Tag Archives: Book of Acts

Questions in the Desert – Part Three

Faith is a dynamic and ever-changing process, not some fixed body of truth that exists outside our world and our understanding. God’s truth may be fixed and unchanging, but our comprehension of that truth will always be partial and flawed at best. – Bishop Gene Robinson –

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Dear reader, please be aware that this blog post is the third and final instalment of Questions in the Desert, a continuation of Part One and Part Two …

3. “About whom, may I ask you, does the prophet say this, about himself or about someone else?”

Was it mere coincidence that the Eunuch was reading from Isaiah 53?

Isaiah is a book written by a Jewish prophet and part of the Tanakh, the Jewish Scriptures. This, in and of itself, is mildly fascinating, in that the Eunuch continued to search the Scriptures, looking for meaning, despite having been rejected at the Temple.

There is something more interesting, however. The passage he is reflecting on is the last of the four “Songs of the Suffering Servant” and it tells the story of a “Man of Sorrows”. People throughout the history of the church have understood this passage as prophesying the coming of Jesus: the One who was to be the “Suffering Servant”.

Importantly, this passage, immediately before the part read by the Eunuch, describes this coming Servant – who we now understand as Jesus – as physically marred and then rejected by the Jewish people.

Much like the Eunuch.

So as the Eunuch speaks to Philip, you can imagine the urgency in his voice: “About whom, I ask you, does the prophet say this, about himself or about someone else?” … Who is this man who, like me, is physically marred and rejected? Is it the writer? Is it someone else? Is this about me?

Here the yearning heart of an outcast is being reflected in the prophet Isaiah – who shows him that the Saviour of the world, was an outcast like him. Rejected by his own people, rejected by the fine religious institution of his day, he too was wounded and mutilated.

I wonder what Philip said to him. Maybe it was something like this: “What you are reading is about a man named Jesus, who, like you, pursued God. In his pursuit, he, too, went to the Temple, and he, too, was rejected. But this was no ordinary man. This was God made flesh. This God of the universe knows your story, the story of being outcast, of being refused from the place of worship, and God came into the world to show that the God of the universe is not defeated by rejection, even rejection unto death.”

Philip helped the Eunuch understand that the Scripture he was reading demonstrated how God was already at work in his life. Like a “Join the Dots” game, Philip simply brought God, who had always been with the Eunuch, just like God is with each and every person, to the forefront of the Eunuch’s conscious recognition.

Many of us remember that moment in life when we “awaken”,  our “dots are joined”, and we realise that God has always been at work in us. We have simply been unaware!

4. “Here is water. Why can’t I be baptised?”

I wish we were privy to the whole conversation between Philip and the Eunuch. Suffice to say, that the conversation and interchange of questions and answers brought them both to an “aha!” moment. That moment when the lights went on.

Imagine this moment for the Eunuch, a man who has only known rejection. He wore a stigma and knew ridicule from every social sphere: in his culture, in the religion he was trying to pursue, in his role, in his political positioning – everything about him reminded him every day that he did not belong.

And then Philip shares the Gospel. The Gospel that declared him as accepted, loved and included. This man would have no comprehension of what that would be like: to be equal amongst people of faith. This was not the rhetoric of some narcissistic platform personality begging for money, or an angry street “preacher” with a megaphone. This was what the Gospel should always be – wonderful and exceedingly exhilarating Good News. No wonder he saw a puddle in the desert and said, “Water! Why can’t I be baptised?”

And then there’s Philip! Perhaps at some point, he took a big gulp, laid aside his exclusive religious ideals and took a leap of faith! Faith that the Gospel is greater than his paradigms, ignorance and cultural stigmas. We forget that for Philip this is a whole new journey that has taken him totally out of his comfort zone. He realises as he goes to the water with the Eunuch that this will not be a popular move amongst his Jewish friends, and even amongst the Messianic Jews who are still getting their head around the fact that God is bigger than the boundaries of their religion.

The Samaritans were a huge step for Philip. This will take him to a place of no return – he either believes the Gospel is as glorious and scandalous as he has preached, or he returns to the confines of a law-based tradition and acceptance.

And again Philip astounds us with his courage – he takes the step and goes to the place of no return. He baptises the Eunuch. In Philip, God has found a faithful messenger.

And here end the questions in the desert – and for once in the Bible, it has a similar end to fairy tales.

When they came up out of the water, Philip disappears, and that was the last the Eunuch saw of him. But he didn’t mind. He had what he’d come for and went on down the road as “happy as he could be” (Message Bible).

I love that – as happy as he could be. A man who never really understood love was now amongst the beloved. A man who had only known exclusion was now included. A man forever on the outer was now in the inner circle. He was equal, he was accepted – no matter what his future held, he was in Christ, and for him, that was all that mattered.

I wonder how people leave our conversations? Do we leave others as “happy as they could be”?  When we walk away are they a little closer to recognising God at work in their lives? A God who loves them immeasurably.

“Define yourself radically as one beloved by God. This is the true self. Every other identity is illusion.” – Brennan Manning –

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Questions in the Desert – Part Two

“We are not called by God to do extraordinary things, but to do ordinary things with extraordinary love.” 
– Jean Vanier-
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Dear reader, please be aware that this blog post is a continuation from Part One.

… The story of Philip and the Eunuch encourages us to pay attention to God’s Spirit in our lives. It also serves as an important reminder that every human being is loved by God and made in God’s image.

Philip demonstrates great courage as he begins to run next to a presumably heavily armed chariot (remember, the Eunuch was a treasurer) to listen to his questions and engage in his life’s story.

Question 1 (Philip): “Do you understand what you are reading?”

Philip, who has now become an ‘alongsider’ to the Eunuch, is listening to him read from the book of the prophet Isaiah. Prophetic narrative is a most difficult genre for even a seasoned scholar. The Eunuch is reading aloud, a normal practice for people of antiquity. Philip shows concern that perhaps the eunuch does not fully comprehend exactly what Isaiah is saying. He is right.

Question 2 (Eunuch): “How can I understand unless someone explains it to me?”

The Eunuch invites Philip to sit with him in his chariot. He invites him to be a spiritual mentor. Like the Eunuch, our faith, cannot be completely understood unless we live it out within community.

It is interesting to take a moment at this point and consider a couple of things:

One, that the whole encounter in the desert was not ‘orchestrated’ or ‘planned’ by human effort. It was one of those Divine providential moments of life.

Two, Philip responded to the moment with courage and humility. Unlike so much of what we see outworking itself in the rhetoric of modern day Christianity, yelling at people from the many social media platforms with a politicised, arrogant, Messiah-complex tone, Philip comes alongside with love and attentiveness.

What sort of transformation must have occurred in Philip’s life! From a young age he would have been raised as an observant Jew and people like the Eunuch were outside his paradigm. They were the outcasts. This encounter was not just a ‘conversion experience’ for the Eunuch, but for Philip as well. Conversion is not something that happens just once in our lives!

And so Philip begins to explain the Scripture from which the Eunuch is reading:

“Like a sheep he was led to the slaughter,and like a lamb silent before its shearer, so he does not open his mouth. In his humiliation justice was denied him. Who can describe his generation? For his life is taken away from the earth.” Isaiah 53

I doubt very much that his reading of Isaiah 53 was mere ‘coincidence’ …

Part Three and the final questions will all be in the next blog post.

“The gospel is not just the illustration (even the best illustration) of an idea. It is the story of actions by which the human situation is irreversibly changed.” Lesslie Newbigin,The Gospel in a Pluralist Society
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Questions in the Desert – Part One

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Nature’s seasons are a constant reminder that nothing we do or experience in life is permanent. I was part of a mega-church community in Melbourne, Australia, for over thirty years. I never thought that season would come to an end. But it did.

One of the last sermons I gave at this church was on Philip’s encounter with a eunuch in a dusty Palestinian desert, as narrated in Acts 8. Hindsight is a most wonderful thing – looking back now I see the significance of that message in my own life. It is helping me as I learn to dream again, as I reflect on the religion of Christianity and what it has become in modern times, and specifically on the possibilities of a movement that focuses on the love and words of Christ.

Below are some of the notes from this sermon – I will post them over a couple of blogposts so as not to overwhelm the reader 🙂

… The book of Acts, in the New Testament of the Bible, contains vital information linking the life of Jesus and the various epistles (or letters) written after his death. Taking centre stage in this book are two men: Peter and Paul. If it wasn’t for Acts we would know very little about them, especially Paul and his motivation that took him to distant lands. Without Acts we would also not know about Philip, a Eunuch, and questions in the desert …

In Acts 8, we find a disciple of Christ called Philip. The suggested author of Acts, Luke, has taken time to develop Philip’s persona: he was someone who had spread the Gospel in Samaria, and was working throughout the territory of Judea and up the coast to Caesarea. Philip is portrayed as prophetic: he proclaims the Gospel with signs and wonders, he speaks with angels, he is whisked up by the Spirit, and he runs alongside the chariots of mighty men. Luke is painting the prophetic missional character of Philip as a forerunner of the prophetic mission and mandate of the Gospel.

Philip encounters a man from the ‘ends of the earth’. This eunuch is from Ethiopia, which is known in the Bible as the land of Cush. It does not correspond to modern Ethiopia but rather the Nubian kingdom whose capital was Meroe, south of Egypt, which is part of modern-day Sudan.

The eunuch was a wealthy man –  he had a carriage, he could read, he had a driver, and he was in charge of the treasury of Candace, queen of the Ethiopians (a dynasty, not a personal name). He represented people that to the Jewish Christians were at the ‘ends of the earth’. He also represents a people group who have been ostracized and kept away from Yahweh because of his very identity as a eunuch – a mutilated one.

In antiquity, eunuchs belonged to the most abhorred and ridiculed group of men, often being slaves who had been castrated to inflict punishment or enact servitude. If they did rise to a position of prominence they could not escape the stigma of their sexless condition. Eunuchs did at times rise above their social status and find employment at the imperial court, but they would always be victims of negative stereotyping and ridicule during the Persian period. They were always on the outside – Exclusion was a part of life for them.

Absence of sexual organs meant that eunuchs were stigmatized due to their inability to reproduce and represent that culture’s idea of the traditional family. Their ‘otherness’ was amplified not only by their sexual difference and childless state, but also their exclusion from worshipping in the temple with the rest of God’s family. In Deuteronomy 23:1, it says that “no one who is emasculated or has his male organ cut off shall enter the assembly of the Lord.”  This man carried the stigma of imperfection and immorality.

This eunuch, although he would be excluded from the religious festival in Jerusalem, went to worship anyway. And now God came looking for him, the outcast, the stigmatized – and in a marvelous scandalous way he becomes wholly accepted.

“This eunuch, symbolizing the community of ostracised sexual minorities, is among the first of the outcasts from ancient Israel to be welcomed into Jesus’ discipleship of equals.”
–  Jerome Neyrey, paper on the social world of Luke-Acts.

This is indeed a strange and scandalous story. I don’t think those early Jerusalem Christians ever imagined this is what the ‘Gospel to the ends of the earth’ message looked like. Perhaps, like us today, they had a much neater, less risqué, ideal of what it would mean for the good news of an incarnate Christ to travel outside their boundaries and tightly held dogma.

So when we talk about the ‘Gospel’, does it ever occur to us that this God of messy humanity will deliberately mess with our heads and take us as far out of our comfort zone as our obedience allows?

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… Part Two and the first question in next blog …

 

Confessions of a Bibliophile

“There is no friend as loyal as a book”

Ernest Hemingway

I am an only child. From time to time people ask whether I missed having brothers or sisters. This is rather a peculiar question. It’s like asking someone who has never tasted eggs whether they miss quiche. In short, no. I did not miss having brothers or sisters. I am sure siblings are a marvellous treat for those who possess them, but I didn’t, and so I never missed them the slightest. How can you miss annoying homo sapiens that you have to share things with? Imagine if I had to share my books?!

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My obsession with books started at an early age. Amongst my collection of childhood books I specifically remember an ancient edition of Grimm’s Fairytales that sat on my bedside table. It was printed in Old German Fraktur font. Both my Omas could read the book at lightning speed. My book collection grew as my reading skills developed; from books on animals to old castles, fairy tales, poetry, children’s novels, and, of course, the whole collection of Asterix & Obelix. When we migrated to South Africa I learnt English and Afrikaans. This opened up a whole new set of books! I distinctly recall the first time I read Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, by Mark Twain, and bawling my way through Uncle Tom’s Cabin, by Harriet Beecher Stowe. There are some books that haunt us for a lifetime.

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Providence would have it that my path would cross with a rather tall redhead, whose love for books matched mine. He considered browsing through encyclopedias a favourite pastime in his childhood. It was a match made in heaven. The lack of a shared ‘book love’ would have most certainly been a deal breaker. So between us, we started collecting a humungous amount of books. All sorts of books. “Read all sorts of books that wound and stab us,” advises Franz Kafka (The Metamorphosis). This is good advice. Books open our thoughts and hearts. They take us to a different world and for a moment we can become part of a fantastic adventure. “A reader lives a thousand lives before he dies,” said Jojen. “The man who never reads lives only one.” (A Dance with DragonsGeorge R.R. Martin).

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It would be extremely difficult for me to list the most important books to read or my most favourite books. That would feel like I am selling out on old friends by comparing their worthiness or value. I have, however, thrown out a bunch of stupid books. Most often, modern-day schmuck about how to be better in leading, speaking, praying, or peeing – yeah, the self-help genre is my least favourite. *Rant Alert*: self-help books remind me of people who have discovered some gold (to their credit), but now they are convinced that the whole frigging world will discover gold in the same place, at the same time, with the same set of tools if they dig in just the right way, whilst chanting mantras. Yes, I know, it’s an awful generalisation and I probably just managed to offend some of my blog readers … but it is a pet peeve.

Now if you are a bibliophile, or more importantly, if you have a bibliophile living under your roof, the following observations may be very helpful:

  1. Bibliophiles feel lost without books. The Apostle Paul is in a dark, damp Roman prison, writing a letter to Timothy. “Bring my cloak,” he says (ver5127556-ancient-map-scroll-Stock-Photo-map-pirate-parchmenty important), “and my scrolls, especially the parchments” (most important). Who would have thought that Paul was a bibliophile? He was having massive withdrawals from his ‘books’ (2 Tim. 4:13).
  2. Bibliophiles will take great joy in ‘cleaning’ their bookshelves. Think it nothing strange if your book addict declares they will sort their books and then spend hours taking every book off the shelf, gazing lovingly at it, cleaning the shelves, and then putting them all back in a different order. If you are lucky, they emerge with one or two books that can be given away … you never really throw away books, unless they are extremely stupid books (please refer to ‘rant’ section above).
  3. You will often lose bibliophiles when you shop – they can be retrieved from the nearest book320px-Carl_Spitzweg_021shop. If, however, that bookshop is a second-hand bookshop, you have zero chance of getting them out of there in less than three hours.
  4. Bibliophiles will judge you. They will not judge you on your clothes, looks, education, house,beauty-and-the-beast-belle-book-books-Favim.com-616270.jpg food or pet. They will judge you on your bookshelf and on the books you are reading. Prepare for judgment.
  5. They press rewind every time the Beast unveils the library in Beauty and the Beast.
  6. Most often introverted, bibliophiles are happy for you to jabber on about all things regarding ‘normal’ life until it comes to books. God help you if you misquote a book. God help you if you make a derogative comment about a classic novel. God help you if you do not ask them at that time what they are reading and why. To be forewarned is to live in harmony.
  7. Bibliophiles will have certain books they read repeatedly. This is a most bizarre behaviour for anyone who is not a book addict. It’s really hard to explain why we do this. Perhaps it has to do with relieving the experience or the feeling we received from reading the book, or simply to make triply sure that we did not miss a minute detail of the story. My repeat reads include Brennan Manning’s The Ragamuffin GospelRichard Rohr’s, Breathing Underwater, and, of course, Tolkien’s, Lord of the Rings.

book-61So, mugwumps, who of you want to raise your hands and join me in my book addiction confession moment? What books are you reading right now? Oh, and is this a good time for me to tell you what I am reading? I thought you’d never ask! On the novel side I am ploughing my way through Philippa Gregory’s excellent historical novel series, The Cousins’ WarI love historical novels and Gregory is an outstanding writer as she sheds light on the three important women of the Wars of the Roses. I am also re-reading David Gushee’s book, Changing our Mind. Gushee is the Distinguished University Professor of Christian Ethics and Director of the Center for Theology and Public Life at Mercer University. Widely regarded as one of the leading moral voices in American Christianity, he is the author or editor of 20 books and hundreds of articles in his field, including Righteous Gentiles of the HolocaustKingdom EthicsThe Sacredness of Human Life, and, most recently, Changing Our Mind. What a read! Here’s a quote: “Better is one day in the company of those bullied by Christians but loved by Jesus than thousands in the company of those wielding scripture to harm the weak and defenceless.” (Review)

Yes, I am afraid I am a bibliophile. I love big books and I cannot lie. But now it’s your turn – what books are you reading and what do you love/hate about them?

“When I get a little money I buy books; and if any is left I buy food and clothes.” 

Desiderius Erasmus