Do you understand?
One of my favourite visits when we are on holiday in Durham is the local air museum. Very much a self-help operation, there is a certain air of how things used to be before electronic screens. This sense is heightened by their reconstruction of a wartime street. In a kitchen, an aproned woman is baking with earthenware bowls and an enamelled gas cooker. The air raid warden’s hut and Anderson Shelter give a reminder of the nation being ‘all together’ facing a common foe. And the toyshop’s window displays metal Meccano – now there’s memory from the past!
And after a few moments, it is easy to say – those were simpler times, those were better times and then the real clanger –those were safer times. For one door lies ajar and it tempts you to push it open – only to find the undertaker on the other side. Those war years then were not safer times – they were indeed very dangerous times. This however doesn’t stop us from searching for that cheapest item of eye wear – rose-tinted spectacles.
Now nostalgia fuel myopia was certainly a risk facing the early apostles.
For, with the death of Christ, our faith’s ancestors faced a cross roads. They could have sought the apparent safety of a socially walled-off group within their exclusive parent religion. They could have cultivated the delicious ‘them and us’ syndrome that effects all sects. They could indeed have run back to the known and possibly safer past.
Or – or they could grasp the alternative. They could break out into the risks of a new world; a future of hostility and opportunity. Put more directly, they could step out bravely into tomorrow.
Obviously, this would mean a geographical journey across the lands of the ancient Roman world. But it also meant a sociological journey across the boundaries between peoples, life styles, personalities and attributes. It meant, in fact, finding new ways of worshipping, living and witnessing.
Since – you see – the Ethiopian official in Acts would have been a different race, culture and class than Philip. It would therefore have been very easy for him to have seen this rather exotic character at a distance and let him pass. But he did not, he took courage from the spirit and did the right thing. He leapt the wall that divided them and ask the question – do you understand what you are reading?
In return, and to the Ethiopian’s credit, he pushed his pride to one side and asked for help from a foreigner. Help to understand the prediction of the good news of Jesus Christ for all peoples. And so, the outcome of this interchange was a baptism and the message carried outward – carried forward into the future; the future where we live now.
We too can blind ourselves with rose-tinted spectacles and hanker for a past of packed churches complete with overflowing Sunday Schools. We can hunger for everyone wanting to do church in the same way. And many Christian communities still look to this reminiscence as safe and sure and cosy.
However, it no longer exists any more than the whole family sitting around the steam radio listening to news from foreign fronts. Instead, our world today is multi-screened, multi-coloured and multi-choice – so let’s embrace it with the Spirit – let’s step out with courage – let’s get on with the job of being the future.
Yet even if we want to modern day Philips, we are unsure how to access this future. And the answer lies in those questions – do you understand what you are reading? And, can you explain it to me?
A first-year student in a seminary was told by the dean that he should plan to preach the sermon in chapel the following day. He had never preached a sermon before, he was nervous and afraid, and he stayed up all night, but in the morning, he didn’t have a sermon. He stood in the pulpit, looked out at his classmates and said, “Do you know what I am going to say?” All of them shook their heads “no” and he said “Neither do I. The service has ended. Go in peace.”
The dean was not happy. “I’ll give you another chance tomorrow, and you had better have a sermon.” Again, he stayed up all night; and again he couldn’t come up with a sermon. Next morning, he stood in the pulpit and asked, “Do you know what I am going to say?” The students all nodded their heads “yes.” “Then there is no need to tell you” he said. “The service has ended. Go in peace.”
Now the dean was angry. “I’ll give you one more chance; if you don’t have a sermon tomorrow, you will be asked to leave.” Again, no sermon came. He stood in the pulpit the next day and asked, “Do you know what I am going to say?” Half of the students nodded “yes” and the other half shook their heads “no.” The student preacher then announced “Those who know, tell those who don’t know. The service has ended. Go in peace.”
The seminary dean walked over to the student, put his arm over the student’s shoulders, and said “Those who know, tell those who don’t know. Today, the gospel has been proclaimed. Well done!”
Here then is how to spread the good news of Jesus Christ today. Here is how we can break down the barriers of difference that so many are rushing to build up. Here indeed is how to make our faith live in this 21sr Century.
For we need to ask each other – do you understand? And where we hear ‘yes’ let us hear a resounding proclamation of the gospel’s experience. But where we hear ‘No’ – let us give witness from the depths of our own understanding. Our knowledge that Christ came for all humanity and creation. That Christ lives so that his presence can guide and sustain even when life is flinging its worst at us. That Christ is alive, that his church is not a museum and his people are moving forward.
So, this day – if you do not understand, then ask.
If you know, then say.
For then the gospel is preached, the kingdom is brought near and the past is made fresh for the future.
The sermon is ended – now, preach one to another.