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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Playing catch up part 1- Following my leader

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Following The Leader

So, what happened?

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

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

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

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

So here’s what was said-

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

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

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

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

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

Image result for party poppers

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

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.

But as for you, I’ve got my eye on you…

The sort of words that fill anyone with dread- a class full of children being told what to do, a team being given the final peptalk, the manager speaking to the line supervisors etc… Generally we don’t want anyone to have their eye on us, do we? We prefer to remain slightly anonymous, just below the radar… but great things aren’t accomplished by staying anonymous, by keeping our heads below the parapet, by staying in the pack. Sometimes we have to risk sticking our neck out, being seen- and yes, being noticed.

How does this fit with the idea of being humble, that virtue which is praised so much in the Christian life and which is made a symbol of mean-heartedness in Dicken’s David Copperfield by the wretched Uriah Heep? There’s being humble, and there’s being humble. Being humble when the alternative is selling yourself, blowing your own trumpet and being all lahdidah is generally a really wise idea- especially if you don’t have much to blow about! But is it wise, appropriate and, well, humble to say you’re nothing when all around you know you’re something else- to avoid being noticed when your friends, family and neighbours can see something in you? Or is that just plain silly, and maybe even lazy?

We’ve been looking over the last few weeks at Paul’s second letter to Timothy- known more often as 2 Timothy in the Bible. If you’d like to hear the audio version of this talk its here. I’m afraid some of the other talks haven’t made it onto the blog or the website yet…

So don’t hide your light, keep on persevering, or as St Paul puts it-

‘But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have become convinced of’…

What has Timothy learned, and how has he become convinced? Remember the summary of Paul’s gospel we heard last week- ‘Jesus Christ, raised from the dead, descended from David’ That is the headline of Paul’s gospel, and Timothy has become convinced of- through the people around him- their testimony, their teaching, their encouragement, and also the Scriptures- at that time that would have consisted of the Hebrew Scriptures- the Law and the prophets, and the emerging Gospels (Mark’s and Luke’s may both have been written in the years prior to 2 Timothy)… we have this great verse in the middle of our reading- this is what Scripture is for- teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness- so that Timothy, and we, may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.

Now, both that opening sentence and this later verse remind us that in the Christian faith there is progression and purpose…

Progression- growth… continue… Timothy at one point came to faith- he reached a place where he called himself a Christian- he grew in faith and was encouraged by those around him- he travelled with Paul on missionary journeys, from his home town in modern Turkey to Jerusalem, to Greece and then became pastor of the church in Ephesus… and Timothy was not a man of great personal strength or obvious leadership gifts, but God used him because of his faith, faith which grew along the way.  Paul says how Timothy has known the Scriptures from infancy- and we can read that both spiritually and literally- Timothy, as we heard a few weeks ago, is a child of a Christian mother and a Christian grandmother, both of whom converted from Judaism- he’s possibly the first 3rd generation Christian in the world, so he would have heard the Hebrew Scriptures- our Old Testament, as a child. He’d have also come to understand what they meant afresh, in the light of who Jesus is, in the infancy of his own faith- that dawning of light as he came to understand for himself, as he was convinced of the truth of the things he’d heard about this Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee who was descended from the royal family of David and about whom so many things were being said- was he a blasphemer, in league with the devil, a rebel, a great teacher and healer- or as those who claimed to have seen him alive after his execution, or like Paul to have had visions of him, was he the Messiah, the Son of God… and if so what should that mean in Timothy’s life… if that claim was true, it was of ultimate importance, if it was not, then Jesus was of no importance… Our faith, just like Timothy’s is not a matter of a tick box, or an event, but an ongoing journey with a destination, a relationship with a purpose…

Purpose- as individual, church and the people of God. Paul reminds Timothy that his life now has a purpose-  the Word of God has the purpose of preparing God’s people for every good work, the purpose of God’s people is to do those things… but before we find ourselves spiralling into a whirl of good intentioned busyness, remember what was said last week- the importance of being able to listen to the Holy Spirit, the importance of having time to respond to the Holy Spirit- just as Jesus healed the lepers on his way to Jerusalem, and Paul on his missionary journeys followed the guidance of the Holy Spirit and responded to circumstances (think about it- he never planned to go to Lystra where he met Timothy, but only ended up there because of a plot to kill him in the town of Iconium…). So our purpose is to firstly learn to listen to the Holy Spirit- by spending time with God’s word and in prayer, by drawing close through worship, and in listening to discerning where and how God is calling us to serve him- and it may be that God is calling us to serve him in the very places where we already are- by being salt and light, vehicles for his grace, in the workplace where we’ve worked for years, in the streets where we have always lived, among our family and friends. It may also be that God is calling us to serve him in a new way- if our work takes us to the High Street, we may feel called to respond to those who cannot afford to go shopping there, if our work takes us away on trips, we may feel called to pray for and share God’s love with fellow travellers, or… we are each called to work out that purpose as individuals. We’re also called to work it out as members of a group- our church… with our support of finance and time we enable our church to work out our vision and to fulfil our purpose in this community- of proclaiming God’s love in ourselves and this community. And that requires us, to a degree, to make a decision about whether we want to have a greater or lesser input into that process of discernment for our church- the more we invest in that, the greater our immediate sense of ‘yup, this is good’, the more we delegate that to others the more willing we have to be to say ‘just tell me what to do’ and put our shoulder to the wheel… and there is a sliding scale of that- our church is part of the mission community here in town, is part of the diocese with our 3-fold strategy of making disciples, growing in prayer and serving the people of Devon, and is in turn part of the Anglican church and communion with the commitments that implies and ultimately is part of God’s church in the whole world… and the purpose of that church? To go and make disciples of all nations… starting wherever we find ourselves.

As this passage draws to a close, Paul reiterates his encouragement to Timothy- at the start of the letter he told him not to be ashamed to testify, here he writes ‘preach the word of God, always be ready’- there’ll be times when people want to hear, and times when they don’t. Times when the door is open, and times when folk just don’t want to hear…

At this time we’re in a strange place- on one hand the world seems a fearful, selfish place where people contend for their rights and there is violence or fear of violence all around, and on the other hand there seems to be a spiritual awakening going on- people around us are looking for something to ground themselves in- community, something to commit to, folk are open to spiritual conversations- I believe we’re entering into a season where, for all sorts of reasons, we’re able to, with consideration and respect, share what we believe- If we don’t people will just cherrypick the ideas that they like from the Christian faith and any other philosophy they come across, because no one has told them any better- the door is open, but many people just don’t know the basics of the Christian faith. So for ourselves, and for them, its so important that we do continue to progress- remaining fresh and with a faith that is alive, and that we know we have a purpose- not just running around in circles…

A brief call… from Thomas the tank engine

Yesterday morning at our all-ages service we were thinking about how Jesus used stories really powerfully to engage with people of all ages and backgrounds, and we used the themes and imagery of the Thomas stories (originally written by a vicar for his children) to help us with our thinking… led by the fat controller after he’d been to weightwatchers we thought about what rules and regulations we need to avoid ‘chaos and confusion’ and to help us all to be ‘really useful engines’…

Earlier in the morning at our 8am service I’d been reflecting on the passage at the start of Paul’s letter to the Galatian church where he writes about his own background- he gives his biography in order to establish, to a degree, his credentials. The only problem is that he basically says ‘no one recommended me- not the apostles, not the other Christians… they just knew me as the man who was trying to destroy the churches…’ but then goes on to say (and I paraphrase brutally) that he was called by God and given the gospel by God… so we were thinking about the call that God gave to Paul, and the call that God makes to each of us… not to be apostles to south Turkey and Syria, though that’s possible and very much needed, but to be us- God calls each of us to be ourselves, in the places where we are, with the gifts and network of friends that we have…  And the fact of our faith- that some of us believe in God while others don’t, is the first evidence of our response to that call…

So the questions we are faced by are whether we recognise that we’re called (or to use the language of our all ages service, that we’re one of the Engines), and if we recognise that in principle, then what does it mean in practice… how will we be Useful?

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.

Heads, shoulders, knees and toes… they all have a part to play

Yesterday we were thinking about two of my favourite passages of the Bible- the first comes from Luke’s gospel, and is where Jesus stands up and speaks about how some words of Isaiah (good news for the poor, feeding the hungry, freedom for the oppressed, light in darkness and the time of God’s favour) are about to come true today… love that passage (its Luke 4.14-21 if you want to look)… he then spends the next two years doing that, and during that time he also teaches, encourages and enables his disciples to do the same.

The second passage we looked at came from chapter 4 of Paul’s letter to the Turkish church in Ephesus- now a ruined city just inland from Kusadasi, across the water from Samos and nearby to several refugee camps. Paul was notorious for rejecting the claims of Jesus and his followers and trying to destroy the early church- today is one of those odd days in the church calendar where its not a saints day but a day when we remember Paul’s conversion- his encounter on the road with Jesus, in a way that was spiritual rather than material (no one else saw it) but real rather than conceptual (it totally changed the rest of his life)- the road to Damascus experience that any others are referring to.

We used this prayer to help us think about how we are each able to be part of the things that Jesus was talking about:

Christ has no body now on earth but yours, no hands but yours, no feet but yours, yours are the eyes through which Christ’s compassion is to look out to the earth, yours are the feet by which He is to go about doing good and yours are the hands by which He is to bless us now.                                                             (St Teresa of Avila)

When God calls us he expects us to respond by more than simply worship or prayer… we show our love by our action, but not busyness…

Paul expected the same, but also that each person would find their own place- the Body of Christ from Romans, the different ministries in Ephesians… but the list at the start of Ephesians 4 is a general calling- to be humble and gentle, to be patient, to work to keep unity… for there is one hope- that which brings healing, light, freedom etc… some basic things for all people who follow Jesus, who’re Christians…

And then in verses 11-12 the ministries Paul lists weren’t exclusively for the church in Ephesus or the early church, nor are they exclusively for us- in every place, at every time… all are essential to the life of the church… we’re not all called to be professionals, to have the ‘vocational calling’ to them, but all can, as grace has been given to us, be one or more of these in the places where we are… Know what we are (we were thinking about how feet aren’t much good for carrying things etc) and play our part, each of us…

these five ministries can be expanded upon massively, but just to give a pointer:

Apostles- those who are sent to new places, whether those be across the Roman Empire or up to the allotment…

Prophets- those who see with the eyes of God, and call us to come closer to God… they challenge the world and the church to live up to the ideals, the manifesto of the kingdom which Jesus proclaimed.

Evangelists- those who want to see people come to a saving knowledge of God’s love, which may seem obvious to some but is scary stuff to others- its ok to recognise that some of us are called and gifted in that

Pastors- those who care for the sick, the lonely, the orphans, widows, the poor and the homeless…

Teachers- those who encourage and educate those who are new to faith…

If you look at the order of them, we need them in that order- to go to a place where the Gospel is needed, to highlight the gap between life as it is seen and as it might be under God, to provide opportunity for a response to that- for people to come to God, to care for people’s needs as they do that and then to teach them how to live as followers of Christ themselves… when we find ourselves stuck and aren’t preparing, or being prepared for works of service so that the body of Christ may be built up, we need to go back up the list- what aren’t we doing… where is the blockage… until we’re able once again to- be good news to the poor, bring light to the dark places, heal the sick, free the oppressed and proclaim God’s love for the world.