Sunday 14th May 2006
Year B, The Fifth Sunday of Easter
Holy Trinity, Hurstpierpoint
Holy Eucharist
Acts 8:26-40
1 John 4:7-21
John 15:1-8

Imagine that we are holding a contest to think up the most unlikely recruit for an established organisation. Let me give some examples to start the game: what about a juggler applying to join the Stock exchange? Well, you can imagine it happening; after all, there is a certain amount of juggling at the Stock Exchange, so that won't do. What, then, about a member of the SAS applying to the Pacifist League? Well, it's less likely than the juggler but it's still just about possible? So what about a Mullah applying for membership of the House of Bishops? Yes, I think that is much closer to our purpose for today. Incidentally, if you can think of anything better, answers on a postcard addressed to a Churchwarden.

It is not difficult to see how these opening thoughts link with today's reading of Acts. The whole of the first part of Acts, from the events at Pentecost to the first Council of the Church at Jerusalem, is crucially concerned with difference, whether gentiles could join the sect started by Jesus. As we all know, it is always the winners that write the history and in this case the author of Acts only wrote his account after St. Paul's spectacular mission to the Gentiles which took him all the way to Rome; but the author is balanced enough to recognise the role played by St. Peter and, in our story today, by Philip who, if we follow the chronology, is probably Philip the new Deacon rather than Philip the Apostle.

The central subject of the story is the unlikely figure of an Ethiopian eunuch. Not only was this man the strangest of strange people, a black African rather than a Semite or a Greek, he was, by his very designation, unable to accomplish the great Jewish mission of going forth and multiplying; he might have been learned and rich but to the Jewish mind he could hardly have been more outlandish.

How, then, does the narrator handle this subject? First, we find that the Eunuch has recently been to worship at the Temple, which ties him in with what we know about the behaviour of the Apostles in Acts; secondly, he is reading Isaiah, the iconic book for New Testament writers. Then, in a passage that echoes both Luke's account of the encounter on the road to Emmaus and Peter's post Pentecost preaching, Philip explains the significance of the passage in Isaiah about the lamb going silently to the slaughter; and then, in a baptismal scene more graphic than any other in Actors and only paralleled by John the Baptist in the New Testament and the cleansing of Naaman in the Old Testament, the Eunuch is accepted into the Church; and Philip disappears.

In order to put our own current controversies into perspective, we need to understand the revolutionary nature of the Christian Church within a few months of the Resurrection of Jesus and the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. Since the calling of Abraham the Jewish people had been "Chosen of God"; since their liberation from captivity in Egypt they were conscious of God's intervention in their lives; after Sinai they were covenant partners with God; their self identity was totally tied up with the elimination of non Jews from the promised land of Canaan. Even during their Exile, the Scriptures testify to the way they set themselves apart from their captors. For the generation of Jesus and Peter the Book of Daniel with its stirring stories was the most popular and the First Book of Maccabees was one of the most recent. Not only did the Jews think they were special in spite of their extensive Diaspora; they had Divine assurance that they were special.

This perhaps explains that puzzling episode in the Gospels where a Syro-Phoenician woman asked for Jesus' help and he said, somewhat gruffly, that the children must be fed before the dogs, to which she courageously replied that even the dogs are allowed to eat the crumbs from the table of their master. There are, too, other hints of Gentile involvement in the accounts of Jesus, used, as in the case of the Roman Centurion, to contrast gentile faith with Jewish doubt; but in Acts, from the beginning, the atmosphere is totally different. Fired by the Holy Spirit, first the Jewish Diaspora and then fully fledged Gentiles are brought into the narrative. A church undergoing persecution from Saul has to make up its mind whether it wants religious and racial purity or whether it wants to survive. Stirred by the good news of the Kingdom, by the almost tangible presence of the Holy Spirit, it chooses survival.

Now, as usual, you all know what I am going to say. I am going to draw a moral about our ability to embrace difference. Who qualifies as a branch of the vine of Jesus, as set out in John's Gospel, and who is it that we are to love, as required in the First Letter of John?

I might be thinking about our generosity towards people who are not like us. I might, for instance, be thinking about that now widely circulated story of the Vicar who dressed up as a tramp and went into his own church. Or I might be thinking about our struggle to recognise the call of women to the ordained Ministry in our church; or I might be thinking about our different struggle to make no distinction between rich and poor, resident and asylum seeker, straight and gay; but I'm not. I am thinking of something totally different.

What I am thinking about is our need to get over our problems with rather superficial differences and to understand the all powerful nature of the Good News which transforms all difference into equality before God. At the beginning I mentioned the possibility of a member of the SAS joining the Pacifist League. We are told, again in that iconic Book of Isaiah, in words that could not be more clear, that the lion will lie down with the lamb. We are told that in spite of all our incredulity and customary caution, the coming of the Messiah will make all things possible and that at His coming, all difference will be indifferent.

Which leaves us with the idea of a Mullah joining the House of Bishops. This presents some challenging theological problems: such as the way in which the Abramic religions of Judaism, Christianity and Islam are the same and the way in which they are different; such as the way we should be conducting mission in a multi faith environment, where we seem to have got into a complete muddle; such as the conditions under which we can worship with other Christians, let alone other faiths.

Difference is never easy, it never has been, but there has never been a time in history when it has been more important to try to understand it.