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.


Refugee faith, part II

So once again the Christian faith is crossing cultures- this time its not being shared with ex-pats living in Palestine, but with proper foreigners on properly foreign soil- Paul has travelled hundreds of miles on foot, reached the edge of the Mediterranean and crossed over in a flimsy boat to mainland Europe (sounding familiar yet?), and the result is that the Christian faith arrives on these shores- Acts chapter 16 describes the events, but here’s what I said last Sunday, or at least some of my notes:

Paul and Silas are on the second of Paul’s major missionary trips- they’ve revisited the churches founded during Paul’s first trip, and then travelled further north and west into what is now Turkey… at various points they’ve found their way barred- and have continued where they were able to… its important to note that they were already moving when God guided them- they weren’t just stationary, expecting God to do everything. Their journey had had twists and turns- some very unexpected… things not going to plan… normally when planning a journey we might ask advice from friends who’ve been to the same places, look in a guide book, check a few websites…

The dream- not quite sure what made the man recognisably Macedonian… maybe he was wearing the national costume, but they responded… They recognised that it was God directing them- they knew his voice well.

Paul and Silas were by this stage used to following God, to stopping, pausing, waiting, going, and also used to discerning whether people around them were speaking God’s will or not- Go away, stay, be quiet…

So they went to Philippi and there they met Lydia, among others. They didn’t meet them in a synagogue- there may not have been one, and Lydia wouldn’t have been there anyway, as she was not a Jew. They didn’t go to the town square and shout the good news about Jesus in the middle of town…They went to the river, to a place of prayer- and spoke with some who were interested. After all the guidances of the Holy Spirit this is where Paul and Silas are led- to a group of people sitting around by a river… Lydia was ‘a worshipper of God’- the same as Cornelius, whom Peter visited in Caesarea. She was interested, and she was open.

She responded, and all of a sudden there were European Christians… She and her household were baptised- no hanging around… when God is at work, why wait?

If you were planning the spread of the Gospel into Europe, I wonder how you would have done it- who would you pick as your first convert on the European mainland? A woman in business- not a powerful person with influence and connections in all the right places… why?

  • God values women BUT ALSO that this good news was for everyone and to show that God values those others do not, the poor, the diseased, the children, the women, the outcasts, the cultural minorities were and are important to God.
  • And we can really KNOW this, because God made such a surprising choice to our logical minds choosing Lydia

So… What is God doing today? Where and how is God at work in this community? Where is he calling us to go and be his people?

Note to self and apology to anyone who was there- I managed to get myself confused when I spoke about Paul and Barnabas- Paul wanted to revisit some of the churches they’d founded, and Barnabas wanted to revisit others- they both wanted to encourage the existing Christians and found new faith communities.

But going back to the image of refugees and travellers- Paul brought the Christian faith to Europe. He wasn’t a refugee. He was a travelling preacher and migrant worker. He was also a citizen of Rome and so had access to the open borders policy of the Empire… Oh, it just gets more and more complicated… So am I saying that open borders to all is a good idea? Not sure. Am I saying ‘In’ to the EU? Well yes, but thats a personal thing rather than something I get from my faith. I guess I’m just making the point that its really easy to mix up the wood and the trees, to look back at something and say it was important while making sure that the same thing doesn’t happen again.

Prejudices not welcome here…

Yesterday we were thinking about the welcome that we give, and the welcome that God gives us… and it reminded me of the church welcome bulletin that has begun appearing in the last few years… rather than just saying ‘all are welcome’, its a bit more extensive…

WELCOME! We extend a special welcome to those who are single, married, divorced, gay, filthy rich, dirt poor. We extend a special welcome to those who are crying new-borns, skinny as a rake or could afford to lose a few pounds We welcome you if you can sing like Pavarotti or are like our vicar (who can’t carry a note in a bucket). You’re welcome here if you’re just browsing, just woke up or just got out of prison. We don’t care if you’re more Christian than the Archbishop of Canterbury, or haven’t been in church since little Jack’s christening. We extend a special welcome to those who are over 60 but not grown up yet and to teenagers who are growing up too fast. We welcome keep-fit mums, football dads, starving artists, tree-huggers, latte sippers, vegetarians, junk-food eaters. We welcome you if you are having problems or you’re down in the dumps or if you don’t like organised religion – we’ve been there too! If you blew all your money on the horses, you’re welcome here. We offer a welcome to those who think the earth is flat, work too hard, don’t work, can’t spell, or because your grandma is in town and wanted to go to church. We welcome those who are inked, pierced or both. We offer a special welcome to those who could use a prayer right now, had religion shoved down their throat as a kid or got lost in the local oneway system and wound up here by mistake. We welcome tourists, seekers and doubters, bleeding hearts…………and you!

Of course, there is the age old tension with things like this- you’re welcome so long as you don’t mind us welcoming others…and we’ll protect you so long as you don’t mind us protecting others… which means that although our welcome is wide and inclusive, it has edges too- if you can’t or won’t cope with other people being welcomed, or if you want welcome to mean ‘unconditional trust and total acceptance’- If everyone’s welcome except the fascist/communist/crazy-eyed loon/martian delete as applicable or fill in your own preference… that means our welcome has limits. Which, if you think about it, has to be ok.

Anyway, we were thinking about the welcome God gives to Gentiles- you know, the horrible foreign people like me (and probably you too), the ones who weren’t blessed enough to be born into the covenant… and how the book of Acts describes the shift when it became apparent that God really does welcome all people… go and read chapters 10 & 11 for the actual and reported events, but here’s what I said yesterday:

I said at the outset that this morning we’re thinking about welcome- but there are things that get in the way- prejudices… they’re pretty much the opposite of love, and yet all of us who call ourselves Christians, who try to follow the commands of Jesus, have them. We try to dress them up as wisdom, or reasonable, we may genuinely think that its normal… we can almost certainly see other people’s prejudices much more easily than our own…

In our society there is still casual sexism, there is thoughtless ageism towards young and old, there is financial discrimination, and that’s without even going near to the borders and mentioning refugees. There is prejudice against different parts of the country, and different parts of the same town. If we genuinely think that we are without prejudice, then answer me this- how is it that we allow anyone in our country to go homeless, naked, or hungry? We do these things so easily- this morning since I’ve arrived here I have shown prejudice against those with mobility problems, those with reading difficulties, those for whom English is a second language, those who are deaf… just by leading our service.

But a large part of prejudice stems from fear- fear of the unknown. And today there are many who don’t know God, and so they are afraid, and are prejudiced against God and those who claim to follow him. So how do we respond to that fear? By love- love one another was a command to love each other- other believers yes, but also the ‘not yet’… Jesus demonstrated the breadth of God’s love in the stories he told and his actions- the people he spoke with and healed, the places he went. And then the disciples began to do the same- healing and teaching a wider and wider group of people until… Peter… Peter had the same expectations as the other disciples, the same ideas about who God loved, and who he shouldn’t associate with, until God told him otherwise. Now, there are themes and ideas which appear in the Bible in different places, and that helps us to grasp that they are more significant than other things which are only mentioned once… In Acts we have the Gospel retold, repeated explanations of who Jesus is, and here, repeated twice in 2 chapters- Peter visits Cornelius, and then we have his own account to the other brothers in Jerusalem… to emphasise its importance, but it also emphasises how challenging this was… love the gentile while they are still foreigners, welcome them without waiting for them to become just like us, expect their lives to be transformed- yes, but not to become clones of me and you… its hard for us to recognise how hard this was, how huge a change it was… this was changing centuries of what it meant to be a follower of God… and it’s an indication of how Peter had grown and matured, of how the brothers in Jerusalem recognised that God was at work, of the power of the resurrection in their lives that they listened to his words and accepted them…

So, if you’re at all serious about following God, then pray for, and expect that your prejudices will be shaken up this week.

Earthquakes, dynamite and unwanted examples

I wrote my talk for the weekend on Friday, before hearing about the news of the earthquakes in Japan and Ecuador… the comments about power without focus and control seem ever more pertinent, but its not as if I wanted an example to point to, and I certainly hope it didn’t come across that way to folks yesterday when I spoke.  I’m not pretending to have a solution to the damage and devastation caused by the impact of geological forces on the human and animal species that exist on the surface- If there were no earthquakes the pressure within the core of the earth would build up to eventually cause a planet destroying explosion… they’re like the ‘psst’ of steam from a pressure cooker, and the molten core of the earth is a key part of what makes our planet habitable to life as we know it… but before this turns too much into a geography post (and one that is probably incorrect on a number of points), here’s the thing-

Before you read the rest of the post, please pause for a moment and give time in your thoughts for the communities in Japan and Ecuador where lives have been lost, homes destroyed and so much more, and remember places around the world that are still recovering from natural disasters that have struck in recent years- Nepal, Haiti, Japan (again) and many others. If you’re a praying person, please pray, if not, then maybe think about what you can do to help alleviate the suffering there.


Ok, on with the post- this was what I said yesterday morning about Peter, the disciple… its based on Acts chapter 9, but with a bit of a brief history of Peter’s life as described within the Bible. And if you want to hear the full version, its on the church website here.

Power needs to be harnessed to be effective. Or to put it another way, storms only cause damage when they hit something. A Stick of dynamite explodes- but put it into a small hole and it can bring down a cliff. Peter was always a man of greatness- Jesus knew that from the start, but he wasn’t harnessed- he wasn’t embedded and so his recognition that Jesus was the Christ is followed by his failure to understand his mission, his trust in Jesus that enabled him to get out of the boat is followed by doubts that caused him to sink, his promise to follow Christ anywhere led to his denial of even knowing him. Until… At the very end of John’s gospel Jesus speaks again with Peter- he asks him ‘Do you love me?’ 3 times- to bring healing, and he instructs him ‘feed my lambs, take care of my sheep, feed my sheep’- Jesus, who has called himself the good shepherd who will lay down his life for the lives of his flock gives Peter that instruction. And Peter is restored to his seat among the disciples- He’s the one who leads their meetings in the weeks after Easter, and then on the day of Pentecost he is the one who naturally stands and speaks to the crowd… As you read through the book of Acts you’ll see him disappear largely from view as Paul and his mission to the gentiles grows in significance, but Peter has his own mission from the very start- to the Jews. A comparison for us today would be to say that Paul would, if he arrived in Barnstaple, go to the shops and the rugby club and speak with anyone he found there; while Peter would come to the churches and speak to us- calling us to repent, to return again to the faith of our fathers, to know in our hearts and live out in our lives that faith with acts of compassion, love and power, and then tell us to go out to the shops and the rugby clubs, and prepare our churches for the arrival of the folks that we met there… And the miracles that we see performed by Peter demonstrate that- when he heals a crippled man, both in Acts 3 and 9, just before the passage we heard he’s travelling to worship and teach in the Jewish communities of Lydda and Joppa. Peter’s words and actions have power not because of him, but because he has found the place where he fits- Climbing kit- a FRIEND, fits into varying sizes of cracks on a cliff, different ones for different places- when it fits you can depend on it… it is in the right place. When we are in the right place with God his power at work in us is so much greater.

How did Paul get into that place? By messing up- by taking risks, by recognising his failures and by trying again. By seeking God humbly- in prayer, in worship, by being open to something new from God. By following the example of Jesus- Jesus healed, he healed, Jesus taught, he taught, Jesus wasn’t afraid, Paul wasn’t afraid.

We read a passage like todays and think- did it happen? We might think ‘it certainly couldn’t happen’ BUT… we don’t know. We don’t know because we aren’t living the life of faith that Peter lived- we may be scared to, we may not want to, but we’re not living like he and the early Christians did- Peter had been threatened with death, had seen friends die, had been ordered to stop speaking in the name of Jesus and yet he continued. He’d left all he had and knew… because he believed with all that he was. His faith transformed his life and the lives of those around him. If we want to see lives transformed we have to let our own be transformed by God first… we have to let our church be transformed by God…  We’ve seen and we are seeing some fruits of that, but we’re stuck, just as Peter was, we’ve our own preferences and experiences and traditions and ideas… but ultimately God says ‘do you love me? And if the answer is yes, then we’re called to trust him, to have faith. That means giving sacrificially, that means praying for and with people, that means knowing that God is with us everywhere and living our calling out in the place where we work, on our commute, at the school gate and as neighbours etc, it means inviting people to join us on this journey of faith… But we need to have confidence in our own faith first…maybe we need to go on the alpha or the start course or join a home group before we can invite a friend to come with us… but we can already be encouraged by what we see God doing around us. Peter saw healings and heard his friends speak of what they’d seen God do, and that encouraged him, and his faith, his actions- God’s power at work through him, encouraged others and helped them to come to faith and grow in faith. I’ve not yet seen God bring a dead woman back to life, but I’ve seen enough that I wouldn’t rule it out. I’ve also sat with those approaching death, and with those who’ve just lost loved ones, and wondered why not this time… especially when the ending of a life happens in tragic circumstances or at an early age. I don’t really know why, but I know that I trust in God, and that Jesus wasn’t afraid of death. I pray for healing and restoration, and I pray for a peaceful end, and I know that God hears both those prayers, and I ultimately pray them both in His name- your will be done. If God brings glory to his name by healing someone, or does not, it not my decision or my responsibility. But if I never risk enough to even ask, I’ll never see it, and I’ll never be living the life that I could live.

In our lives, if we take God at his word and begin to live as if his word is true, then we will begin to take the same first steps as Peter… we’ll probably mess up and need to seek forgiveness from God and each other… but we’ll be beginning to live in faith- in our schools, our homes, our workplaces and everywhere.

A childlike thought at harvest

Realised that I hadn’t posted anything from last Sunday- we had a guest preacher come to speak on Acts 17- one of my favourite passages… gutted that I gave it to someone else to speak on!

Anyway, I did a short children’s talk that was based around carrots, roots, small things growing into larger things etc… here’s a part of it:

At harvest time we give thanks for the amazing things that grow and the people who work so hard to prepare them for our food- we think of farmers who rear cattle, sheep, pigs, chicken, those who grow crops like our carrot and so many other things, those who work on the sea to catch fish and other seafood, and we also give thanks that God makes things to grow- that carrots are different from toys that look like carrots… In some places and at some times the harvest isn’t so much, and sometimes people can’t stay to work the fields- its not safe, and those of us who have plenty need to share with those who haven’t got enough. Harvest is a great time for thinking about what God gives us, but its also a great time to give away a little of what we have to help others.  We don’t often think about things like this- just as we can often overlook a small plant, without realising how special it is… lets just be quiet for a moment and in our hearts each of us can promise to think about others and be generous with what we have.

Have a good harvest time, be grateful for the blessings you have, and share with those who have less… give to a soup kitchen or night shelter, share a meal with a homeless person or buy the Big Issue… whatever you can do.