“Do you understand what you are reading?” Philip asked.
“How can I,” he said, “unless someone explains it to me?'” Acts 8:30-31
The decline in Western civilization, the loss of people’s ability to think and act for themselves, can be followed on cereal packets.
Some years ago, the bowl of Corn Flakes would be pictured with someone pouring milk over it; underneath it would say, ‘Serving suggestion’. This always seemed odd, would I really put gravy and horseradish sauce on my Corn Flakes if there were not a picture showing me that I should use milk and sugar?
Then Weetabix started printing instructions on how to open the packets inside the box. If you don’t believe me, open the big long flaps that go along the top of the box and inside there are two short flaps. On these there are printed instructions on how to open the white packets containing the Weetabix. Why do we need instructions on how to open a packet? What next? How to put the Weetabix in a bowl? How to eat them? Serving suggestion: ‘Use a spoon and not a fork’. Had people become so dull and unintelligent that they could no longer open a packet without a diagram to show them?
Now, I notice that the Ready Brek packet has a health warning on the side. It suggests heating a bowl of Ready Brek with the milk already mixed in, or heating the milk separately, and then warns, “Please be careful with hot product or liquid once prepared.” Without the warning would people think that boiling milk was not necessarily hot? Who knows?
The manufacturers obviously think this is necessary. They wouldn’t go to the bother of this extra printing if they didn’t believe there was a reason for it. If the makers of Weetabix are now driven to printing instructions on how to open a packet, if Ready Brek has to say that hot things are hot, then what does this say about the society in which we live?
What it seems to say is that there is a huge gulf between motivated, organised, independent, responsible people like yourselves and a very large number of people in our society. If people need a diagram giving instructions on how to open a packet of Weetabix or a warning about hot milk, then it would suggest that they lack initiative and have become completely dependent upon others. It is no wonder that there are so many claims for damages and insurance. People feel that they are not responsible for anything; if something goes wrong it must be someone else’s fault and they must be entitled to some sort of compensation.
Understanding this culture, understanding the way that people have become dependent to the point that they need instructions about their breakfast cereal, is important for the church. We are functioning at a level that is beyond the understanding, or the ability, of most people. When people look at the church, it is not that they disagree or oppose what we believe, it is that they simply do not understand what it is that we are about. Church for most people is the organisation that runs the school, or the place where the fete is held in the summer. There is not the level of thinking to take them beyond these ideas.
When we look at the Scripture readings for today we see how big the gap has become between the church in Jesus’ time and our community today. In the Gospel reading Jesus says to his friends, “I am the vine; you are the branches”. Such words would be nonsense to most of our cereal box readers, but to us they speak of a connection between Jesus and his followers that is so close that they are like part of a single tree. Such a close relationship demands a huge level of commitment and sacrifice and most people don’t want to know about such things, perhaps they simply don’t understand such things. What we see all around us is people who look to others to do things for them. It is very hard to realise that there is a need for commitment and sacrifice when you don’t feel responsible for anything.
When we look at the Epistle, John is writing about responsibility. “Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another”. John is saying that there is a duty to respond to God, that as we have received from him so we should give to others. This is completely contrary to life today. If someone is given something today they might or might not say ‘thank you, but what they will do is to turn and walk away. There is no sense of obligation, no sense that they should respond in any way. People have become completely dependent, always looking for someone to do things for them. John’s Epistle would make no sense at all to people who are used only to receiving.
It is against this background that the conversation between Philip and the Ethiopian in our reading from the Acts of the Apostles becomes a great challenge to us. “Do you understand what you are reading?” Philip asked. “How can I,” he said, “unless someone explains it to me?
Do people around us, the people we meet at work, in the shops, walking down the streets, understand what our faith is? I don’t think so. At a time when fewer and fewer people think for themselves, at a time when questions in most homes don’t go beyond ‘what’s for tea? or ‘what’s on television?’, big questions about God and life don’t get a look in.
The sad thing is that the Church has completely failed to realise the way society has gone. If it is necessary to give instructions on opening a packet of Weetabix, or warn people that Ready Brek is hot if you heat it up, then what hope is there that there will be any understanding whatsoever of the sort of language used by the church?
We need to start again. “Do you understand what you are reading?” Philip asked. “How can I,” he said, “unless someone explains it to me?” What does Philip do? He starts with the passage of Scripture the Ethiopian is reading and he explains the good news of Jesus – nothing more, nothing less, simply the good news of Jesus.
We might live in a society where people need instructions on how to eat their breakfast cereal, but deep in the heart of every single one of those people there are questions that are needing answers. Every single one of them wants to feel that their life has some meaning, every one of them wants to know that they have counted for something. “Do you understand what you are reading?” Philip asks the Ethiopian and the response is almost an appeal for help. “How can I, unless someone explains it to me?”
Like Philip, will we be the people who are prepared to sit alongside those whom we meet and explain the good news of Jesus?
Sermon at Saint Matthias’ Church on Sunday, 10th May 2009