“Do you understand what you are reading?” Philip asked.
“How can I,” he said, “unless someone explains it to me?'”. Acts 8:30-31
We live in age of rights without responsibilities; our culture has become one where people lack initiative, where they 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 the simplest of things, 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.
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 ordinary people, 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 the simplest of human activities, or face a claim for compensation if you fail to do so,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 simple things, 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, everyone 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 we meet and explain the good news of Jesus?