So for a while I amused myself by lifting the receiver then replacing it, then lifting it again. It helped pass the time as I waited for my train. Every time I lifted the receiver there was BT politely apologising. These days such apologies are commonplace, standard fare in our high tech world. But no real person is actually saying sorry, are they? It’s a digitally produced message; there may be a spoken voice, but how convincing can an anonymous apology be? Even back then, no-one at BT had really apologised - nor did they know the difference between a bored rail traveller passing away an idle couple of minutes and someone who might really have had some pressing reason for needing the phone to be in perfect working order.
In fact these days we seem to be surrounded by anonymous voices. I called on someone not long ago and even their fridge could talk! I don’t quite remember what it said, something to do with the production of ice cubes I think. This was a large and hi-tech fridge, American style; it wasn’t far off the size of some small kitchens - but did it really need to talk, I wondered?
Anonymity sort of features in our first reading this morning, in that the Ethiopian in his chariot reading the prophet Isaiah doesn’t know who the prophet is writing about. Philip does, though, and so begins the story of one of the very first black Christians. Philip knew Jesus, and he shared his knowledge of Jesus with the Ethiopian, who went on to be baptized. If we know Jesus we know God. That’s an astounding claim to make, for surely no mere mortal can possibly know God. But Jesus said to Philip the disciple (not the same Philip as the one in our story) ‘If you have seen me you have seen the Father.’ And he said to the disciples, ‘You know him because he abides with you and he will be in you.’
It may seem logically impossible for mortal human beings to know the immortal God, but Jesus tells us we can in fact have a close and intimate relationship with God. He did; and he spoke of God as Father, and taught his disciples to pray in those words. In Jesus God came to meet us and to walk beside us; in Jesus we see the beauty of divine love in the form of a human life. So we can say, “God is like Jesus” - four words which are a simple and profound statement of the heart of faith. Our reading from the Acts of the Apostles gives us one of the many stories we find there that speak of a lively evangelism that was beginning to happen. After the Day of Pentecost, God was no longer a remote and anonymous voice, and the deep desire of many to know him better was being fed.
But today a deep desire to know God better isn’t very obvious in the culture around us. Committed church membership is a minority pursuit. I think there’s more awareness of church and even affection for church around than sometimes we think, but I have to admit that most people are not only not searching to know God better, they’re not giving him much thought at all.
‘I shall not leave you as orphans,’ promised Jesus to his disciples, when he spoke to them about the gift of the Spirit. But it would seem that what used to think of itself as a Christian country has chosen to orphan itself from its heavenly Father.
At a college in Birmingham years ago I found myself talking to some newly arrived visitors from the Church of South India, who told me they were surprised how small a place religion has in our society. ‘In India everyone has the fear of God in their heart,’ one of them told me. I had to agree with them, and yet a lot of the people I meet do have a sense of spirituality and a desire for something beyond ourselves. It’s just that mostly they’re not looking in this direction to find it.
It might be Archbishop Desmond Tutu who once asked, “Have people abandoned the Church, or is it the Church that’s abandoned the people?” Yesterday at the cathedral I was talking to a reader from Truro Diocese who said that his bishop had told him and his fellow readers, “Take your faith into the pub, into the local drama group, into whatever’s going on in your community - don’t just lock it up in church.” If our impact on people’s lives is at about the same level as BT’s apology to me for their phone being out of order, automatic and impersonal, and sometimes that’s how it seems, it’s no surprise if we go unheard. The letters page in last week’s Church Times almost made me screw up the entire paper in despair - intense and churchy arguments that had little relevance even to me, and none at all to anyone who wasn’t a church insider. What good is that to the Gospel?
How do we put things right? Whatever we do surely has to begin with prayer, which is why Archbishop Justin is asking us to use the ten days between Ascension and Pentecost prayerfully. That’s when the disciples prayed for the gift of the Spirit - we’re asked to pray for more people to turn to Jesus.
Those South Indian Christians told me how important prayer was for them. They would pray before going out in the morning, and they’d pray again when they got home. They prayed before every meal, and whenever they washed or bathed. This, they told me, was what Indians of any faith would do, part of the rhythm of their day. I was humbled to hear this, I don’t find prayer easy, and at best I fit it in around the edges of my day. And yet John Wesley once said he was too busy not to pray.
We live in a mission field these days, surrounded by people hardly touched by the Gospel. We don’t need to know everything or be expert preachers to bridge that gap, but we do need more than vague bits of niceness to be convincing. Like Philip on the desert road, we need to make the most of whatever opportunities come our way. But to begin with we need to be praying - for ourselves, for one another, and for our neighbours and our community and our world.
I remember years ago attending a service at Hereford Cathedral at which a priest from Singapore told us some inspiring stories about his time as a missionary in South Africa. One thing he said that stuck with me is: “You can’t have a third-hand relationship with Jesus”. To do what he did he had first of all to work on his own relationship with Jesus. Without that, he’d have been sharing something second-hand which would have become third-hand to his hearers, no more convincing really than that message from BT on my broken phone. “You will receive the Spirit of truth,” is what Jesus promised his disciples. In other words he tells us that if we commit ourselves to the task he’ll make sure we have the means - the vision, the spiritual strength - to do it. First we have to seek him out ourselves. But where else will people come to find Jesus, other than here where we are, within his Church?