Monthly Archives: May 2015

24 May – The Spirit of the unbearable church

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Ezekiel 37:1-14
Psalm 104
John 15:26-16:15

Jesus says to his disciples, “I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now.”

What are these “unbearable” things? The text is not explicit, and the neither do the commentaries seem to be very interested in the question either.

Why might this be an important question? It seems important to me at least because there is much today which the church finds “unbearable”: Decline in numbers, deteriorating, outdated unmanageable buildings, a much bruised reputation, the cause and effects of Uniting our Future, increasing exposure to risk in an increasingly litigious society, increasingly complex governance responsibilities. The Synod’s Major Strategic Review springs from the sense that these things cannot or should not, be borne further: they are “unbearable”.

These unbearable things being part of our common life as church here and now, what is the relationship between them and the things Jesus considers his disciples will not be able to bear? And how does the Spirit make such things bearable?

The nature of the unbearable things Jesus speaks of here becomes a little clearer when he refers to the work of the Spirit. Many things are said about the work of the Spirit in John, and we tend to pick and choose a bit between these things. John 3 gives us the Spirit which “blows where it wills”. This is the Spirit of a Major Strategic Review: open the windows, let the gale of the Spirit blow everything around; change. Then there is the Spirit of John 7, which bubbles and gurgles, springing up to do watery things for parched people. This is the Spirit for the weary minister or the jaded congregation. And then there is the Spirit of John 14-16 who “comforts”, advocates, defends: the Spirit for a church feeling under siege.

Towards the end of our text this morning, however, we heard of another Spirit – although, of course, they are all the same Spirit. This is the Spirit who “convicts”, who “proves the world wrong” about sin, righteousness and judgement. This is the least “spiritual” of the Holy Spirits we might choose to emphasise, at least so far as the popular contemporary interest in “spirituality” goes. This is a spikey Spirit that does not waft or flow or comfort but skewers us with the pointy end of sin, righteousness and judgement.

“I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now.” They cannot bear them “now” because the Spirit has not yet been given. The Spirit has not been given because Jesus has not yet been crucified. The truth about sin, righteousness and judgement will not be revealed until the crucifixion, and it is the Spirit which will reveal this and make it bearable, the Spirit who comes after the crucifixion and resurrection – in John’s case straight after them. The crucifixion becomes unbearable not because it was the loss of a loved one but because the Spirit reveals the cross to be a judgement on our judgement about what is sinful, about what righteousness looks like, about their capacity to make the right judgement. For, in its first movement, the crucifixion is a pious act, the worshipful exclusion of a heretic. Jesus tells them of their own future ordeals, and also of his own: “An hour is coming when those who kill you will think that by doing so they are offering worship to God”.

The truth which the Spirit will tell about Jesus is a reinterpretation of the cross. And that interpretation is this: that the cross is for “the world” – including here, the synagogue, the church – the sign that Jesus himself is the unbearable thing: sinful, unrighteous, worthy of a judgement of guilty.

Jesus himself – that Jesus might truly be the Christ – is the unbearable thing, the contradictory, wrong thing. What the Spirit does in convicting the world – including the disciples and the church – about sin, righteousness and judgement is make Jesus bearable. The Spirit, then, does not deliver “a truth” about Jesus – a proposition or a doctrine; the Spirit truths Jesus to us, seals this Jesus to us. The Spirit causes us to see where we have been blind: to see that God’s way in the world is very, very strange indeed.

But it gets stranger still when we get back to why we asked about these unbearable things in the first place. What is the relationship between the unbearability of Jesus, and the unbearable church – the church even we, let alone “the world”, can scarcely bear? And if the Spirit helps with respect to the unbearability of Jesus, how does the Spirit help us with the unbearability of the church?

The unbearability of Jesus, the unbearability of the church and the work of the Spirit are bound up in this way: the Spirit points to the unbearable truth in Jesus by creating the unbearable church.

The truth about Jesus which the Spirit brings is not doctrinal fact; it is a truth which changes things. Jesus is crucified because he doesn’t look right, because he clearly cannot be true; the Word cannot become flesh in that way. And so the claims he makes must be sinful, unrighteous and rightly condemned.

Over against this the Spirit teaches the truth about Jesus, but it does so not by simply contradicting our condemnation of Jesus with a “No”. The Spirit tells the truth about Jesus by doing the Jesus again: now as the church – the unbearable church. The proof of the righteousness of the unbearable Jesus is the unbearable church.

When we condemn the church for its heresy or dogmatism or managerialism or incompetence or corporatism or wishy-washiness, or for its wealth or anxiety or triumphalism or self-interest or lack of faith, or whatever, we declare: surely this cannot bear the Word of God, be the presence of God, be even useful to God. Surely there is more of God somewhere else. This is the presumption and the engine of modern, popular nowhere-in-particular spirituality: that, of all places, the Spirit cannot be found here.

But the gift of the Spirit – the gift of this particular Spirit – is the gift of extraordinary ordinary. This is the truth the Spirit brings: here, now in the church – even this church! – is the presence, or the promise, or the possibility of “heaven”, which we declare not because what of we see but because of who chooses to name this place in that way.

It matters not whether the same might be said of other places. It matters for us only that this place – our place – is claimed by God as God’s own, embraced as if an Only-Begotten Child.

This is the gospel – that, even we as are, God wills to have us.

And out of this springs the imperative: love the church. Love the church not as an idea but as it is. Love your congregation; love not only the one you’re happy to sit next to, but the one who sits in front of you, or behind. Love your presbytery. Love your church council. Love your Synod. Do this not because they are lovely, yet. Any of these can sometimes be quite unbearable, entirely unlovely.

Love because it is the love which bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things and endures all things which makes the beloved lovely.

This is God’s way with us; by the power of the Spirit God sends, let it be our way with each other. Amen.

17 May – Against the law

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Easter 7

1 John 5:9-13
Psalm 1
John 17:6-19

At a first glance there is a beautiful simplicity in this, the first of the psalms: Happy are those who delight in the law of the Lord … they are like trees planted by streams of water, [whose] leaves do not wither. Who would not want to be such a “tree” – nourished and strong?

But, with closer attention to the whole of the psalm, objections leap up. Is not the poet just a little naïve when he declares that, the wicked are not so [blessed], but are like chaff that the wind drives away? Certainly the psalmist speaks of the failure of the wicked “in the judgement”, but experience is that “sinners” often stand “in the congregation of the righteous”, and it often seems that the way of the wicked does not perish – or not quickly enough for our liking.

One way of dealing with this contradiction is to cast it all to some end-time judgement when all things are sorted out, but this seems to strain the language of the psalm rather a lot. More than that, an end-time resolution isn’t particularly comforting for those who do delight in God’s instruction and yet suffer greatly at the hands of others, and such comfort would seem to be the point of the psalm in the first place. The apparent simplicity of the thought of the psalm is in fact not simple at all, and our objections on the basis of our experience or that of others can make it say almost nothing helpful. We might well wonder: what is the blessedness or happiness of those who delight in the law of God? A satisfactory answer hinges on our understanding of “law” held in God’s creative tension with “gospel”.

We know of “law” in two main senses. The first is law as it is written down for us as a moral code. This includes such things as the Ten Commandments, as well as the laws which our parliaments continue to create and modify so as to maintain some kind of moral order in the complexity of our day-to-day dealings with each other. These are laws which, we know, can be “broken”. To “break the law” is to fail to observe a requirement which God or society has laid upon us.

The other kind of law we know about is that implied by the expression “the laws of nature”. An important characteristic of these laws, at least at the level of our usual engagement with the world (“classical physics”), is that they are entirely predictable. The offence we might take at the miracle stories in the Scriptures arises from our sense that nature is orderly, and things necessarily happen only according to predictable patterns: people can’t walk on water and waves cannot be stilled with a command. Natural laws cannot be broken. If we really suspected that they could, we could not trust the seat we go to sit in, or the brakes we apply to slow our car, or the aeroplane we climb onto. Planes crash not because the laws of nature have failed but because they are relentless: gravity always sucks, and everything on a flying machine has to work according to natural laws which are just as dependable in order to balance gravity’s unforgiving character.

So we know of the breakable moral law, and the unbreakable natural law. But the important thing is this: we tend to assume, or even to desire, that moral law works like natural law. We desire that, should I do the moral thing – the right thing – it shall have the right result. We seek predictability in the results of our actions. And so also vice-versa: when the moral law is broken, we desire a natural law consequence: that “the wicked” be blown away “like chaff”, as our poet puts it. This is the kind of thinking we hear in our psalm today: to delight in the law of God and to meditate upon it day and night is to create the necessary and sufficient conditions for blessed and happy life, implicitly free of the ravages of those who delight in other laws. Whether it is moral law or natural law, law is, it would seem for us, about cause and effect.

And this is where the problems begin: because too often it seems that the “effect” we see is one of “bad” people doing well. The cause of this effect is not that God’s law is obeyed, but that it is not. It seems, in fact, more the case that some of “the wicked” (to keep using that slightly archaic term from the psalm!) understand the way of things better than the good, and have discovered just which law it is which needs to be observed in order to get ahead. They know how to manipulate the moral and the natural laws in order to maximise the desired outcome.

But perhaps it is too easy here to focus on the “bad” people. It’s always more interesting to consider the “good” people that we are (of course!), and how we are ourselves caught up in just these problems. What are we to do when with heart and mind we do delight in the command of God, and yet in the living of our lives we see that we do not observe it? Are we really any better off than the “chaff” the psalmist waves off into the wind? If we do fall short of what God calls us to be, and if even the moral law is really about cause and effect, are we not already lost? Who could rightly imagine themselves to be among the blessed the psalmist speaks of, if we are honest with ourselves?

In fact it is only those who know a deeper “law” which does not have to do with cause and effect who find themselves beside a flowing stream which provides the living water they need. This deeper law is what we might characterise as the law of love, but not our love for each other or even our love for God. It is the waxing and waning of our which love creates our anxiety in the first place. The law of love begins with God’s love for us, a love which precedes anything we might do, and so which is not dependent upon our actions but upon God’s simple decision to love. St Paul declares that those who seek to stand only by the things they have done are under a curse (Galatians 3), implying that it is in fact impossible to live a life of such righteousness. Surprisingly, then, and in contrast to the natural sense of our psalm, the “wicked” for Paul become those who are sure that they have done the right thing.

No doubt there is much we have yet to learn about how it is that we should live in relation to each other, and so much benefit to be had from looking to the specifics of what God demands. But if it is possible to “believe in vain”, as we heard St Paul suggest on Easter Day, we can also “act” or “obey in vain”, and this must always colour what we make of our own actions. If wanting to obey God’s commands is itself not enough to set us right before God, then the blessed one and the wicked one of our Psalm are the same person, both oriented around the wrong thing for the wrong reasons.

The love, or the justifying action, of God, however, sets the law in its right place, and a simple reversal takes place: our obedience to God’s command is not the context within which God loves and blesses us; rather, God’s love and blessing is the context within which we might tend to God’s commands.

In our gospel reading this morning Jesus prays, Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me (John 17.11f). This “name” is “Father”, which is important here because it makes those “protected” by it “children” in the same way that Jesus is “Son”. The streams of water the psalmist speaks of is the freedom of the children of God, who know themselves to be safe and secure because they are God’s children, and so who have no need to transgress, to live selfishly and without concern for the needs of others. It is when we believe ourselves already to have all we really need before God (cf. Ps 23.1) that God’s law becomes the best way to live.

Faith is knowing ourselves as the children of God. Freedom begins with faith – not faith that God “exists”, but faith that faith is enough to stand justified before God and those around us.

May we pray then, that God’s people discover anew the life which is already theirs in the Christ who is both the psalmist’s tree and stream – the Christ who is the sign of a life lived in God and the nourishment of such a life. In this, may Christ’s blessedness may be ours, that we might find our rest in him. Amen.

10 May – “As I have loved you…”

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Easter 6

Acts 10:44-48
Psalm 98
John 15:9-17

“This is my commandment: that you love one another.”

The rhetoric of “love” is often very vague, non-specific or ambiguous. It easily becomes sentimental on the one hand or, on the other hand, we broaden its meaning and application to things like “tough love” – that kind of love which declares to the one who is being “loved,” “This hurts me more than it hurts you!”

What is the love of which Jesus speaks? “… Love one another as I have loved you”. Okay. But Jesus then almost hopelessly confuses the matter with his next declaration: “No one has greater love than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends”. This is unhelpful because Jesus himself literally does just this: he dies, as we have subsequently come to understand, “for his friends”. It is unhelpful because it lends itself to adoption into stories of heroism; we need only think of the way in which this Scripture verse has been taken up as an interpretation of the loss of life by soldiers in war. “Greater love hath no man” is inscribed on the Stone of Remembrance in the Shrine of Remembrance here in Melbourne, and doubtless in many other similar war memorials.

Whatever might be said about Jesus’ own laying down of his life, and the laying down by soldiers of their lives in war, the problem with what Jesus says for us here and now is the way in which it can be heard to over-dramatise the act of love. As a statement by itself it is true enough but it seems to locate the work of love in a place where most of us are never actually going to be: the heroic moment, the moment in which we are called to risk or even lose our life in the act of seeking to save another, as a father might do who swims into out to sea to retrieve the child dragged out by a rip, or a soldier might do to drag her wounded comrade out of enemy fire. Whether or not such moments are in fact real acts of love is not in question. But they are not, for the most part, real life – at least, the real life of most of us. To declare “no one has greater love than to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” can suggest that this is about the end of our life, the possibility of the need to die that others might live. In the Scriptures, however, thought about life and death is for the most part not thought about when or whether ours hearts are beating or not. Rather, it is a matter of how one’s heart beats – what rhythm it beats, according to which we then march.

To lay down one’s life for friends, as the Jesus of John’s gospel puts it, is put by the Jesus of the Synoptic gospels as “deny yourself, take up your cross and follow me”. The laying down of one’s life is a manner of living and not simply the moment at which we finally die. This is a living which knows not only self but others, and not others as we imagine or want them to be, but others as they actually are, even when in this or that way they seem to be radically wrong and so to require of us more than seems “fair” or “reasonable”. To lay down my life for my friends is to allow where they are to be my problem – and not my problem to fix but the unavoidable cause of my “death”, so-called: the occasion of my cross to bear. This may be a literal death as in those rare “heroic” cases, or a metaphorical one, in the much more common and mundane challenges of everyday life together.

Any talk about self-denial runs the risk of being heard to suggest submission to abuse by others. But this is not the point. We need to acknowledge this danger in such talk, to watch for it in situations where it might arise, and to act where appropriate. But again, for the most part, these are extreme cases which cloud the issue for most of the rest of us most of the time. At the heart of the question of what it means to love is understanding why love is here spoken of in terms of a commandment. Our familiarity with love as sentiment, or even simply as lust in one form or another, also clouds our vision. These emotions and drives come naturally. We cannot be commanded to “fall” in love or even in lust; it just happens, and we generally like it. But the love of which Jesus speaks is not natural or appealing in this way. It must be called forth, commanded, because it contradicts the natural. It contradicts our over-estimation of the other, or our under-estimation, or even the presumption to estimate what another person is. The commandment to love contradicts our desires for them, and so our presumption to know what they think or desire or need.

But the command to love still remains abstract until a specific contradiction enters our lives – until we feel ourselves “contra‑dicted”, hear ourselves literally “spoken against”, have our own sense of the world and how it should fit together challenged. That is, the command to love comes as a command at the very point I feel unloved, when I have not been heard, when I feel disempowered, when I am disoriented by the fact that the world – which means those around me – is not as I imagined or desire. Drawing on an observation from Rowan Williams (Christ on trial): At such points I naturally tend to act out a longing to be somewhere else or, perhaps more precisely in such cases, out of the longing that you be somewhere else. For it is in this moment that the specific shape of what love demands then becomes clear in all of its unpalatableness. The command to love is the command to be where you are, with others who are not where you want them to be.

“No greater love has anyone, than to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” In this way Jesus describes his own way of being and, of course, the actual playing-out of his ministry in the cross. The logic of what I have said about love has its basis in the ministry of Jesus himself: “…as I have loved you.” We will miss this, however, if we remain with abstracted ideas about the love and death of Jesus – as if it were about Jesus’ love for “everybody”, or that Jesus “had to die” as part of God’s plan, so that he is a special case we don’t have to consider. Against this is the doctrine of the incarnation, which holds not merely that Jesus was God become “human”, but a specific human being in a specific time and place in the midst of specific people. Jesus the human being doesn’t just “die”; Caiaphas and the Sanhedrin, the Pharisees and the scribes contradict him and plot his death. He is not merely “arrested”, but what he taught is contradicted in betrayal by Judas and denial by Peter. If Jesus’ life and death is a thoroughgoing act of love, then it is so within these specific relationships. If Jesus dies for love’s sake, it is for the love of Caiaphas and Annas, of Judas and Peter, of Mary and Martha and Magdalene and so on, all of whom are not just the potential beneficiaries of his death but, in different ways, the cause of his death: “This my body, broken by you…” Jesus dies in the way he does because he insists on being with them, “as they are”.

The cross, then, does not simply effect a divine salvation as if by a holy magic; it gives shape to love. It is Jesus “being where he is”. The shape of love Jesus’ persistence with and for both friend and foe. The Christian life, correspondingly, is cruciform – it is cross-shaped. It involves that kind of dying to ourselves which is necessary if any human community is to survive error and injustice – particularly the error and injustice of “someone else”.

And this brings us to the importance of the church. It does not matter whether other faith communities come to the same conclusion about love as the church, or whether the church generally fails miserably at living what is at the heart of its being. If others can know this truth by other means, we celebrate with them. If the church fails at living the truth, we are simply all the more reminded of how imperative it is that we continue to work at it. The church is a community which is learning not simply how to love, but the difficulty of love.

Love is difficult, and it is difficult for the church. It will be difficult for us to deal with each other when we have to make very concrete, far-reaching and doubtless very disruptive decisions about what to do with our property resources. It is difficult to deal with each other when we begin to express ourselves in relation to things we need to have in common – and we might think here of the conversation we have planned this morning about worship. And yet it is precisely in such potentially conflicted situations that we are called to do something extraordinary. This is not the heroic feat of agreeing to sell up, or agreeing to soldier on on this site, or with a stroke of genius achieving just the balance in worship that pleases everyone. The extraordinary thing is in the manner of engagement – feeling ourselves to be in the right, but not requiring that others recognise it. Or, in more evangelical terms – believing not only that I am justified by grace alone but also that you, who are clearly wrong in what you do or think, are also justified by grace and not condemned for the error I see in you. This is the fruit Jesus appoints us to bear “fruit that will last” (John 15.16) because it reflects that love which overcomes all things. This is the extraordinary thing.

There is not much between how we stand before God and how others stand before us. It is because we do not understand this that we often turn out to be lousy lovers. The command to love comes precisely because we need constantly to be called to love. This call comes again and again in God’s hope that we might see: as we are to God – claimed in grace – so others are to be to us; as God is to us – claiming through grace – so are we to be to others.

…as I have loved you” is where we begin, and the end towards which we move, if the “love” which at is our heart is to be meaningful, and effective.

Let our prayer be, then, that our hands do not fumble the gift of such extraordinary trust – the gift of each other to love – that the work of our hands might finally be found to match where love began, and never ends. Amen.

3 May – On Learning to Understand

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Easter 5

Acts 8:26-40
Psalm 22
John 15:1-8

Sermon preached by Rev. Bruce Barber

Acts 8:29:   “Philip ran to the chariot and heard the Ethiopian eunuch reading the prophet Isaiah. He asked, “Do you understand what you are reading? He replied, “How can I unless someone guides me.”

You are eighteen. You have just completed VCE and are enjoying a gap year in Europe. Though usually travelling with a friend, you find yourself alone on a short Mediterranean cruise. Arriving in the port of Kusadasi in Turkey, you idly explore much the same shops you’ve seen everywhere, followed by an hour or two sunbathing on the beach. You hear about a short tour to Ephesus so decide to join it – without really knowing why. Yet more ruins, though certainly impressive. You go back to your cabin. Not much to do, so you switch on the TV to watch the same news for the 50th time on CNN. You switch it off. Nothing to read – open the drawer by the bed and there all alone is a copy of the Bible, apparently never opened. You read the page telling you who provided it, and what to read if you’re lonely, tired, or sad. But you’re none of these things. So you move on finding some letters to unpronounceable places including one called the Ephesians, but you make no connection with that to where you’ve just been. Flick over the pages. Come to Chapter 8 of the Book of Acts and read about a eunuch – never met one of those, so you shut the book and put it back in the drawer. A caricature? Perhaps – but perhaps not.

Our text then has some force: “Do you understand what you are reading?” Will you think to ask: “How can I unless someone guides me?”

So to the same enduring problem, but now with Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch. Every detail counts. Not least that we read it in the season we call Easter, while not forgetting that every Sunday is Easter Sunday. The text before us today, however, comes after the last resurrection appearance we call the ascension – which is still two weeks away in the liturgical calendar. Equally important is the fact that we read this text in the second volume of the two part work we call Luke/Acts – in effect, the gospel of the Church, following the first, the Gospel of the Lord according to Luke.

This second volume simply illustrates the unfolding of the ascension commission to the Church to be “witnesses in Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and away to the ends of the earth”, that is, to the city of Rome, for with this pagan city the gospel has reached its goal. This, then, is the context for how we are to understand the passage before us.

This morning, though, we are very early on that journey. In the first volume, the gospel has been offered to Jerusalem, and been violently rejected. The first in this volume to bite the dust, quite literally, is the first martyr Stephen. So the focus shifts to Philip, not here the apostle, but rather one of the Greek speaking Christians set apart for administrative functions in the Jerusalem community. Philip is one of those who were forced to leave the city of Jerusalem following the martyrdom of Stephen. He fled to Samaria, the ancient enemy of the Jews, detested as a mongrel race of semi-heathen heretics. Here Philip is surprisingly successful as a missionary, including being the first to baptise a non-Jew there.

So the stage is set for Philip’s encounter with the Ethiopian eunuch, a potentially long, long branch away from the trunk of the vine. Although Eunuchs could be high officials, in Israel they were excluded from the covenant congregation, being considered as impaired or defective according to the ceremonial law. So this is the first highly unlikely impediment for his incorporation into the Christian community.

But the text is more interested in the fact that he is an Ethiopian rather than being a eunuch. As a geographical or ethnic term, ‘Ethiopian’ has an extended meaning, being used to give a vague designation for all peoples in Africa far distant from the Mediterranean basin. That a high official in the queen’s court – indeed the treasurer of her kingdom – should be able to read the Greek scroll of Isaiah is not a problem. That he had it, being neither a Jew nor a proselyte, might well be, yet as a court official he could well find a way. So this Ethiopian eunuch is, in fact, best understood to be a half-believer in Judaism, a “God-fearer” as is the case with other such Gentiles in Luke/Acts ready for a Christian reading of the Old Testament. The point of the passage is that as a eunuch, he serves as an example of one by nature “not my people” becoming “my people”. And second, as an “Ethiopian”, he represents the second impediment for inclusion, nevertheless the sort of foreigner understood in the tradition as a Gentile who “comes to the light”. And it is not stretching the truth to see him as a high official being the model of “a king that comes to the brightness of its rising”.

So we encounter this Ethiopian as he travels reading aloud – as was the custom – a pivotal passage about the meaning of Jewish salvation history – a far cry from our hypothetical 18 year old traveller desultorily dipping into the cabin’s Gideon Bible only being offered a treasure trove of helpful advice for a down time.

Both are equally puzzled by the book. The Ethiopian at least is puzzled by the heart of the matter. Is suffering merely a transient event in Israel’s history or is it at the very heart of Israel’s existence? But most puzzling of all: who is the figure who embodies it?

Hence Philip’s question: “Do you know what you are reading?” The only dispirited reply has to be: “How can I if there is no-one to help me?”

Is this not the pathos of every age, not least our own? We, of course, live in a culture that for the most part has given up asking the question about the meaning of the Bible. Now everyone is an expert, non-believers most of all. But the real pathos is that we have made them like this. Yet not all.

Three weeks ago I had a startling experience of the reversal of today’s text. I was invited to offer some leadership to a weekend gathering of most of the churches in Ballarat at Hall’s Gap Conference centre.

Some 130 people were present. I was pleased to accept the invitation, while indicating that I was reluctant to make the running with my own imposed agenda. Instead, I asked if they would draw up some questions which might provide a focus. I received about thirty, ten produced by the large group of children attending. Certainly this was an encouraging start.

The questions, perhaps predictably, fell into three broad areas – puzzles about the Bible, especially the status of the Old Testament; about Christian belief; and about the future of the Church.

With this as the agenda, I was then informed that a large number of Sudanese families would be attending, members of a Sudanese (Nuer) congregation. I became apprehensive, having absolutely no experience with African culture. I wondered to myself: how will this work? At the end of the first session, a group of Sudanese women came to speak to me. Fearing the worst, I was astounded by their enthusiasm for what I was attempting. Rarely have I encountered such an appreciative audience. I felt only shame that in my ignorance and arrogance I had anticipated that they would be to me as the Ethiopian is to Philip. Puzzled by this reception as I was, the presiding minister offered an explanation: “Unlike us Anglo-Saxons”, she said, “they carry no baggage” literally, in every sense of the word, having endured unbelievable deprivation and suffering.

They, if anyone, know exactly what is at stake in reading the suffering servant passages from the prophet Isaiah – far eclipsing my own ‘talking head’ understanding of the significance of such passages.

“Do you understand what you are reading? Philip asked the Ethiopian. All I, for one, could respond to the implicit question of my Sudanese Christian friends was this:

“How can I, unless someone guides me?”