How can I understand what I read,

unless someone guides me?

Very many years ago, my family was driving home from this very church, having heard the very same gospel, “the true vine”. We had just got to the top of the Wyche, when a voice piped up from the back: “Mummy, if we fall off Jesus, do we really fall into the fire?” It was our second son, Thomas. He was about 3 or 4 years old – certainly under 5. I can never hear that gospel now without remembering that very challenging theological question posed by a child. Unfortunately I can’t now remember my answer, otherwise I would not have been struggling for something to say in my sermon this morning! The point of the story, however, is not that my son was a theological genius at 4 years old, but that I was put in the same position as Philip, in the story in Acts. How was Tom going to understand, unless someone guided him? Notice that the word is “guide” – not “tell”. If you go back to the Greek, what the eunuch was trying to do was not simply read the text, but to “know” it – that is to go beyond the words on the page in order to understand the underlying meaning and intention. One of the problems I have as a teacher now (which I didn’t have when I first started teaching) is that children can read, but many are not interested in “knowing” what they are reading – perhaps because modern communication has caused discussion has been replaced by conversation. On the other hand, Tom’s question is a “knowing” one. Do you remember when “knowing” was a word for “precocious” when it was applied to children? Too often, the level of children’s theological thinking is underestimated – perhaps because of Paul (who probably never had any) “putting off childish things” in order to become a fully fledged adult theologian. So, when a child asks a question that is difficult even for adults, how often are they palmed off with a dumbed-down explanation? “Jesus loves little children – he would never drop you” perhaps? While Jesus never lets go of us, this does not really address the question of how we do or do not choose to abide in him.

This long-ago incident led me to reflect on what happens when we are asked to be guides. One of the American commentators on this story from Acts says: “The very idea that we would say, "How can I understand what I read unless someone guides me?" seems ludicrous to us - especially when it comes to the Bible! After all, we like to imagine, the Scriptures were written plainly and need no interpretation.  Luke doesn't agree. That's worth thinking about.” He is clearly writing for a fairly fundamentalist congregation, but the idea that actually a lot of the bible is quite tricky to understand is an important one - not least for people who have to preach on it! It raises the question: do we actually recognise that this is what we are being called to do? Can you remember when you were last asked to help someone know the depth of the bible stories? As a matter of fact, I can – it was last Tuesday at 9.15am. This is a bit of a cheat, because, being a teacher and a Chaplain, I am, after all, employed to give this kind of guidance. However, the circumstances were very revealing. I had been asked to teach an RE lesson for a colleague who was ill. The topic was the death and resurrection of Jesus and, as it was a revision lesson, I was asked to make sure that they knew the main facts about this story. Notice that here, the verb “know”, refers to factual recall, not understanding. Language can be very tricky too. No sooner had I opened the textbook, than I began to say “Well … that isn’t right … and that’s not quite accurate … and that’s not actually what Christians believe.” The class demanded to know why I said the textbook was wrong and I said “because that is not what it says in the bible.” This was clearly a challenge. Could they get the bibles and check it out, they asked. So they spend the next 30 minutes eagerly reading the gospel narratives, trying to prove me wrong (which they managed to do in one case – I’d said Jesus didn’t drink the wine, and one gospel says he did). In the course of this investigation, I was constantly asked “What does it mean when it says …?” Sometimes this was about historical fact (why do we think Jesus was crucified on a hill when it doesn’t actually mention a hill in the bible?) but much more was about the meaning of what was happening in the story, and especially about Jesus’ last words. Now I don’t want you to think that we have a rubbish RE department. Far from it. The students had been well taught and had a good knowledge base. What they did not have was the knowledge of what this story meant to a Christian, because they had been taught a subject from a general knowledge perspective, rather than having a Christian guide to help them understand what they read. Once, long ago, this problem would not have occurred. Every school in the country would have listened to the bible stories every day and been guided to think about them. A sizable portion of the population would also have gone to church and been similarly guided each week by the sermon. That is how most of us acquired the “knowing”, the in-depth understanding, that we have of the bible. But now, as in the time of the early church, the vast world around us does not know the story. We are all called to be Philips and to look out for people on our road who need someone to share the story with them.

This is a task at which the Church of England could do with more practice. Dislike and embarrassment about overt evangelism often prevents meaningful discussion. Today too it seems that legal obstacles are being put in the way of the exploration of faith and belief. It appears that some of our judges would prefer it if such discussions took place only behind suitably locked doors in safely segregated buildings, so that no-one ever comes in contact with challenging things that they do not fully understand. This makes it even harder for us, in our daily lives, to seize opportunities to be guides and travelling companions to those who need it. Notice, however, that the eunuch invites Philip to help him. Guidance is not the same as cold calling! So we have to be ready for our invitations. Another American commentator, Rev. Nadia Bolz-Weber says: “Look at the text again—the only imperatives came from the Holy Spirit. Phillip and the Eunuch only asked each other questions. The only command came from God and the command was go and join … Go… join… invite… ask questions.” We need to look widely and without preconceptions for these invitations. In Philip’s case, he was called to guide someone who ostensibly had everything going for him, but who, in fact, was isolated from spiritual support by his nationality (situated at the very edge of the Roman empire), his wealth and social status, and his sexuality. Both he and Philip had to think outside their respective boxes when he invited a young, orthodox Jew to join him in that chariot. Mounting a chariot and being driven off into the unknown. Very often the calling, the command of the Holy Spirit can feel just like that. It’s sometimes easier to pretend you haven’t heard.

But it is also easy to find the bible stories too easy. Take the 3 readings today. They are clear enough, aren’t they? Acts is a story about converting people to Christianity, the epistle says God is love and the gospel is about sticking to your beliefs and avoiding hell. All 3 passages and their ideas are very familiar. We are comfortable with them. When I write a sermon, the first thing I do is to look up lots of commentaries and make notes of interesting ideas (you’ll find these notes at the end of the copy of the sermon on the website). Normally this takes about one page. This week, the notes run to over 3 pages. Clearly there is more to these “simple” passages than meets the eye! “Do you really understand what you are reading?” Philip challenges us. No – and I could probably write several more sermons on any one of our readings today. That is the joy of the Bible – it is deep and wide and challenging and you never stop learning to “know” it. Yet for many non-Christians (see my season rant about the simplistic answers to GCSE RE), the key messages of God is love and love your neighbour need no further interpretation. We all know how hard those messages are to live out in our lives and we can all be guides to help others understand this.

What me, a guide? An evangelist? I couldn’t. I don’t know enough? It’s too hard. It’s a specialised calling. God must mean someone else. But he doesn’t. He means every one of us. So I’ll let you into a secret, if it isn’t obvious already. I borrow from other people. My sermons start as a random collection of jumbled ideas from all over the place. Then I sit and wait. And suddenly, through the Holy Spirit, the jumble shifts, like a kaleidoscope, and ideas fall away into the notes section and what is left is what God is trying, albeit through an imperfect channel, to say through me. God’s word illuminates our thoughts, not the other way round. So, Matthew Henry's Commentary on Acts say: "Sometimes God opens a door of opportunity to his ministers in very unlikely places." We are all ministers. Go out and look for those places.

NOTES

Questions:

Who can describe his generation? For his life is taken away from the earth – why do commentators not link this to “eunuch”?

“the Spirit of the Lord snatched Philip away; the eunuch saw him no more, and went on his way rejoicing.” Who did the eunuch think that Philip was? Implications for his future learning?

Commentators:

Acts 8:26-40

From Matthew Henry's Commentary."Sometimes God opens a door of opportunity to his ministers in very unlikely places."

Eunuchs were excluded from participation in Temple rituals and from full admittance, as proselytes, into Israel's community. As a eunuch he is ritually or religiously far off.

The Ethiopian's anonymity is curious given that Philip's name occurs nine times in the Greek text. The story is about Philip as an unlikely instrument (based on the ministry limitations placed upon him, 6:1-7) to reach the Ethiopian. If the Ethiopian had been named perhaps we would miss the significance of his ethnicity and his social ranking. No Ethiopians are named among the Pentecost crowd, 2:9-11. As an Ethiopian he represents those who are geographically and ethnically, far away. (ME: Region called “Ethiopia” was actually “Namibia”)

The Greek word that we translate as read literally means to know up (Greek: anaginōskō ; a combination of the preposition ana, translated as up and the verb ginōskō interpreted as to know). To interpret is to seek to understand what the words signify or point to beyond the symbols on the page.

D. Mark Davis (American pastor)

Is it the church’s role to imitate the suffering servant, whose suffering takes place in silence like a lamb? Or, it is the church’s role to proclaim the suffering servant, to open our mouths and speak about the lamb’s who was silent?

The very idea that we would say, "How can I understand what I read unless someone guides me?" seems ludicrous to us - especially when it comes to the Bible! After all, we like to imagine, the Scriptures were written plainly and need no interpretation.  Luke doesn't agree. That's worth thinking about.

3 aspects of contrast – race, social position/wealth & eunuch

Rev. Nadia Bolz-Weber:  

Was it perhaps even a mutual conversion? Maybe because they simply asked each other questions in the desert.

Look at the text again—the only imperatives came from the Holy Spirit. Phillip and the Eunuch only asked each other questions. The only command came from God and the command was go and join.

Go and join the other.

What we don’t know is if the Spirit also gave the Eunuch a command to invite. Invite this nice Jewish boy—representative of all that clings to the law and rejects you from God’s house. Invite him to sit by you.

Go…join…invite…ask questions.

Clippings:

Verse 26: “Philip”: He was chosen by the community, as one of seven, to assist the apostles by serving Greek-speaking Jewish Christians: see 6:1-6. These seven were the first deacons: the word translated as serve is diakoneo. They were to serve at tables. but in the following verses, Stephen (who was one of them) proclaims the good news, as does Philip in Chapter 8 – so it appears that they were not limited to serving on tables. Further, CAB points out that serving on tables can mean keeping accounts. A scholar has told me that the word for table (trapeza) means a counter for money in some contemporary secular writings.

Verses 35-36: Note the parallel with the walk to Emmaus in Luke 24:13-35. Both stories have sacramental outcomes

1 John 4:7-21

Brian Peterson

"Much of the anger that erupts within the church under the banner of loving God and defending God's truth often seems to grow instead from love of self and of the power that comes from winning the argument, even at the expense of the church's unity in love."

John 15 1:8

Jesus’ (and John’s) audience knew much more about viticulture than most of us do today. Viticulture was very labour-intensive, requiring constant care. Growers even moved to the vineyards before and during the harvest. Pruning is important in increasing yield. Drastic pruning is performed on vines which do not produce grapes. The wood of a vine is useless: it can only be burnt. Wine and grapes were an important export. Israel recognized the vine as a gift from God.

Augustine's Tractates on John:  "Love brings about the keeping of His commandments; but does the keeping of His commandments bring about love?" 

David Lose, Marbury E. Anderson Biblical Preaching Chair
Luther Seminary
St. Paul, MN

David Lose, Dear Working Preacher, 2012. "I think one of the difficulties of living in our age is that we're offered a lot of things as substitutes for honest-to-goodness relationships, and while they may be pretty good at what they were designed for, they're finally not actual relationships."

The question, I think, is how we get this across to our people. Do we see our life in the church as helping us abide in Christ? Do we even know or think about what abiding in Christ would look like? Do we feel connected like branches to a vine to Jesus, our congregation or, for that matter, to anything at all?

The difference between mere connection and actual relationship.

"Much of the anger that erupts within the church  under the banner of loving God and defending God's truth often seems to grow instead from love of self and of the power that comes from winning the argument, even at the expense of the church's unity in love."

Brian Stoffregen, Faith Lutheran Church, 1000 D St., Marysville, CA 95901

Something that I find amazing in this passage is that the actions of the "gardener" are similar in both cases! The unfruitful branches are "cut off" (airo) and the fruitful branches are "pruned" or "cut clean" (kathairo).

From what I can gather, neither of these terms (airo nor kathairo) are primarily horticultural terms:

airomeans "to lift up and carry (away)." It is used of the Lamb of God taking away the sins of the world (John 1:29). Something that is "taken away" may be "destroyed," the meaning of the word in John 11:48. Terms like "remove" or "cut off" are not given in my classical Greek dictionary.

Although this is the only instance of kathairo in the NT, there are a number of related words (katharizo, katharismos, katharos, katharotes) used in the NT that clearly indicate that the stem kathar- refers to the elimination of ritual impurities or contaminations. Terms related to "clean" or "purify" are frequently used to translate this group of words. E.g., the jars of purification in John 2:6 (see also 3:25); and the cleanliness of the disciples in John 13:10-11. NOTE: katharos is translated "cleansed" in 15:3 in the NRSV with a footnote.

I think that our text does ask us not only to consider what it means for me to "bear fruit," but also what it means for us as a community to "bear fruit." Is it only new converts? Is it only greater love for one another? for the world?

Another word with a double meaning is meno -- translated "abide" in our text, but it also carries meanings of "remain, stay; live, dwell; last, endure, continue." (You might try substituting some of those others words in the text where "abide" occurs. It might give a slightly difference sense.) Sometimes this verb refers to the branch staying connected to the vine and sometimes it refers to disciples staying connected to Jesus. This word occurs 11 times in 15:1-17. Just as a branch cannot bear fruit if it is disconnected from the vine, neither can disciples bear fruit if they are disconnected from Jesus.

I've noticed that in past sermons on this text, I have ignored vv. 7-8. I offer a literal translation, using "y'all" to designate the plural "you".

If y'all are remaining in me
and my words (rhema not logos) would remain in y'all,
whatever y'all would be wishing, ask,
and they shall be [or come to be] for y'all.
In this thing my father is glorified:
that y'all would be bearing much fruit
and y'all would be [or come to be] my disciples.

The first observation I notice is the plural "yous". These are not verses about one's own wishes and expectations that God would grant one's private requests, but, related to some earlier comments, they are verses about the community's life together: having the word live in us; coming to agreement about our wishes; the ability to pray together; and expecting things to happen that are for the good of us all.

A second observation is the difficulty in translating ginomai which occurs in both verses. Its primary meaning is "to come into existence." It is used by John in 1:3, 10 of creation. In terms of the group's asking, the things that are asked for "will come into existence" (future tense) for them.

Faith is always changing. Even though one is connected to the true vine. Even though one's faith is firmly rooted in Jesus Christ. Though the "root" of one's faith never changes, but from year to year one's faith needs pruning by God. Maybe some old habits or thoughts or attitudes or behaviours need to die, so that, through the power of Jesus, even more fruit will be produced in one's life.