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Evensong      10th September 2017
What kind of disciple?
Jeremy Fletcher

Acts 19. 1 - 20

One of the saving graces of the Bibles we were made to use at my Methodist secondary school was that they not only had illustrations in (which could be ‘adapted’ by third formers), but also had maps. I don’t know whether that was the source of my continued fascination with maps and globes (Julia had to physically prevent me from entering Stanford’s in Covent Garden on Friday), but I never drew on the maps in the same way I drew on the pictures of Jesus in our New English Bibles. 

The maps were there to help the reader not only to work out where each of the tribes of Israel settled, or the size of Solomon’s kingdom, but also to see how Paul criss-crossed the Eastern Mediterranean establishing and strengthening the early church. It’s worth revisiting those maps, and comparing them with the present day. Places we associate either with holidays or with war zones are the stuff of Paul’s life in the decades after the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. And they were, I suppose, tourist destinations and war zones even then. Not much changes, only the names of the combatants. 

In the last two weeks we have seen Paul at the end of his second great journey, ending in Greece with Athens and Corinth, before he returns to Jerusalem and Antioch. Now he sets out on his third, and last journey, strengthening the churches in modern Turkey, before revisiting Ephesus, where he had only stayed for a short time before in his hurry to get back to Jerusalem for Passover. He makes the overland journey from Antioch, in modern Syria, through land familiar from that reading about Pentecost in Acts 2: Cilicia, Pamphilia, Galatia, and Phrygia, which gave its name to a mode of music and allowed choristers to talk about Wood in the Fridge. It’s in Turkey now.

Ephesus was then on the coast. These days it’s seven miles inland. It was a major city, and as full of variety as such a large and vibrant centre would be. In Athens Paul has tried the intellectual approach, and realised he was ploughing into sand. In Corinth he had simply but profoundly opened up the ‘mystery’ of the love of God in Jesus Chris, and him crucified. In Ephesus he finds a new challenge: a group of people identified as followers of Jesus, but who, on examination, are not quite as they sounded. They are faithful enough, but are following Christ at one remove.

Paul, knowing that there are Jews to debate with, and knowing that Ephesus has followers of many religions, not least Artemis, the great goddess, needs to know whether his new friends are going to be reliable colleagues. Something about them makes him ask how they became followers of Christ. It soon becomes clear that their faith derives from the teaching of John the Baptist, who pointed to Christ. That marked them out as not being safely Jewish anymore, and probably that was how they got lumped in with the growing Christian movement. But Paul knows they have only received half the message. They have been pointed to Christ, but have not yet encountered him in baptism and the gift of the Holy Spirit. 

Effectively the twelve Ephesian disciples have liked what they heard about Jesus Christ, and began to model their lives on what they knew of his teaching, but they had not encountered Christ himself. They had been baptised, but only for repentance, as taught by John. Perhaps they knew that John had promised that Jesus would baptise with the Holy Spirit. When Paul challenges them they recognise that they are interested, if you like, but not wholly committed, and not in a relationship with Christ. The baptism they them receive is from death to life, from brokenness to wholeness, from sin to forgiveness. They encounter the reality of Christ, and a relationship with him as a present and continuing reality. 

How Christians experience and live out their relationship with Christ will differ. What is at the root of it all is that in Christ the Christian passes from death to life. Many are interested in the idea of faith, and in what seems attractive, or just good, about the Christian faith. What Paul demonstrates in Ephesus is that there is a step to make: of dying with Christ and receiving the love of God in Christ by the Holy Spirit. In Ephesus they prophesied and spoke in tongues. I don’ think that’s required. But knowing that the Christian is in relationship with God in Christ by the Spirit goes beyond a general interest. The disciple walks the way, with Christ as goal, companion, strength, and life.

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