Sunday, 26 May 2013

Acts 3 - Devoted to the Prayers

Prinknash Abbey have been celebrating a centenary this march.  It is one hundred years since the monastic community on Caldey Island decided to become Roman Catholic and a part of the Subaico Congregation of the Order of St Benedict.  It was a few years later that they moved from Caldey Island to Prinknash.  This year they have been joined by their mother Congregation, the Cassinese Benedictine Congregation, one of whose monoasteries is at Monte Cassino and so are known as the Subiaco-Cassinese Congregation.

Abbot Francis writes movingly of the importance of ‘Being open to the call from God – whatever that might be and wherever it might lead us – and that, he suggests, takes courage and perseverance.  “If we are to  be faithful we need to have complete trust in the one who calls.  This is why St Benedict, right at the beginning of His Holy Rule shows us the importance of developing a listening heart; for it is in the silence of our own hearts that the Holy Spirit communies with us, in ways that are beyond words.

“Discerning God’s will for us on our journey through life is seldom easy – even Jesus would at times go off to a quiet spot, away from his disciples and the crowds, to pray to his Heavenly Father, to gain the strength, the courage and the discernment to carry out his Father’s will perfectly.”

Those words are wonderful – ‘it is in the silence of our own hearts that the Holy Spirit communes with us in ways that are beyond words.”

Hold on to that thought for a moment.

That afternoon I spent an hour with Sylvia Lauder, Artist in Residence at St Luke’s church as we planned an evening we are going to share together a fortnight on Tuesday as part of the Cheltenham Open Studios week.  The talk we are going to share is entitled ‘Finding the Light’.  Last year Sylvia visited Bethlehem to stay in a Convent that once was in the Judean Desert and now is in the shadow of the wall that surrounds Bethlehem.  She was there to ‘write an icon’.  She is going to share her experiences and I am going to reflect on the significance of icons as I have encountered them in three very specific instances.  For 10 years Sylvia has had her studio in an unuseable gallery over the entrance door to St Luke’s church.   She spoke of the importance of the silence in that convent, in her own experience in the church – a silence in which there can be a sense of the presence that is so powerful.

Hold on to that thought for a moment.

Driving from St Luke’s where I had just seen John on his way into surgery, over to Min who has returned home from hospital this week I was listening to the radio news.  Full of the horrific aftermath of the unutterable things that had happened with the murder in Woolwich.

He was speaking with the General Secretary of the Muslim Council of Great Britain – speaking of the need in the aftermath of such terror not to be drawn into the terror and play the terrorist’s game by descending into fear and recrimination among the faith communities.  But rather of the need for the communities of faith to come together and be a support.  The General Secretary of the Muslim Council could not have been more outspoken in his utter abhorrence of what had happened and appealed for a neighbourly love to be shared across the faith communities.

Three images I want to  hold on to for a moment.

Prayer precedes Pentecost.

What’s fascinating as we move on beyond Pentecost is that we see that Prayer proceeds from Pentecost.

I know the verse so well.  And yet as I was preparing for today’s services I saw it afresh.

There are four marks of the church that are noted

The Apostles’ Teaching
Breaking of Bread and Prayer

But I looked that Acts 2:42 verse up again.

And I noticed it said,

They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.

That’s an interesting expression.

Not ‘prayer’

But ‘the prayers’

The  Day of Pentecost over the next thing that happens is a healing and it is so easy to focus on the healing and then the explanation of the faith that goes with that healing that Peter gives in the rest of Acts 3.

But I want to notice the very opening words of that account.

One day Peter and John were going tup to the temple at the hour of prayer, at three o’clock in the afternoon.

Very interesting glimpse of something they did and something that was important to them.

A reminder of the pattern of prayer that went on in the temple.

It is something you catch a glimpse of in the Book of Daniel – an incredibly powerful book that speaks of the challenge there is to faith in a hostile world and tells of the way in which faith is sustained in the face of a hostile world.

Daniel far away from Jerusalem in the hostile environment of the court of King Darius does something very particular.

He went to his house which had windows in its upper room open towards Jerusalem, and he got down on his knees three times a day to pray to his God and praise him just as ever he had done.

A pattern of prayer.

The value of a pattern of prayer – the important of ‘the prayers’.

Here in Jerusalem Peter and John, those close friends, following in the footsteps of Jesus made their way to the Temple and there to share in the prayers.  At the hour of prayer, 3 o’clock in the afternoon they were going there to pray.

St Benedict did what all those who have sought to bring reformation into the church have done – he wanted to go back to the roots of the simplicity of following in the footsteps of Jesus – the communal sharing in community of the early church.  And he too found it valuable to have times of prayer through the day.

The hours of prayer that still that community in Prinknash observe.

That Convent in Bethlehem had its heart the rhythm of a praying community that so moved Sylvia.

And Justin Welby and Ibrahahim Mogra.  I googled the story.  And it was one of those moments I found quite moving.  The Archbhishop of Canterbury had a scheduled visit to Leicester last week – he rearranged things and saw to it that he shared with key members nationally of the Muslim and Christian communities. The press release was moving – and I felt spoke so appropriately into the awfulness of all that had happened.

I recognised the place he made his statement to the press.  It’s on a kind of island where the main Evington Road forks.  On one side is the infant school I attended, Evington Valley infants School.  On the other side is St Philip’s church – now a centre for dialogue between faith communities that is doing remarkable work in building bridges in the community in Leicester and further afield – nurturing the kind of dialogue that is steadfast to one’s one faith while being loving and open towards the faith communities of others.

And on that ‘island’ in the fork between the two roads – a Mosque.

Many of the customs of Islam were drawn from the church of the time – and the centrality of prayer is one of them.  The prayer times through the day.  Important to honour and respect a praying people.

At this kind of time when terror threatens to fracture our society, maybe prayer is the thing we should be committed to.  Praying for the society we are in to be at one with each other.

It’s not quite me to celebrate a birthday.  I was more than a little reluctant.  Thanks to Felicity for getting family together with church family as well – and good to share.  A birthday is a day to think of parents and remember.  And that was the spot where my mother died all of ninenteen years ago.

Moving in a strange way.

How do we respond to the nation’s sense of tragedy in the wake of the murder in Woolwich?

How do we respond to our own sense of tragedy in the wake of such sadnesses?

Maybe we need to go back to the recognition given by Peter and John in the days after Pentecost that it is important to be committed to the prayers. To the hour of prayer.

Cultivate a pattern of prayer.   Five times a day has dwindled to three times on a Sunday and then to twice on a Sunday and then to once.  And what about during the week?  The value of a pattern of prayer.

The thing is that when there is a pattern of prayer it keeps the channels open with God and through those channels the grace of God’s love can be released in all sorts of  healing ways into our lives and into our world.

Sunday, 19 May 2013

Acts 2 - Deeds done, Words shared, Lives changed - A Pentecost Sermon

Words are not enough you must have actions as well.

Put it into practice.

Good scriptural warrant as well – faith without works is dead.

You can take that further – I have on my shelves a figure of St Francis holding a bird in his hand – one of those treasured gifts given me by friend Maurice and acquired by him from the Sue Ryder Shop.

The prayer of St Francis was a prayer I learned once and can almost remember now.

Commitment to creation and a passion for the poor have made a powerful impact on me.

And what he said – share the love of God and use words if you have to goes to the heart of something that is very special.

Actions speak louder than words.

So, show your love.

Yes, all wonderful.

It drives the kind of approach to mission we have as a church and have had over the years.  It chimes with the people we are.  We are do-ers.  Helping others.

I think we can look at things another way.  And the Book of Acts encourages us to do that.

As the title suggests this is a book all about actions – things that happen.  Things that are done.

But look more closely at the events of the Day of Pentecost and something interesting emerges that prompts us to think again.

First, comes all the action.  In that upper room suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filed the entire house where they were sitting … then divided tongues as of fire rested on each of them.  All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.

They rush down the steps and on to the street.

People are amazed at wht happens and what they see.

That’s what happened.  That’s the action.

Then comes an explanation of what’s going on, what the significance of the action is.  And fascinatingly, the explanation goes on for a lot longer than the action.  It begins at verse 14 and goes on until verse 36.

Peter gets up and explains what had happened and what it all meant.

He starts by recalling the hopes and fears of the Prophet Joel who had looked to a time when the Spirit of God, that unseen yet very real presence would be let loose in the world and impact on the lives of people of all shapes and sizes.

When sons and saughters would prophesy, young men see visions, old men dream dreams and even slaves, both men and women would speak out forcefully God’s word anas the Spirit was poured out on them.

This was it … this was happening.  This is that long-expected time.

He then goes on to tell the story of Jesus – recalling his deeds of power, the wonders and the signs he did, how he was handed over to the authorities in Jerusalem and crucified .

He tells of the resurrection victory – how it was impossible for him to be held in the power of death, but God raised him up, freeing him from death.

In the line of David, yet so much more than the greatest of the Kings of Israel – these were the days when God’s kingdom was arriving.

Jesus, raised and exalted to be at the right hand of God had let loose this unseen, yet very real power, the Holy Spirit into people’s lives.   The crucified Jesus has become Lord and Messiah.

Pause at this point in the chapter and two things have gone on.  First something has happened – the outpouring of the Holy Spirit.  Second, someone, Peter, has given an account of the significance of what has happened, what has gone on.

It is then that there is a reaction on the part of the onlookers.

They want to know what they can do.

Make a fresh start of things, repent and be baptised every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ so that your sins may be forgiven; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.  For the promise is for you, for your children, and for all who are far away everyone whome the Lord our God calls to him.

What a wonderful thought.

That’s not the end of it.  Peter continued to testify with many other arguments and appealed them to save themselves from all the sheer awfulness, the horribleness that was going on in the world at that time.

What goes on there mirrors what happened in the life of Jesus.  In Acts 1:1 Luke had recalled his first volume, the  Gospel which had summarised all that Jesus did and taught.  Note the sequence.

Now something had happened – and it was followed by an account of the significance of what had happened.

Peter went on much later to feel this was something that should be a model for all Christian believers, for us as well.

In 1 Peter 3 Peter speaks of the need to be ‘do-ers’  and the need to DO what is right.

It is the Francis of Assisi approach – indeed these are the kind of owords that are the inspiration of the Prayer of St Francis.

Finally, all of you, have unity of spirit, sympathy, love for one another, a tender heart, and a humble mind. 9Do not repay evil for evil or abuse for abuse; but, on the contrary, repay with a blessing. It is for this that you were called—that you might inherit a blessing. 10For
‘Those who desire life
   and desire to see good days,
let them keep their tongues from evil
   and their lips from speaking deceit;
11 let them turn away from evil and do good;
   let them seek peace and pursue it.

DO GOOD – that is the key to the Christian life.

Now who will harm you if you are eager to do what is good? 14But even if you do suffer for doing what is right, you are blessed. Do not fear what they fear, and do not be intimidated, 15but in your hearts sanctify Christ as Lord.

Such doing good will not always be acclaimed, however.  There will be those who are highly critical.  Peter was writing at a time when doing good in this way could easily result in persecution – awful suffering.

So the doing, the action needs to be followed by words …

Always be ready to make your defence to anyone who demands from you an account of the hope that is in you; 16yet do it with gentleness and reverence.

Add to the actions words.

It is not put your words into action.  It is rather follow your actions with words that give an account of why it is that you do what you do.  Words that give an account of the hope that is in you.

Coming back to the story of Acts 2 – those who welcomed this message were baptized and that day about three thousand persons were added.

Then what they did next are the marks of the Church – marks of the church we too should take very much to heart.

42They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.

It impacted on the way they lived, and the way they shared together –

Awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles. 44All who believed were together and had all things in common; 45they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need.

A remarkable community of sharing – from those according to their means to those according to their need.

46Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, 47praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.

Deeds done

Words shred

Lives changed

There is a cycle here whereby the faith is communicated and passed on.

And what of us?

Actions of caring and sharing are so important.  In a funny way I think sometimes we are stronger on the actions.  We do the caring, we seek to share and to meet the needs of others.

What we are not so good at is giving an account of the hope that is in us – passing on the faith that is important in our hearts.

It’s the approach of Street Pastors.  You can’t as a Street Pastor go round ‘evangilising’ – you are simply there to help.  But as someone asks you why you are doing what you do, what a Street Pastor is, then you can give an account of the hope that is within you.

It’s the approach of Chaplaincy, as we were welcoming Brenda, our new chaplain to Cheltenham General on Thursday and re-commissioning the chaplaincy team.  A chaplain cannot ‘evangelise’ – they are there to listen and to share.  And it is in response to people’s questioning and seeking that they are to be ready to give an account of the hope that is within them.

Maybe that is the thing we need to develop further – explaining to people the faith that is important to us.  Why it is we do the things we do – why it is the faith we have makes a difference in our lives.

The Prayer of St Francis

Lord, make me an instrument of your peace,
Where there is hatred, let me sow love;
Where there is injury, pardon;
Where there is doubt, faith;
Where there is despair, hope;
Where there is darkness, light;
Where there is sadness, joy.
O Divine Master,
grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled, as to console;
to be understood, as to understand;
to be loved, as to love.
For it is in giving that we receive.
It is in pardoning that we are pardoned,
and it is in dying that we are born to Eternal Life.

Sunday, 12 May 2013

Acts 1 - A Fragmented World Restored - Christian Aid Week

Picture if you can a castle.

It was the invitation Mike gave to us in the Ascension Day service at St Luke’s on  Thursday evening.

Fortified, you cannot get in.

And at the front is the most enormous of doors.

It is hardly ever open.

But at the bottom a tiny door, a small door.

The Gospel story invites us to think big.

In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God.

And the Word became flesh and dwelled among us and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only begotten son of the Father, full of grace and truth.

And so it is this Word made Flesh in Jesus lives a life of love, teaches a way of love and in love brings healing into a hurting world.  And he comes face to face with the powers of darkness.  They unleash their worst.  And he is crucified, dead and buried.

But the powers of darkness do not have the last word.

On the third day he rose again from the dead.

Many saw and believed and received great blessing.  How much more blessed were those who did not see and yet came to believe.

He met with the women, with Peter and the disciples, with those two on the Road to Emmaus, with 500.

How they would have loved to have kept this risen Christ to themselves for ever afterwards.

But there came the moment when those followers of Jesus had to let him go.

He left them a promise … and a command.

They would not be alone.

They would have another comforter, an unseen strerngth from God always to be alongside them.  And in that strength they were to go into all the world.

You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will  be my witnesss in Jerusalem, in Judea and Samaria and to the ends of the earth.

When he had said this, as they were watching, he was lifted up and a cloud took him … and this Jesus was taken up into heaven.

To sit at the right hand of God in glory.

It rounds off the mission of Christ.

Think of heaven for a moment, Mike invited us, as a citadel that mighty castle.  And Jesus has gone in through that small door.

But, suggested Mike, the message of Ascension is that Jesus enters into heaven through that small door and then opens up the large doors so that all the love, all the light, all the blessings of God’s heaven can pour out on to the earth.

For 10 days from that day the disciples met in prayer in that upper room in Jerusalem.

And then came the moment.

It was one of the first harvests – the feast of Pentecost.  As Sue, Sue and Joan and Ron are going to  be travelling over to the Holy Land one of the things they will notice is that it’s time for the first of the harvests – the barley harvest.

When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.

There’s then a wonderful image.

From that closed room they rush down the stairs and there are all manner of people come to the festival, from so many different language groups –

It seemed as if they were from every nation under heaven. 

And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each. Amazed and astonished, they asked, ‘Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language? Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabs—in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.’

The wonder here is that out of the chaos of a multiplicity of languages harmony comes.  And it is a wonderful harmony.

The tower of Babel is an ancient story.  And it is a tragic story.

Now the whole earth had one language and the same words. And as they migrated from the east, they came upon a plain in the land of Shinar and settled there. And they said to one another, ‘Come, let us make bricks, and burn them thoroughly.’ And they had brick for stone, and bitumen for mortar. Then they said, ‘Come, let us build ourselves a city, and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves; otherwise we shall be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth.’

The tragedy of the Tower of Babel is the tragedy of every generation.  Of every land.  Of every nation..

Build up into heaven ourselves.

To make a name for ourselves.

We have to protect ourselves.

And God laughs at the audacity of those who seek to be like him.

he Lord came down to see the city and the tower, which mortals had built. And the Lord said, ‘Look, they are one people, and they have all one language; and this is only the beginning of what they will do; nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them. Come, let us go down, and confuse their language there, so that they will not understand one another’s speech.’ So the Lord scattered them abroad from there over the face of all the earth, and they left off building the city. Therefore it was called Babel, because there the Lord confused the language of all the earth; and from there the Lord scattered them abroad over the face of all the earth.

Through the Old Testament is a strand that runs from the promise to Abraham all the way through Isaiah to the coming of Jesus – that God’s love will come to his people and through them for the good of all people.

It’s as if Jesus has gone into the citadel of heaven opened the great doors and all the love, all the light, all the blessings of God flow down – and they bind people together so that the babel of those different languages is no longer the division it once was.

And now 2000 years later between Ascension and Pentecost – how easy it is for us in every generation to set about building the tower.  We think it will be for our protection.  But actually it brings discord and destroys the harmony.

The message of Christ, the message we prepare to celebrate at Pentecost is that Christ brings love into a world to bind up the divisions and bring that oneness that amounts to a wonderful harmony.

As people understand.

Not inappropriate that in this week leading up to Pentecost we should be marking Christian Aid week and seeking to collect for Christian Aid.  A coming together of churches and a seeking to share resources in a world of need.

That is the task to be not part of the Babel but part of the Pentecost people who seek to b ring the world together so that those rich blessings, that light, that love can stream from heaven and touch peoples the world over.

Sunday, 5 May 2013

Acts 1 - The Power of Prayer

Books have a certain style to them.

Authors have certain themes they return to.

Writers have a distinctive use of language.

You can tell from the way it’s written that it’s an Agatha Christie.

You know Endeavour, like Lewis, is based on Colin Dexter’s Morse not only from the Cameo appearances of Colin Dexter but also from the snatches of opera that pepper each story, if snatches of opera can ever pepper a story!

Jane Austen, Charlotte Bronte, Charles Dikcens,  Thomas Hardy.

Each has their own style of writing, their own distinctive use of language and the particular themes they each explore and come back to.

Each of the New Testatment writers has their own style; each uses language in their own way.

Matthew has the feel of the Hebrew Scriptures, not least in the structure he gives his book.

Mark has a breathless immediacy as he writes in short sentences, often starting with the word ‘and’.

John writes in a thoughtful, reflective style that is as much at home in the world of Greek thought as it is in the world of Hebrew thought.

Paul has the complexity of a deep thinker who is capable of the simplest of writing and writing that can seem quite dense.

Of all the writers of the New Testament, Luke’s language and style is the most precise.  It’s the closest you get in the New Testament to the great classical writers of ancient Greece.

Luke too has themes he particularly focuses on.  And those are apparent through the Gospel according to St Luke and through the second part of his two volume work, the Acts of the Apostles.

Three of those themes emerge in the second part of chapter one.  All three connect with things that have happened here at Highbury in the past week.  All three connect with what it is we should be doing in living our Christian lives.

The first of those themes is apparent right at the outset …

Then they returned to Jerusalem from the mount called Olivet, which is near Jerusalem, a sabbath day’s journey away. When they had entered the city, they went to the room upstairs where they were staying, Peter, and John, and James, and Andrew, Philip and Thomas, Bartholomew and Matthew, James son of Alphaeus, and Simon the Zealot, and Judas son of James. All these were constantly devoting themselves to prayer, 

 At every turn through Luke’s gospel, Luke notices the way Jesus prays.  When he is about to choose his twelve apostles, when Peter makes his great confession of faith near Caesarea Philippi – Luke finds Jesus at prayer.   Often the references Luke makes are not found in the other gospels.   It’s a theme that emerges in the Gospel and then comes into its own in the Acts of the Apostles.

If prayer is the driving force of Jesus, how much more must prayer be the driving force of the individual Christian and of Christians together as they come together as the body of Christ.

James Montgomerie lived in troubled times and was passionate about his Christian faith.  Editing the Iris, a radical newspaper in Sheffield at the time of the French Revolution he was imprisoned for a while for his radical views.  He campaigned vigorously against the slave trade, he campaigned against the introduction of a national lottery at the time of the Napoleonic wars, something that held sway right through till the 1990’s.  And underpinning his passion for a  Christianity that speaks to the world and its needs a passion for prayer.  Two of his hymns are among the fines hymns on prayer.

1     Prayer is the soul's sincere desire,
       Uttered or unexpressed,
       The motion of a hidden fire
       That trembles in the breast.

2     Prayer is the burden of a sigh,
       The falling of a tear,
       The upward glancing of an eye
       When none but God is near.

3     Prayer is the simplest form of speech
       That infant lips can try;
       Prayer the sublimest strains that reach
       The majesty on high.

4     Prayer is the contrite sinner's voice
       Returning from his ways,
       While angels in their songs rejoice,
       And cry: 'Behold, he prays!'

5     Prayer is the Christian's vital breath,
       The Christian's native air,
       Our watchword at the gates of death;
       We enter heaven with prayer.

6     Prayer is not made by us alone:
       the Holy Spirit pleads,
       and Jesus, on the eternal throne,
       for sinners intercedes.

7     O thou by whom we come to God,
       The Life, the Truth, the Way!
       The path of prayer thyself hast trod:
       Lord, teach us how to pray!

James Montgomery (1771-1854)

He captures the profound depths of prayer and the simplicity of prayer.  It is not a matter of finding the write words, but it is the very life breath we breathe as Christians – an attitude of mind that is at home in prayer by the kitchen sink as in the loftiest cathedral.

1     Lord, teach us how to pray aright,
       With reverence and with fear;
       Though dust and ashes in thy sight,
       We may, we must draw near.

2     We perish if we cease from prayer;
       O grant us power to pray!
       And, when to meet thee we prepare,
       Lord, meet us by the way.

3     Give deep humility; the sense
       Of godly sorrow give;
       A strong desiring confidence
       To hear thy voice and live:

4     Faith in the only sacrifice
       That can for sin atone;
       To build our hopes, to fix our eyes,
       On Christ, on Christ alone;

5     Patience to watch, and wait, and weep,
       Though mercy long delay;
       Courage, our fainting souls to keep,
       And trust thee, though thou slay.

6     Give these, and then thy will be done:
       Thus strengthened with all might.
       We by thy Spirit and thy Son
       Shall pray, and pray aright.

James Montgomery (1771-1854)

He recognises the need to sit at the feet of Christ and learn to pray.

Prayer the first of those great themes of Luke’s gospel and of Acts.

Another of his great themes comes in this very passage.

Luke notices who it was who gathered together in that upper room for prayer.  It is not just the 11 remaining apostles who are named, it is also the women.

All these were constantly devoting themselves to prayer, together with certain women, including Mary the mother of Jesus, as well as his brothers.

Luke it is who tells of Elizabeth and Mary in the birth narratives and records the wonderful words of the Magnificat, Luke it is who tells of the prophet Anna who is the first to tell of the coming of the messiah in the Temple precincts.

Were it not for Luke we would not have known of the small group of women who made Jesus’ itinerant ministry happen.  And through Acts as well women as well as men figure large in the life of the church.

At the very time James Montgomerie was campaigning and living out his Christian faith there was a passion in these islands to spread the Gospel of Christ far and near.  In 1795 our missionary society came into being, the London Missionary Society, many here will recall collecting for the LMS.  The story of its foundation is the story of prayer, and in particular it is the story of women who in many different parts of the country met together for prayer.  Their zeal was to spread the gospel in this country and all over the world – our church was founded by among others some of those who had been very much at the heart of the London Missionary Society’s work – it was part of that missionary zeal to plant new churches in the new towns of England and in 1827 Cheltenham was one of those new towns.

And the third of the theme that permeates Luke’s Gospel and then comes into its own in Acts is that the Christian faith needs a body of people.  You cannot go it alone we need each other.  Everyone is important and it is important to have the right people to play their part in what is a servant leadership.  And so comes the account of the way the apostles fill in the gap left by Judas – seek the right person for the job.

The come up with their job description.

So one of the men who have accompanied us throughout the time that the Lord Jesus went in and out among us, beginning from the baptism of John until the day when he was taken up from us—one of these must become a witness with us to his resurrection.’

They come up with a job description, they then look for the right person to fill the post.  And they find two.  So with good biblical precedent they cast lots for them and the lot fell on Matthias: and he was added to the eleven apostles.

Acts then becomes the story of all the things, the ‘acts’ that group of people and others who were drawn to them .did as the church of Jesus Christ grew and spread from Jerusalem, through Judea and Samaria to the ends of the earth.

Three themes.

Prayer, the Christian’s vital breath
Women, at the heart of the life of the church
Shared leadership in a servant ministry

They connect with Highbury this last week.

One of the great missionaries associated with the LMS was David Livingstone.  We may not be marking the bi-centenary of his birth in this country particularly, but in Malawi they have been.  President Joyce Banda, Malawi’s first woman president, was over here at a service at the tomb of David Livingstone in Westminster Abbey and visiting Blantyre.  Last year a group from our CF visited Malawi.  We welcomed some of the Malawi Olympics team as the scout group tended the flower beds that were planted in the shape of the Malawi flag.

And three from Malawi joined us for the afternoon on Thursday.  Master, the head of a large school, Nellie and Alice.

We shared with them, they shared with us.

And as our conversation came to the end it was what the two women said that stuck in my mind and came across so much to me.   Nellie spoke of the need they saw in their churches in Malawi to have to move on in their worship and to work hard at keeping their young people as they grow up.  And the key she saw was to work on plans for change and underpin that work in prayer.  When our time came to a close and she led us in prayer it was moving to sense the power of the prayer she shared, though much of it was in her own language, Chichewa.

Then the other of the women, Alice, spoke of the need to seek leaders in the church who themselves would be the kind of people to empower others so that everyone’s gifts could be released.

Forthright women sharing insights from Malawi that spoke very much into our own church situation.   Emphasising prayer … just as the first church did.

And then leadership.  We shared the documentation we have been working on to re-shape the way we organise things.  I feel inclined now to put the documentation to one side.   We want to build up that sense of a shared team ministry leading the church in such a way that will empower all of us to share the gifts God has given us.  The task is to do as these people did at the first and look for the right people to fill the roles we have identified. 

Servant leadership … at the heart of the life of the church in these earliest days in Jerusalem.  Servant leadership that empowers the longing in Malawi.  And exactly that in the life of our church here today as well.

Let’s devote ourselves to prayer, recognise the part we all have to play, women as much as men, and seek the right people for that shared ministry we seek to share in the life of the church here at Highbury.