Tuesday 12 October 2021

St Philip the Deacon

A reflection at morning worship for the Community of Brendan the Navigator on Tuesday 12th October 2021.

Philip the Deacon proclaiming the good news to the Ethiopian eunuch

 (icon written by Ann Chapin)

Yesterday was the feast day of Philip the Deacon, a contemporary of the apostles and St Paul. And we remember him today. He is not to be confused with the Apostle Philip. Philip the Deacon helped the apostles to administer the alms of the growing church in Jerusalem, and when that church suffered persecution, he became a travelling evangelist first in Samaria, and then along the Mediterranean coast of Palestine. His name tells us that he was Greek speaking, a Hellenised Jew, which must have been a great advantage in his work away from the Aramaic speaking Jewish heartlands.

There is an ancient tradition that he was one of the seventy disciples whom Jesus sent out in pairs to proclaim the good news. But the first we hear of him in the New Testament is when he is appointed as one of seven deacons, along with Stephen and five others, to help the apostles to administer the growing church, so that they could concentrate on spiritual leadership. The epithet ‘deacon’ derives from the Greek word for ‘helper’. It must have been a very sensitive job, since Greek speaking Christians were starting to complain that they were being neglected by Hebrew speaking Christians in the distribution of alms.

The church in Jerusalem suffered pogroms after the martyrdom of Philip’s fellow deacon Stephen. Most Christians fled from the city, leaving the apostles in Jerusalem. Philip went first to Samaria, where he worked as a travelling evangelist, with great success, we are told. 

Then, as today’s reading tells us, he was inspired to travel to the South, toward Gaza, where he encountered the ‘Ethiopian eunuch, a court official of the Candace, queen of the Ethiopians’. These people were probably not from Ethiopia as we know it today, but from the Kingdom of Kush in Nubia, South of Egypt, which at that time was governed by queens with the title Candace. Philip’s exposition of a text from Isaiah, from which he proclaimed the good news about Jesus, so impressed the eunuch that there and then, he asked Philip to baptise him, which Philip did. How lovely it would be if the eunuch’s conversion and baptism could be seen as the origin of the Ethiopian Church. While this is not impossible, historians tell us that the Ethiopian church dates only from the 4th Century AD.

Immediately after the baptism, we are told, ‘The Spirit of the Lord snatched Philip away’ to a place called Azotus, which is identified with Ashdod, a town on the coast close to Gaza. From there Philip travelled North up the coast, ‘proclaim(ing) the good news to all the towns until he came to Caesarea’, a port town between modern Tel Aviv and Haifa. He must have settled in Caesarea, because the Acts of the Apostles reports that many years later St Paul and his companions stayed there with ‘Philip the evangelist, one of the seven’ on his way to Jerusalem. It adds the detail that Philip had four unmarried daughters who had the gift of prophecy.

What a career Philip had! Guided by the Spirit he served and nurtured the growing church in many different ways, as the need arose. It is good to remember him, and all he achieved, because he is one of the heroes of the primitive church, a model for all who serve the Church as deacons. As we travel our own pilgrim paths through this world, may his story encourage us to continue proclaiming the good news of Jesus Christ.

Sunday 10 October 2021

Through the eye of the needle

Address given at St Mary's Nenagh and Killodiernan church on Sunday 10th October 2021, the 19th after Trinity

Do you know how to catch a greedy monkey?

First take a jar with an opening a little larger than the monkey's hand. Attach the jar to something that can't be moved, like this pulpit. Then put something in the jar that the monkey wants – a sweet, perhaps. The monkey reaches in, grabs the treat, but with his hand full, he can't get his hand out of the opening. He's so greedy he won't let go – you have him trapped!

The man in today’s reading from Mark’s Gospel (Mark 10:17-31) is rather like the monkey, isn’t he? He had asked Jesus, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” - ‘Jesus, looking at him’, we are told, ‘loved him and said, “You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” When he heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions.’

I think the man is a failed apostle. He received the same call to leave everything and follow Jesus that Peter and the rest of the Twelve did. Jesus loved him and must have seen his potential. But the man was trapped, trapped by all his possessions, and he could not respond to Jesus.

 What should we learn from this man’s story?

Should we all, perhaps, do what this man couldn’t do – sell all our possessions, give the money to charity, and follow Jesus in holy poverty?

Just imagine what would happen if everybody did that. Prices would immediately crash. The economy would come to a grinding halt. And as ever the weak would suffer the worst consequences.

No, the fact is that Jesus calls each one of us uniquely, personally. He does not call us all to be or to do the same thing. He calls some to follow him in holy poverty, as he called his twelve apostles, as he called others through the centuries like St Francis of Assisi, and as perhaps he calls some today. But very few of us are called to be apostles.

Rather each one of us should practice listening attentively for Jesus to reveal our personal call, through prayer, through our conscience and through the working of the Holy Spirit. And we should pray that when we hear Jesus call, we will be able to respond.

Jesus goes on to reflect on how wealth and possessions can cut us off from God.

“Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God!” he says, “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.”

What a knack Jesus has for vivid, humorous images! – once heard, no one ever forgets this image of a camel trying to get through the eye of a needle, as a metaphor for human impossibility.

Almost all of us here in Ireland are rich compared to most on the planet. Surely we must all sit up and take notice of these words of Jesus, whatever else our personal call might be.

The trouble, I think, is not wealth and possessions in themselves; it is how we use them - and how we allow them to use us. They are God’s good gifts, but it is all too easy for us to allow them to close our ears to Jesus’s call, preventing us from being the people God wants us to be – in other words preventing us from entering the kingdom of God. We must always be prepared to surrender wealth and possessions back to God, or to give it away to others, if that is necessary to do God’s will.

Deng Xiaoping, the Chinese leader, coined the slogan ‘To be rich is glorious’

Doesn’t that sum up the false values of our consumer capitalist society? We share those values with other modern industrial societies, including supposedly Communist China.

Advertising encourages us to want more and more stuff we don’t need. We run around in circles to get the money to buy it, at the expense of our health, our communities, and our families. And we consume it and finally throw it away, damaging our environment in the process. Yet we are no happier for doing so! Meanwhile, the owners of capital seek to increase their wealth, and if they cannot find a profitable investment hide it away in off-shore accounts. We are on a treadmill leading us to the despair that Job expressed in the 1st reading (Job 23:1-9,16-17): ‘If only I could vanish in darkness, and thick darkness would cover my face!’

We all know this kind of collective madness cannot go on - unless we are peculiarly deaf and blind. People made in God’s image are being hurt. God’s planet is being trashed. Humanity’s greed is damaging the beautiful life filled planet God has placed us on. This cannot be God’s will. The Holy Spirit is speaking very clearly, and our consciences must tell us this is wrong. Now, surely, we need as a society to discard the false values, to surrender our greedy dreams of riches.

Jesus tells us that it is almost impossible for us to enter God's kingdom while we hold on to our riches. But how hard it is to let them go! “Then who can be saved?” say the disciples to one another. “For mortals” – that’s men and women like you and me – “it is impossible”, says Jesus, “but not for God; for God all things are possible.”

The author of our 2nd reading from the Epistle to the Hebrews (4:12-16), urges us to listen to the living, active word of God, and to trust in Jesus, the Son of God. ‘Let us therefore approach the throne of grace with boldness,’ he says, ‘so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need’.

This surely is what we must do to escape from the treadmill of riches. We must pray that God will show us how to live more abundantly with less, how to heal our damaged earth, how to rekindle community, and how to serve fundamental human need instead of worshiping greed.

I shall finish with a Collect of the Word.

Merciful God,
in your Son you call not the righteous but sinners to repentance;
draw us away from the easy road that leads to destruction,
and guide us into paths that lead to life abundant,
that in seeking your truth, and obeying your will,
we may know the joy of being a disciple of Jesus our Saviour,
who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, for ever and ever. Amen