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

Love the natural environment? How recycling bottles, reducing waste and returning bottles is more than reducing your eco-guilt.

Way back when, in the last century, I was an environmental science-type dude. Long before I was a balding surf instructor, a husband, a dad or a vicar I was officially a tree hugger. I never quite got around to padlocking myself to a digger or staging a sit-in protest on behalf of the greater crested newt population, but that was only because there wasn’t a digger or a newt to hand. Or to put it another, if you haven’t noticed, I’m a little bit green in my politics, my theology and my lifestyle.

Which is a roundabout way of introducing this post, something that was an off-the top of my head email a few hours ago which a couple of friends have already asked to re-post, and so I thought I’d put it out here… read, respond, ignore, or continue as you were…

Image result for plastic bottle on beach

There are many, many things that we see or read about in our world that bring us great sadness, and there is often the question ‘what can I do about it?’ As Christian’s we’re always faced by the big and the small scale of things- we pray for peace in the world and in our own hearts; we try to show grace and mercy to those we meet; we rejoice when we see that same behaviour mirrored in our governments and lament where it is not. But we often feel that our actions are insignificant, and that can paralyse us.
Ok, then here’s a little thing, that may be a part of a bigger thing- plastic bottles and cups. I’m old enough (just) to remember the 5p deposit return on glass lemonade bottles, which disappeared when cheap plastic bottles supplanted them. The problem now is that we’re literally being swamped with plastic, particularly in our seas, and as an island nation, many of us will see this impact on the places we live and love.
And the type of plastic we’re being swamped with is easy to re-cycle plastic bottles, so we can actually do something about this-
1- personally recycle as much plastic as you can (check your local recycling centre for whether they’ll take food waste etc, most will take more than you imagine)
2- maybe we could use less plastic? Try to cut out some, if not all, of the plastic you use in your life, whether than’s bottles of water (re-use one!), food wrapping (is it needed or just convenient?) or plastic bags (most of us now use re-usable shopping bags- see how easy that was to change?)
3- and this is the retro/forward thinking one- join the campaign for deposit return scheme on plastic bottles- https://www.sas.org.uk/messageinabottle/ is one place you can sign up. The scheme would turn waste into a resource at no tax cost or end user cost. At the moment 250 thousand people in the UK have signed this petition, and already in other countries over 150 million people are making use of this scheme, so why shouldn’t we? Is your MP supporting this?
4- this might just be the starting point for you, and your church- folk at A Rocha have put together a scheme to help churches turn good intentions into solid actions- its called Eco Church and you can find it here https://ecochurch.arocha.org.uk/
I know, recycling’s not glamorous, it’s not bringing peace in a warzone or praying for healing; but if we, as Christians, believe that the natural world expresses the love of God, then taking action to protect it is one way that we show God our love and appreciation for the gift of Creation.
Please share, forward, sign up yourself, or get back to me with any questions.
And just while I was looking for the image for this post, I came across this article from the Guardian website, which offers some hope and a challenge- why aren’t we refilling our plastic bottles? Retailers and producers will only do these things if consumers as well as governments give them encouragement and pressure in the right direction.. it really is up to us.
And if you’ve been wondering why there’ve not been more posts in the last couple of weeks, it’s not your computer, it’s my life…

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?

Image result for sneeze

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.

Holidays and Holy Days

I don’t have a talk from last weekend to post… because I didn’t preach at all. Cathy preached at one of our services (Recorded and uploaded here), and Hugh preached at the other (sorry, if you wanted to hear it, you needed to be there!). I was leading the worship, and since then I’ve been taking some time off- a holiday, would you believe it!

Its a strange thing, but for me, at present, holidays represent stepping back from my phone and emails as much as anything else- a time when I let my phone battery die and don’t bother finding the wifi code for wherever I am, but unfortunately I’m also in the habit of using my phone to help me in my prayer and Bible reading… it has readings on it and apps with ‘verse for the day’ and prayer links, so when I’m in holiday mode, I find it easy to miss my personal time with God. Added to which I’m not in meetings or leading services, or ‘doing’ God-stuff… and so I can find that I don’t have the same structure to my daily relationship with God. And that’s doubly ironic, because the word holiday is derived from ‘Holy day’- a day when folk didn’t have to work because it was a saint’s day. In some churches there is a saint’s day every few weeks, in others they’re barely remembered… but most of us now have personal holiday that adds up to 4-5 weeks each year or more… and in our personal holiday, have we forgotten about being holy?

Image result for water shining on a stone

I know that in the last few days I’ve sat by a fire and watched the sunset, I’ve marvelled at the shine of water on a pebble beach, I’ve looked on as my children play together… and given thanks for those things. (and yes, I’ve sat in a traffic jam, struggled through a diversion, put up a tent with tired helpers, worried about car-sick little ones and survived temper tantrums… life has been real still).

So are my holidays my holy days? I guess the test for me is that I’ve still been talking with God, and have taken some time each day to at least touch base with Scripture, and have been loving being in the world whilst being conscious of the One who made it. If I forget who’s child I am, or forget who’s world I’m in, that’s when I’m going in the wrong direction.

Did Jesus take holidays? He took time out from his healing and teaching the crowds- to spend time with his closer friends, and to spend time with his Father, but he didn’t go off to exotic locations to do so- a hill, the side of a lake. For him, and for us when we stop and think, its not about the location, or even really about the experience, but about the people we are with- the relationships that are fed and deepened through time together. Sure, it’s wonderful to say ‘that’s where we…’ or ‘do you remember…’ about particular places and times, but it is the truth that what makes those things significant is being able to say that to those people who’re part of our lives.

 

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

Image result for which way to jump

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…)

Finding comfort when things are uncomfortable

Last Sunday morning our reading was from John 14- a passage that we’re most familiar with, unfortunately, from funerals. It’s very often used, because its so very poignant and appropriate to the question of ‘what is happening here?’ that we often face at those times. Yet the odd thing is, it comes before the death of Jesus- he is helping his friends to come to terms, in advance, with his death…

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Yesterday I went significantly off script, various things came up and had come up- some tough things for us as churches alongside things to celebrate, but it was just one of those wonderful timings- The passage chosen for today, and which I’d put on the list several months ago, was just perfect for many of us in different ways. Just another one of those remarkable coincidences that seem to happen around God.

Anyway, here’s what I based my talk on- I think the audio should be on our website here

Jesus is the way to the Father… but that doesn’t make it comfortable…

Often folk like parts of the Gospel, or the idea of God, or the feeling of the Holy Spirit, but when all three come together it can be more challenging- we might like to have a pick’n’mix, but is that what is on offer?

I once came across the acronym USP- Unique Selling Point… its what makes something unique- its particularly to do with marketing and sales- what makes this product or service stand out…

In terms of faiths and philosophies, this passage expresses one of the really important USPs of the Christian faith- How we can relate to God…

All philosophies/belief structures and religions try to help give life meaning- to find a way to live.

Many have some spiritual aspect beyond the material and measurable

A significant number have an understanding of the universe that embodies spiritual power within a god or gods

Some believe that there is some kind of life after our death

A few believe that their god is interested in individuals- that some kind of relationship is possible

One, and only one to the best of my knowledge, claims that anyone who wishes to can have a parent/child relationship with their god, a relationship that is based on love, hope, and that out of that relationship they can act and represent their god…

Jesus says- no one comes to the Father except through me. Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father.

This is one of those ‘did he really say that?’ moments- What Jesus said is either true or blasphemy-the Sanhedrin, the Jewish leaders, made their decision and then acted on it- blasphemy- so they sought his death, and they killed Stephen for what he said…

Whilst the gospel is open to everyone, its not acceptable to everyone- there’s a point at which it can no longer be one of the things that we ‘like’… it is either so true and so important that it shapes our response to everything else, or its complete rubbish.

If Jesus is wrong about himself, if Stephen was wrong about Jesus, then the Christian faith is built upon the mistakes of a deluded man and his lying or hallucinating friends…

But the proof is in the pudding- when we humbly seek God, when we come in prayer for the needs of our community and seek forgiveness for the mess we’re making of our world… then we find that God responds- rarely in the way we might have preferred, or the timing we had in mind, but often in a way we could not have conceived of.

In prayer faith and faithfulness go hand in hand- do we believe in God’s ability and desire to act? And do we have the faithfulness to keep on pressing into that situation, praying for those people etc…

If we want to see people come to faith, we have to pray. If we don’t pray, why are we surprised when people don’t? Like a father, God knows what we need and yet delights in our asking for it…

Life to the full- woop woop!

Last weekend was an odd one… Wonderful wife plus two other stars were taking the main service and my boss was coming to preach at later service… so I had the day off? Not quite, as we still had an early morning service, there was a worship group to play in (yay, got to play bass in church!), and still needed to lead worship… so a light morning’s work that lasted 6hrs, but definitely no complaints- a good day was had by all.

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The passage we were thinking about was from John’s Gospel, chapter 10, which contains one of my favourite verses- ‘I have come that you may have life to the full’- verse 10. I love it, its both challenging and inspirational… Hope you don’t mind sentimental cheesy pic of wonderful wife out on a walk later in the week- living life to the full.

Here’s what I said at our 8am service…

 Jesus has just healed a blind man, the religious authorities have been called to investigate and have ended up throwing the man out of the synagogue for being cheeky, Jesus then finds the man who recognises him not only as a prophet of God but accepts him as the saviour… a blind, ill-educated man gets in a flash what the ‘proper’ folk have been waiting for and can’t see right under their noses. Who is really blind here? He goes on, in the passage we heard, to talk about the importance of the answer we give to ‘who is Jesus?’ or ‘what authority does Jesus have?’… The idea of sheep knowing their master’s voice sounds at once alien and attractive to us- it’s a nice image but not one we know from our own experience. We might remember the record shop HMV with its iconic picture of the dog listening attentively to ‘his master’s voice’… we might recall how a child can be calmed by a word from a parent when no one else will do… but we need to know the cultural resonance that the image of a shepherd had for Jesus’ listeners- they’d been shepherds since, well, forever- Abraham was a shepherd, Jacob and his sons were shepherds when they went to Egypt, Moses was a shepherd, David was a shepherd, and throughout the Psalms we read of God as a shepherd…and on the night of Jesus’ birth shepherds were on the hills- the role of a shepherd, while maybe no longer such a respectable job, was still significant.

When Jesus says, there are those who enter by the gate and those who climb in another way it’s clear he is saying that there are some who should not be followed, and some who should be- the sheep know the difference. There’s a relationship here- the sheep know their shepherd by voice and the shepherd knows their sheep… the shepherd is thinking of them- again, a different context for us where sheep are primarily farmed for meat, historically their milk (and cheese) and wool would have been more important- you grew the flock to fill the land… a context, a way of life that is less centred around short term profit and more about longer term care… The image is of a leader who cares, who puts themselves out- what we might call a servant leader… this is who Jesus is… his authority doesn’t come from the volume of his voice, but from how he speaks… a shepherd who’s flock know him and trust him- as Jesus disciples followed him they came to trust him more and more- as we live our lives as Christians today we find there are times when it’s easy to trust, and times when it’s hard, times when we forget someone is guiding us, and times when we cling to him…

In life there are many things that we might say we follow- a football team, a hobby, a band, an artist, a political party… at various points in our life we’ve probably each done so- but there is one similarity that carries across all of those- although you can see them, and although following them has its rewards- I remember going to obscure gigs and seeing my heroes close up, those things that we enjoy to not love us the way we love them- the way that Jesus loves us. They do not know us- despite the clever algorithms and cookies on websites they don’t know us, they do not have that self-giving love that Christ spoke of and demonstrated throughout his life and in his death. He is in this, both the shepherd and the gate- the one calling us to follow, and the means by which we are able to cross over- he is our personal saviour and Lord AND the saviour of all creation who stands at the right hand of the Father.

For us, we’re called to be sheep- to follow our Lord where he leads us, and we’re called to be sheep that somehow look like the shepherd- you know the way that dogs and their owners have a likeness? Just as Jesus came and lived among us so we’re to be like him to those we meet… not trying to replace him, but pointing others towards him by our words and our actions- by our prayers and our work amongst those in need.

And the outcome of all of this? Not a life lived in a holy tower or a ghetto, but life lived to the full- including the things we love- those hobbies, that desire to see the world changed, that love of the outdoors and those people we care for… but a life that isn’t limited or constrained by them- a life with a perspective that reaches to eternity and includes the whole world as our neighbourhood.

So, wherever you find yourself, live life to the max- not in splendid isolation from the rigours of the world, not blindly denying the truth of what is around you or missing out on the beauty of the world for fear of getting bruised along the way, and do what you can to help others live more fully.

Cheers.

 

Roadtrip with Jesus

Last Sunday we were looking at the passage in Luke’s Gospel where two disciples are walking from Jerusalem to a nearby village, on the afternoon of the first Sunday. It’s known as ‘The Road to Emmaus’ because, well, they’re on the road to Emmaus… you can find the passage in Luke 24.13-35 here, and this is what I said (or at least planned to say… as always the two are never quite the same).

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In this passage we see something of the impact that an encounter with God can have on people’s lives… but most importantly we see the how that encounter needs to be understood- eyes need to be opened, minds need to come to terms with things…

The two disciples, on the road to Emmaus- possibly going back home after the events- the excitement of the arrival in Jerusalem, the tension between Jesus and the teachers, then the seeming catastrophe of his arrest, the farce of the trial and the nightmare of his crucifixion. And then nothing. In times of crisis there are moments of in-between- waiting for the exam to start, for the news from the doctor, waiting for the girl to finish reading the note, for the phone call after an interview… and sometimes your mind is in a fog, you can’t think properly because you can only see one thing, and nothing else really makes any impact on you… the people of Jerusalem were convinced that Jesus wasn’t the Messiah, so he must be a blasphemer, a rebel, a danger… the disciples were convinced that Jesus was dead, so the news that they’d heard about the empty tomb wasn’t good news, it was another twist of the knife…

Sometimes we need to have our eyes opened, our horizons raised, our perspectives changed… but even when that does happen we may well not have the language and ideas to understand what is happening… When people use the term ‘spiritual but not religious’ they often mean that they have had, or want to have, spiritual experiences, that they believe in what is beyond the physical… but that they don’t want to be told what it means, or how to make sense of it by any form of organised faith community- they want the spiritual, but not the religion… which is ok, except that it can lead to a situation where everyone interprets an event themselves, and no one interpretation has any more truth… which is where our disciples on the road to Emmaus were… they just didn’t know what to believe- who was Jesus, was he alive or dead, what should they do? And so, they were just heading home- just as Peter and some of the other disciples… fishing etc…

Jesus joins them on the road- as with so many of our own encounters with God, we can mistakenly think that we have sought and found God, but in reality God has found us- often because we have stopped running or hiding… Jesus joins them where they are- they explain what they know and what they are unsure of, and then Jesus begins to speak, ‘explaining to them…’ and then finally Jesus joins them in real life- at the table, in a home- not in a worship time or a church, and they knew he was the Lord…

They still don’t have the language, but they can’t ignore what’s happened, so they get up and walk for two hours in the night… ‘were not our hearts burning within us’…

Article in Christianity last month- a young student from a damaged background, ended up in church having seen how becoming a Christian had changed a friend… not sure what’s going on, not connecting, when invited back gave a ‘sure’ but not meaning it, and then somehow finding themselves there for the evening service, and ended up being prayed for… and felt their heart burning within them, with no knowledge of this passage or having ever heard of Wesley’s ‘heart strangely warmed’… without having the language to describe it, she knew she’d met God…

Acts- Peter explains- this is what has happened… this is what is means, this is what you should do…

Our job, our privilege is to help people understand their spiritual experiences, their desires etc… not to control them, but to free them and give them peace… to point them towards Jesus to help explain and make sense of things, to help them process them in a way that brings the supernatural and spiritual (yes, there is a God almighty, and a Holy Spirit, and Jesus is the Son of God, and because of God’s love and Jesus’ sacrifice I can be filled with the Holy Spirit) into the everyday and the earthly (yes, I can pray at the kitchen table, about things that are happening in my life, and God can help me to cope with the stresses I face today)… The promise was not just for those who met the risen Christ or who heard Peter at Pentecost, but is for all who would listen.

Later this month we’re going to be reading through Acts together as a church, and I’ll be posting reflections on those readings- probably not every day but a bit more frequently than over the last while… If you fancy getting hold of a commentary/guide to Acts yourself, we’re using Whitney Kuniholm’s ‘Essential Question’ or you might prefer Tom Wright’s ‘Acts for Everybody’, both available in good bookstores and various online places.