Thought for the Week 22nd November 2020

Who Knows Where We’re Going…?

(by Rev Paul Graham)

Read Acts 18:18-28

It will be 57 years ago tomorrow that a British institution started which to this day continues to hold a certain section of the global population in its thrall. I speak of none other than the start of Doctor Who, from those grainy pictures of a London junkyard in November 1963 through the infamous wobbly walls and alien gravel pits of the 1970s to today’s spectacular effects and a female Doctor.[1]

For me, one of my earliest memories is of the Tom Baker story “Nightmare of Eden”, not one of the all-time greats, but obviously visually arresting enough to resonate with a 4-year old Brummie lad. That story started a love affair that endures. Transported to worlds and times realised by the limitations of the BBC’s budgetary department but fired by the imaginations of authors, I have been willingly taken by the TARDIS to who knows where, who knows when.

Fans of the show (Whovians to their friends) delight in detail, for alongside the adventures of this face-changing Time Lord is a vast trove of trivia. There may be few people who are interested in the fact that Doctor Who gave Martin Clunes his first television role[2], or that the 1966 William Hartnell story “The War Machines” was written purely because the writer didn’t like the new Post Office Tower that blocked the sunlight from his office – but I happen to be one of them.

There is, however, a frustration among Whovians: the Whovinovice[3]. We’re generally a gracious enough bunch, but woe betide someone come along and try to suggest that TARDIS stands for “Time and Relative Dimensions in Space”. Only a fool would do that – it’s “Dimension” singular, don’t you now?! And as for any suggestion that Tom and Colin might be from the same branch of the Baker family…

I don’t pretend to know everything there is to know about Doctor Who; certainly my knowledge of what is referred to as Nu-Who (2005 onwards) is far more sketchy than those glory days of cheap sets and spaceships on string. However, I do know enough about the background of the programme (Sydney Newman, Verity Lambert, etc) to be able to own the identity of Whovian and wear my improbably long scarf with pride (at least in my imagination).

Which brings us nicely to Apollos…

Like the Whovinovice, Apollos knows some things about the Christian faith. He knows the teachings of Jesus; he knows that baptism is for the forgiveness of sins. He knows enough about it to bring him into the scope of Priscilla and Aquilla, who have themselves recently been spending time with Paul. And he’s keen.

But he also has gaps. He knows nothing of the work of the Holy Spirit, the gifts that the Spirit brings, and the ongoing transformation that the Spirit offers in changing lives, building communities of faith, and challenging the injustices of the world. And that’s just for starters. So, it is up to Priscilla and Aquilla to fill in some of those blanks.

Apollos goes on to help the churches that he goes to. Though Luke writes encouragingly of the asset that Apollos is to the churches in the area, you can read more about the less positive impact he has in Paul’s first letter to the church in Corinth where Apollos takes a leading role (1 Corinthians 3:1-9). The so-called “cult of celebrity” is nothing new, though Apollos may well be as blameless in this as Paul and Peter…

Priscilla and Aquilla’s role in his discipleship and theological education sometimes gets overlooked. Again, ‘twas ever thus. Apollos goes on to be a leading light in the Corinthian church, inspiring many in their faith. But then again, how much do we remember of Ananias and the believers in Damascus? Without them, Paul would have been left a desperate convert, blind in both sight and faith. It was their gentle nurturing of him an their welcome, that, along with Barnabas, encouraged Paul to start on the journey that led him to Corinth.

Oftentimes it’s the big name that hogs the limelight; that’s certainly true in the West End and on movie posters, but that’s not in the Kingdom of Heaven. As much as people will seek out Paul in whatever heaven will ultimately look like, there will be plenty of others who will be honoured for their humble service, their kind words, their encouragement from the side-lines. Maybe we are going to be one of these…

But here’s where we leave Paul, the early church and the journey we’ve gone through Acts with them.

They, like us, are all unfinished stories. Not only do they go on in their lives, with Paul travelling back to Jerusalem then ultimately onto Rome, but he also continues to learn more about this faith that he has been declaring so openly to so many. Peter and the disciples continue with their lives, most of them meeting a grisly end at the hands of the authorities who still can’t handle the truth that they are not the be-all and end-all of people’s lives.

The Christian faith is also yet to go through its main formation; after the New Testament is recorded, we move onto the Desert Fathers and Ecumenical Councils that helped cement the tenets of faith that so many of us adhere to. It comes as a surprise to some that there is no real understanding of the mystery of the Trinity, the relationship between Father, Son and Spirit that are also one God, until well into the 4th and 5th Centuries. Likewise, I remember someone once telling me that they were worried that they couldn’t find any of the Creeds in the Bible, not realising that they were only decided (after a lot of wrangling and heresy-slinging) until much later. Indeed, the Bible as we know it needed compiling and agreeing; there are plenty more gospels out there that could have been included for a start.[4]

So, the Christian faith has developed, cemented, refocussed, argued, reconciled, reformed, counter-reformed and renewed over the past two thousand years. Paul is not the final authority on all things to do with the faith, though there is a suspicion that we have become more Paulian than Christian at times. We cannot deny his influence, but we also need to understand his limitations. He didn’t even have the same Bible as us (let’s face it, he’s responsible for writing about 30% of the New Testament, so that’s hardly surprising). He also lived in a certain time, with a certain worldview, unaware even of life beyond the small corner of the middle east that he travelled. He certainly didn’t realise that the world is an oblate spheroid, nor that the Earth travels roughly 580 million miles each year orbiting the Sun.

There are some things that have always remained unswervingly true: Jesus is at the centre of our faith; his birth, life, ministry, death and resurrection provide us not just with a pattern to live by, but an absolute hope that our relationship with each other and our heavenly Father is rooted in love that not even death can defeat. What we read about Jesus’ life in the gospels propels us into life in whichever communities God places us, whether that’s our families, our friends, neighbours, workplace or nursing home.

But none of us should pretend that we have all the answers. I doubt that any of us even know all the questions. We’re all learning about God in the context of today. And the church is a good place to learn together, even though our opportunities to be together are severely curtailed at the moment.

Just like my knowledge of Doctor Who comes from many different sources other than the TV programme itself so our faith is shaped by experiences, our own and those related by others, as well as the Bible. Just as Paul used the Athenian temples[5] and God used a dreamscape picnic blanket[6] we see God in the world around us and try to make sense of it all in the best way we can.

Going into the season of Christmas (there, I’ve said it), we encounter again the mystery at the heart of the faith. How one birth could change so much; how one young family could be both the end of one story and the beginning of so many others. And it is at Christmas that we start and finish: as the old hymn reminds us “Love came down at Christmas”[7]. Whatever we continue to learn about the Christian faith, may it always be bounded in and boundaried by love.


[1] It could just easily have been Jane Asher in 1981 – we’re not as progressive as we like to think.

[2] Snakedance, 1983

[3] I think that I’ve just come up with that name, but it has a nice ring to it…

[4] And I’m sure I’m not the only one who would love to read the letters from the churches that prompted Paul to reply in sometimes such forthright terms.

[5] Acts 17:16-34, or last week’s “Thought for the Week”

[6] Acts 10:9-23, or another previous “Thought for the Week”

[7] Thanks to Christina Rossetti (1830-1894)

(Image by Andrew Martin from Pixabay )