There was, as far as Saul was concerned, an unintended consequence. Wherever people scattered there they took with them the good news of Jesus.

One of those who fled Jerusalem was Philip, another of the seven deacons with a passion for bringing practical help to people and an equally strong passion to share the good news of Jesus. He found himself going down to the city of Samaria. A little while later he sensed the guidance of God and felt impelled to travel the road from Jersualem to Gaza, a road that runs through wilderness terrain.

Luke tells what happened next …

Acts 8:26-40

What a fascinating glimpse of the church’s missionary activity.

This was no ordinary person.

Treasurer in the Ehtiopian court, this was clearly a person of some wealth.

He must have been to have got hold of a scroll of the prophet Isaiah.

That’s quite some substantial piece of writing.

Here is a wealthy, powerful man who has the money to invest in a scroll, and here he is reading from it.

It’s a story that makes me want to ask why. Why has this court official got hold of this particular scroll. Was it one he happened to pick up? Was it one of many he had acquired.

He clearly was sympathetic to the Jewish people, had been worshipping God. Had he been commissioned to get hold of a scroll of the prophet Isaiah to supplement the scrolls in a synagogue back home in Ethiopia?

Was it a personal interest he had? Why choose this scroll, the scroll of the Prophet Isaiah?

Why is he reading where he is reading?

Is it something very personal?

Has he deliberately chosen to read from Isaiah? Does something draw him to this particular prophet?

Luke is at pains to tells us that he is an Ethiopian Eunuch.

That’s something quite alien to our culture.

The place of a eunuch in the royal court of a queen is something we are not used to. Indeed the whole notion of, was it voluntary, or was it forced castration is something that we would rather not think of.

What does that make of the person who is a Eunuch?

There were cultures that had great reservations about castration and the place of the Eunuch. And one of those cultures was in some part to be found among the Jewish people.

There is a key verse in Deuteronomy 23 that is pretty draconian as some words in the Books of the Law can be. The removal of a man’s sexual organs means that he shall not be admitted to the assembly of the Lord. That stark prohibition is absolutely clear.

One of the things we sometimes don’t realise is that the Hebrew Scrptures don’t simply work as a mine for proof texts which establish exactly the line that should be taken on all issues and in all circumstances.

The Hebrew Scriptures reflect changing thinking about God and God’s ways with the world. Sometimes one part of the Hebrew Scriptrues will be in conversation with another.

If you are a Eunuch and you are fascinated with the Jewish God then Deuteronomy 23 verse 1 is a major difficulty. But it is not the last word on eunuchs.

Indeed one book in particular takes the story further.

And interestingly it is the Book of the Prophet Isaiah.

Might it be that the Eunuch knew that. That this is what attracted him to this particular book? Who knows … but it is not beyond the bounds of possibility. Had he never read these words before? Or was he re-reading words that for him were very special.

By the time you reach Isaiah 53 and the words that the Eunuch is reading in his chariot you reach new ways of thinking of the Messiah. They are new and strange ways. Isaiah 53 thinks of the Messiah as a Suffering Servant. Not an easy concept, one that Isaiah introduces into the thinking of Jewish people. Read on beyond 53 into 54 and that tells, in the words of the NRSV headings, of the eternal covenant of peace that the suffering servant establishes. Chapter 55 then extends ‘an invitation to abundant life’ to all with those wonderful words …

Ho, everyone who thirsts,
Come to the waters;

Then comes chapter 56.

The heading says it all.

The Covenant Extended to All Who Obey.


To be part of the covenant the way is clear …

Maintain justice, and do what is right,
For soon salvation will come
And my deliverance be revealed.

Who can be part of this?


Yes, indeed.

Do not let the foreigner joined to the Lord say,
The Lord will surely separe me from his people.”

Foreigners can be part of the people of the eternal covenant under the suffering servant messiah.

That’s a thrill for the treasurer of the Candance, the Queen of the Ethiopian Court.

But then comes the wonderful next insight.

Do not let the eunuch say,
“I am just a dry tree.”
For thus says the lord;
To the eunuchs who keep my Sabbaths,
Who choose the things that please me
And hold fast my covenant,
I will give, in my house and within my walls,
A monument and a name
Better than the sons and daughters.
I will give them an everlasting name
That shall not be cut off.


That is quite some place for the Eunuch of all people. What a massive statement. So powerful, so important it would go a long way towards explaining why this particular Eunuch had invested in this particular scroll.

Deuteronomy had been quite explicit – never a place in the assembly of the Lord.

This turns that on its head and gives a place for everyone,. What’s more the Eunuch is to to have a place within God’s house, and a name better than the sons and daughters.

No wonder that this Eunuch wanted to find out more about who this Suffering Servant was.

Like a sheep he was led to the slaughter,

No wonder the Eunuch should ask Philip “About whom, may I ask you, does the prophet say this, about himself or about some one else?”

Then notice what Philip does.

Philip began to speak and starting from this scripture he proclaimed the good news about Jesus.

What is good news for the Ethiopian Eunuch about Jesus?

God so loved the world that he gave his one and only son that whoever believes in him should not perish but have everlasting life.

All inclusive. The Gospel is for everyone?

But could it possibly include a Eunuch?

Would Philip have been aware of jesus’s view. Jesus had come to fulfil all the law and the prophets – to bring the whole story to fulfilment. That meant Jesus was with Isaiah on this one.

In Matthew 19:12 in the context of relationshipis and having children, marrying and not marrying, Jesus says some curious words, words that are all embracing as much of the Eunuch as of anyone else.

For there are eunuchs who have been so from birth, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by others and there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of hevean. Let anyone accept this who can.

A great, enigmatic saying of Jesus.

But one thing is certain.

The Eunuch is accepted.

And of that Philips is absolutely sure.

But look at the actual question that the Eunuch asks.

Even after hearing all the good news about Jesus from Philip he still wonders … can he be accepted?

Look here is water! What is to prevent me from being baptised?

Perhaps he thought Jesus would have stuck with Deuteronomy 26 without moving on and taking into account Isaiah 58.

No nothing stands in the way.

He commanded the chariot to stop and both of them, Philip and the eunuch went down into the water, and Philip baptized him.

I don’t believe you can simply lift texts from the books of the law and apply them to today. You have to see how thinking moves on within the Hebrew Scriptures, you have to take into account the conversations that happen. But most important of all you must look to Jesus to read the Scriptures of the Old Testament knowing that he has brought them all to fulfilment.

That’s why as a disciple of Jesus I want to base my response to another group of people who in some parts of the church know the exclusion that this man feared, those who are homosexuals, not on the half dozen or so texts from the books of the law and the couple from Paul and Peter, but on the inclusiveness of the love of God revealed in Jesus Christ and disclosed in the Gospels.

For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son that whosoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.

So much to pass on at Highbury

If you give a little love you can get a little love of your own

A blessing shared at Highbury

Now and the Future at Highbury

Dreaming Dreams Sharing Visions at Highbury

Dreaming Dreams Sharing Visions

Darkness into Light