St. John the Evangelist

St. John the Evangelist

Sunday, 27 May 2012

May 27 NOTES FOR REFLECTION The Day of Pentecost

May 27 NOTES FOR REFLECTION The Day of Pentecost


Ezekiel 37:1-14; Acts 2:1-21; John 15:26-27, 16:4b-15


Not much thought required here this week: perhaps a choice between "The Spirit Poured Out", emphasising the Divine initiative, or "The Coming of the Spirit", seeing it in terms of the human experience.


Similarly, this is one of those wonderful Sundays when we do not need to spend time working out the relationship between the three readings. They are all about the Holy Spirit. The famous Valley of the Dry Bones prophecy from Ezekiel enables us to see the contrast between the activity of the Spirit in the Old Testament and the New Testament. In general, in the former we see the Spirit coming upon particular individuals (usually identified as prophets) for a particular function on a particular occasion or series of occasions. Today, although Ezekiel is already a prophet of great standing, the Spirit comes upon him again to show him something (the vision) and to give him a particular message to preach to the people (drawn from the vision). In the New Testament, again as a generalisation the experience of receiving the Spirit is much more communal. While preserving the individuality of members of the faith community the Spirit comes to all members. [It's just dawned on me that the episode in Numbers 11, where the Spirit came upon all 72 elders, even the two who hadn't bothered to show up, rather contradicts my thesis, but I did say I was talking in general terms!] The gospel again sets out the principal role and ministry of the Holy Spirit. The emphasis is on teaching and guiding the community of faith, continuing the ministry of Jesus, whom they called Rabbi.


This is one of those days when I am nearly able to feel sorry for all those who do not believe in the supernatural/spiritual nature of our faith, particularly those who are called to preach on this Day of Pentecost. In fact, the whole Easter Season must be one long torment for them. Even if they take refuge in psycho-babble to "explain" (away) the resurrection appearances, what on earth are they to say about the events of Pentecost? The fact is, the whole Easter Season is about religious/spiritual experiences, and those experiences reach their wonderful conclusion with the Coming of the Spirit on this day. Can there be a non-spiritual (that is, non-supernatural) understanding of Pentecost?

One of the leading biblical historians and teachers writing today is an American scholar named (rather wonderfully) Timothy Luke Johnson. He has written a large number of New Testament commentaries; but recently I discovered a wonderful book by him entitled Religious Experience in the Earliest Christianity, with the very telling sub-title A Missing Dimension in New Testament Study. Briefly, his contention is this. The primary cause of the early explosive growth in the membership of the Christian Church was not its teaching (important though that was), nor its wonderful pastoral care and outreach (impressive though that was), but the undeniable experience among members of the coming of the Spirit. Luke may be constructing his Easter-Ascension-Pentecost timetable as a story-teller more than a strict reporter or historian, but the basic inescapable fact seems to be that SOMETHING HAPPENED to the believers that transformed them inside and out, and the New Testament witness, through its many individual writers, is unanimous in terming that Something "The Holy Spirit".

It's particularly important to me that St Luke is one of the primary authorities for this, along with Paul and John. Look again at Luke's seemingly unimportant words to his patron, Theophilus, at the beginning of his first volume, known to us as The Gospel of Luke:

Many have undertaken to draw up an account of the things that have been fulfilled among us, just as they were handed down to us by those who from the first were eye-witnesses and servants of the word. Therefore, since I myself have investigated everything from the beginning, it seemed good also to me to write an orderly account...

He makes no claim to have been with Jesus from the beginning: he himself must have been a convert. He makes no claim to originality in the story he has written: he is passing on what he has received from others, going back to the accounts of eye-witnesses. He is the careful scholar, interviewing, sifting, and recording. And he sets a similar tone in the opening few lines of his second volume, The Book of Acts:

In my former book, Theophilus, I wrote about all that Jesus began to do and teach until the day he was taken up into heaven, after giving instructions through the Holy Spirit to the apostles he had chosen. After his suffering, he showed himself to them and gave many convincing proofs he was alive. He appeared to them over a period of forty days and spoke about the kingdom of God. On one occasion, while he was eating with them, he gave them this command: Do not leave Jerusalem, but wait for the gift my Father promised...

We can suppose, therefore, that his so-called timetable arose like this. The information to hand was that the Risen Christ had appeared to a number of people (Paul says over 500 in 1 Corinthians 15) over a short period of time, a matter of a few weeks, and then these appearances ceased. When did they cease? A few days before the Feast of Pentecost when the Spirit came upon us, reported the witnesses. So, 40 being of great symbolic importance in the biblical tradition, Luke made it 40 days to the Ascension, and a few days, 10, to Pentecost.

Of far greater importance is his account of what happened on that day, and over subsequent weeks, months and years, as recorded throughout the Book of Acts. We cannot make any sense of much of the Book of Acts if we exclude all accounts of the experience of the believers described in various ways as receiving the Holy Spirit.

Timothy Luke Johnson refers particularly to three manifestations of this in the early church, two of which are well-known to us, and the third frightens us into avoidance techniques. The three are baptism, the Eucharist, and Glossolalia ( better known as Speaking in Tongues). And so to today's readings.


As with Pentecost, so with this event. What sense can we make of it if we are not allowed to accept any supernatural activity? The language of religious/spiritual experience is all here. The prophet has an experience of being transported to another place. (We talk of being "transported" or "carried away".) He has a vision and hears a voice. The classic description of ecstatic experience is there, too: He is "brought out" by the Spirit. The vision is not one of aesthetic pleasure; he is shown a valley but no description of the valley is given. There is a mantra-like repetition of the word "bones". The meaning and importance of the vision is explained to him, and he is commissioned by the Spirit to proclaim a specific message to the people.

Taking It Personally.

Can you recall a time when you have been so absorbed by something (reading, listening to music, jigsaw puzzle, Sudoku or crossword, etc) that you have lost all sense of time? Has that ever happened to you while in prayer or at a worship service?

Recall a particularly pleasant visit to a place you enjoy. Picture it as clearly as you can in your mind. In what way would a recollected vision of this kind differ from the sort of vision described by Ezekiel?

Have you ever had a vision of the kind described by Ezekiel? Do you want to have such a vision?

Have you ever heard God speak to you in such a direct way?

Sir Alister Hardy, founder of the Religious Experience Research Centre, posed this question: Have you ever been aware of or influenced by a presence or power, whether you call it God or not, which is different from your everyday self? What is your answer to that question?


Notice immediately the slightly different language used here compared to the language of the resurrection appearances. In the latter case we are told what the disciples saw and heard, although they often had difficulties of recognition. Now straight descriptions have given way to analogies. They did not hear the wind; they heard "a sound like the blowing of a violent wind". Similarly, they did not see flames coming down on their heads: they saw "what seemed to be tongues of fire". The language has become more "visionary" or "spiritual". But however they understood or described the experience in auditory or visual terms, something happened to them. Verse 4 is crucial; it has two elements, that which happened (they "began to speak in other tongues") and Luke's editorial comments "all of them were filled with the Holy Spirit", and, "as the Spirit enabled them". Notice that, as we have the text, being filled with the Holy Spirit is a separate event, which is then made manifest in the speaking of other tongues.

Luke stresses that this is both a communal and an individual experience: they were all together...they saw...tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them...all of them were filled...and began to speak..."

And this is what draws the crowds – not their teaching or social outreach, but this strange spiritual experience and phenomenon. Not surprisingly the crowd is split: some are bewildered, amazed and questioning, wanting to know what to make of it all. Others scoff. Then Peter, who has already emerged as the de facto leader (or at least spokesman) for the group gives the theological/biblical explanation. This follows the pattern we see frequently in the immediate aftermath of Easterof religious event or experience, reflected upon and ultimately explained in terms of the Scriptures. Compare Luke's story of the disciples on the road to Emmaus.

Taking It Personally.

Have you ever spoken in tongues, or been present when someone else has done so? What did you make of it? If not, would you like to? How do you feel about the prominence given to the phenomenon in this case and elsewhere in the Book of Acts?

What other signs of the presence of the Holy Spirit might we look for in ourselves, in others, or in our local congregation?


Many scholars believe that the Farewell Discourses (chapters 13-17) were written after the original gospel, in which case they seem to have been intended as an update, recording the subsequent experiences of this particular community of faith. If so, it provides the strongest possible support for the view that spiritual experiences (more properly, in this context, experiences of the Holy Spirit) were at the very heart of this faith community. John's understanding about the work of the Holy Spirit can be summarised in three words, "presence", "truth", and "power". Through the Holy Spirit believers experience the presence of Christ with and within us. Through the Holy Spirit we gain in understanding and acceptance of the teaching of Christ. Through the Holy Spirit we are empowered to do things we would not ordinarily be able to achieve, either because of the inherent difficulty of the task in question, or because of our own weakness of will. Without Jesus we can do nothing, etc. Thus, the coming of the Spirit is a gift of God, real and complete in itself, but the proof of that gift in ourselves is proven by the way in which we live out our lives of faith. By our fruits shall we be known.

Taking It Personally.

Remind yourself that in baptism you received the gift of the Holy Spirit. In what ways has that gift been manifested in your life so far?

Friday, 18 May 2012

May 20 NOTES FOR REFLECTION Sunday after the Ascension

May 20                        NOTES FOR REFLECTION             Sunday after the Ascension

Texts: Acts 1:15-17, 21-26; 1 John 5:9-13; John 17:6-19

Theme: Perhaps something like "In the Meantime", or simply "Waiting".  This is a strange little period of time juxtaposed between two major events, the Ascension and Pentecost.  The Church is under divine orders to pause: timing is always in God's hands.

Introduction.  Our readings begin in betrayal and end with pleas for unity.  That is surely no accident.  There is also a strange combination of the heavenly (Ascension and Pentecost) interspersed with the mundane (the synodical election of a new apostle).  The Church makes no attempt at spin: Judas was one of us who shared our ministry, admits Peter (the one who thrice denied knowing Christ).  Guided by the psalms he concludes that they must choose someone to replace Judas.  The method chosen is again an interesting mix of the heavenly and the earthly: prayer followed by the drawing of lots.  In the epistle reading, John draws his comments to a conclusion, insisting that eternal life is given only to those who believe in the Son.  Sub-text: leave our community of faith and you will lose the gift of eternal life.  The gospel gives us the main part of Jesus' so-called priestly prayer.  Again, there is no hint of universalism here.  He does not pray for the world but only for those who have accepted the word of God.

Introduction.  If there is one part of the Christian narrative that troubles me it is this bit.  The Ascension event is troubling enough, with its unavoidable ability to give us an image of Jesus taking off from earth like a rocket.  But the rest of this story is troubling, too.  And it's all the fault of Luke, whose story-telling genius is usually so evident.  Notice that he is the creator of the Easter Season timetable.  He alone has an Ascension story.  Mark knows nothing of it.  St Matthew has a story of a final gathering of the eleven apostles at which the Risen Christ gives them the Great Commission, but also has Christ promising to be with them until the end of the age.  In fairness to Luke, John's gospel has many references that are consistent with the idea of returning to the Father, and at least one of these contains the idea of 'up and down'.  Thus: You are from below; I am from above.  You are from this world; I am not from this world.  [John 8:23]  I came from the Father and entered the world; now I am leaving the world, and going back to the Father.  [John 16:28]

So what was Luke up to?  In some ways, we can see what he was trying to do.  If people heard the apostles preaching that Jesus had been raised from the dead and that they had heard and seen him, the obvious question was, well, where is he now?  And the second question might have been this: how do we know that this strange Pentecost experience had anything to do with Christ?  So perhaps Luke felt the need for some sort of continuity story.  In his careful way he may have discovered that the apostles last saw the Risen Christ when they were together, a few days before the coming of the Spirit at Pentecost.  At that time, they received certain instructions from the Risen Christ, including what we now call the Great Commission and an instruction to wait until they had received the power necessary to be effective.  After that none of them saw the Risen Christ again.  So far so good, and so plausible.  Perhaps they also recorded the Risen Christ simply disappearing as he had in other resurrection appearances.  Luke's account of the Ascension at the end of his gospel would reflect that sort of scenario pretty well.  Perhaps he shouldn't have given us a more detailed account in his Book of Acts.

But there are two other things that still trouble me here.  First, this is a very tight timetable.  Could the apostles be sure that this really was the final resurrection appearance; or was it only in retrospect that they realised no one had seen the Risen Christ for quite some time?  Secondly, if they are gathered together awaiting the coming of the Spirit before setting out on their worldwide mission of evangelism, why would they give priority to the election of a new member of the mission team?  Surely there must have been other matters of concern of greater priority?

Enough of this heretical musing.  Perhaps one important theme today is that whole idea of waiting.  Enthusiasts are naturally not very good at waiting; they either get frustrated and blunder ahead; or sit around while their ardour cools.  God's mission can only be carried on in God's time.  And, of course, with God's empowerment.  The converse side of this is a lack of punctuality.  It always amazes me how often Christians keep other people waiting; and that includes, of course, being late for services or other church gatherings.    We honour people when we wait for them; we dishonour people when we keep them waiting.  The same applies to God.  Wait on him, we are frequently urged: I can think of no text that suggests we should keep God waiting!

Acts.  Peter, it seems, has already emerged as the leader of the infant church, at least among the believers in Jerusalem.  The number of 120 presumably applies to those still in the city; but even so it is a surprisingly low number after three years of mission and ministry by Jesus himself.  Peter acknowledges that Judas was one of the team, and suggests that a successor must be chosen to replace him.  Such a successor must have been with Jesus from the beginning of his ministry (John's baptism) through to the Ascension, so that he can testify to the resurrection.   Here is further confirmation that from the beginning the resurrection was at the heart of Christian preaching, rather than something invented much later, as many critics have argued.  Two nominations are received, both presumably meeting the criterion spelled out by Peter (even though there has been no mention of either of them up until now).  After praying for God's guidance they draw lots and Mathias is chosen.

Taking It Personally.

·        Think about the qualities of leadership in the Church.  How might they differ from leadership in the secular world?  What are Peter's credentials for leadership?  Why no reference to personal piety, as there was when deacons were being chosen in chapter 6?

·        What would you think if it were suggested that the best way to choose a bishop would be to call for nominations, pray, then draw lots?

·        Read psalm 109, which the infant church appears to be applying to Judas.  How does this approach fit with Jesus' command to love our enemies?

1 John.  John does not pull his punches here.  You're either in or you're out.  You either believe that Jesus is the Son of God or you are calling God a liar.  You either have eternal life, or you do not.

Taking It Personally.

·        What do you think of this black or white approach?

·        Would a 'grey' approach mean anything at all?  (Jesus might be the Son of God; we might have eternal life, etc).  If Jesus is the Truth, can we be vague about what we believe that truth to be?

John's Gospel.  We are coming to the end of the so-called Farewell Discourses.  Today we have Jesus' great prayer for his disciples.  The overwhelming them is the need for unity.  Again this may reflect the ructions going on in John's own faith community.  Notice the clear line between insiders (those who belong to God) and outsiders (the world).  Jesus prays only for the former group.  John also stresses that the disciples "know" the truth; it is not mere believe in the possibility any more.  The key matter is Jesus' relationship with the Father.  That was obviously one cause of dispute within the community of faith.  The good guys are the ones who believe in the divinity of Christ, the baddies do not.

Taking It Personally.

·        Have you ever felt tempted to walk out of the Church?  Would that be a contradiction of Christ's prayer?

·        Is it better to stand up for what you believe on an issue, or seek to protect your relationship with those who disagree with you?

·        What do you feel about Jesus praying only for the members of the Church, and not for the world?  How might this chapter shape your own prayers?

·        Do you have a sense of being sent into the world?  To do what?


Thursday, 10 May 2012

Roger's take on the dis-establishment of the East Otago Parish

As I understand it Bishop Kelvin took the proposal to re-establish Mission Districts to Diocesan Council on 30 March.  The Council agreed in principle, and invited the Bishop to take the necessary amending legislation to Synod in September.


In the meantime Council agreed that we can proceed on a provisional basis as follows:


The Parish of East Otago is dis-established.


The southern part of that parish (Seacliff southwards) to be constituted as the Parish of Warrington-Waitati, with St Barnabas as its worship centre.


The middle part of the former parish (Karitane northwards to Goodwood) to be consituted as a Mission District with St John's, Waikouaiti as its worship centre.


The northern part of the former district (Palmerston to Hampden) to be consituted as a Mission District with St Mary's, Palmerston as its principal worship centre.


Rev Juan Kinnear has been appointed Priest in Charge of the Mission district of Waikouaiti-Karitane.  Watch this space for details about the Waitati/Warrington parish and the Palmerston to Hampden Mission District.

May 13 NOTES FOR REFLECTION Sixth Sunday of Easter

May 13                        NOTES FOR REFLECTION                         Sixth Sunday of Easter

Texts:  Acts 10:44-48; 1 John 5:1-6; John 15:9-17

Note: I am tempted to write "See last week's reflections" and leave it at that!  Most of what I wrote then is just as applicable to this week's readings, which means that these can be a little shorter than usual.

Theme: I feel the need for a classical flourish this week, so I'm going with "A Tale of Two Visions".  A more serious suggestion would be to take a lead from one of our Liturgies and go with "Breaking Down the Barriers that Divide".

Introduction.  The menu remains the same, as we continue to ponder the way in which Christ's Resurrection is working itself out internally in the hearts, minds and spirits of his disciples, and externally in their actions.  Last week the emphasis was on Philip, one of the lesser known members of Jesus' Ministry Team.  This time the focus is on the Team's captain, whose form varies from awful to sublime; this week he's back at his best.  [Incidentally, by jumping from Chapter 8 with Philip to chapter 10 with Peter, we have omitted chapter 9 with Paul, a rather important chapter as it deals in some detail with his conversion experience on the Road to Damascus.  Read it for yourself.

A key element in this week's main drama is once again the Holy Spirit, who manifests himself through the appearance of an angel, and through two visions.  The key theme in Acts is the "conversion" of Peter (one of many!), as he is forced by his experience of the Divine to come to the conclusion that the old barrier between Jew and Gentile is a man-made rather than God-ordained division.  Just as John talks of our relationship with Jesus as being one of friendship, so now we see the implication of that at the horizontal level.  Who are our friends?  All those whom God loves – which is quite a few, really!

Background.  If I've said nothing else of any importance in over 20 years of preaching and teaching, one thing I do insist on is this.  Our faith is not an intellectual construct: it is rooted in experience.  Perhaps more than any other book in the New Testament the Book of Acts is testimony to that.  In fact, an alternative title for the book could be "the Book of Religious Experiences".  Today in our first reading we have some wonderful examples of that, and I'll get to that shortly.  But first a plug for a hero of mine, Sir Alister Hardy.  He was a brilliant biologist; he held chairs at Hull and Aberdeen Universities, before reaching the pinnacle of his career with his appointment to the Linacre Chair at Oxford, from which he retired on reaching the age of 65.  His career in science, therefore, had filled forty years.

But throughout all those decades he had a secret agenda.  As a young teenager he became convinced of the reality of a spiritual element to life.  He might be described as a nature mystic, rather along the lines of the Lake District poets such as Wordsworth, Coleridge and Southey.  Then, aged 18, he was called up for service in the First World War, and he made an extraordinary vow before God.  He promised that if he survived the war he would dedicate the rest of his life to reconciling science (and, in particular, Darwinism) to religious belief.  He recognised that the scientific world was already becoming more and more sceptical of matters spiritual, and no one would listen to him unless he could fist establish himself as a first-rate scientist.  Only when he had done that did he begin, very cautiously, to express an interest in studying religious experiences in the same way that biologists studied life forms, and with the same rigour.

Picking up on the work of the great pioneers, William James and his student Edwin Starbuck, Hardy decided to ask people to write to him about their own religious experiences.  Interestingly, he gained very few responses when he advertised in the religious press; he was swamped when he engaged with the secular press.  He established the Religious Experiences Research Unit within Manchester College in Oxford to continue this work, and was still at it when he died at the age of 88.  The unit is now based at the University of Wales Lampeter.  The most direct link on the web is  A very comprehensive and readable biography of Hardy's life and work was published last year by D.L.T.: God's Biologist, by David Hay.  Hay worked with Hardy and succeeded him as Director of the Unit.  One rather interesting little fact, only lightly touched on in the biography, is that one of Hardy's students at Oxford was Richard Dawkins!  You won't find many references to Hardy in Dawkins' published works.

Enough of riding hobby horses; it's time for relevance and sombre reflection!

Acts. I know I shouldn't keep repeating myself, but Luke really is a master story-teller.  Read slowly through the whole of chapter 10 to get the feel of what this climactic scene today is really about.  And in your mind put it alongside the encounter between Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch from last week.  This time we meet Cornelius who, like the eunuch, was what was known as a God-fearer: that is a non-Jew who nevertheless worshipped God and practised Judaism's rites and practices so far as they applied to worship, prayer, etc.  We are told that he and his family were very devout, generous to those in need and regular in prayer.

The story is set in Caesarea, a place of considerable significance in early Christian history.  A centre of imperial power and pomp, it was nevertheless the site of the famous question Jesus raised about his true identity, which prompted Peter's equally famous confession of faith.  Here one day Cornelius had a vision.  Interestingly, Luke tells us the time of the day when this vision occurred, 3.00pm, perhaps because this was the time of Christ's death on the cross.  At that time Cornelius "distinctly saw", anticipating the mockers and deriders.  He saw an angel who addressed him by name.  The whole experience was visual, auditory and personal.  Cornelius' response was one of fear, the usual response to an angelic appearance.  The angel gives him a mission, with far more detail than that given to Philip last week: he is to summon a man known as Simon Peter to his home.

Cornelius sends three men on the mission.  The number may or may not be intended to remind us of the three visitors to Abram at the Oaks of Mamre in Genesis 18, a sort of Trinitarian visitation.  Be that as it may, Cornelius' response to the Angel's message is one of obedience.

Meanwhile, in a house in Joppa Peter also has a vision.  Again, we are given a time signal: it is noon, the time when darkness came over the whole world as Jesus hung on the cross.  Peter is hungry, so he sends for some food, and while he is waiting for it he falls into a trance.  A cynic would suggest he fell asleep and what followed was a dream.  What follows is classic Peter.  He sees Heaven open (echoes of Christ' baptism, Stephen's martyrdom, John the Seer's revelation in the book of that name, and a whole lot else).  Then what looks like a sheet is lowered from heaven containing animals, reptiles and birds; and a voice commands Peter to stand up, kill and eat.  Characteristically, Peter argues with the voice.  Here the parallels include the foot-washing episode in John 13, his denial of Christ in the High Priest's courtyard, and the story of his so-called "reinstatement" in John 21.  With Peter, everything has to be in triplicate!

To cut a wonderful story short, Cornelius' men arrive, they are received as guests, and the next day Peter leaves with them on the journey back to Caesarea.  The divinely ordained encounter, therefore takes place.  Cornelius, we're told, was expecting him: he did not doubt that Peter would obey God's summons.  A congregation was assembled in the house and Peter preached to them.  Once again the sermon has at its heart the death and resurrection of Christ, and the consequences that follow from that.

As he is preaching, the Holy Spirit falls on all present, again requiring a change of mind and attitude on the part of the Jewish Christians present.   And the whole thing ends in baptism, as it did for the eunuch last week.  Word and Spirit effect conversion for which the appropriate response is to accept baptism.

What more need be said?  Well, perhaps this.  It is this sort of story that points the way to breaking down other walls that divide.  When I was asked by a fellow-priest why I supported the Bishop's decision to ordain a gay man I referred to this episode.  I said Peter's belief was absolutely sincere, but he was shown (by God) that it was wrong.  So let us look around: do we find women with fruitful ministries?  If so, we must accept that God is blessing that ministry, and there is no ground for excluding women from ministry.  Do we see gay people with fruitful ministries?  If so, it follows that there are no grounds for excluding gay people from ministry.  There are no clean and unclean divides here; that is the real witness of the New Testament.

Peter found that out, Paul spelt it out (at least three times!), and John told us to go and bear fruit.  That really is enough for now.

Taking It Personally.  See last week's suggestions.

Monday, 7 May 2012

May 6 NOTES FOR REFLECTION Fifth Sunday of Easter

May 6                                      NOTES FOR REFLECTION             Fifth Sunday of Easter

Texts: Acts 8:26-40; 1 John 4:7-21; John 15:1-8

Theme: There are many possibilities today.  I'm going with "On the Road Again": it's remarkable how many stories take place in the context of a journey along a road somewhere [Emmaus, Damascus, Jericho, and today we can add the road to Gaza, known, incidentally as 'The wilderness Road'.]

Introduction.  We have the typical Easter Season recipe today: take a large chunk of action from the Book of Acts and marinate it in a strong mixture of mystical theology, comprising one part Gospel of John and three parts First Epistle of John.  Serves everyone who wants a share.  John is often described as the theologian of the New Testament.  That's fine if we understand that in the Eastern rather than the Western tradition.  In the West Theology is usually seen as an intellectual exercise, whereas the Eastern Church sees theology as arising from prayer rather than pure thinking.  John writes as he does because of his experience, pondered over many years.  He finds that he is filled with love for others, and so he places the emphasis on that.  He finds that because of this new love in his heart for other people, he wants to help them, and so he places his emphasis on that too.  Those two strands are inseparable; they are, to John, the proof of Christian faith, and they prove each other.  If we do not minister to others, we cannot claim to love them.  St Luke, the author of Acts, shows us how that works out in practice when Philip goes out of his way (literally) to share his faith with a complete stranger (and a rather strange one at that).

Background.  It's important to grasp that we are in the Easter Season.  To most people "Easter" is a weekend, to us it's a period of 50 days.  [To be pedantic for a moment, that may be arguable: some would say the Easter Season concludes with the Ascension.  However, I side with those who say that Easter culminates in the giving of the Spirit at Pentecost.]  The Church says that the Resurrection of Christ is so extraordinary and so wonderful that we need some weeks to begin to absorb it, to get our heads around it, to use the modern and much-overused expression.  So week by week we continue to reflect on the story, seeking to go ever deeper into its mystery. 

Above all, resurrection is an experience: we experience the Risen Christ, and all else flows from that.  The experience enlivens us, and so John talks of 'life' or 'eternal life'.  The experience is enlightening (we see things differently), and so John talks of the 'light' of Christ coming into the world.  The experience gives us great peace, and so John emphasises Christ's greeting 'Peace be with you'.  And the experience brings us great joy, and so John talks of our 'joy' being made complete in Christ.

These then are examples of how John's wonderful mystical theology arises from the experience of the Risen Christ.  But today he reminds us that these 'internal experiences', if genuine, necessarily manifest themselves outwardly; and the principal image he has come up with for this is that of the vine.  It is a brilliant choice for all sorts of reasons.  First, Israel is often referred to in such terms in the Old Testament.  The most obvious example is the beautiful Song of the Vineyard in Isaiah 5.  Christ is, therefore, the New Israel.  Secondly, it describes the new relationship between Christ and his followers created through the Spirit.  The two have truly become one.  It is John's poetic version of Paul's more anatomical image of the Body of Christ.  We might say "We who are many are one because we are all branches of the one vine."

Continuing that image, John speaks in his gospel of the outward manifestation of the indwelling Christ as "fruit"; in his epistle he speak of both the indwelling Christ and the outward manifestation as "love".  Because God is (literally) love, to be indwelt by God is to be indwelt by (divine) love; and the outward manifestation of that love is a love for others.

The other thing to look for in this Easter Season is the way in which the mundane and the supernatural intertwine.  At one level the story of Philip's encounter with the Ethiopian eunuch is a classic piece of Lukan reportage.  But then comes the throw-away line at the end: Philip is "snatched away by the Lord", and, unfazed, the eunuch goes happily on his way.   This is just one of the ways in which Luke reminds us that we now live in a different world, one in which the 'real' world (as we are still inclined to call it' is for ever penetrated by the heavenly one, the Kingdom of God has come to earth.  It is also just one reason for believing that Luke has shaped this story as a re-enactment of his classic story of the disciples on the Road to Emmaus.  Watch.

Acts.  Both stories are set in the context of a journey home from Jerusalem.  Like the disciples, the eunuch has been to Jerusalem to attend a religious festival.  From the eunuch's point of view, Philip suddenly joins him, as the Risen Christ suddenly drew alongside the two men on the Emmaus road.  Philip explains the Scriptures to him, as the Risen Christ explained them to the disciples.  And when the work was done Philip vanished from the eunuch's sight, as the Risen Christ disappeared from the sight of the disciples.

Now let's look at things from Philip's point of view.  He's one of the unsung heroes of the New Testament period.  He is very rarely in the spotlight, but John tells us a couple of things about him in his gospel.  First, we have a bit about his calling: he is from Bethsaida, and Jesus himself called him to "Follow me."  Then Philip sought out Nathaniel, and told him that they had found the prophet of whom Moses had written.  More importantly, Philip is the one who asked Jesus to 'show us the Father', prompting Jesus to chide him for not recognising the Father in Jesus.

But we learn most about Philip from this chapter 8 of the Book of Acts, and it's worth reading the whole chapter to get an idea of the importance of his ministry.  The persecution of Christians is now underway, following the martyrdom of Stephen, which we are told was observed by Saul/Paul.  The flock was scattered.  We might note in passing that there is a little confusion in Luke's mind about the status of Philip.   In verse 1 we are told that all the believers "except the apostles" were scattered throughout Judea and Samaria, the inference being that the apostles remained together in Jerusalem.  However, in verses 4 and 5 Philip is among those who were scattered.  Be all that as it may, Philip had a wonderful ministry in a nameless city in Samaria, a ministry of preaching, healing, and exorcism.  But he was not the only crowd-drawer in town.  There was also a man called Simon the Sorcerer who was a great magician.  When Peter and John went to Samaria to see what was going on, Simon saw them in action, and offered them money if they would give him this strange new power called 'the Holy Spirit'.  Peter's angry rebuke in verses 20-23 should be required reading for all those today who believe that everything has a price and everything is for sale.

That gets us to today' reading.  Some particular points to note (in addition to those already referred to) are:

·        The role of divine prompting.  The angel of the Lord starts the ball rolling, and the Spirit of the Lord concludes the action by snatching Philip away.

·        The prompting is to go, but no purpose is given, or, indeed, any other details.  Faith is a journey of obedience taken one step at a time.

·        The inference is that Philip was sent to the eunuch, but verse 27 is open to the interpretation that this encounter happened while Philip was on the way to somewhere or something or someone else.

·        The person encountered is very unlikely: a non-Jew, a eunuch (despised in those days), a Treasury official (no comment!), and a foreigner.  The gospel is good news for everyone.

·        Philip allowed the eunuch to set the agenda; this is no prescribed course on Christianity.  Philip responds to the eunuch's question, and begins his exposition of the faith from the passage in Isaiah that the eunuch was reading when they met.

·        The climax of the story (like the climax to the Emmaus story) is sacramental; in this case it culminates in baptism rather that the breaking of bread.

Taking It Personally.

·        Can you recall an occasion on which you were "prompted" to go somewhere, do something, meet someone, or say something?  How does your experience compare with Philip's?

·        If someone asked you to explain the reasons for your faith, would you be able and willing to do so?  Would that be easier for you if the other person were a stranger or someone you knew really well?  Why?

John's Epistle.  Many scholars believe that the community that produced the Fourth Gospel and the three epistles attributed to St John was being torn apart by factions and suffering defections.   Hence his insistence on unity and mutual love; and on his argument that in the absence of such love the conclusion must be that God/Christ is not in the offenders.  Those themes are already present in the Gospel, of course, but he spells out this issue in even more detail in this epistle.  We could, perhaps, summarise this teaching in modern terms, "Put up or shut up"!

Taking it Personally.  This is a good passage for self-examination.  Read it through several times slowly and prayerfully.  Then ask the Spirit to guide you in reflecting on your own attitudes to other people, particularly those in your church fellowship.

John's Gospel.  Something strange has happened at this point in John's gospel.  Although chapters 13-17 are usually referred to as the "Farewell Discourses" and taken as one package, chapter 14 seems to suggest that the Discourse is at an end (verse 31 ends with the words "Come now; let us leave"; and then chapter 15 goes on as if they are continuing, albeit with a rather sudden change of subject.  Be all that as it may, the image is clear and powerful, stressing the need for unity (union), and loving outreach (bearing fruit) that can only occur from such union.

Taking It Personally.  Focus on a pot-plant, or a particular plant in your garden.  Ponder Christ's words.  Notice that he does not day that he is one part of the plant and we are another.  He is the whole thing which is comprised of us.  Stay with that idea for a while.  Enter ever more deeply into its truth.  How do you feel about it?