Acts 8:26-40, John 15:1-8
In the name of the Living God: Loving Father, Risen Son and ever present Holy Spirit, Amen
Let’s concentrate on our first reading from Acts – Who was Philip? There are in fact several Philips mentioned in the New Testament, including one of Jesus’ original 12 disciples, but the Philip who stars in our story this morning was one of the early converts in Jerusalem in the first days after Pentecost. It is thought he was originally a Jew who had lived outside of Palestine, but had probably come to Jerusalem to attend one of the religious festivals and stayed on after his conversion to Christ. Therefore, Philip was an “ordinary” person like us. He had not known Jesus in his lifetime. His belief launched him on a course of action that gave special significance to his life.
Philip’s story is an interesting one. Philip soon became one of seven men who had so gained the trust of the Christian community that they were appointed to oversee the distribution of food to Christian widows and orphans. Then when most Christians were forced out of Jerusalem by persecution (all around the time when Stephen – another of the recently appointed overseers was stoned) – The followers of Jesus were widely dispersed and Philip ended up around 40 miles from Jerusalem in the city of Samaria and he told the people there about Christ.
Here is a rather approximate map showing Samaria and Jerusalem So we can understand the distance involved. In Samaria, Philip rapidly inspired people through his teaching and more people became members of the early church. Earlier in Acts 8 it says that the crowds with one accord listened to Philip. He must have been very impressive and a good speaker – for people to be so rapt in attention to him. He did not just speak as he was also doing signs and wonders, and through the power of the Spirit dwelling within him many people were healed of many different conditions. In fact, so much was happening in Samaria that the disciples Peter and John also went to see what was going on and to be part of it. They also helped the people fully receive the power of the Holy Spirit.
It is into all of that situation, Philip, with the crowds hanging on his every word and lots of signs, wonders and excitement, that we find the angel of the Lord sending him in another direction completely. This is where our reading today starts. In Acts, we don’t get Philip’s reaction and we can wonder about what he felt about it. When we are already in the midst of something that is exciting and rewarding, it might have been tempting to ignore the angel and stay put! Certainly what he was doing and how he was doing it in Samaria was yielding significant fruit for Christ. Sometimes relative success can make turning in a different direction more difficult to take on board. Yet we have no sense of hesitation in Philip. It says plainly He got up and went. Maybe ignoring an angel of the Lord is just not what you do! For certainly, when I have had strong senses that this is something I have to do from God, this has usually been very much the case. When I have ignored such feelings I have always regretted it!
Even with our 21st century understanding, where the angel was pointing Philip too doesn’t sound terribly attractive. Go towards the south to the road that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza. (This is a wilderness road.) We know this is a disputed area between Israel and Palestine even today. Philip displayed an amazing level of obedience really, just to go as he did. He was not just willing to be both useful where he was now but also to go to an unfamiliar place where he didn’t know what would happen next. A place where it was less than obvious how his talent for inspiring people about Christ was going to be used or where there was going to be lots of people to hear.
Ah yes – we really need inspiring speakers who can draw a crowd in the wilderness!
Ah yes – we really need a gifted healer in the wilderness where nobody lives!
Both of these are clearly a nonsense! What’s more if we just return to the map, we do need to consider the distance Philip was being asked to go too. Samaria is here and Gaza is here – even as the crow flies we are looking at more than 80 miles! Certainly further than that as the tracks go! This was hardly an everyday thing to do. Philip’s confidence in what he was doing is even more admirable in view of the distances involved and his courage!
It is easy to feel daunted and intimidated by our current times and circumstances. With the power of the Holy Spirit we only need to concentrate on each step of the way, rather than have it all mapped out ahead of us. We need to pray for the Spirit to help us be courageous as Philip was. Even when we don’t know what exactly is going to happen next!! Just as an aside I do have a mix of feelings about how to proceed from this point forward. Safety and safely have been our primary concerns in all our journeys up to this point. For our churches, we will be exploring with the PCCs and our working groups how to move forward positively and where the Holy Spirit is leading us – exciting and challenging times ahead. We will need to concentrate on just knowing the next step like Philip did (not the 15 or so after that). For someone like me who loves a good plan – this is hugely frustrating, but I think the only way to do this in line with what God wants of us and to do it courageously too.
Yet to Philip following where the Holy Spirit was leading was the only course of action he considered. He was living within himself following the path the Holy Spirit had for him and as a direct result of his faithfulness and obedience, confidence and courage unpromising as it may seem, he ended up in a place where God could use him to great effect. We need to remember this too in the days ahead! Philip was ideal to help the Ethiopian Eunuch understand about the good news of Jesus Christ. How true it is even today, that God used the open door of Philip’s heart as an opportunity in his life, as God can use the open door of our hearts as opportunities in our lives, in the most unlikely of places, if we are open to his plan for our lives. How can we become more willing to listen and to follow the guidance of the Holy Spirit, and to follow the guidance of the Holy Spirit however unlikely that guidance may seem, however far the journey takes us?
Later traditions identify the man that Philip helped as the founder of the Christian Church in Ethiopia. So Philip’s obedience and courage had immense consequences for good. With hindsight, knowing the end of the story – we can see all this makes sense but that is hardly how it must have felt lived at the time . As we know too well – we do not live with the benefit of hindsight. All our lives have been engulfed by something that has shaken our foundations! And many things we took for granted! For us as it was for Philip the challenge is what we do in the middle of our daily life, where there is no hindsight to affirm what we feel we should do to follow God. Especially when we feel we are being asked to do something unusual and demanding or something we would rather not in all honesty be doing! And of course, where we need to be courageous! This is the challenge of discipleship and following the spirit’s guidance in our lives.
As the Gospel reading reminded us, we are to abide in God’s love for us and let his words abide in us. Abiding in Christ is the way to ensure that we are sensitive to the Holy Spirit and living not at the mercy of our own whims. The picture of the vine in that reading is also one of growing, pruning and fruitfulness:-
Dwelling in God is the way for us to grow to be fruitful.
Dwelling in God is the way where as necessary we are pruned.
Dwelling in God is the way to give us the strength to follow where God leads us no matter how unlikely what God has in mind may seem.
I am ending these thoughts with a prayer for courage: – Holy Spirit, give us courage to move willingly into the unknown. Holy Spirit, give us courage to be willing to proceed with joy. Holy Spirit, give us courage so that our uncertainties do not turn into terror. Holy Spirit, give us courage to overcome the lures that may compromise our faith. Holy Spirit, give us courage to remain steady until we hear your voice, that in all we do and say, your name will forever be praised. Amen
CCLI – Song reproduced and streaming license under CCLI 217043 for St Peter and St Paul Church, Wincanton
New Revised Standard Version Bible: Anglicised Edition, copyright © 1989, 1995
Copyright acknowledgement Some material included in this service is copyright: © The Archbishops’ Council 2000-2020
The prayer is adapted from www.rootsontheweb.com and is copyright © ROOTS for Churches Ltd. Reproduced with permission.
Acts 4: 5-12
God chooses the most unlikely. I am reminded of that every time I sit at my computer and try to find out what God has to say to us in this part of the service. We have often told to Tiny Church the story of how Samuel was sent to Jesse while Saul was still king, for the purpose of anointing one of Jesse’s sons to succeed Saul as king. The story is used to illustrate to the children that you don’t have to be handsome or strong to be chosen by God, as God is primarily interested in what is in your heart. David was so very much the unvalued son, that Jesse did not even bother to call him in from the fields where he was minding the sheep to show to the prophet, and he was only fetched later when Samuel had rejected all his other sons. The standing of a shepherd in Judean society was about as low as you could get – and yet the picture of the shepherd as role model of good leadership runs right through the whole Bible and is used for kings and prophets, both good and bad. Even in the days before Jesus, God was demonstrating that mankind has a knack of making the wrong choices of role model.
Returning to our story in Acts, our reading starts in the middle of the story, and if you would like to put the whole story together, it is worth reading Acts 3 and the first few verses of chapter 4 to find out what lead up to this. The prisoners referred to in v7 are Peter and John, who are probably not looking or feeling at their best as they have just spent the night in prison. You will need to read chapter 3 to find out why they were in prison, but it does go to show that you never know what might happen when you set out to do something as apparently harmless as going to church to pray, and pausing on the way in to talk to a man who is begging.
The list of people that they were required to answer to is a daunting one. The office of high priest had been instigated as a hereditary one in direct line to Aaron – brother of Moses, but by this time it was no longer passed on in this way, but was in the control of a few powerful families. You will remember that Annas and Caiaphas also presided over the trial of Jesus – Annas was father-in-law to Caiaphas and had been high priest before him, and it was not uncommon for previous high priests to remain in the inner circle as powers behind the throne. And so it was to the highest and probably the most learned men in the land that Peter makes his very spirited defence – surely being aware of just how much danger he is in. The only power that these men did not have was to sentence someone to death, although as we saw with the trial of Jesus, they were in a powerful position to influence the Roman governor. To find out what happened afterwards, you will also need to read on from v13, but it is clear that despite his comparative lack of education, Peter had relied on the promise that Jesus had made for just this type of situation which is recorded in Matthew 10:19 and in Luke 12:11 that when brought before the authorities, he would be given the words to say by the Holy Spirit; and in so doing, he had thrown them into confusion.
The verse that Peter quotes from Psalm 118 returns us to the theme of God choosing the most unlikely. Had you or I been in a position to choose, it is unlikely that we would have decided that the best place for His son to exercise his ministry would be as an artisan builder in a rural backwater, a very insignificant part of the then mighty empire which governed most of the known world. Surely it would have made more sense to us to have Jesus placed near the seat of power, as Moses was in his childhood. And yet we are still here today, and while the name of Jesus is known throughout the world, I doubt if many people could name many of the roman emperors – I know I couldn’t.
Returning to our theme of vocations though, when I preached on this Sunday last year, I gave you the Church of England definition of vocation and challenged you to find yours. It is worth repeating here:
‘Vocation means what you are called by God to be and do.
For some, this is a specific calling to ministry. For others, it could mean serving God through faithful discipleship in everyday life. Everyone has a vocation. Find yours.’
Also on the website under the heading, ‘No Ordinary Ministry’ it goes on to quote from Isaiah:
“Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, ‘Whom shall I send? And who will go for us?’ And I said, ‘Here am I. Send me!”
It is from that verse in Isaiah that we get our hymn ‘I the Lord of sea and sky’, with its chorus beginning ‘Here I am Lord’. I have to confess that I find that hymn, and the one that starts with the line ‘Take my life and let it be consecrated Lord to thee’ quite difficult to sing with total honesty!
Both our churches in Wincanton and Pen Selwood will be holding their Annual Parish meetings in the next few weeks, and in both churches there are vacancies for people to serve in a number of roles, including PCC members, Deanery Synod representatives and Churchwardens. It is vital that at this time we all spend serious time in prayer to find out if God is asking us to serve Him and his church in a new way – possibly in a way that we would never have considered before. We must also pray for those already serving, and for any who are considering volunteering, that they will be upheld in any decision, and given assurance that they are doing the right thing. We are all encouraged to take an active part in the life of our churches in our New Testament reading for today which is from 1 John 3: verses 16 to the end of the chapter. In v18 John says: ‘let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action.’ If you had told me 5 years ago that I would be putting together services and preaching to you, I would have laughed at you, but I was delighted to learn recently that thanks to the wonderful support I received from both churches and from Alison, my licence is to be renewed for another 5 years. I would also have not believed what a joy it has been to me to be able to serve in this way, and in this time I am sure I have received much more love than I have given.
Could you be missing out on a similar joy? When Peter and John were eventually released, they returned to their fellow believers, and having told them everything, they all burst into a spontaneous prayer of worship. In John 15:11:Jesus says to the disciples: ‘I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete.’ Let us all decide now to spend some time in serious prayer to find out whether God has a plan for each of us that will make our joy complete.
The New Revised Standard Version (Anglicized Edition), copyright 1989, 1995
Acts 3:12-19, Luke 24:36b-48
In the name of the Living God: Loving Father, Risen Son and ever present Holy Spirit, Amen
The way our cycle of readings works is that we dip in and out of the action. That is particularly true of our gospel today. It is Luke’s gospel and as with all the accounts of the resurrection it is slightly different. Just to recap in Luke’s version of these events. The women – this time a whole group of them have been to the tomb. They encountered the stone rolled away and two men in dazzling clothes. These two tell the women Jesus has risen. The women go back and tell the disciples – who think this is an idle tale! Peter goes to look for himself in the tomb and sees it empty. He goes back home feeling amazed at the turn of events.
Meanwhile 2 of the disciples split from the rest to walk to Emmaus. This is a village about 7 miles away. They meet a stranger on the road and the two talk with him. The stranger explains the whole thing to them again as they walk – starting with Moses and the prophets. The 2 disciples encourage the stranger to stay and eat with them when they get to their destination. They recognise it is Jesus as he breaks the bread (and at that point Jesus disappears), and then even though they have only just arrived they set out back to Jerusalem to find the other disciples.
We have seen the Lord they said – as they get back and meet with the other disciples. The two were just explaining all that had happened and how Jesus had been made known to them in the breaking of the bread. This is the point where our reading today started just after while they were talking about this. The reading today begins Jesus himself stood among them and said to them, ‘Peace be with you.’
This must have been quite a moment. Into this moment Jesus brings a deep sense of the peace of God. Let’s pause the action there for a moment and explore this peace of God before we look at what happens next.
The peace of God is easy to say but not particularly easy to explain. It is a sense of calm and the presence of God with us. It is a sense of the love God has for us, for our good and for our flourishing. We experience it whether the going is easy or the going is tough. We probably experience glimpses of it and moments in this life – one day we will know the peace of God more fully face to face. When people are having a tough time I regularly pray for the peace of God to fill their hearts or to surround them with that peace. I am trying to use words, rather clumsily in all probability, to describe the love God has for each of us. This is something right now we particularly should be praying for Elizabeth our Queen and the Royal family. Praying for the peace of God to fill her heart and to surround them all with peace. Here is a suitable prayer – please pause and pray
Merciful God, be close to all who mourn, especially The Queen and all members of the Royal Family. May they know the hope of your promises, the comfort of your love, and surround them all with your peace through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
We have also spent many years greeting each other with a handshake or hug of peace. It grieves me that we can’t do this at the moment, though I know it is not everyone’s cup of tea. The peace reflects the calm assurance that what God is doing is best. The peace comes from knowing that God is in control, causing all things to “work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose” (Romans 8:28).
One of the other origins of sharing the peace as is our custom is to ensure we are at one with our brothers and sisters. It affords us an opportunity to put things right too before we move into sharing the body and blood of Jesus at communion. Some of the introductions to the peace puts this emphasis very clearly – for example – Let love be genuine. Never pay back evil for evil. As far as it lies with you, live at peace with everyone. OR We are the body of Christ.
In the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body. Let us then pursue all that makes for peace and builds up our common life.
Let’s leave these thoughts here for a moment and return to the scene described in Luke where we paused earlier. Jesus says peace be with you, but peace is far from the disciples’ initial reaction. Frankly they are startled and terrified and the initial reaction is they think they are seeing a ghost. In the present, in the moment and after the trauma they had experienced, this is an understandable and very human response.
Jesus does three things at this point to address the fear:-
First – he acknowledges their emotional response with re-assurance. Addressing both the fear and what for him is the root of it the doubts in their hearts.
Second – he establishes that he is with them physically in three different ways.
First, look at me, he particularly draws attention to his hands and feet where the scars would have been
Second, touch me – as he is flesh and bones and ghosts are not!
Third, because after that he could still sense both joy and disbelief in the room and with Luke with the medical spin in his gospel he says – Watch me eat. Then he eats broiled fish in front of them because in their understanding ghosts can’t eat.
This feels quite confronting to me – looking, touching and watching Jesus eat. He is trying to shake them into this new reality, shake off the doubt, and shake in the joy that he is there fully in person standing amongst them. It is worth imagining ourselves in this position and feeling the joy rising in us at the realisation of the wonder God has done. Going back to first principles and recapturing the purpose of the resurrection for us all.
The third thing Jesus does to address the fear – remembering that this comes last, and after all of the reassurance and active stuff I have just been describing. Jesus explains again what has happened and I suspect at much greater length than we have written here. In Luke’s gospel Jesus is clearer about what is coming before the cross. He is now reminding them what he said and how it fits into the story of the people of God.
He reminds them of their key role as witnesses and particularly about the importance of repentance and forgiveness of sins. In a way this tunes into what I was saying earlier about the peace of God and our reconciliation with each other. It is important we recognise in the light of the resurrection, how we lean into God’s love for us through his powerful forgiveness when we repent of our wrongdoings and short comings. We are set right with God by the power of the resurrection. This isn’t deserved or earned by us, but reflects the loving heart of Jesus for us. Our commitment to the peace of God then must be to be witnesses to it in our hearts and lives. Seeking the peace of God and being channels of the peace of God to those around us Amen
To finish I strongly recommend you listen to the John Rutter anthem at this point – which I will play in Church – Deep peace (Gaelic Blessing)– this is the link to a version sung by Libera
References The New Revised Standard Version (Anglicized Edition), copyright 1989, 1995, Some of the text is copyright © The Archbishops’ Council 2000-2020 Copyright acknowledgement Some material included is copyright: © The Archbishops’ Council 2000-2020
Link to the Bath and Wells reflection:
Acts 4:32-35, John 20:19 end
In the name of the Living God: Loving Father, Risen Son and ever present Holy Spirit, Amen
This morning, we meet most of the disciples in our gospel reading from John, carrying on from where we left off last week. On the evening of the first Easter day, locked in their house. I say most of the disciples, because it is important to remember that Thomas isn’t there. In the room emotions are running high and significant anxiety is in the air. They are locked in the house because they are afraid. What are the disciples afraid of? Well certainly – The authorities, as Jesus followers they would have felt very vulnerable after his death, but also they were frightened by the recent turn of events like finding Jesus tomb was empty. It was worrying that the body had been stolen and then Mary amazingly saying she had seen the Lord alive again. That would really have put the proverbial cat amongst the pigeons.
Then in the next moment the mood swings from fear to jubilation. Jesus is there among them, and saying his familiar greeting ‘Peace be with you’. Their deep seated fears quickly evaporate and are replaced by rejoicing. There they are with the risen Jesus scars and all miraculously amongst them. Jesus lingers a while to confirm on them the power of the Holy Spirit, yet by the time Thomas returns to the group Jesus has gone. The other disciples explain what has happened – We have seen the Lord! they say, but Thomas doesn’t believe them. He says those immortal words, which have identified Thomas with the label doubting ever since: “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.”
We now have a around 11 people saying Jesus has risen – Mary and up to 10 other disciples. We are not sure how many were in the locked room of course, but Thomas chooses not to believe any of them. His choice was not to believe his friends and those who knew him well, and those whom he shared following Jesus with for the past few years. This choice Thomas made, was not a recipe for popularity and probably would have made for a very unpleasant atmosphere amongst the disciples for the following week whenever Thomas was around.
If we think about this incident in the cold light of day, I can easily see what it would be like if 10 of my closest and constant companions were absolutely convinced of something extremely important and I refused to believe them for a whole week! The fallout from my behaviour would be pretty painful! For it was a whole week before this situation is resolved. We can only imagine Thomas sticking resolutely to his guns, being dour and miserable. Being in the depths about Jesus’ passing. I am not sure doubting really captures the nature of Thomas’ problem at the point. Maybe stubborn is more appropriate, or a touch arrogant. Perhaps even being determined to be miserable and pessimistic might be closer to the mark or a kinder confused and grieving.
Thomas’s outlook is a real contrast to the mood of his friends. His fellow disciples were joyful, expectant and excited about the future bathed in the Holy Spirit. They are praying and preparing for what was to come. The contrast between Thomas and the other disciples is not unlike the difference in the mood of worship on Good Friday – where tears can be shed in sorrow at all Jesus bore for us, and the mood in our worship on Easter Day – where if any tears are to be shed, they are shed in great joy and wonder at the moment.
It is not hard to grasp how frustrating this situation round Thomas must have been for the other disciples. I say it is not hard to grasp, because in our life experience it is quite likely that we have seen someone digging in their heels needlessly over some point or another. Refusing to budge despite the overwhelming evidence to the contrary of their point of view. These things have a nasty habit of becoming points of principle and can go on for so long, that we begin to forget how they started!!
From my childhood I can remember a long running feud between my grandmother and her next door neighbour, over of all things a ‘borrowed’ garden broom. The broom was the source of much controversy. My grandmother was adamant the broom was hers and her neighbour equally adamant it was his. Every so often there were incidents of the broom being reclaimed from the shed of the other person. I remember how it all got completely out of proportion with my grandmother demanding locks be fitted to her shed – (in case the broom and other garden tools were stolen by her light fingered neighbour when she was out). Eventually and very embarrassingly, it was found that some years earlier my grandmother’s broom had been tidied away after use into the roof timbers in her garage. Therefore the disputed broom she had been arguing about all this time had indeed been borrowed by my uncle from her neighbour, whilst her broom had been overlooked in its hiding place in the garage roof – they just happened to be very similar brooms! Thus, the infamous and much disputed broom did indeed belong to her neighbour and not to her.
Another reason we can easily identify with this kind of stubborn ‘Thomaslike’ behaviour is that on occasion if we are honest with ourselves – we may well have been that person refusing to budge, clinging to our position. When in our heart of hearts, we are beginning to know we are mistaken, but somehow it all becomes too difficult (and is too much of a loss of face) to admit that we are the ones in the wrong. In our society there is a tendency to not admitting to being wrong about things. This is based on it being humbling and humiliating. We feel the need to cover our tracks or our behinds! This stuff is the cause of a lot of the time wasting and the political behaviour we experience in groups of people.
In my personal experience, admitting to being wrong about things when I have been wrong is anything but humiliating. It can be very cleansing, renewing and refining. This kind of admission has its own way of transforming the situation, allowing everyone to move on and is deeply dignified.
A week later in our gospel story, Thomas has little choice but to surrender his stand, when Jesus reappears amongst the disciples. Thomas has to let go of his doubts and his dogged determination not to believe in the truth of the resurrection. How did Thomas feel when Jesus addresses him and says – “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.” I don’t think he felt humiliated, but deeply loved and profoundly moved. The gospel account doesn’t answer the question. Did Thomas reach out to touch Jesus? Did he touch the nail marks on Jesus hands and put his hand into the wound in his side? Whether he did or didn’t this was a deeply intimate encounter and a transformative point for Thomas. It was more than enough for Thomas to recognise Jesus – he says – My lord and My God! A real affirmation of all that Jesus was to Thomas.
You can almost see the grinning disciples in the background of this scene, with the light of ‘We told you so’ glinting in their eyes, as Thomas finally gets it. Their feelings for Thomas were also not about humiliation, but love mingled with relief and overwhelming Joy!
So in the glow of Thomas’ affirmation, let’s shine the spotlight on our lives for a moment. Going back to our own doubts, along with any out of date points of principle or anything we are stubbornly clinging on to (where we know we are in the wrong), or things that we know are just plain holding us back on our Christian journeys. Let’s make this the day when we like Thomas own our mistakes honestly and move on from them.
Let’s look at our issues in the face of the risen Jesus. The risen Jesus who is here with us as we read this reflection through the power of the Holy Spirit, the power he breathed on the first disciples in the locked room. The power that surrounds us on every step of our journey and is in our every breath. God’s love for us is not about humbling or humiliation for our issues but it is just us intimate, deep, profound and overwhelming as Jesus love for Thomas so clearly was.
Let’s open our hearts and ask the Holy Spirit to help us let go of what is holding us back, and to move us on. Let the marks of the nails in the risen Jesus hands and the wound in his side heal and stir us this day. May our hearts echo the words of Thomas – My Lord and my God. Amen
The New Revised Standard Version (Anglicized Edition), copyright 1989, 1995