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Bible Study for the sixth week of the Covid 19 church building closure | Barn Church Kew

Parishes of St Philips and All Saints Kew with St Luke’s Kew

Where all God’s Children are Welcome

Section 1:  Acts 7: 55-end

Prayer:  Open our hearts, loving God, to the actions of your Holy Spirit, so that we may read with understanding, and be enabled to put into practice all that we learn.  Amen

Read the passage through twice:

When the members of the Sanhedrin heard this, they were furious and gnashed their teeth at him. But Stephen, full of the Holy Spirit, looked up to heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. ‘Look,’ he said, ‘I see heaven open and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.’  At this they covered their ears and, yelling at the top of their voices, they all rushed at him,dragged him out of the city and began to stone him. Meanwhile, the witnesses laid their coats at the feet of a young man named Saul.  While they were stoning him, Stephen prayed, ‘Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.’ Then he fell on his knees and cried out, ‘Lord, do not hold this sin against them.’ When he had said this, he fell asleep.

Background

              As the Church in Jerusalem grew, the apostles found themselves carrying out practical tasks rather than preaching, so they appointed 7 deacons to look after the everyday needs of members of the community.  Stephen was one of these 7 deacons, but his practical functions didn’t prevent him from preaching.  This got him noticed by the religious authorities, who hauled him up before the Sanhedrin for questioning.  Stephen, in his defense, gives an impassioned speech which outlines how the entirety of Jewish history was leading up to the arrival of Jesus Christ, and that he was the promised Messiah.

Some questions

  • There is something terrifying about mob justice.  Why had Stephen managed to enrage the members of the Sanhedrin to this extent?  Is this a religious reaction or a guilt reaction?
  • Stephen has an ecstatic vision of God in the midst of all this hostility.  Can that still happen today?
  • Why is Stephen’s vision a step too far for the Sanhedrin?
  • Has Stephen sought martyrdom?  He is remembered as the first Christian martyr – could he have avoided it?
  • Why is Stephen described as “full of the Holy Spirit” as he sees the risen Christ in glory.  Surely he would be Spirit-filled at all times?
  • In terms of Jewish law, Stephen’s death is not legal.  Can passion and justice be reconciled?
  • There are many parallels between Stephen’s death and Christ’s, even in the words he uses as he dies.  Is this deliberate?  If so, why?
  • The euphemism “he fell asleep” seems clunky in the narrative, but it stems from the words that Stephen cries out, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit”.  These come from Psalm 31:5, and were part of the night time prayers of Israel and are included in Compline today, the last office of the day.  They also echo the words of Christ on the cross in Luke 23: 46, so again Luke is drawing parallels between the two deaths. 
  • The idea of death as a sleep before waking with the last trumpet is deeply embedded in our attitudes to death and in our culture – it is present in Hamlet and in a lot of English poetry.  How helpful is it?
  • Is Stephen’s death a tragedy or a triumph?  Or both?
  • Is martyrdom something to be sought or avoided?
  • Are there any parallels here between this story and our current circumstances?

Read the passage through again, out loud if possible

Review

  • What has this passage taught you about
  • God?
  • Jesus Christ?
  • The Church?
  • Our current situation?

Prayer:  Almighty God, may we be ever filled with your Holy Spirit, ever willing to speak of Christ, and always ready with words of comfort and challenge to a world that craves your presence.  Amen.

Section 2: 1 Peter 2: 2-10

Prayer

Read the passage through twice:

Like newborn babies, crave pure spiritual milk, so that by it you may grow up in your salvation, now that you have tasted that the Lord is good.  As you come to him, the living Stone – rejected by humans but chosen by God and precious to him – you also, like living stones, are being built into a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood, offering spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.  For in Scripture it says:

‘See, I lay a stone in Zion,
    
a chosen and precious cornerstone,
and the one who trusts in him
    
will never be put to shame.’

 Now to you who believe, this stone is precious. But to those who do not believe,

‘The stone the builders rejected
    
has become the cornerstone,’

 and,

‘A stone that causes people to stumble
    
and a rock that makes them fall.’

They stumble because they disobey the message – which is also what they were destined for.  But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light. Once you were not a people, but now you are the people of God; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.

Background

              We read further this week in the general letter to the churches in modern day Turkey.  This letter would have shared around the congregations from Sunday to Sunday, and possibly copied out so that the community had its own copy.  The writer assumes a level of knowledge of the Hebrew scriptures, quoting from several sections of Isaiah and Psalm 18, as well as making a drawn-out allusion to the prophet Hosea.  It shows how the Early Church was still quite Jewish in character, but writing its own, new way of interpreting the Word of God. 

Some questions

  • Like last week, the images come thick and fast.  We move from newborn babies requiring simple milk to living stones which become a living building, a holy priesthood, a royal nation and finally the people of God.
  • There is a clear expectation of progress, of learning in the Church – St Paul uses the image of baby milk too in his letters, usually to upbraid his readers that they have not moved on from easy subjects to more weighty matters.  Do you feel that you are making progress in your faith?  Are you better informed about God, about prayer, about the Kingdom of Heaven than this time last year?  Are you more confident in your faith today?
  •  Lithops bromfieldii This strange plant, from southern Africa, is called a Living Stone – examples can be found in the Princess of Wales Conservatory in Kew Gardens.  It seems to hold little interest, but it divides quietly and regularly, to become quite a sizeable plant, given the right conditions.
  • The writer did not have this plant in mind when he wrote about living stones – he was imagining the Church as a dynamic building, with Christ as the cornerstone.  Christ is the first living stone and we, re-created in his image, become living stones.  Individual stones, by themselves, are of little value, but built together they form a visible structure for all to see.  The living building gives shelter and context, a safe space and a worshipping space which is always expanding.  Is our church congregation as dynamic as the writer implies it should be?
  • The first quotation is from Isaiah 28: 16 – 17, in a context of rebuilding the nation after its rebellion and sin against God.
  • The Psalmist is talking about God turning the tables on human expectations in the context of worship – the once rejected stone has become central to the Temple’s structure.
  • The second quotation from Isaiah casts God as the stumbling stone, the one on whom the corrupt nations of Judah and Israel will fall.
  • The writer has pulled together three different strands of thinking about God – the God who restores, the God who challenges and the God who brings humanity near to him in worship – all in the person of Christ, who is the “living stone”.  Thus, Christ is projected backwards in Jewish history – it was Christ who rebuilt Israel, Christ who built the Temple, Christ who challenged corruption and an unjust society.
  • We are made living stones, like Christ – are we therefore called to do those same things that Christ has done through history?
  • But there is much more for the Christian: “you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession”.  The Jews were God’s chosen people – now it is followers of Christ.  The royal priesthood goes back to Melchizedek, King of Salem (the city state that preceded Jerusalem) who met Abraham after a battle with 7 kings.  The royal tribe of Israel was the tribe of Judah.  The priestly tribe was Levi.  In Christ these two tribes are united into one function, which we share as Christ’s followers – priests and kings in God’s holy kingdom.
  • What are priestly functions?
  • What are a king’s functions?
  • Do these two sets of functions operate alongside each other, or are they mutually exclusive?
  • The final sentence is the most moving of this entire passage.  The prophet Hosea was called to take a wife who would be unfaithful to him.  They gave their children prophetic names, one of which was “not a people”.  Hosea challenged the nation to return to God simply by calling out his child’s name.  But now we are a people, the challenge has been reversed in Christ.  We who were outside God, not part of his people or possession, are now, in Christ, very much included in God.
  • Do you feel included in God?  Even in the current circumstances?
  • This text is supposed to be deeply comforting and seriously encouraging.  Do you feel comforted and encouraged by it?  Would you offer it to someone who was feeling vulnerable?

Read the passage through again, out loud if possible

Review

  • What has this passage taught you about
  • God?
  • Jesus Christ?
  • The Church?
  • Our current situation?

Prayer:  Almighty God,in Christ you have lavished all the riches of your love upon us.  Give us grateful hearts and active souls, that we may worship you as we ought, and serve you daily in your world.  Amen

Section 3: John 1: 43-end

Prayer

Read the passage through twice:

 The next day Jesus decided to leave for Galilee. Finding Philip, he said to him, ‘Follow me.’  Philip, like Andrew and Peter, was from the town of Bethsaida. Philip found Nathanael and told him, ‘We have found the one Moses wrote about in the Law, and about whom the prophets also wrote – Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph.’  ‘Nazareth! Can anything good come from there?’ Nathanael asked.  ‘Come and see,’ said Philip.  When Jesus saw Nathanael approaching, he said of him, ‘Here truly is an Israelite in whom there is no deceit.’  ‘How do you know me?’ Nathanael asked.  Jesus answered, ‘I saw you while you were still under the fig-tree before Philip called you.’  Then Nathanael declared, ‘Rabbi, you are the Son of God; you are the king of Israel.’  Jesus said, ‘You believe because I told you I saw you under the fig-tree. You will see greater things than that.’ He then added, ‘Very truly I tell you, you will see “heaven open, and the angels of God ascending and descending on” the Son of Man.’

Background

               This happens very early in Jesus’s ministry.  The day before, he had been baptised by John the Baptist, and had called Peter and Andrew to be his disciples.  The process of building a group of disciples continues, with Philip & Nathanael being added to the number.  The location is in the north of Israel, near the Sea of Galilee.

Some questions

  • Was Philip a random choice of disciple by Jesus, or was it planned?  If so, how did Jesus know to call him?
  • Philip appears to be convinced that Jesus is the Messiah from the start – what has brought about this conviction?
  • Philip’s first instinct is to tell his friend (?) Nathanael about Jesus.  How likely would it be for you?
  • Nathanael is very dismissive of Philip’s suggestion (he comes from the neighbouring village, Cana cf. John 21:2), but Philip perseveres.  There is great value in “come and see” – as long as the experience lives up to the invitation.  Would you happily say, “come and see” when inviting a friend or neighbour to church with you?
  • What exactly does Jesus mean when he describes Nathanael as “an Israelite in whom there is no deceit”?
  • How is it possible for Jesus to have seen Nathanael “under the fig tree”?
  • This remark convinces Nathanael – why?  Would it convince you?
  • Both Philip & Nathanael respond very positively to Jesus.  What does this suggest about these first contacts?  What sort of impression must Jesus have made on everybody he met?
  • To what is Jesus referring when he talks of “heaven open, and the angels of God ascending and descending”?  (Think Jacob’s dream….)
  • In the presence of Jesus, God connects with humanity.  Worship, understanding, healing, peace all become possible.  Is that your experience?  Or is it limited to Sunday worship? 
  • Who comes out of this better: Philip or Nathanael?
  • Can any of this help us in our current situation?

Read the passage through again, out loud if possible

Review

  • What has this passage taught you about
  • God?
  • Jesus Christ?
  • The Church?
  • Our current situation?

Prayer:  Loving God, you reach out to us in love and generosity.  Help us today and always to be open to your calling, and always to be willing to introduce others to your loving care.  Amen.