The Parish Church of St John-at-Hampstead
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Holy Communion 11.00      2nd May 2021
Growing in Disturbed Ground
Jeremy Fletcher

Acts 8: 26 – 40
John 15. 1 - 8
This time last year we had had a warm and sunny April. The memory is very clear because it was that lockdown month and by now there was bloom everywhere. This year, after the coldest and driest April for ages, nature is a bit behind, and lots of flowers are biding their time. Of all the flowers which should appear at this time of year it is the poppy I look for. Some grow in cultivated plots, but many appear in building sites and roadworks, because the seeds can remain dormant for years, and then spring into life where the ground is disturbed and other plants find it hard to grow. Famously they bloomed in the middle of disaster in Flanders, where nothing else could.
The disciples in Acts 8 are in the middle of a disaster. They are scattered not out of missionary zeal, but out of fear for their lives. Stephen has been assassinated. The message of Jesus Christ has struck at the very heart of the Jewish establishment, and the response is intense persecution. Just a few weeks after the death of Jesus, this must have seemed like the end of the fledgling movement.
Yet what happens is that, full of what they have seen and heard, they cannot help but talk about it, even as they flee. Philip, for example, the one who brought Greeks to Jesus in John 12, the one with the Greek name, finds himself in non Jewish countries, and talking to non Jewish people. In Samaria of all the unlikely places, Philip speaks of Jesus, and performs miracles, and people are converted. 
After Samaria, Philip is told by God to move south. The word can also mean ‘noon’ – because the sun was in the south at noon. In other words, he is told to travel towards the sun, at the hottest time of the day. Luke adds to the drama, making sure that we know that the road to Gaza was in the wilderness. Philip, would I am sure, not have planned to meet anyone on a wilderness road in the middle of the day. He would have organised things rather differently. Yet what happens is one of the most significant missionary encounters ever, and it shapes the life of the church in such a way that you and I are here to worship today. Had mission carried on the way it was, we would have remained outsiders.
In Acts 2, fifty days after the resurrection,  the gospel was preached to a cosmopolitan set of nationalities who had one thing in common. They were all Jews. That was exactly what you would expect to have happened – Jesus was the messiah, and Jews needed to hear the ways in which his life and death fulfilled those prophesies.  Though Jesus had talked about bringing good news to all the nations, the Jewish view of that was that all the nations would come to Jerusalem, and submit themselves to the God of Zion. Pentecost fulfilled that wonderfully.
Here, something different happens. God now shows the apostles that the good news is for everyone, where they are. None of them were expecting this. Philip has to be sent to Samaria and to an Ethiopian to hammer it home to him. Peter has to be given a vision, and to encounter the Roman Cornelius, before he is convinced. Paul takes years, and similarly has to have visions from God to get him preaching to Gentiles.
The apostles didn’t come up with the Christian mission to all peoples themselves. It was thrust upon them, and they took time to adjust. All the way along it was the people they were speaking to who broadened their understanding. Cornelius teaches Peter. The Ethiopian official teaches Philip. The Ethiopian is primed and ready for conversion – he’s even reading the prophecy of Isaiah. Philip is a missionary midwife, helping the safe delivery of the Ethiopian’s faith. 
All too often it is the people we think we are giving something to who actually teach us something. God is to be found in the very people we try to bring God to, if we have ears to hear. Of course, it helps if we are trying to speak about God to people in the first place, but in all sorts of ways this building can do some work for us. Having jab number two this week I chatted to a volunteer who spotted my address and said how much she and her family love this place. That’s something we can follow up: I hope they will come and worship here next! Like Philip it will help if we are available to God to take that encounter into commitment.
The encounter between Philip and the Ethiopian came about because of the persecution and scattering. My conversation with the vaccination volunteer came because of a devastating pandemic. From one perspective, what happens to us may seem disastrous. From the perspective of eternity, the disaster may turn out to be the beginning of resurrection, just as the disturbance of the ground brings about the flowering of poppies. To take another image, the vine flourishes following pruning. There are ancient roses in the Vicarage garden. We wouldn’t dare, but an expert dared, and pruned them so hard it looked like they had had it. Not so, and the flowers outside the study window are testament to it from late May onwards. 
This has been a hard time. The ground is disturbed. There has been a hard pruning. Within the difficulty and devastation there is hope and opportunity, if we are prepared to face the heat of the day, recognise Christ in the stranger, and allow ourselves to be changed by the encounter. May the roses bloom, and the poppies grow. Amen. 

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