Sunday, 31 May 2015

Trinity Sunday: Puzzles and mysteries

Isaiah 6.1-8, Ps 29, Rom 8.12-17, John 3.1-17

Most people love a puzzle. Some do Sudokus, some do crossword puzzles, some do jigsaws. We may not always be very good at them; we may sometimes struggle, but that moment when the last piece falls into place, the last square of the grid is filled in is profoundly satisfying. Last week I engaged in a different sort of puzzle, but one which is just as absorbing. Philip and I took a few days off and went down to the West Country to visit our parents, but while we were there I took the opportunity to do some chasing up of family history, which is basically a long line of dirt poor labourers and fishermen – no illustrious ancestors, but a great deal of personal interest.

So I dragged poor Philip around assorted tiny Devon villages in the back of beyond, and we traipsed around damp churchyards, despite knowing that most of my ancestors were too poor to have had headstones. But at the end I had managed to fit a few more bits of the family history puzzle together , and Philip still seems to be talking to me so there’s no harm done!

Just like those other puzzles it was good to be able to fill in some gaps, but unlike the Sudokus, crosswords and jigsaws, the answers I found, as ever with family history, simply threw up a new set of questions. And while I may be able to find some more births, deaths and marriages to add to the family tree, I know there are many things I will never find out. Some questions will always remain unanswerable. What were these people like? What did they dream about and hope for? If we had met, would we have liked each other? I’ll never know.

What’s all this got to do with Trinity Sunday? Well, the Trinity is a puzzle if ever I saw one. One God, three persons; you couldn’t make it up, and frankly you wouldn’t want to. It’s a puzzle that has occupied theologians for most of the Church’s history.  The word “Trinity” doesn’t appear in the Bible. It was coined by the Christian writer Tertullian around 200 years after the birth of Christ. But his contribution was just the latest in a debate about God which had been going on almost from the beginning of the Church.

Those who first followed Christ already knew of God as Father and Creator, but then in Jesus, they had felt as if they were meeting that God for themselves, God in the flesh, God incarnate. The Holy Spirit is mentioned often in the Old Testament, but on the Day of Pentecost they had their own very powerful encounter with the Spirit as well. They had met God in three forms; Father, Son and Spirit. But how did they fit together? Most of the first Christians were Jewish by birth. They’d grown up believing in one God, and it was a distinctive part of their faith, so how could Jesus be God too, especially as he had died on a cross? What happened to God when Jesus lay dead in the tomb? Was part of God dead? And what about that Holy Spirit? Was that the Spirit of the Father, or the Spirit of Jesus, or both, or neither? Their arguments about these issues rumbled on for centuries, and frankly they are often mind-numbingly boring, so I’ll spare you the detail. Suffice it to say that one question led to another, and every attempt at a solution created more problems in its wake.

Rather like my experiences with family history, the amount we know about God, or could ever know, is dwarfed by the questions that remain unanswered and unanswerable. Ultimately, both history and the divine are mysteries rather than puzzles – things that can be endlessly explored, but never wholly known. But in our tidy-minded human ways, we find it hard to live with that sort of  uncertainty. We want everything sorted out, preferably in a neat package which we can easily grasp and explain.

We aren’t alone in wanting to find answers to the questions that bug us. In our readings today, there are two people who are also puzzling over things that are beyond them.

Nicodemus comes to Jesus by night, in the dark. That’s partly because he doesn’t want to be spotted. He is a Jewish leader, one of the members of the Sanhedrin, the ruling council, and a religious expert too. What will people think if they see him going to talk to this new young firebrand of a teacher? Nicodemus thought he knew what God was like, what it looked like to follow him, but something about Jesus has radically challenged him. God seems to be using Jesus and blessing his work, yet he doesn’t keep the religious rules Nicodemus has grown up with. How can that be? The darkness against which the story is set is as much inside Nicodemus as outside. 

And Jesus doesn’t make it any easier by his response to Nicodemus’ questions. If you are going to see what God is doing, how he is building his new kingdom here on earth what you need, says Jesus, is a whole new life.  You must be born from above, born again. That confuses Nicodemus even more. How can he go back into his mother’s womb? Jesus’ words seem ridiculous, and he is justified in thinking that. For him to start following Jesus would mean leaving behind everything that has given him security; his place in the establishment, the respect of his community. No wonder it feels impossible. It is very hard to change our lives and our minds as radically as Nicodemus would need to,so I can understand his reaction. Perhaps it’s no surprise that he slips away without taking it any further. But the questions don’t go away. Nicodemus pops up twice more in John’s Gospel – the only Gospel he appears in – and it looks as if this conversation has made a difference, even if it takes a long time for him to realise it. In Chapter 7 we find him arguing with the Sanhedrin, saying that they shouldn’t condemn Jesus without giving him an opportunity to defend himself.  But Jesus is crucified anyway, and it’s only after this that Nicodemus appears for the final time finally coming out of the shadows and committing himself, providing the spices and oils to anoint Jesus’ body at his burial. Finally, and apparently too late, the penny has dropped. Fortunately, the resurrection is just around the corner, and while we don’t  hear of Nicodemus again, from the fact that he is included in the Gospels we can assume he became a Christian and was known to the early Christian community.

In the Old Testament, the new start the prophet Isaiah needs comes much more quickly, but his puzzlement is just as deep at the outset. He has a vision of God. He wasn’t anticipating it and he doesn’t feel ready for it. He can’t understand how he is even surviving the experience. But unlike Nicodemus, his response to this terrifying sight is profound obedience and love. “Here am I; send me!” he cries out. He can’t stop himself. He doesn’t know what God is doing, wanting, thinking, asking, but he knows he wants to be part of it.

Neither of these readings is directly about the Trinity, because, as I’ve said, it’s not mentioned in the Bible at all, but in a way both of them express the most important truths at the centre of this mysterious doctrine. They underline what those who came up with the idea of the Trinity were trying to tell us by it, things they thought were vital for us to know, not to satisfy our intellectual curiosity, but because they make a real difference to the way we live.

Firstly the doctrine of the Trinity says that although we may get glimpses of God through Christ and through his Spirit, God is also always going to be mysterious to us, beyond our understanding. “God cannot be grasped by the mind,” said one ancient writer called Evagrius of Pontus, “if he could be grasped, he would not be God.”  The mystery which so confuses us is part of the message. If we think we’ve got God sorted out, as Nicodemus does at the outset, we usually go on to assume we know what he thinks. Then we start making rules to defend our view of him, rules that all too often exclude  and hurt others as well as ourselves. If we try to put God in a box of our own understanding, we are bound to find that the box is too small, because our minds will never be able to contain the infinite, and the result will be that the life and love are gradually squeezed out of our faith, and the box becomes a coffin.

Secondly, the doctrine of the Trinity tells us that rather than being some rigid divine hierarchy, or worse still a lone figure on a distant cloud, at God’s heart there is a community of love. The early theologians described the relationship between the Father, Son and Spirit with the Greek word perichoresis, which means “dancing around each other” – we get choreography and chorus line from the same word. There’s a dance going on at the heart of God, says this doctrine, a dance of love which is seen in the trust Jesus has for his Father and his openness to the prompting of the Spirit.

And thirdly the doctrine says that this dynamic, active, dancing God wants us to be part of what he is doing. “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” asks God in the Old Testament. And in the Gospels Jesus invites Nicodemus to be blown along by the Spirit, going where it leads, part of the new creation God is making.  Not only is there a dance going on in the heart of God, but it’s a dance we are all invited to.

Whatever the mysteries my family history might reveal or hide, the most important identity we can all find is the identity God gives us. As Paul puts it,  “We are children of God and if children then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ.”  We are called to be part of the dance of God’s love, caught up in its glory and leading others to join it too. That’s not something we will ever understand, but it is a mystery and a joy we can never come to the end of, and if we have any sense, we would never want to.

For a good summary of the doctrine of the Trinity see:

Monday, 18 May 2015

Easter 7 Breathing Space: drawing the short straw

In the aftermath of the General Election at least three political parties are in the throes of choosing a new leader, and it isn’t proving straightforward. I’m not sure what’s going on in the Lib Dem camp, but the Labour party has any number of candidates setting out their stalls, and in Chukka Umuna’s case taking it down again. Then there’s Nigel Farage and Ukip, what is going on there is anyone’s guess…
But however strange modern political decision making seems to be, it can’t be as strange as the method we see in today’s first reading from the Acts of the Apostles. Judas, one of Jesus’ chosen followers, has killed himself, so the twelve who Jesus chose to lead his followers, according to the Gospels, are down to eleven, and there needs to be a replacement. So what do they do? They don’t have an election. They don’t talk until they come to a consensus. They don’t have interviews or set challenges and vote off the unsuccessful candidates until only one is left. No. They draw lots. It’s true they have come up with a shortlist of two, and the lots are drawn after prayer, but in the end it all comes down to the tossing of a coin or the drawing of straws. This might seem very odd to us for such an important decision, but at the time it was very normal. People didn’t see this as gambling or trusting to luck. After all, it was God who controlled how the coin fell, or who got the short straw. All it was doing was giving him the deciding vote.

But the result is that Matthias makes it into the company of the apostles, while Joseph Barsabbas doesn’t.

What were their reactions? Did Matthias let out a triumphant “Yes!” even if only under his breath? Was Joseph crestfallen? Even if it had just been down to luck, no one likes being the one who isn’t lucky, but for these people, remember, it was God who was doing the choosing through this. Matthias may well have felt like it was a divine pat on the back, and Joseph might have been left wondering why God didn’t think he was Apostle material. Of course, apostleship wasn’t meant to be a prize, and Jesus’ followers weren’t supposed to count some people as more important than others, but when it’s you it’s happening to…

What are we recalling, I wonder, as we hear this story. Maybe we remember times when we weren’t chosen ourselves – for the school sports team, for a part in the school play, for a job, or by the person we hoped would notice us and love us. Most people have disappointments like this somewhere in their history, and sometimes we can end up carrying a chip on our  shoulders for evermore.

We don’t know what happened to either of these disciples afterwards with any certainty. Tradition says that Matthias either went to Cappadocia with the Gospel and died there, or that he ended up being killed in Jerusalem. Joseph Barsabbas, again only according to tradition, became leader of the Christian community in the town of Eleutheropolis, near Hebron. So in a way perhaps it made little difference to their personal happiness – life wouldn’t have been easy for either of them. But they didn’t know that as the lots were cast, and they wouldn’t have been human if they hadn’t read something into the results.

That is perhaps why it is good that this reading is teamed with our Gospel reading today. This is Jesus’ last prayer for his followers on the night before he dies, and in it, Jesus prays for those he will leave behind. It is a profoundly compassionate prayer, which recognises how lost they are likely to feel when he isn’t there to guide and comfort them. It is a prayer which emphasizes above all that each of them is chosen and precious to God.  “They were yours and you gave them to me” says Jesus – whatever else we are chosen for the really important thing, which surely overwhelms all the other triumphs and disappointments of our lives is that God has chosen us as his children and his friends, and called us beloved. But it is easy to forget this, so Jesus asks that God will “protect them from the evil one”. I don’t think he is just thinking of the obvious evils of persecution, or grand moral failures. I think this is just as much about the insidious eating away of our spirits that happens through petty jealousies and rivalries that are never really acknowledged and dealt with. These are the things that usually destroy communities – Christian or otherwise – most quickly and completely.  He prays that his followers will be one as he is one with his Father, in a relationships that are marked by love and trust, where no one thinks less of themselves, or others, because they are called to different roles.

In the end, maybe Joseph Barsabbas was quite happy not to be chosen. Maybe he never really wanted to be an apostle in the first place – I’m not sure I would have done. But his story invites us to look at ourselves, at the things we do, the roles we occupy, the times we feel we’ve been passed over, the chances we feel we’ve missed. It invites us to consider what our calling is – it may be to something we have never imagined, but it may also be to find what truly fulfils us in the place where we already are.


Sunday, 10 May 2015

Easter 6: I have called you friends.

Jesus said “ I have called you friends”

Friendship – it’s one of the most powerful and important relationships we have. A good friendship can last a lifetime. You may not see each other often, but when you do you can pick up where you left off as if it’s been no time at all. Recent research shows that loneliness can damage not only your mental health, but your physical health too. Apparently, it is as bad for you as smoking 15 cigarettes a day, so friends can be lifesavers as well as good fun to be with.

The value we put on friendship is nothing new. Ancient civilisations rated it very highly.
One of the oldest stories in the world is called the Epic of Gilgamesh. It comes from ancient Mesopotamia, and basically it is a buddy movie. Gilgamesh was the king of Uruk. He was phenomenally strong, and the gods thought he needed taking down a peg or two. So they created a wild man, Enkidu, who was just as strong. Eventually the two men met and fought, but neither could defeat the other, and instead of becoming enemies, they became friends. The story describes the adventures they had together, defeating various monstrous creatures, but in the end, Gilgamesh offends the gods again and to punish him they kill Enkidu. The story is at least 3500 years old, but the description of Gilgamesh’s grief for his friend could have been written yesterday. 
“He was my battle-axe at my side, in which my hand trusted. The sword in my belt was he. He was the shield which was my protection, He was my festive robes and my most precious jewel.” Gilgamesh roars out his sorrow, we are told, like a lioness who has lost her cubs.

So friendship is nothing new, and the Bible gives us pictures of equally intense and deep friendships too, like that of David and Jonathan. Friendship is one of few social relationships that hasn’t really changed much over the centuries. Marriage has changed almost constantly and appears in many forms through history and across the world –arranged marriages, forced marriages, polygamy, marriage between close relatives, marriages of people we would consider as children and now same sex marriages. They have all counted as marriage at some time in some part of the world. Parent/child relationships have changed too. Roman fathers had power of life and death over their children – if they decided not to raise them or acknowledge them as their own they could abandon them at birth. Previous generations would have been astonished at the change in our economic relationships too – the idea that employees had rights or that slavery was wrong.

All these relationships have changed, but friendship is remarkably recognisable, remarkably similar over time and culture. It is a relationship of freedom. It doesn’t carry any legal baggage; friends have no rights over each other. We may hope our friends will be loyal and kind and generous, but we can’t enforce it if they aren’t. There are no formal ways into friendship, and no divorce proceedings if it all goes wrong. It’s a relationship of equality – even if friends have very different status in the world’s eyes, they relate to each other on the same level. Gilgamesh had riches beyond imagination; Enkidu had nothing. Yet their friendship made them equals. Friends value each other for who they are, not for what they possess or what they can do for the other. And friends will willingly give to each other, make sacrifices – listen late into the night, go with them to the chemo appointment, stand up for them when they need it. That’s friendship.

And it is this relationship which Jesus calls his disciples to in today’s Gospel passage. That is a staggering thought – this is how he sees us. I do not call you servants any longer… I have called you friends.

Today’s Gospel passage is part of John’s account of the Last Supper. On the night before he dies Jesus speaks to his followers for the last time. Last words are always important, and these are no exception. The words we find in these chapters sum up the essence of Jesus’ ministry. And what is it? It is “I have called you friends”  He hasn’t come to present people with a list of rules that will keep an angry God off their backs; he’s come to call them into a friendship with God.

Like all friendships, this one will shape and change those who accept it. If you are going to be a friend to someone it is important that you share values in common.  If your friend is an animal lover, your friendship won’t last long if you kick her cat every time you visit. It sounds a bit strange when Jesus says  “you are my friends if you do what I command you” – commanding isn’t the language we expect of friendship – but this is really about letting our lives be shaped by the pattern and the priorities of Jesus, loving others as he has loved us. If we don’t do this then what does our friendship with him mean? 

This week is the beginning of Christian Aid week, and it’s a great week to be thinking about the friendship of Christ because if that friendship is genuine it has to spill over to those around us and encompass those who we may never meet, but whom Jesus also calls friend.

This year’s Christian Aid week appeal focuses on the stories of women from one of the poorest communities in Ethiopia. The Borena people are pastoralists. They keep livestock, especially cows, for a living. Having a cow is vital to them. If you have a cow, you don’t just have milk for your family, you also have respect in your community, and a voice at community meetings. Without one, people see you as not worth listening to. Christian Aid tells the story of one woman, Loko, who is in this position. She hasn’t got any livestock of her own, and the only way she can provide for her three children and three step-children is by collecting firewood and selling it at the market. Four times a week she makes an eight hour trip on foot to gather it from the mountains. These are her words.
The worst thing about collecting firewood is being all alone. I travel to a place on the mountain where there is good fuel wood. It’s an eight-hour walk to get there. I pray to God as I walk: ‘God, please clear all the thorny plants from my way. God, please help me to find good firewood, then I can sell it. God please bring me good buyers who can give me money. God, please open the paths in front of me.’ …It is very difficult to collect firewood and sell it. There are many thorns that stab my legs and my body. Sometimes I accidentally cut my leg or hand with the axe and there’s no one to help. There are wild animals like hyenas, cheetahs and snakes. When the rainy season comes it’s particularly frightening because all the grasses grow, the trees have big leaves, and it’s dark so you don’t know what’s going to come out of the bush. It’s scary and I feel very alone.”

It’s only by my striving, by my support, that all of the family are surviving. The lives of women in the Borena community are really difficult when we compare them to men. Women have to build the house, collect firewood, fetch the water, do all the housework and prepare the food. The men look after their cattle; they come back home, wash their faces and say, ‘Bring me something to eat.’ It really makes a difference whether you have cattle or not. You are perceived very badly if you don’t have any livestock. Even if you have only one cow, people say, ‘At least she has a cow, if nothing else.’ If I don’t have an animal of my own then nobody will invite me to participate in social events. I can’t go to the pond to fetch water when the others do because they say, ‘She has no cattle, why is she coming and disturbing us? She can fetch water when we’ve had enough.’ I can’t even speak in the community meetings. No one will allow me.”

Loko is hoping that a local Christian Aid partner organisation will be able to help her, as they have other women in her community, by giving her livestock to get started with. Just a little help will make all the difference in the world to this brave, strong woman not just because it will give her family milk to drink and butter to sell, but also because it will give her status and a voice.

The overwhelming impression we get from Loko’s words is her sense that she is alone and friendless. That’s why, as well as giving livestock, Christian Aid are working to empower women like her to challenge the assumptions of her society, and to challenge our assumptions too. It is easy to feel pity for someone who is in need, to feel sorry for them, whether they are in Ethiopia or in our own neighbourhoods. The real change comes when we start to see them as we would our friends, as people we can’t bear to see suffer, people for whom we would go the extra mile without even thinking about it. It is all very well for us to rejoice in Jesus’ words, “I have called you friends”, but they mean nothing if we don’t recognise that they aren’t just for us, but for all people. Being a friend of Christ means treating everyone as we would our friends, with respect, as equals, with sacrificial love. If we saw Loko like that, she would have had her own cow long ago.

The same is true for those in our own community who are in need. Would we let our friends get so desperate they had to use a foodbank? Would we let our friends sit alone at home, housebound by disability, not speaking to anyone for days or even weeks at a time as some elderly and disabled people do? Would we let our friends sleep on the streets because it would cost us a little more in taxes to provide them with housing?

None of us has a magic wand. We can’t solve the problems of the world in one fell swoop, but that doesn’t mean we can’t do something. And it starts, it seems to me, with the simple but life-changing realisation that Christ has called us friends. And if we are called into his friendship, we are called into friendship with all his people too. Amen.

Sunday, 3 May 2015

Easter 5: Abiding in God

“Abide in me, as I abide in you,” says Jesus to his disciples.

Abide” is an interesting word, and not one we use much these days in normal conversation. We don’t tend to say of someone that they abide in No 23; we say they live there. A South African former boss of mine when I was first ordained used to say that so and so was staying at such and such an address. It confused me no end. To me, “stay” meant “visit”. We stay in a hotel on holiday; we don’t live there. It was a long time before I realised that this was the South African way of saying that this was their permanent home. Words that seem to be part of the same language often change their meanings subtly from one culture to another. We think we understand each other, but we don’t.

Whatever word we use for it, though, we know what it means to be at home somewhere, and what it feels like not to. If you’ve moved house, you’ll know it can take a while before the new place feels like home. Young people leaving to set up on their own often talk for a long time about going “home” to see their parents. It takes time to feel “at home” somewhere else, to get to the point where we feel we have a right to be there, and can treat it as our own. There comes a point though, when the peculiarities of the place become a familiar and comforting backdrop to our lives - the sound of the front door opening, the stairs that creak when you walk on them, the gurgle of the plumbing.

You have to “abide” to get to that point, to wait, to stick with it. The Greek word translated as “abide” is “meno” - indirectly, via the Latin, it gives us the word “remain” and that’s what it means. It can mean to stay behind when everyone else has gone. Remains are things that are still there when everything else has been taken away.

I’m labouring the point because it’s important that we understand what Jesus is saying here. “Abide in me, as I abide in you”. He’s not talking of a quick visit, getting together with him once a week for an hour on Sundays, then going our separate ways, but of a relationship that is permanent and stable, where he is woven into our lives and we are woven into his.

One of the local projects we support with our giving at church is Sevenoaks family Contact Centre. It enables separated parents who for some reason can’t have access to their children without supervision to meet with them and play with them, alongside others in a comfortable environment. It is a very valuable project, and it makes a huge difference to the lives of the families who use it; helping them to stay in contact. But I am sure they would say that it’s not the same as being together all the time. Children and parents know they are just visiting each other, not living together.

It seems to me that it is very easy for our relationship with God to be like this. This building, this hour on a Sunday, can become a sort of holy Contact Centre, a place where we visit God, and allow him to visit us, under carefully controlled circumstances , where the words and the music have been mostly chosen by others, and we just say our “Amen” to them. At the end of the hour we go back to the place where we really live, as if God has been left behind. But Jesus says, “Abide in me, as I abide in you.”  But what might it look like to abide in him? Abiding with others we share our home with means knowing them, talking to them, so prayer and Bible reading have got to be in there if we are going to abide in Christ. We share meals with those we live with too, so the Eucharist should feature as well. But our second reading today hints that it isn’t just these things that matter.  

“God is love”, says John,” and those who abide in love abide in God and God abides in them.”  There’s that word “abide” again. If you want to abide in God you have to love, says John, because that’s where God is. That small act of kindness, that decision to build people up instead of pulling them down with vicious gossip, responding to the needs around us rather than turning away, that’s where God is, that’s where we find him at home. If we want abide with him, we need to learn to abide in those places too, to make love a habit, a part of our natural environment. 

I often say to couples at their marriage service that I hope they will eventually look at each other and say “that’s not the person I married”, not because somethings gone wrong but because the love they share has changed them,  so they have become bigger and better versions of themselves. Abiding in love, whatever form that love takes, changes us for the better. Abiding in God’s love is no different. Over time, bit by bit, it transforms us.

I hosted a visit to church on Friday for a class of seven year olds from Seal School. As usual, they discovered all sorts of things about the church, and had a lot to say for themselves. But there is one little boy in the class who has special needs. This little lad often sees the world in a completely different way to everyone else, and it’s not always easy to know what is going on in his mind. As he left church at the end of the visit, he turned to me with a thoughtful expression on his face. I wondered what  he was going to say. “You know,” he said, you’re beginning to look a bit like God”. Before you think that makes me sound really big headed, I should explain that he probably just meant that I was looking very, very old…and I was dressed in a white robe on that occasion. But I loved the phrase anyway and it gave me a lot to think about. Wouldn’t it be good if people could look at us and think that we really were “beginning to look a bit like God”, not physically, but that we were more loving, more forgiving, more joyful, more disturbed by injustice, more courageous about doing something about it than we had been. Well, if that is going to happen, it will only be because we are abiding in love , and therefore abiding in God, close enough to him, aware enough of him to make a difference.

Abiding in God makes our lives richer and deeper, of course, but its not just an exercise in self-improvement to give us a nice warm glow . It’s far more important than that. It is what gives us the resilience we need to cope with the disasters the world throws at us. Jesus speaks of the branches that aren’t joined to the vine withering and dying – if we think we can cope with life all by ourselves we are going to find ourselves without the strength we need when we need it. We’ve been reminded of that need this week as we have seen the aftermath of the earthquake in Nepal, striking out of the blue, ripping lives apart.

Abiding in God also gives us the capacity to seize opportunities when they come along too.
The first reading today - that encounter between Philip and the Ethiopian – doesn’t look as if there is much abiding happening in it. The Ethiopian is on the road in his chariot – the fastest thing on wheels in those days – and Philip seems to have been transported to the spot by the Spirit, which is presumably even faster – no one was hanging around.  As far as we know they never meet again afterwards. But both of them were ready for that  moment when it came, and that’s because they had been abiding in God for a long time beforehand. The Ethiopian was steeped in the scriptures. He knew his stuff. He just needed someone to tell him about Jesus for everything to fall into place. Philip had spent three years following Jesus, literally abiding with him. So when this moment came he knew deep down, instinctively, that there was no need to worry about any rules about who was acceptable and who wasn’t. As a eunuch this man wouldn’t have been allowed into the Temple at Jerusalem – he would have been seen as unclean - but Philip knew that this wouldn’t have mattered to Jesus. The man’s needs were more important than any rules, however ancient they were. And what happened in that brief meeting not only changed the Ethiopian but also changed a whole nation. According to the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, it was this man who brought Christian faith to their country, and there’s no reason to doubt them, because it’s one of the oldest churches in the world.

Abide in me, says Jesus. Stick around. Stay with God, be at home in him. That’s the message of these passages. Pray. Read the Bible, not just when we come together, but for ourselves. Most of all, love. Love generously. Love often. Love until love becomes such a habit that we hardly have to think of it. If we do this, we will be ready for disaster and opportunity when they come. We will be blessed, and others will be blessed through us, and maybe we will even find ourselves “beginning to look a bit like God.”