Playing Catch up part 3- It ends here, or does it?

Yes, at last I have caught up with myself- this is the end of our study in the book of Acts, and its the sermon I preached just over a week ago… phew. Life has not got any simpler in the meantime, and its full of encouragement and sadness, as well as just the normal reality, but it feels as though I’m making headway, at least in terms of managing my blog!

Geodyssey Update #10: The End of the Road | Puzzlehead

This picture reminds me of the arrogance of youth- while driving in South Africa a friend and I confidently passed a similar sign, knowing that the track continued for several miles as a dirt track, before reaching the next village where it returned to tarmac… about 110m after the sign we got bogged down in lose sand, and it took us about an hour to get ourselves out… it wasn’t quite the end of the road, but it certainly was the end of that route for us!

so, here’s my notes from a preach last weekend, on the final chapter in Acts. I think it was recorded here so you can listen in.

The end of the road… Paul has, by now, been on 3 major missionary trips around the Eastern Mediterannean, from Jerusalem to Athens, has been harassed and persecuted through much of that time- as well as sowing the Gospel message into the lives of thousands in the towns and cities where he’s visited- founding churches that we know by the books of the Bible named after them- Corinthians, Colossians, Ephesians etc, and then spent the last 2yrs+ years under arrest. He’s appealed to Caesar’s justice, and so is being sent to Rome by sea… and now, after being caught in a storm that’s driven their ship west for 2 weeks from Crete… with the sailors planning to abandon ship, and a shipwreck on a sandbar just off the shore of Malta, which nearly leads to the soldiers killing all the prisoners to avoid anyone escaping, it’s at this point Luke writes ‘Once safely on shore’! The perceptive among us will have already noticed something about this passage- its written by someone who was there- Luke joined Paul for this journey, having already travelled with him on his previous trip to Greece and then back to Jerusalem.

Paul is once again subject to those twists which come time and again- escaping from the sea he’s bitten by a snake, which leads those who observe it to the conclusion that justice is still after him- but it’s the other way around- he’s avoided the plots of the Jews, survived the storm and the shipwreck, and a little thing like a poisonous snake bite isn’t going to stop him- for he knows that God has sent him to speak in Rome.

Aside from being part of a travel account, what can we learn from these concluding chapters of Acts? Firstly they are a challenge to us to finish well- to continue in what we have started. Paul knows he has been given this vision to go to Rome, and now he is finally drawing towards the end of that journey, despite how long it has taken. Secondly this passage is a reminder to us that God can use us and be at work anywhere- Paul at this point was on the way to Rome, but here on Malta there is an opportunity to do God’s work, bringing healing to the lives of those he meets, and Paul does not hold back. As a church and as individual Christians we must listen to these things as we seek to follow God.

Our desire as Christians is to live and grow in relationship with God, being shaped by that relationship and making it known to others around us- we might use language of ‘being transformed’, becoming like Jesus; we will make God known through words and actions, through our manner as well as our testimony. But this will happen all the more when we understand that we’re part of the same outworking of God’s nature as Paul and Jesus- those who know the Father have the Father’s heart, which is that all the world would know and receive the gift of God’s love.  As we draw closer to God ourselves we grow in understanding of this… God’s vision becomes our vision, whether we have, like Paul, a sense of an angel standing and speaking to us directly, or just a sense of direction… So the question for us to ask ourselves is ‘how am I doing at sensing God’s direction in my life?’ Where and how do I most feel that I am living out God’s vision for me and for those around me? And that will be a mix of intentional things: being part of a community of faith, my own times with God in prayer, study and worship, serving the community where I see need- doing these things through the long haul; and responding to opportunities as they arise- like Paul praying for the sick on Malta, he didn’t have that planned but just responded to the needs around him, and the opportunities to be who God had called him to be.

As a church the same things apply to us- God has put us in a place, amongst a community that we are called to bless, to care for, to serve and to share his love with. We try to make plans- to listen to God and the community around us and discern a vision of what we’re to focus on- Just as Paul felt led to Jerusalem and then Rome when he could have continued to go to many other places, we’re called to intentionally focus in on certain things- as our churches have their mission statements ‘to work together to proclaim Christ’s live in ourselves and our community’ and ‘To meet with Jesus, live in joyful fellowship, walk God’s way and to share our faith’… we’ve spent time discerning what those statements might mean for us- shaping our worship and our buildings, how we spend our time, energy and money; to give us a sense of direction that helps us for the longer term… but also being open to the things that appear in front of us- the direct connection to Park school, the links with the cubs and scouts… responding to needs as they arise- the closing of the Methodist chapel and the stopping of the Disable Christian Fellowship group… And we all share in the responsibility to do this- whether we’re in a recognised position of leadership within the church or not, we are mutually accountable to each other to live out these things in our own lives and the gathered life that we have as the body of Christ in this place.

So as we come together this morning to worship and to celebrate- to join together in Holy Communion, may we also know that we are sent out to continue sharing and being Christ’s hands and feet in the world, today and tomorrow, in ways that we plan for, and in the unknown.

Playing catch up part 2- You’re off to see the Wizard, the wonderful wizard of Rome…

Ahem, apologies for that awful link there, but my mind has been filled these past few weeks with songs and script from the Wizard of Oz which has been our kids’ end of year school production.

We’re nearly at the end of the book of Acts (this week we were on chapter 25), both in our daily readings and our weekly preaching, and Paul is about to set off on his journey to Rome, as you’ll see…

You have appealed to Caesar, to Caesar you will go! With those words the next chapter in Paul’s journey commences- Last week we heard how Paul, at the end of his missionary journeys, had returned to Jerusalem and was seized by the crowd whilst praying at the Temple. He was rescued by the Roman guard, and gave his final public speech as a free man- proclaiming once again his faith in Jesus as the way to salvation, and proclaiming that God had called him to go and share this message of hope with any and all- regardless of whether they were Jew or Gentile. It was one thing to claim that Jesus was the messiah- this had been said before, and as had already been said, if it was not true things would die down of their own accord, but quite another to suggest that God’s love was not limited to the Jews. We’ve all heard of, or experienced first hand, situations where love can turn into jealousy and anger- I won’t share! And this is what happened here. Paul’s opponents began to plot and plan for his murder. Eventually Paul is moved to Caesarea- away from the Jewish centre of power to a Roman city, where he is imprisoned for 2yrs because no one will make the decision to free him- he’s not worth a ransom, won’t offer a bribe and its not politically advantageous to let him go.

And so, to our reading today- Governor Festus is replaced by Goveror Felix, and we go round again- the plotters attempt once again to get Paul transferred to their power, then when that fails they make accusations in the court, and Paul makes his defence. If you’ve read the account of Paul’s previous trial, you’ll notice there are some differences here, however.

Paul, on this occasion, doesn’t preach to the court- he doesn’t mention Jesus, or his vision, or the resurrection. He simply says that he’s done nothing wrong. Maybe he’s learnt that preaching to the last governor didn’t do him any good, maybe he remembers that talking about the resurrection caused a riot when he was on trial in Jerusalem… whatever the cause, he speaks to the legal situation- If I’m on trial, I’m on trial, find me guilty or innocent, but don’t hand me over to these folks who’ll just kill me. And then his appeal to the higher court of Caesar- if you can’t make that decision, send me to your boss.

Is Paul scared here? I don’t think so. It feels to me, reading this passage and those that go before it, that Paul has already decided his intention. He knew before ever arriving in Jerusalem that he’d face problems there- prophets had spoken to him, he felt it himself, and it was fairly obvious; and then after his arrest God spoke to him in a vision- you’ll testify in Rome in the same way… how would this happen? Paul knew that as a Roman citizen he could appeal to the courts of Caesar in Rome, which was the best option for him. Having been led by God’s Spirit, and through his ministry been supported by other believers, Paul also uses his common sense.

The story goes of a man out swimming at sea who encounters difficulties, and realises he’s too far from shore… so he prays ‘Lord, save me!’ Within a few minutes a rescue helicopter buzzes over- he’s been seen by someone from shore and they phoned it in… over the roar of the engines he calls out ‘thank you, but the Lord will save me!’ And so they go… but as time passes he feels his arms weakening again ‘Lord save me!’ and skimming over the waves comes a kayaker who happens to be passing this way… ‘climb aboard and I’ll take you ashore’… despite his fatigue his voice is strong ‘no, the Lord will save me!’ the kayaker shakes his head and paddles off… as the man continues, getting weaker and weaker, he calls out a final time ‘Lord save me…’ and as he sinks under the waves a dolphin swims past, pushing him back to the surface and supporting him on its back. As he recovers his breath, he starts to speak, but suddenly the dolphin looks over its shoulder at him, and says ‘Look, do you want saving or not, because frankly I’ve had just about enough of this!’

God gives us common sense and intelligence as well as spiritual insight and discernment. We, like Paul, should respond wisely to the situations we find ourselves in- while still trusting that God is with us in all things. We take responsibility for the things around us, for our own lives and actions, for the resources we have to hand and our relationships with people we know, whilst allowing God to be at work in those things too- we are not anxious, but we are not naïve. As our gospel passage puts it, we do not allow ourselves to be burdened by things- yes, there is much that faces us; some of it in our own lives, some much wider and seemingly bigger, but our response to these is the same- today, I choose to live, so far as I can, in a way which demonstrates the love of God which I have known, the forgiveness I have received, and the hope which I have, and where I cannot, I will pray that tomorrow will grant me opportunities which today did not.

Paul- imprisoned for two years, has a moment to speak, and he chooses to continue along the path that God has set him on- I will go to Rome… So may we not be afraid, may we not stumble, may we not feel burdened by what is ahead or weighed down by what has gone before, but may we live our lives this week in joyfilled response to God.

 

Playing catch up part 1- Following my leader

Posting a few of the talks that have been delivered in our churches this month but somehow haven’t made their way onto the blog, here’s the notes from an all-ages service right at the start of July… podcast still available on the website, but here is the text, based on Acts chapter 22:

Paul was following one set of people, then something happened- he met with Jesus, and Ananias came and prayed for him, and then his life changed direction. He had a new path, he was listening to a different voice. He had a decision to make, and he made it. It changed his life, but he would say it was worth it. If you’re not sure, read some of his writings in the New Testament- his letters to the churches in Ephesus or Galatia for starters.

In his life as Christian Paul was encouraged by various people, chief among them was Barnabas who took him under his wing for some time, but the first, the one who got him started, was Ananias- who if you look to his version of events in Acts 9, you’ll see is distinctly nervous about their meeting- almost suggesting that God might be mistaken when he has his vision- its not ‘I must be mad!’ but ‘are you sure?’

So, who has encouraged you in your Christian journey- wherever you are- was it a Sunday School teacher, a member of your family, someone who showed you unexpected grace, or someone you’ve never met?

And what parts of the Christian faith do you love most? Some of us are worshippers, others love to pray. You may prefer to act- to be God’s hands in the world, or a conversation with a friend about faith may be your thing?

The passage we just heard is Paul’s final speech as a free man- if you’re reading through Acts with us at the moment you’ll know he’s already faced threats and persecution in various places. He’s about to be arrested, and put on trial in different courts for his faith in Jesus. Paul, of course, pleads guilty to that faith, but argues whether he should be imprisoned for believing and proclaiming something so important and true…

Ok- if you were being charged with the crime of believing in Jesus, what would be the key piece of evidence against you? How would the prosecution find you guilty?

Last thing- we’ve thought of the importance of being encouraged by others to grow in our faith, and of those things about the Christian faith that we connect with most, but we need to remember, that the Christian faith is so much more than a support group, or a hobby, but it has at its heart Jesus, the Son of God, who died and rose again…

Following The Leader

So, what happened?

Apologies, it’s been a long week. There’s been a lot going on, and I know I should have got in touch sooner, but you know?

Somehow it’s Friday, and I’ve managed to get through the meetings and the paperwork, and have done all the things of life and work that are part of the week. Phew. Except of course, here we go again… Am I behind at this stage, or have I managed to get ahead of the curve? The fact that I’m writing a blog during the day is a good sign, the fact that my notes from last Sunday are what I’m posting isn’t…

Anyway, to the point- what happened last Sunday? It was great! Folks turned up at both our services (of course, more could have come, but my internal optimist/pessimist meter always looks at the empty seats!), worship was GOOD, people responded to the testimony given by someone at one of our services (yay Sally!) and engaged with the opportunity to remember and reflect on their own baptism that was part of our celebration. In short, not a bad day at the office.

Jo preached over at one church (stonkingly good, but not recorded, I’m afraid), while the other church had to put up with me- it was recorded, so you can listen to it here or read my notes below. We were looking at part of Acts chapter 19- as we read through this book in our daily readings we’re also preaching through some of the later chapters, which folk seem to be really enjoying.

So here’s what was said-

Today we’re celebrating the birth of St John the Baptist, the patron saint of our churches here in Newport and in Bishop’s Tawton; and in both our churches we’re joining in a baptism and also reflecting on our own baptism- we may prefer to use the term Christening or baptism, they are identical, except that one is the word we find in the Bible, the other is an English slang- to baptise someone is to ‘Christian’ them… it’s what the earliest Christians did when someone came to faith in Jesus, growing out of the Jewish tradition of washing- baptism as a symbolic action for cleansing from sin- John’s baptism in the river was rooted in the Jewish law and made perfect sense to his listeners- you become spiritually unclean with all the mess and muck in your life, and as a sign of what is going on in your heart you wash yourself as you turn towards God.

As we talk about Baptism and Christening we use all sorts of imagery- some of which the children are thinking through over at the tables now, but one of the most powerful that John the Baptist spoke of was the need to turn- to change the direction of our lives- to repent. It’s not about changing the person you are, but about the direction you’re heading. The result of that turn is that things in our lives change- we have a different perspective, but we remain who we are- I am me, wherever I’m standing. The difference that this change makes is in how we view God, and in how we view the world- God becomes at once more awe-inspiring, but also more accessible- He is the God of all the world, and yet I can approach him as Father. The world is no longer something I want to extract as much as I can from or a place where I need to ‘win’, but something I want to see flourish- I place where I want to ‘give’.

And finally when we think of turning, and of changing perspective, we realise that repentance is about starting- sometimes a fresh start, sometimes a restart; but its never the endpoint. We turn from something, towards something else… and then what? We move in that new direction.

What Paul, in our Bible passage today, realised, was these people he was meeting in Ephesus had been given the first parts of this, but not the whole- they didn’t know there was more than the turning away, that there was anything more- they were completely unaware of Jesus, or his promise of the Holy Spirit- that gift of God which helps us to continue… to receive the gifts that he gives us as we try to pray, to worship, so serve him, and to see the fruit of God’s life in us throughout our lives- to grow in love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. These things are like lightbulbs switching on, and at the same time the work of a lifetime- we can experience moments where something happens in us, where peace breaks out or gentleness is unleashed, but we know that these things will fully flourish in us over the years.

When we think of Christening, or baptism, and particularly when we think of how it’s been part of our history in the UK, we might be tempted to forget that it is part of mission- but when Jesus sent his friends into the world he sent them to baptise and make new disciples, and as the church in this place, worshipping in this church named after John the Baptist- who went out of the city and spoke to all who’d listen, we stand in this awesome tradition- we follow in the footsteps of those who despite opposition and being ignored did not give up, or shut up. And neither should we. We have been given a precious and wonderful gift to share- light in the darkness, hope in times of despair, healing for the broken hearted, release for the captive, a rescue for all of us. Those of us who have called ourselves Christians for many years are in no way superior to anyone else- we have only recognised that the peace, the hope, the healing which we seek- and that we see in so many wonderful ways around the world, all has its source in God, and in his son Jesus we are invited to know that source- so why settle for anything less?

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And the plan for next year? Do it again, but bigger! See you there.

The sneeze effect- when a message goes viral

We’re continuing to read through the book of Acts in our Sunday morning services, and our daily Bible readings- last weekend I was speaking on a passage from chapter 11, and we also had a passage from the very end of Matthew’s Gospel read- chapter 28, verses 16-20 if you want to look at them here. I’ve been thinking about how things spread over the last few days- partly reflecting on the election campaigns, partly thinking about how the smell of last night’s cooking or a bbq still haunts me today, partly thinking about the terrible images of the fire in Grenfell Tower, but also thinking about how a message spreads from place to place- how the Gospel message of peace (real peace, mind you, not just the lack of actual violence), spread from Jerusalem to north and south. How was the experience of those early disciples (not yet called Christians) similar to mine today, and how was it different? What parts of their account are important for their place in history, and what parts teach and challenge me in 21st Century Britain?

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And why a sneeze? I guess at heart I’m still a kid who like gross things, and it makes much more sense than ‘point source explosive dispersion’ to most of us!

As always, what I said last week bears limited resemblance to what I wrote, but here’s what I planned-

Hopefully in the midst of everything else that has happened since Easter you have been able to note that in our Sunday morning worship and our daily Bible readings we have begun to look at the book of Acts. We do this each year as, following the events of the first Easter when Christ rose from the tomb we reflect on the lives and experiences of those early disciples during the first weeks of the life of the church. This year we’re continuing to read through Acts over the next month and will be having readings each week that will take us further into the book than we often go… we’re looking at what happened next, how did the experiences of those early days pan out over the next few years, and, very importantly, what can we learn for ourselves from it, for the here and now.

Our Gospel reading sets things up- the great commission. So often quoted, is Jesus’ final instruction- go and make disciples, baptising and teaching, but there are two other parts I just want to make mention of-

Firstly- They worshipped Jesus (but some doubted)- They no longer followed Jesus as a teacher or respected his rhetoric- they did not want him as their party leader or their king. They worshipped him as God. Everything that followed, the book of Acts and the existence of the church, stems from that- alongside our doubts and uncertainty, the decision made by Christians through the ages again and again to affirm that, yes, Jesus is God and yes, I will praise him and glorify his name.

We come together to worship, and to be encouraged and support one another… but primarily we come together to worship Jesus, the risen Son of God.

Secondly- Jesus said I am with you always… the book of Acts is sometimes known as the Acts of the Holy Spirit rather than the Acts of the Apostles- it tells of their waiting, during that period of 10 days, until the Holy Spirit came on Pentecost, and then of the outpouring of God’s Holy Spirit… firstly in the city of Jerusalem and then beyond.

When we talk about the important things of our faith, we must remember these things- the crucial importance of worship- if we aren’t worshipping God then we have nothing worth sharing, the essential need of the Holy Spirit to guide and direct our actions so that they are serving God, to give us words to speak so that we speak His words of life, to give us strength when we are struggling, to bring healing to the lives of those around us.

And we must also remember that instruction that Jesus gave- that follows on from worship and is empowered by the Holy Spirit, that we are to go, and make disciples, baptising and teaching. In a few weeks time we’re having a service here to celebrate baptism- on our patronal festival as we remember the birth of John the Baptist, we will remember our own baptism and the calling we each have to share our faith with others. Some of us will do it more comfortably through words, others more comfortably through our actions, some are natural inviters, others will go and spend time alongside those who do not yet know God’s love for them. All of us feel inadequate to the task, and yet it is the charge given to us by Jesus.

Our passage this morning from Acts shows something of what it looks like when the church takes this charge seriously… There has been persecution- Stephen has been martyred, the church has been attacked and many believers have fled Jerusalem… and as they’ve gone they have shared their message- some to Jews, some to non-Jews. It doesn’t say how, but I imagine in those times a group of people arriving in your town might raise the same questions as today- where have you come from, why have you come here? And their response would naturally have included their own experiences- of who Jesus was and of how they couldn’t pretend otherwise. And ‘a great number of people believed’- this isn’t like the crowd at Pentecost or when Peter preached outside the Temple when thousands came to faith in one day… this is 1 here, 1 there, 50 in that town, 200 in this city… this is spread over different places and over time, but it is the time when that charge of sharing the gospel went from being something done by the experts, to being something done by everyone. The church went from being a closely concentrated group growing in one or two places, to something that was growing all over the region- From Cyrene in modern Libya round to Antioch on the border of Syria and Turkey.

What we see here is a great example for us of how mission can work-

Nobody asked for permission to go and do what Jesus had already told them to…

When the news reached the leadership they didn’t shut it down, but sent someone to encourage and support what was already happening.

Barnabas- the encourager, found someone he could work with and taught that person- Saul as he was still known, all that he could- as we’ll read in the weeks to come Saul learnt well!

Within this new way of being God’s people, things were allowed to be different but, they were still closely connected to their roots- they received and listened to the prophets who came to speak to them.

Finally we see again the generosity shown by the early church- sending gifts according to their ability to give to help their brothers.

Those things are still true for us today, here in North Devon-

You don’t need any permission to share God’s love with those around you, you already have it and will be following in some good footsteps. Wherever you find yourself, whether by choice or not, is a place where you can live in a way that shows God’s love- in the way you conduct yourself, in the way you use your possessions, in the way you speak of others, all that before you say a word about God’s love.

The job of those of us in leadership is to support through prayer, through advice, through training, those of us who’re serving God in our workplaces, families, in our streets as well as in church-based projects. But we can only help with what we know of- news has to reach my ears!

Then we provide ways for folk who’re responding to actually come to their own decision- to become and grow as disciples- last year’s Alpha, the Start courses and other, more informal things that help us find answers to the questions we have… and that are leading to the sprouting up of homegroups and discussion groups in our church.

And we support, with generosity, each other- through our giving to the church, through our giving of ourselves to each other- if we know someone is suffering we give what we can, if we want the ministry of our church to flourish, the bills need to be paid. This verse touches on a great truth- in our generosity we bless others, and God then blesses us. I know that whenever I’ve taken the chance to give generously to something- whether it was the running costs of my church or to put my hand in my pocket for a particular project, I’ve never regretted it. It’s only when I’ve given with a heart that calculates what I’ll get back that I’ve felt short-changed.

We do all this not as something new, but as something that has always been part of our church, however it’s been expressed over the years- these things are not ‘our’ identity or strategy- they are part of the identity of the church- since that time in Antioch when the believers were first called Christians.

So as we move on this year, as we read together through the book of Acts, as we live in these uncertain times, let us hold to these things that have served Christians for so many years- our commission from Christ, and our identity as the Church.

If I’m in a corner, which way will I jump?

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I like to think I have integrity- I know how to spell it, I know what it means (or at least I think so), and someone once said they thought I had it… but I don’t know for sure.

There are times when I fade under pressure, keep quiet to blend in, don’t say things for fear of upsetting folk… and in your heart you tell yourself its wisdom, its building relationship for future opportunities, and all that, but there’s another voice saying ‘but were you true to yourself- do you still have integrity?’

I’m not talking about major things (like, say, telling everyone you won’t call a general election and then changing your mind (sorry, no more politics for the rest of the post), or cheating on taxes, lying to friends or whatever), but the difficulty I face with little things makes me worry- what if I ever faced a biggie… how would I respond?

Acts chapter 4, if you’re not familiar with it, has Peter and John (that’s Peter the guy who denied knowing who Jesus was, remember?), pulled in front of the religious authorities (that’s the guys who got Jesus killed, remember?) and told in no uncertain terms to shut up talking about Jesus… or else. And their reply is pure gold- ‘Judge for yourselves, whether it is right in God’s sight to obey you rather than God. For we cannot help speaking about what we have seen and heard.’  in other words ‘You guys, the religious leaders, help us out here- what would you do? We can’t help ourselves’… Boom! Take that Mr High Priest and your assorted cronies… But the big question it raises for me is, how would I speak in their shoes? Would I be like them, confidently taking on the authorities because I know I have God in my corner? Or would I back away, intending to lay low and spread the message subtly, or at least telling myself that? I know what I’d like to do, and I hope I’d be able to, but…

The truth is, I just don’t know. And part of me is afraid to find out.

(If you’ve reached this point and are still wondering about the image at the top- it has nothing to do with Peter, John, the book of Acts, or integrity in particular, but is the album cover of a band I quite liked in the early 90’s- I saw them supporting the Charlatans when I was at school, and then a few years later on their final tour saw them again with a band called Oasis as their support act…)

Speaking strong words gently

I was about to post my talk from last Sunday today… but the thing about blogging is that you can, and should, respond to immediate things. So this morning the meeting I was at didn’t start on time, because we prayed. Not hugely surprising for Christians to pray at the start of a meeting, you might say, fair point, but we prayed for Manchester, the city where I used to live, and for all those affected by the attack there last night in which 22 people died. We also prayed for the places we haven’t heard about in the news today, for the unnamed and unknown. We prayed for the injured, the mourning, the scared, the security and medical personnel, and yes, we prayed for those who would attack children and young people. I’m not asking you to be impressed, I’m just saying we did something slightly different, because we needed to.

So, if its ok with you, just stop reading here for a few seconds, and pray (if you like) or think of (if you prefer to call it that), those affected by terror attacks at the moment. And if you’d like to, then plan to do something different as a result of your thoughts and prayers- whether its going to Manchester to help practically, or to be friendly to the next random call-centre person who phones you from an 0161 number in case they’ve been affected, or to make sure you don’t act in fear or hatred to someone who’s ethnically different from you…

(here’s the bit where you stop)

Thanks. You can carry on now, if you want to

And the other thing that struck me was that we carry on doing the same things as normal… we don’t give up… so here’s my sermon from last Sunday as normal…based on Acts chapter 17 when Paul visits Athens.

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Paul is at the Areopagus- summoned there by the citizens to present his case… I have wondered whether he was being given the opportunity to speak- a visiting speaker with interesting ideas, or the chance to defend himself- a stranger with some concerning  views- was this a pre-trial hearing or a preview of what he’d teach if given permission? The answer probably lies somewhere in between. Paul has explored the city, having visited Phillipi, Thessalonica and Berea, and has begun to debate with Jews, God-fearing Greeks and anyone in the marketplace who would listen… and so he’s been brought to the Areopagus- the meeting place, not quite such an important place as a few hundred years before when Athens was chief among the Greek cities, but still…

As we look at Paul’s message here, we can learn as much about how to speak of God from it as we can learn about God- and for us, this probably something we need to look at- the chances are, if you’ve been coming along to church for a while, you know some things about God- from our prayers, the creed, our Bible readings, our hymns… you know God is the righteous and holy judge, who forgives although he could condemn; you know God is the creator and sustainer of all things, who loves and takes joy in his creation, you know that God has given humanity a role within creation, and that Jesus has given Christians a role within humanity… though you may well say or think you know very little, if you sat down with a piece of paper and wrote down your thoughts on what is God like, you’d be surprised how much you’d put down. Paul’s message is very simple- there is a God who created the universe. He knows you. He sent Jesus to die for you.

But are we able to share that with others? I’m not asking for all the evangelists to stand up and wave, but rather, are we, all of us, able to share what we know and believe with others?

Many Christians might feel that they don’t know what to say, or that its not their place, or that it’s not appropriate.

Lets start with that last one- there are times when it isn’t appropriate, and there are times when it is. When someone asks you, as Paul was asked, what you believe about God, and how you’ve come to believe that, then they deserve an answer.

Secondly- ‘it’s not my place’- if not yours, then whose? If Paul had said, wait here while I sail back to Jerusalem and fetch Peter, that would have taken many months. He was the man on the spot, the one who was asked… We’re not all Paul- we don’t take off on missionary trips around the Mediterranean (though now I think about it like that…)- we don’t have his gifting etc. But lets remember that Paul was not only clueless about Jesus, he was for his early life totally wrong. When he discovered the truth he immediately began to tell others… Very often in life we are the person in the right place, at the right time, having the conversation, and no one else could be there. Yes, there are times when we can reasonably say ‘I think you should talk to…’ or ‘I think you’d be helped by coming on an Alpha/Start course’…

Lastly, ‘I don’t know what to say’. Here’s the bullseye. Lets have a look at this passage from Acts. First of all, before Paul even speaks, we read ‘I walked around, I saw…’  He observed and got to understand something of where he was- if you know someone, you’ll know how to talk to them, and when to, and also you’ll have listened to them. When Paul finally does speak, he gives an Old Testament type preach- God as creator, humanity as offspring of God- he’s making a connection with Greek ideas but also challenging their practices of worship at the same time…He doesn’t really mention Jesus until the end… its not that Paul doesn’t think Jesus is important- just read his epistles if you doubt that, but that he realises how far his listeners need to journey before they can hear him speak about Jesus. So Paul listens and understands. He has spoken with a few people, but here he has been asked to speak, and so he does. And when he speaks, he starts where his listeners are- with things they understand- the unknown god and their poets, and relates them to his understanding of God as revealed in his people’s writings… You know the people around you better than I do, you’re already in friendships with them- that’s why you’re the best people to share the gospel with them.

Sometimes when we talk with others about God and the Christian faith, they may fire off a cheap shot, or make a joke about something, and we can be fearful… we aren’t good at arguing our point, we don’t remember clever things. But we are, each of us, experts in one thing- ourselves. Our own lives and experiences. Often folks will tell you about the God they don’t believe in… and sometimes you’ll agree with them- I wouldn’t believe in a God like that… but can I tell about the God I do believe in, and how my life has been? When Paul speaks, elsewhere in Acts, to Jews and tells them of his experience on the road to Damascus, there is no logical argument to be made against him- its just a case of believing him or not. When you or I speak of our own story, our testimony about our faith, it is our experience, our response to God, that speaks. Often its not even the words themselves, but the spirit in which we say them, that speaks most strongly into people’s lives.

Most often, we’ll be having a conversation with someone, rather than making the sort of presentation that Paul is, but what Paul finds is that at the end of his speech people have varying responses- you may have read the following verse ‘after he said this some of them sneered, but some of them asked to hear more’… When we share our faith with others, they may not respond as we’d like them to, but they may….

And its that ‘maybe’ that needs to grow in our hearts- we need to be like that boy, desperately fearing rejection, but who plucks up courage to shyly ask a girl if she’d like to go for a walk. Like that artist who eventually puts a painting into an exhibition, or the singer who finally shares a song. It may not work out how we hope, but if we’re always too afraid of what might happen, then we’ll never find out if it will.

The Essential Question- So, what shall we do?

It’s easy to see a problem and say ‘We have to do something!’. It’s even easier to say ‘You do something!’. But it takes something more to say ‘what shall we do?’ We might think that is abdicating responsibility- after all, if I’m asking the question, then I’m not taking the initiative myself, unless of course that is precisely the first move that is needed…

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Often I’m tempted to charge into a situation and try the first thing that comes to mind, but gradually, through painful experience, I’m learning that may not be the ideal, and so I’m discovering that asking questions like ‘what shall we do?’ help me to make the right decision. In first aid and medical care this is called triage- figuring out who/what to treat first, to get the best outcome for a patient/department etc- the classic I was taught was to make sure I’m not distracted by the sprained wrist that’s producing a lot of noise and risk missing the bleeding that is far more serious.

What shall we do? In the specific instance I’m referring to this phrase is used by someone in a crowd, responding to Peter on the day of Pentecost… he’s been accused of drunkenness and has defended the disciples, turning his defence into an accusation that the crowd bear a shared responsibility for the death of Jesus, who God has raised to life, and that this Jesus was the long-awaited Messiah… It’s one of those moments where things could have gone very wrong- 7 weeks before a similar crowd did cry for Jesus to die, and at other times in the book of Acts we will see the crowd aren’t so friendly, but as I read this passage (Acts chapter 2, this comes in verse 37), I imagine a silence falling, and then one voice, followed maybe by others, calling out ‘what shall we do?’

When someone asks you that question, there’s a pressure, and a responsibility- ok, I have to get this right, which is a bit scary… Peter, fortunately for him, has recently had his training refreshed- the last thing Matthew records Jesus saying in his Gospel is that the disciples should ‘go and make disciples of all nations- baptising them…and teaching them… (you can find this in Matthew 28 verse 19)… so, maybe after a panic-stricken millisecond, he responds ‘repent, be baptised in the name of Jesus Christ, every one of you’- in other words, if you’re seriously asking, then let’s do the thing, let’s take this seriously.

And they do.

That’s the second scary thing- what if someone does take my answer seriously? The good news in this context, and wherever we’re talking about faith, is that the next bit really isn’t my responsibility- its between an individual and God- they ask me what do they need to do, I say repent and believe, be baptised, they say ok… It’s not me they’re believing in, it’s not me they’re asking to forgive them, they don’t get baptised in my name. Which is a huge relief!

Of course, the question ‘what shall we do?’ doesn’t just apply to a response to the Gospel, and it isn’t simply a question about plans for Saturday night either. There is a genuine, huge question of ‘what shall we do?’ that faces us every day- what shall we do about the destruction of the environment that is leading to climate change (according to most everyone but the Trump), what shall we do about the refugee crisis, what shall we do about the homeless in our town, the poor in our street, the broken relationship in our family, the habits of our mind. What shall we do about the election, the health service, the corruption and apathy that litter our communities?

I guess we have to start by doing something… registering to vote, and voting… voting for a candidate (and ideally a party) that you believe can and will make a difference. Maybe making some decisions about your habits of shopping and how you use your time. Maybe giving up something to help someone else. Right now, because I don’t know your circumstance, I can’t tell you the answer, but if you sit in front of a mirror you’ll probably see someone who can; they just might be afraid of the responsibility.

The Essential Question… How can I make a difference…

For the last few years a number of us in our churches have been reading through a book together- not quite a book club, but just a bunch of people reading the same thing at the same time. This year we’re looking at ‘The Essential Question’- a book by Whitney Kuniholm which takes us through the book of Acts in 50 readings. It’s looking at the question of how can I make a difference for God in my life, and over the next 10 weeks we’ll be having some talks based on passages from Acts, and I’ll be posting occasionally on bits that I’ve been reading.

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Today we’re right at the start- Chapter 1… in the first reading yesterday there was the account of Jesus leaving his disciples, ascending to be with the Father- its one of those things that our imagination (with some help from Star Trek or wherever else) tries to help us with… but of more importance is what is said- he tells them to wait, and he tells them to pray, and he tells them they will receive the Holy Spirit, and he tells them they will do great things in many places.

If someone ever tries to tell you how great you’re going to become at something, there is something within us (certainly in me) that doubts, that puts your head down and says ‘yeah sure, whatever’… but I guess if that same person has healed the sick, raised the dead, fed the hungry, risen from the dead themselves (oh, after telling you in advance that they’d be killed and rise again), and then proceeds to teleport/fly/ascend/whatever, you have to wonder that they might know something more than you do.

But you still have to trust.

And trusting is hard, especially when it involves waiting.

But that is the first thing the disciples have to do, and us if we’re going to try to learn from their experiences of how to live and make a difference for God. If you want to make a difference, first of all trust, and wait.

Another of God’s ridiculous ideas…

This week we’ve continued to look at how the first generation church grew and spread- in Acts 16 Paul and Silas have arrived in Europe, and we’ve seen the first church founded in Northern Macedonia… and now here we are for the next instalment…

Today’s reading follows on from last week- It’s a great passage with so much in it that I struggled to decide what to speak on, so we’re just going to work through the passage and see where we get to…starting at verse 16 in chapter 16 of the book of Acts.

At the heart of it, this passage is about faith and power… who do we have faith in, and where does the power lie?

We have Paul and Silas, men of faith who, as we heard last week, were used to listening to God and following his guidance, and people in Philippi are beginning to put their faith in God too, and in doing so are trusting in God’s power to save them and bring transformation to their lives. And we have the slave girl– she has no power of her own, and yet people come to her, pay money to hear what she says. Her masters and the spirit control her, and make her work for their purposes. She is a reminder of those things that exist- spiritual forces that are not of God such as mediums, psychic healings, fortune tellers- those things that can have power over people- that can have power over us if we let them, and material things in the world, in our own lives that can, without us realising it, limit our lives. It might be things from our past- unforgiveness, rejection, anger, issues with violence, relationships etc. It might be that we have dabbled in occult spiritual things at some point… and as with the slave girl, these things can follow us around… and they will not stop until we choose to declare God’s power in our lives, as Paul does. Later in the summer we’re having a series on living the Christian life, based on the book ‘Stand’ by Karl Martin- as in the last few years we’ve used a book to support our teaching series, and it addresses these things that are stopping us from flourishing as Christians…

But what of her words- these men are servants of the most high– they are correct but only to a point- in John 15 Jesus says ‘I no longer call you servants but friends’, and in John 1 ‘children of God’- not servants but so much more. Whether this spirit is deliberately lying- in the same way that we see Satan challenging Jesus by distorting what God has said and the serpent challenging Eve by questioning God’s will for humanity, or just cannot grasp the relationship that these men have to God… friends of Christ, sons of God?? How can this be, and yet it can- Whatever power this spirit has to discern who Paul and Silas are, God’s power is so much greater– firstly in that they are not servants, but have been made friends and brothers of Christ, with all the privileges and responsibilities that brings, and secondly in that Paul’s words- simple, plain, matter of fact- would that our prayers were like that, and as effective! Paul has faith, and his words have power- Lord’s Prayer– archbishop’s call to pray for our nation, using the Lord’s prayer- this week- please pray specifically for our nation to be changed and our community to be transformed… for individuals you know- and if you find yourself unsure of how to pray for those things, use the words of the Lord’s Prayer to get you started, write down on a piece of paper- maybe your notice sheet from today the names of 5 people who you want to know God more fully in their lives- people you care about enough to pray for each day.

What happens next- these things happen, the fear of what might happen must not stop us from living out our Christian lives to the fullest extent- this is our only stab at this, so why hold back? I’ve heard of several occasions over the years and have experienced it myself here and elsewhere, that if a church is trying to draw closer to God and to serve him in the community and prayerfully working to bring about transformation through the gospel- then there will be problems, and difficulties.  Fear of what might happen if we do what we know in our hearts is right… that’s a rubbish reason to keep our faith toned down.  If we are not sure about what we believe, then take the opportunities that are around to you sort that out- the bible study groups that already exist and are being started here… Start course… invite a friend, come with them if you like. If we have other things in our lives that demand our attention and time- that’s ok for a time… in that none of us really like our wheelie bins, but we know that we need them, and that we have to put them out, put them back and occasionally clean them… but to accept that things will always keep us from growing and flourishing as Christians, that’s like saying that its reasonable to leave your wheelie bin in blocking your front door and climbing over it every day… it just isn’t… so don’t live that way.

But the road isn’t guaranteed to be an easy one- If we believe the good bits in Scripture, we have to believe the tough bits too- Paul and Silas were beaten, flogged, mocked and imprisoned… and they took it- they didn’t say or do anything, they sat in their chains. Now Paul knows about Peter’s escape, but he also knew about James’ death… Ultimately they trusted God more than they feared man, they knew that their lives were his, that living or dying wouldn’t change that.

And then- the earthquake, the decision not to run, and the words of the jailer- both ‘how will I get out of trouble’ and ‘save me!’ The decision to remain in their cells was made because Paul and Silas wanted the glory to go to God- earthquakes happen- not infrequently in Greece, and if they’d escaped that night the magistrate and jailer and the city would have had them marked as escaped criminals and hunted them down. But by remaining they are able to speak God’s word into the lives of the jailer and his family– This is probably not how Paul had hoped or expected to see things develop… the continuation of the unexpected- Lydia last week- as someone pointed out to me a dealer in cloth was not just a shop assistant, purple cloth even less so, but still not necessarily your strategic choice… here, God’s word is shared with another unlikely candidate, but once again its someone who is ready to respond- the jailer has seen how Paul and Silas were at peace… I was reading just yesterday ‘you can’t control your circumstances, but you can control your response to your circumstances’… their peace and their manner spoke as much as their words…

As we reach the end of this passage we see two interesting and important things- there’s been an earthquake that has brought down the doors, but Paul and Silas are still beaten and bruised- God has power, but leaves work for us, He doesn’t do all things… God is glorified through the earthquake, but people are still able to make a difference and help one another- Paul’s words bring the man to a place where he wants to respond, and the first thing he does is to help Paul and Silas… and then is baptised- once again, we see that there doesn’t need to be a long time left… if you are drawn towards God, then why hold back? What must I do? Believe in the Lord Jesus- that he is the son of God who can forgive our sins- not just an academic, intellectual belief, but a belief that includes trust and faith- believe in him in the same way that you believe in a chair that you lean back in… commit yourself.

Ultimately- God is glorified and the kingdom grows… faith, and power. May it be the same in our time, in our community, in the lives of those we know, and in our own lives.