Monthly Archives: April 2018

Three Questions…

Acts 8:26-40 (CEV)
Philip and an Ethiopian Official

The Lord’s angel said to Philip, “Go south along the desert road that leads from Jerusalem to Gaza.” So Philip left.

An important Ethiopian official happened to be going along that road in his chariot. He was the chief treasurer for Candace, the Queen of Ethiopia. The official had gone to Jerusalem to worship and was now on his way home. He was sitting in his chariot, reading the book of the prophet Isaiah.

The Spirit told Philip to catch up with the chariot. Philip ran up close and heard the man reading aloud from the book of Isaiah. Philip asked him, “Do you understand what you are reading?”

The official answered, “How can I understand unless someone helps me?” He then invited Philip to come up and sit beside him.

The man was reading the passage that said,

“He was led like a sheep on its way to be killed.
He was silent as a lamb whose wool is being cut off, and he did not say a word.
He was treated like a nobody and did not receive a fair trial.
How can he have children, if his life is snatched away?”

The official said to Philip, “Tell me, was the prophet talking about himself or about someone else?” So Philip began at this place in the Scriptures and explained the good news about Jesus.

As they were going along the road, they came to a place where there was some water. The official said, “Look! Here is some water. Why can’t I be baptized?” He ordered the chariot to stop. Then they both went down into the water, and Philip baptized him.

After they had come out of the water, the Lord’s Spirit took Philip away. The official never saw him again, but he was very happy as he went on his way.

Philip later appeared in Azotus. He went from town to town, all the way to Caesarea, telling people about Jesus.

Three questions…

“How can I understand unless someone helps me?”

“Tell me, was the prophet talking about himself or about someone else?”

“Look!  Here is some water. Why can’t I be baptised?”

This Ethiopian official is sitting in his carriage reading Isaiah from a scroll – aloud!  Commentators tell me that was the norm back then – and that what we consider to be the norm (reading to yourself) only became the norm when monasteries required silence!  Still – it was handy because it meant Philip could hear what he was reading.

He’s reading Isaiah 53:7-8.  He’s on his way home from a pilgrimage to worship in Jerusalem, maybe he bought the scroll while in Jerusalem and is eager to get to grips with it.

Philip is courageous enough to start the conversation.  Trotting alongside the still-moving carriage – Philip asks – “Do you understand what you are reading?”  “How can I understand unless someone helps me?”

Or as other translators put it: “How can I understand without a guide?”

In our reformed tradition we are fond of saying that our sole source of authority is Scripture.  Sometimes people quote the phrase “sola scriptura” – “scripture alone”.  People sometimes mistake the “alone” to mean that we need nothing else.  Yet “sola scriptura” is only one of the five “solas” of reformation theology:

  • Sola Scriptura (“Scripture alone”): The Bible alone is our highest authority.
  • Sola Fide (“faith alone”): We are saved through faith alone in Jesus Christ.
  • Sola Gratia (“grace alone”): We are saved by the grace of God alone.
  • Solus Christus (“Christ alone”): Jesus Christ alone is our Lord, Savior, and King.
  • Soli Deo Gloria (“to the glory of God alone”): We live for the glory of God alone.

And yet more, this Ethiopian official has the scriptures in his hands – in his carriage.  For him, merely having the words of scripture in his hands is not enough – merely reading the words for himself is not enough – he has no idea what he is reading.

“How can I understand unless someone helps me?”

The URC in its statement of Nature, Faith & Order says that “the highest authority for what we believe and do is God’s Word in the Bible, (so far that sounds like “sola scriptura”) alive for his people today through the help of the Spirit.”

This Ethiopian official needs the help of the Holy Spirit.  How does the Holy Spirit help him?  The Spirit sends Philip as guide.

The Spirit is the driving force in this whole passage.  The Spirit sends Philip to the carriage – the Spirit drives Philip to get involved – but on the surface – to the eyes of the world – Philip is doing the work; Philip is running alongside the carriage; Philip is being the guide; Philip is explaining the scriptures – starting with the bit that the Ethiopian is reading.

Philip starts in the place where the Ethiopian official IS – he takes his current questions and situation seriously – and uses that as the starting point for explaining the Gospel.  He doesn’t say – jot down your email address and I’ll send you a tract – he gets in the carriage and explains what the Gospel is – starting with Isaiah – and ending with Jesus.  

This is what the Ethiopian Official needs – he needs someone who not only knows scripture, but also knows the God of scripture; someone who reads scripture but also LIVES scripture; someone to guide him who has felt the embrace of God; someone who can read the cold ink on the page in the warm light of God’s Spirit.  He needs a Philip!

Kingsteignton folk are not short of scripture or access to scripture – Bibles are free online or on your phone!  What they ARE short of are Philips – people who know scripture and also know the God of scripture.  You know what’s coming next, don’t you!  On any given day of this coming week – you might be in a position to be a Philip for someone else…

The second question…

“Tell me, was the prophet talking about himself or about someone else?”

The Ethiopian Official is on his way home from a pilgrimage to worship in Jerusalem.  He is described as a Eunuch.  If that’s what he was then he would not have been allowed far inside the Temple, he would have been denied access, left outside the inner courts, made to feel less than whole – probably shamed.  It is an act of great faith and humility that he even went if he knew that’s how he would be treated.

And he’s reading these words:  

“He was led like a sheep on its way to be killed.
He was silent as a lamb whose wool is being cut off, and he did not say a word.
He was treated like a nobody and did not receive a fair trial.
How can he have children, if his life is snatched away?”

You might imagine that he identifies with these words…  “shorn”, “treated like a nobody”, “treated unfairly”, the chance of children snatched away…

“Tell me, was the prophet talking about himself or about someone else?”

In other words, “is this only about Isaiah and his situation back then, or is this about me too?”

Philip might have said – the Bible is never only about “back then” – it is always a word to us, today, in our circumstances.  Maybe Philip went on the explain that just a couple of turns later on in that scroll Isaiah says that the days are coming when Eunuchs who worship God will always be welcome in the house of God and will receive a name better than sons and daughters.  But Philip certainly explains that not only is this about him – that God knows him – but that God understands all of his suffering and humiliation and shame because Jesus walked the way of the cross.  And Philip explains that when the Eunuch’s story of being outcast and made to feel shame and humiliation is grafted into God’d story and refracted through the story of the cross and the resurrection – it becomes a story transformed, it becomes a story of redemption, restoration and hope.

The third question…

“Look!  Here is some water. Why can’t I be baptised?”

What’s to stop me being baptised here and now? 

Without the guidance of the Spirit, Philip might have had several answers…

You don’t live in Israel; you serve a foreign queen; you’re a eunuch – you’re not whole;

you live in the wrong place; you have the wrong job; your sexuality is suspect.

what if someone asked you in Tescos – “here’s an aisle full of bottled water – can you baptise me right now?”

you might say…  errrr…  I don’t have the authority… I’ll call Phil…  you need to go on a course first… errr….

But it is God’s Spirit who is the driving force here – barriers and objections are bulldozed out of the way – and he is baptised there and then.  He needs to be welcomed and accepted NOW.  Walls of prejudice and prohibition that had stood for generations came tumbling down, blown over by the breath of God’s Holy Spirit, and another man who had felt lost and humiliated was found and restored in the wideness of God’s Grace in Jesus Christ.  AMEN!


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A brutal killing…

Two teenage girls have been stoned to death by ISIS extremists after they were found in a house with two men – who were each flogged 50 times.  The girls, Hasna, 17, and Madiha, 16, were accused of committing adultery and executed in front of a crowd of hundreds in Deir ez-Zor city, eastern Syria.

Two older men were then sentenced to 50 lashes – also in public – after being identified by a Sharia Court as Abu Zubair al-Idlbi and Maher Hameed.

Yesterday in my morning prayer I was confronted by the account of the stoning of Stephen. Whilst the film, “The Life of Brian” makes light of this method of public torture and execution, I find that I cannot. It is not a thing of the past – it is a brutal reality today. I will not recount the grisly details here, the photo above is the least gruesome I could find without making light of the issue. Paintings of the stoning of Stephen show him serene and almost unaffected by the stones, and whilst I totally understand the motivation of the painters in depicting the story in that way – I found that I could not.

Acts 7:51-8:2 (CEV)

“You stubborn and hardheaded people! You are always fighting against the Holy Spirit, just as your ancestors did. Is there one prophet that your ancestors didn’t mistreat? They killed the prophets who told about the coming of the One Who Obeys God. And now you have turned against him and killed him. Angels gave you God’s Law, but you still don’t obey it.”

When the council members heard Stephen’s speech, they were angry and furious. But Stephen was filled with the Holy Spirit. He looked toward heaven, where he saw our glorious God and Jesus standing at his right side. Then Stephen said, “I see heaven open and the Son of Man standing at the right side of God!”

The council members shouted and covered their ears. At once they all attacked Stephen and dragged him out of the city. Then they started throwing stones at him. The men who had brought charges against him put their coats at the feet of a young man named Saul.

As Stephen was being stoned to death, he called out, “Lord Jesus, please welcome me!” He knelt down and shouted, “Lord, don’t blame them for what they have done.” Then he died.

Saul approved the stoning of Stephen. Some faithful followers of the Lord buried Stephen and mourned very much for him.

I have found myself haunted by this story – and the stories I have read of people being stoned to death in today’s world. Of course, Luke does not recount the story in order to campaign against the brutality of stoning. Luke tells the story in order to bear witness to the extraordinary courage and assurance that Stephen’s faith in God gives him. Such incidents might not have been commonplace, but they would have been familiar enough to Luke for him not to have been surprised that it happened. And there was more to come as this incident seems to have marked the beginning of a much more targeted campaign of persecution against the early church.

How easily we become desensitised to the brutality of the world around us 
and our involvement in it…

Stoning is a very deliberate kind of torture and execution. It is designed to be carried out by the whole community, it is an expression of the terrifying verdict that this whole community has decided very publicly to demonstrate that they can no longer abide you drawing another breath in their midst, and they will all play their part in killing you. It is also designed to free any single person of individual guilt – with stoning it is impossible to tell which stone actually caused the death or who threw it.

God will not let us get away with that kind of excuse:
“It might not have been MY particular stone…

Jesus said: “Let the one who is without sin cast the first stone.” And one by one, they melted away.

Martin Luther, talking about the crucifixion, said this: We all carry about in our pockets His very nails.”   He might just have easily said, “We all carry about in our pockets His very stones.

Put those stones down.  You won’t be needing them anymore.

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To be a child of God…

1 John 3:1 (CEV)

Think how much the Father loves us. 

He loves us so much that he lets us be called his children, as we truly are. 

The idea that we are God’s children says something about our relationship to God.
The idea that we are God’s children says something about our relationship to one another.

But for today – just this thought…

I have three children and as a consequence I have sat through many school concerts! I know there are parents who SAY that they enjoy each and every performance and are proud of every single child – but I was never one of those parents.

When kids other than my own were performing, I’d be looking at my watch wondering how much more we could take of this!


the moment one of mine took the stage – everything changed. I was instantly paying full attention, I was willing them on to greatness – and heart-swellingly proud of every tiny thing they did however accomplished or not it might have been.

That’s what I think of when I hear myself described as a child of God. I think of God willing me on – desperate for me to succeed – immensely proud of every tiny step I take.

And the amazing thing is that we are ALL God’s children – and God is like that for ALL of us!  (even when we play the recorder!)

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Gamaliel the wise?

Acts 5:34-42 (CEV)

But one of the members was the Pharisee Gamaliel, a highly respected teacher. He ordered the apostles to be taken out of the room for a little while. Then he said to the council:

People of Israel, be careful what you do with these men. Not long ago Theudas claimed to be someone important, and about four hundred men joined him. But he was killed. All his followers were scattered, and that was the end of that.

Later, when the people of our nation were being counted, Judas from Galilee showed up. A lot of people followed him, but he was killed, and all his followers were scattered.

So I advise you to stay away from these men. Leave them alone. If what they are planning is something of their own doing, it will fail. But if God is behind it, you cannot stop it anyway, unless you want to fight against God.

The council members agreed with what he said, and they called the apostles back in. They had them beaten with a whip and warned them not to speak in the name of Jesus. Then they let them go.

The apostles left the council and were happy, because God had considered them worthy to suffer for the sake of Jesus. Every day they spent time in the temple and in one home after another. They never stopped teaching and telling the good news that Jesus is the Messiah.

Gamaliel got Paul & Co. out of a tricky spot – but how wise IS his advice?

He seems to be saying that if a human venture is not “of God” then it will fail (so we can leave it to wither) and if a human venture is “of God” it will flourish and there is nothing we could do to stop it anyway. On the face of it, it seems like a recipe for doing nothing in any situation and simply leaving it to either flourish or fade away depending on whether it is “of God”. At least we won’t then have been seen to OPPOSE God’s plans, even though we never actually supported them either.

On the face of it it seems like UNWISE advice. Human ventures that are not “of God” clearly DO flourish and take root – they don’t just wither away! Antisemitism, to take a current hot topic, is deeply rooted and flourishing around the world – the slave trade too (clearly also not “of God”!)

In a previous life I might simply have dismissed Gamaliel on that basis – what on earth could he have to teach us. BUT… it is at least possible that this being a long time ago and us not really knowing the man, I would be being unfair.


Maybe it is wise to suggest that the context for this advice is a bunch of religious people from the same tradition arguing about theology – it is advice for a much more limited sphere than my objection assumes! Maybe in that religious context, Gamaliel’s advice is very pertinent. Why DO religious people spend such a lot of energy arguing among themselves about minutiae? Maybe Gamaliel is saying – these guys are in the same family as us. They’re making some pretty bold claims – but we have traveled together as a community of faith for thousands of years and we have seen great upheaval and change, some of it good and some of it not so good. Let’s just see how this one pans out – it might be phooey – but it might turn out to be something good. God has surprised us in the past! Chill!

That might be enough – it might help put some of our internal religious squabbles into context.

But maybe it’s more too…

There is stuff I should get on with – projects I should launch – and yet I have delayed and held back, possibly for fear they will fail. Maybe Gamaliel’s advice to me today would be – “Go on, Phil – have a go at it, make a start. Maybe it’ll fly, maybe it won’t – if it does, then that’s because the holy Spirit puts wind in its sails, if it doesn’t, then maybe that’s not what God wanted you to be doing just now and it is better to know than than not!

Cheers G – oh wise one!

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Who’s in charge around here?

John 3:31-36 (CEV)
The One Who Comes from Heaven

God’s Son comes from heaven and is above all others. Everyone who comes from the earth belongs to the earth and speaks about earthly things. The one who comes from heaven is above all others. He speaks about what he has seen and heard, and yet no one believes him. But everyone who does believe him has shown that God is truthful. The Son was sent to speak God’s message, and he has been given the full power of God’s Spirit.

The Father loves the Son and has given him everything. Everyone who has faith in the Son has eternal life. But no one who rejects him will ever share in that life, and God will be angry with them forever.

John the Baptist is answering questions from his disciples about this young upstart, Jesus, who people are starting to follow. What should they do? These verses are part of John’s response.

John paints a picture of Jesus being handed the reigns of power by God (the Father). We might want to talk about the theological thinking behind that picture and what the implications are – that might be interesting, but I doubt it would help us understand how to be better people, so I will resists that and stick with John’s word-picture of Jesus being left in charge.

There is a fairly common film/T.V. trope where someone unlikely is put in charge – often of a hard-bitten and close-knit police unit. The new person in charge is sometimes a woman, often an outsider, maybe a young wet-behind-the-ears academic who hasn’t got the street-hardened years that the other detectives have – whatever it is, there is usually something about the newcomer that causes resentment.

It usually starts badly – their authority is questioned as Jesus’s was (“where do you get your authority from?”); their background is put under scrutiny as Jesus’s was (“he’s just a carpenter’s son from Nazareth. Does anything good come from Nazareth?”); people ignore them, as they ignored Jesus (“He speaks about what he has seen and heard, and yet no one believes him.”) and when the going gets tough, desertion and rebellion begin, as it did with Jesus (“Because of what Jesus said, many of his disciples turned their backs on him and stopped following him.” John 6:66)

But then, against all the odds, the newcomer does something extraordinary and everything changes. (Fill in the blanks yourself!)

Of course it isn’t a perfect analogy – but maybe there’s something in there, and that’s where the film/T.V. series usually ends.

But the Jesus thing doesn’t end there. Jesus goes on to ascend and he leaves us in charge! And maybe we feel like the new police chief, in the thick of it with nobody listening and everybody (including yourself) thinking you are simply not up to the job.

Maybe that’s when we need to (yes, with God’s help!) – DO SOMETHING EXTRAORDINARY!

There are so many ways to be extraordinary – we could be extraordinarily generous,
extraordinarily loving, extraordinarily grace-filled, extraordinarily kind, extraordinarily forgiving, extraordinarily ambitious for the gospel of peace…

The world is watching!

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so loved…

John 3:16 (ESV)

For God so loved the world, 
that he gave his only Son, 
that whoever believes in him should not perish 
but have eternal life.

If you give most Christians the first clause of that verse, they will complete it for you.  Many non-Christians would also be able to recite it.  Here’s a little exercise for the day…

God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.

Henry so loved his hamster that he spent nearly all of his pocket money on treats and food for him and got up early to feed him and clean his cage.

Sandra so loved her Harley that she spend every weekend cleaning it and polishing the chrome – and showing it off to the world at bike shows.

Roger so loved his collection of designer-label shoes that he kept them all polished and dusted and ordered by the colour-spectrum in a special locked wardrobe.

Nicola and Simon so loved Formula One racing that they spent all their spare cash and holiday time travelling the world to watch the grand Prix season.

Dave and Peter so loved their adopted son that they sacrificed everything to help him realise his dream to become a world-famous snowboarder.

(Insert your own name)  so loved God that s/he  (complete the sentence.)

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Whence the power?

Acts 4:32-37 (CEV)
Sharing Possessions

The group of followers all felt the same way about everything. None of them claimed that their possessions were their own, and they shared everything they had with each other. In a powerful way the apostles told everyone that the Lord Jesus was now alive. God greatly blessed his followers, and no one went in need of anything. Everyone who owned land or houses would sell them and bring the money to the apostles. Then they would give the money to anyone who needed it.

Joseph was one of the followers who had sold a piece of property and brought the money to the apostles. He was a Levite from Cyprus, and the apostles called him Barnabas, which means “one who encourages others.”

Note the flow of this passage. We are told how the group of followers shared with one another everything they had – THEN we are told that they shared the Gospel in a powerful way.

Many commentators reflect on the communitarian features of the early church – and then talk about their preaching being powered by some special filling of the Holy Spirit – as if the two things were separate.

I wonder if that is the best way to understand this.

Could it not be that the action of the Holy Spirit leads them to a sharing and giving lifestyle – and that it is that lifestyle that gives their Gospel-sharing words power?

This rings true to our own experience, doesn’t it? My words only really have power if the listener perceives that they are LIVED words – or to use older language – that I practice what I preach.

So what is God trying to say to me this morning? I think it might be this:

Hey – Phil – If you are not living a Christlike life, all of your words sound hollow and there is no extra power I can give you to make them less so. Get on with the task of living a Christlike life, though, and your words will be infused with all the power I can offer you.

(or summat like that!)

Christmas is back!

Luke 1:26-38 (CEV)

An Angel Tells about the Birth of Jesus

One month later God sent the angel Gabriel to the town of Nazareth in Galilee with a message for a virgin named Mary. She was engaged to Joseph from the family of King David. The angel greeted Mary and said, “You are truly blessed! The Lord is with you.”

Mary was confused by the angel’s words and wondered what they meant. Then the angel told Mary, “Don’t be afraid! God is pleased with you, and you will have a son. His name will be Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of God Most High. The Lord God will make him king, as his ancestor David was. He will rule the people of Israel forever, and his kingdom will never end.”

Mary asked the angel, “How can this happen? I am not married!”

The angel answered, “The Holy Spirit will come down to you, and God’s power will come over you. So your child will be called the holy Son of God. Your relative Elizabeth is also going to have a son, even though she is old. No one thought she could ever have a baby, but in three months she will have a son. Nothing is impossible for God!”

Mary said, “I am the Lord’s servant! Let it happen as you have said.” And the angel left her.

Even if you haven’t yet started planning for Christmas 2018 – the church has!  You can’t suddenly produce a baby in December unless you get busy in March/April!  So the lectionary marks the feast of the Annunciation – when (in the CEV translation) Mary says “Let it happen as you have said.”

Let it happen!

I was reflecting on this during my morning prayer and it occurred to me that quite a lot of what I think my calling is involves me planning stuff and trying to make stuff happen.  Yet – here is Mary saying “Let it happen.”

Mary doesn’t really have to do anything – she doesn’t even have to go out and get pregnant – it’s all done for her – she just has to let it happen – God is the mover here, God is doing the heavy lifting.

This is a real challenge for me!  I could very easily read this as a charter for doing nothing, but I don’t think that’s what God wants me to take away from this (sadly!)  I also like to feel like I am in control – I’m the one with the plan – I’m the one taking steps a, b and c to make x happen.

So maybe a step back.. What DOES God get from Mary?

I think God gets quite a lot.  It is often said that you can’t be a bit pregnant.  Mary commits to being all-in, 100% committed.  She says to God – here I am – I’m all yours – I’m in.  Whatever the consequences of that are – let it happen!

And it seems to me that this is what God has to ask me today.  “Phil, are you all in?”  And the answer God is looking for is, “Yes God, and whatever the consequences of that might be – let it happen!”

Happy Christmas!

Until then – a great opportunity to share this poem again…

An angel came to me
and I was unprepared
to be what God was using.
Mother I was to be.
A moment I despaired,
thought briefly of refusing.
The angel knew I heard.
According to God’s Word
I bowed to this strange choosing.

A palace should have been
the birthplace of a king
(I had no way of knowing).
We went to Bethlehem;
it was so strange a thing.
The wind was cold, and blowing,
my cloak was old, and thin.
They turned us from the inn;
the town was overflowing.

God’s Word, a child so small
who still must learn to speak
lay in humiliation.
Joseph stood, strong and tall.
The beasts were warm and meek
and moved with hesitation.
The Child born in a stall?
I understood it: all.
Kings came in adoration.

Perhaps it was absurd;
a stable set apart,
the sleepy cattle lowing;
and the incarnate Word
resting against my heart.
My joy was overflowing.
The shepherds came, adored
the folly of the Lord,
wiser than all men’s knowing. 

 (Madeleine L’Engle)

Phil’s Top Five Easter Day Tunes

As I did a Top Five for Good Friday – I thought I should also do one for Easter Day lest I be thought of as a predominantly morbid soul!  (I am!)

Truth is – I do prefer mournful music – but that doesn’t mean that I can’t tolerate a bit of joyousness on occasion – and what better day for that than Easter Day?

The “joy” of Easter Day is a deep, lasting, eternal joy – and I suspect this is harder for musicians to capture.

I have included pieces that I find are just infused with irresistible, infectious JOY and are also specifically inspired by the resurrection. (and I may have cheated!)

Here we go!

1. The Oscar Peterson Trio: “He is Risen” (from Peterson’s “Easter Suite”)

Oh Yes! No words needed!

2. Handel: “I know that My Redeemer Liveth” (from the Messiah)

Good old Kiri te Kanawa! She needs no introduction.

3. J.M.C Crum’s “Now the Green Blade Riseth”

Love is come again, like wheat that springeth green.

4. Prince (artist formerly known as!): “The Cross”

Possibly should be on Good Friday but it’s too loud for most contexts! So it’s here, sue me!

We all have our problems
Some big, some are small
Soon all of our problems
Will be taken by the cross.

Still one more to go?? Strewth, this is hard! 🙂

5. (Traditional) “This Morning When I Rose”

Sing it sister!

If this isn’t about Easter Day – then it should be! 🙂

OK – can I get back to my mournful sings now?  🙂