Sunday, 20 October 2013

Acts 14 - All things to All people

Looking back things often fall into place that were hard to appreciate at the time … maybe you didn’t even notice them.

When Paul was planning what he hoped would be the climax to his mission travels – a journey to Rome and beyond to the far West of the Roman empire and  Spain – plans that were not to work out, Paul looked back on his ministry.

He might have been looking back all the way to the start of his missionary work here on the first of his missionary journeys.

What he has to say in 1 Corinthians 9 captures the genius of his work and indeed the genius of the man Paul.

 For though I am free with respect to all, I have made myself a slave to all, so that I might win more of them. 20To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews. To those under the law I became as one under the law (though I myself am not under the law) so that I might win those under the law. 21To those outside the law I became as one outside the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law) so that I might win those outside the law. 22To the weak I became weak, so that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, so that I might by any means save some. 23I do it all for the sake of the gospel, so that I may share in its blessings.

It was the genius of Paul to be able to speak in the language of the people he was with.  He spanned the different worlds of his time.  He could come alongside the slave and speak in their language, the Jew and speak in their language, the gentile and speak in their language, the weak and speak in their language.

I have become all things to all people, so that I might by any means save some.

That genius is worked out in this first Missionary Journey.

A large part of chapter 13 is devoted to an occasion when Paul spoke in a Synagogue to Jewish people.

Starting with a magisterial telling of the Old Testament story he then jumps to the story of Jesus and homes in on the difference he makes to people.

In chapter 14 we see Paul moving beyond the four walls of the synagogue out into the Gentile world and speaking the language of the gentiles.

But I think it was paying careful attention to what happens.

As the chapter begins we join Paul and Barnabas on their travels as they arrive in Iconium, go to the Jewish synagogue and speak in such a way that a great number of Jew and Greeks become believers.

There is no summary of the talk – your guess is it’s much the same as the talk recorded at length in chapter 13.

Then it’s the ‘unbelieiving Jews’ – the word could be Judeans.  It could be the people who are disturbed at the move away from the power base of the Jewish world – something uneasy about the all-encompassing message of the Jesus who draws Gentile and Jew together into the love of God.

The message divides people.  And  Paul and Barnabas find they are treated in exactly the way so many years before Stephen had been treated by among others Paul, or Saul as he was then known.

Notice how Luke is careful to note that it is the rulers – it is not all the Jews as so tragically Christian history was later to claim.  It was particularly the rulers stirring thems up tomaltreat them and to stone them.

So it was that the apostles fled to Lystra and Derbe.

Growing up in Leicester I always thought they came to Leicester and Derby!

Then we come to a significant moment.

Something I want to pause at for a moment or two.

In Lystra there was a man sitting who could not use his feet and had never walked, for he had been crippled from birth. 9He listened to Paul as he was speaking. And Paul, looking at him intently and seeing that he had faith to be healed, 10said in a loud voice, ‘Stand upright on your feet.’ And the man sprang up and began to walk.

Haven’t we heard that kind of story somewhere before.

Look at Luke 14 and you see that Jesus came specially for ‘the crippled’  I don’t like that word.  People who are immobilised, incapcacitaged – and so left out of society.  There are others.  The man born blind.  The person who sat by the pool of Bethsaida waiting for the waters to bubble.  The blind men.  The leprosy sufferers.

What Paul does here is what Jesus did.

He saw the reject – the outcast – the incapacitated – and be brought healing.

I often think there are two parts to Jesus’ ministry.  He heals hurting people and he preaches the Kingdom of God.

Deeds and words go together.

Last week in Pisidian Antioch we saw how the message must focus on Jesus.

Here in Lystra we see that with the message goes the action.

Just as Jesus did, so Paul did.

And so must we.

Where people hurt we are to bring healing.

That ministry of healing is at the heart of what we are about as a church.   The expectation that God in Christ will touch us to bring healing and wholeness.

All sorts of things to explore, things to come back to.

Healing is not the same as cure.

Cure may not come but healing can happen.

I tbrings peace, it brings calm – it becomes part of a larger overall healing process.

And it brings change.

As we pray for one another healing comes – there is a peace that makes all the difference.

It works at all sorts of levels.  Maybe at this level.  It’s not part of my experience.  Revival happening in Cwm Bran and makes a lot of this kind of miracle – someone holding a wheel chair aloft.

I don’t know.

But I do know about the power to restore, the power to make whole, the healing that makes a difference in a deep down kind of way.

The reaction here among the gentiles is fascinating.

The people look to Paul and Barnabas and they see something of God in what they do …. And then they say they are gods become human.

When the crowds saw what Paul had done, they shouted in the Lycaonian language, ‘The gods have come down to us in human form!’ 12Barnabas they called Zeus, and Paul they called Hermes, because he was the chief speaker. 13The priest of Zeus, whose temple was just outside the city, brought oxen and garlands to the gates; he and the crowds wanted to offer sacrifice.

Isn’t it interesting.  Before getting to the nub of the matter of what’s going on here it tells us soething about the dynamic between these two.  Zeus in the  Greek panteheon is the supreme god.  So when Barnabas is identified as Zeus, the implication is that he is the leader.

For various reasons, one of which  will soon become apparent, we think of Paul as the key figure.  But at this point the dominant of the two is Barnabas.   Paul’s task is the spokesmena.   Maybe that’s because he can be all things to all people as in a moment we will see.

It’s over in Caesarea that something similar has happened to King Herod Agrippa the first – the crowds acclaimed him as god – and he revelled in it.  And got his comeuppance.

It is very different here.

No, no, no.

When the apostles Barnabas and Paul heard of it, they tore their clothes and rushed out into the crowd, shouting, 15‘Friends, why are you doing this? We are mortals just like you,

Tremendous humility here.

They are doing as Christ did.  It’s interesting that Jesus was not recognised as one of the greek gods.  What he was recognised as was something subtly different.  He wsa recognised as ‘the son of God’ – that links him into the Cult of the Roman Emperor.  He was seen as on a par with the Emperor – more than that as the one to whom allegiance was owed by all.

Then comes the moment when we see the genius of Paul.

Remember these are people steeped inGreek culture he is speaking to.

We bring you good news, that you should turn from these worthless things to the living God, who made the heaven and the earth and the sea and all that is in them. 16In past generations he allowed all the nations to follow their own ways; 17yet he has not left himself without a witness in doing good—giving you rains from heaven and fruitful seasons, and filling you with food and your hearts with joy.’

It’s wonderful good news that Paul shares – and it points to the God of creation – who sustains that creation with water and food.  Wonderful lgood news.

He speaks the language of his hearers – and points to the God of creation.  The book of nature is one paul values in getting the Good news across.

Things get worse for Paul … what he had supervised as Stephen had been stoned to death happens to him as well …

18Even with these words, they scarcely restrained the crowds from offering sacrifice to them.

19 But Jews came there from Antioch and Iconium and won over the crowds. Then they stoned Paul and dragged him out of the city, supposing that he was dead.

This is pretty grim.

Pretty menacing.

We sometimes measure the success of what we do by its popularity.

What Paul did he did because it was right.

If in bringing healing to hurting people he was standing in the footsteps of Jesus, as he was stoned to the point almost of death he took seriously the invitation of Christ to deny oneself, take up the cross and follow him.

A model here for us – to do as Christ did, to share the Good news using the language of our hearers, and to give ourselves in the service of Christ regardless of its popularity.

There’s a wonderful sense of solidarity in the next image.

20But when the disciples surrounded him, he got up and went into the city. The next day he went on with Barnabas to Derbe.

Then comes a wonderful insight.

Paul and Barnabas retrace their steps – and revisit the places they have been to making sure that there is a firmly established Church in each place ready to be the body of Chrsit in that place.

After they had proclaimed the good news to that city and had made many disciples, they returned to Lystra, then on to Iconium and Antioch. 22There they strengthened the souls of the disciples and encouraged them to continue in the faith, saying, ‘It is through many persecutions that we must enter the kingdom of God.’ 23And after they had appointed elders for them in each church, with prayer and fasting they entrusted them to the Lord in whom they had come to believe

I love those two things they did

  1. they strengthened the souls of the disciples
  2. and encouraged them to continue in the faith

They then return to that second city of the Roman empire Antioch in Syria and report back to the church that had sent them out all they had done.

24 Then they passed through Pisidia and came to Pamphylia. 25When they had spoken the word in Perga, they went down to Attalia. 26From there they sailed back to Antioch, where they had been commended to the grace of God for the work that they had completed. 27When they arrived, they called the church together and related all that God had done with them, and how he had opened a door of faith for the Gentiles. 28And they stayed there with the disciples for some time.

How wonderful that they had opened a door of faith … and after all those travels it is no small surprise they should stay in Antioch for some time.

To Jew in chapter 13 at Pisidian Antioch and to  Gentile in chapter 14 in Lystra Paul and Barnabas shared the  Good news, opened a door of faith drawing on the genius of Paul to speak the language of whoever it was he speaking to!

The door of faith is open to Gentile as to Jew … or is it?

There are rumblings back in Jerusalem and those rumblings cannot be ignored.  Though we’ll have to wait a couple of weeks before we find out what those rumblings were all about.

Saturday, 19 October 2013

Acts 13 - Grace, Faith and the Power of the Story of Jesus

13Now in the church at Antioch there were prophets and teachers: Barnabas, Simeon who was called Niger, Lucius of Cyrene, Manaen a member of the court of Herod the ruler, and Saul. 2While they were worshipping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, ‘Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.’ 3Then after fasting and praying they laid their hands on them and sent them off.
4 So, being sent out by the Holy Spirit, they went down to Seleucia; and from there they sailed to Cyprus.

Now is the moment.

There’s a message to share.

And Saul – still known as Saul – is the one to share it.  But not on his own.  He is joined by Barnabas – and they are commissioned to do the work of God and they set sail for Cyprus – And straightaway they have a message to share.

They proclaim the word of God – and they have John, John Mark, to assist them.   There is opposition – and Saul, who we learn at this point is also known as Paul – faces down that opposition.  And from now on it is as Paul that he is known.

13 Then Paul and his companions set sail from Paphos and came to Perga in Pamphylia. John, however, left them and returned to Jerusalem; 14but they went on from Perga and came to Antioch in Pisidia. And on the sabbath day they went into the synagogue and sat down. 15After the reading of the law and the prophets, the officials of the synagogue sent them a message, saying, ‘Brothers, if you have any word of exhortation for the people, give it.’ 16So Paul stood up and with a gesture began to speak:

They cross over to the mainland to what we now think of as  Turkey and it’s not long before John Mark leaves and returns to Jerusalem.  We are not told at this point what’s happened.  But as later becomes apparent something untoward – maybe he couldn’t keep the pace.

It’s to the synagogues where Paul senses that following Jesus is what it means authentically to be Jewish.

And he speaks.

One genius Paul has is to start where people are at.

Here are Jewish people and his message starts with them.

He tells the story of God’s choice of his people, of the exodus and the forty years wandering, of the promised land, of the judges, the arrival of the prophet Samuel.  He notices that it is the people who ask for a king and God gives them first Saul and then David.

There is a wonderful tribute to David.

“”I have found David, son of Jesse, to be a man after my heart, who will carry out all my wishes.”

He has arrived at the kingdom … and then he makes a leap – and yet it is a leap with continuity – a wonderful continuity.

Of this man’s posterity, God has brought to Israel a  Saviour, Jesus, as he promised.

For Paul what is significant is that Jesus takes up where John the Baptist left off and takes on his mantle.

Notice in verse 27 he is careful to say it is the residents of Jerusalem and their leaders who did not recognize him or understand the words of the prophets that are read every Sabbath.

They seek his death – and ask Pilate to carry it out.

Crucified, he was taken down from the tree, and laid in a tomb.

But God raised him from the dead;

It is the reality of the resurrection that so impacts on Paul and he wants to share it with his hearers.

For many days he appeared to those who came up with him from Galilee to Jerusalem, and they are now his witnesses to the people.

So This is the Good News – that what God promised to our ancestors he has fulfilled for us, their children, by raising Jesus …

So what is the impact of this?  First, it is what had been expected

It is through this man that forgiveness is proclaimed to you; by this Jesus everyone who believes is set free from all those sins from which you could not be freed by the law of Moses.

Don’t reject it.

Let’s pause a moment.

What is the good news we have to share?

It was good to be invited to join St Michael’s in their festival fortnight and make a contribution to the Science and Religion debate.  It was fascinating to join up with the Manager of the Cornerstone Project – I told my story of coming from a fascination with faith to explore Science.  He spoke of being a scientist, a geologist, and coming to faith.

In conversation in readiness for the evening and then through the evening itself one thing really struck me.

I love discussing about God.  And I believe passionately we must be able to make an account of our faith in a way that makes sense in the context of science.  BUT.

The heart of the message of our Christian faith is elsewhere.

So to ofor Jim.

Start with the God of philosophy and think of God as all powerful, all knowing, all loving and you end up in a blind alley.

No, our Christian faith starts elsewhere.

And this is what we are beginning to learn in Acts.   And what now we learn as Paul’s mission starts.

The story we have to tell, the Good news we have to share starts with Jesus Christ.

We need to introduce people to the story of Jesus to his life and ministry, the way o flife he opens up for us to follow, we need to tell the story of his death and discover that the God we believe in comes alongside us in our sufreing, of that resurrection victory.

There is a clear way of life to follow.

And a wonderful sense of forgiving love that then comes upon us to and flows from the cross.

And this opens up for us not so much an understanding of God as a realization that he is one who loves and cares for us, one who is always with us, one who will not let us go, one who forvives and enables us to begin all over again.

The response initially is very positive here in Antioch in Pisidia.

Acts 13:42-52

42 As Paul and Barnabas were going out, the people urged them to speak about these things again the next sabbath. 43When the meeting of the synagogue broke up, many Jews and devout converts to Judaism followed Paul and Barnabas, who spoke to them and urged them to continue in the grace of God.

44 The next sabbath almost the whole city gathered to hear the word of the Lord. 45But when the Jews saw the crowds, they were filled with jealousy; and blaspheming, they contradicted what was spoken by Paul. 46Then both Paul and Barnabas spoke out boldly, saying, ‘It was necessary that the word of God should be spoken first to you. Since you reject it and judge yourselves to be unworthy of eternal life, we are now turning to the Gentiles. 47For so the Lord has commanded us, saying,
“I have set you to be a light for the Gentiles,
   so that you may bring salvation to the ends of the earth.” ’

48 When the Gentiles heard this, they were glad and praised the word of the Lord; and as many as had been destined for eternal life became believers. 49Thus the word of the Lord spread throughout the region. 50But the Jews incited the devout women of high standing and the leading men of the city, and stirred up persecution against Paul and Barnabas, and drove them out of their region. 51So they shook the dust off their feet in protest against them, and went to Iconium. 52And the disciples were filled with joy and with the Holy Spirit.

The word that is translated ‘the Jews’ could be translated as Judeans.  We catch a glimpse here of the growing tension with officialdom of the Jewish people – maybe shaped by the Judean hierarchies of the temple authorities, the herodian power.

For Paul the moment has come when the whole purpose of God’s choice of his people is to reach out into the world.  And it is to that wider world that Paul turns his attention.  It’s a theme that comes into its own in the second part of Isaiah and it is to Isaiah 49 and Isaiah 45 that Paul turns for inspiration.

The whole point of the chosen people is that

I have set you be a light for the gentiles,
So that you may bring salvation to the ends of the earth.

And that is the point Paul has reached at this moment.  And the powers that be among the Jewish community don’t like it and hound Paul out of that city.

I want to pick up on some lovely phrases here …

Initially Paul urged those who received the word  favourably in the synagogue ‘to continue in the grace of God’.

What a challenge for us.  Our task is ‘to continue in the grace of God’.

When the Gentiles heard it

They were glad and praised the word of the Lord; and as many as had been destined for eternal life became believers.

And finally, And the disciples were filled with joy and with the Holy Spirit.

Grace – faith response to that grace – and then joy and the presence of the Holy Spirit deep within.

This is the essence of what it means to be Christian.

Acts 12 - The Spirit of Encouragement

I have an apology to make.  Last time I preached on this chapter I got it wrong.  I fell into a trap of imagining that the Herod mentioned at the start of Acts 12 was the Herod who had put Jesus on trial.  Actually it’s a different Herod.

And the story of that other Herod makes this passage even more powerful, hard on the heels of the support we have been giving to Middle East Concern ant their work in supporting persecuted Christians throughout the Middle East.

Herod the Great’s reign came to an end shortly after the birth of Christ.  He divided his kingdom into four parts – his son Philip ruled over the part of the kingdom to the North East of Galilee – and built the city of Caesara Philippi.

Herod Antipas ruled over the Galilee itself and built the city of Tiberias.  It was Herod Antipas who had John the Baptist executed and went on to be instrumental in having Jesus crucified.

A third son took charge of Judea and Samaria, Archelaus.  He didn’t have what it takes to rule and the Romans deposed him while Jesus was still a small child.  They put in his place a procurator who by the time of the death of Jesus was Pontius Pilate.

Philip died shortly after Jesus – and the territory he had ruled over was simply put under the rule of Syria.

At the time of the birth of Jesus the Emperor had been Augustus, the first Emperor of Rome.  By the time the ministry of Jesus began Tiberius was emperor.  Four or five years after the death and resurrection of Jesus Caligula became Emperor in AD 37.

From the time of Herod the Great the Herodian dynasty spent a lot of time in Rome.  One of Herod the Great’s Grandsons became particularly close to Caligula.  His name was Agrippa.

As soon as Caligula became Emperor he rewarded Agrippa for his friendship.  He transferred Philip’s tetrarchy from Syria back to the Herodian dynasty, to Agrippa.   A couple of years later Caligula fell out with Herod Antipas, had him deposed and he placed Agrippa in charge of the Galilee as well.

Now it was that Caligula decided he wanted to bring the Jewish people to heel.  And so he commanded that an image of himself as son of God be placed in the Temple in Jerusalem.  Petronius, the Syrian Governor, was commanded to carry out the deed.  But when he got to Jerusalem he realised that such a step would provoke a revolution among the Jews.

Agrippa was the one who succeeded in dissuading him.

That was in part thanks in part to Agrippa’s diplomacy but more to the fact that Caligula was murdered.  It wasn’t long before the new Emperor, Claudius, recognised Agrippa’s wiles and so it was that Claudius decided to detach Judea and Samaria from direct Roman rule and place it under the control of Agrippa.

This made Herod Agrippa king over a Jewish kingdom almost as big as his grandfather’s Herod the Great.  He gained the favour of the powers that be in the Jeewish world.  Like his grandfather he played both sides off against each other.  In Jerusalem he was very Jewish, elsewhere he was very Roman.

John the Baptist had been a prophetic voice in the wilderness crying out against the powers that be,  Jesus had taken on the mantle of John the Baptists and done the same – and now his followers likewise were standing out against the Herodian dynasty.

And Agrippa did not like it any more than Herod Antipas had done or his grandfather had done.

So it was as Acts 12 opens he laid violent hands upon some who belonged to the church.  He had James the brother of John killed with the sword.

And then he determined to mark the anniversary of the crucifixion of Jesus by arresting Petter during the festival of unleavened bread, just at the time of the Passover.

When he had seized him he put him in prison and handed him over to four squads of soldiers go guard him, intending to bring him out to the people after the Passover.

It was quite clear that what he planned to do was exactly what had happened to Jeus.

He would hand him over to the crowd and have Peter put to death as well.

 Then comes that scene we read earlier.

 The very night before Herod was going to bring him out, Peter, bound with two chains, was sleeping between two soldiers, while guards in front of the door were keeping watch over the prison. 7Suddenly an angel of the Lord appeared and a light shone in the cell. He tapped Peter on the side and woke him, saying, ‘Get up quickly.’ And the chains fell off his wrists. 8The angel said to him, ‘Fasten your belt and put on your sandals.’ He did so. Then he said to him, ‘Wrap your cloak around you and follow me.’ 9Peter went out and followed him; he did not realize that what was happening with the angel’s help was real; he thought he was seeing a vision. 10After they had passed the first and the second guard, they came before the iron gate leading into the city. It opened for them of its own accord, and they went outside and walked along a lane, when suddenly the angel left him. 11Then Peter came to himself and said, ‘Now I am sure that the Lord has sent his angel and rescued me from the hands of Herod and from all that the Jewish people were expecting.’

The we catch a glimpse of something that goes right to the heart of what church is about.

As soon as he realized this, he went to the house of Mary, the mother of John whose other name was Mark, where many had gathered and were praying. 13

This really resonates with me as I come to this passage hard on the heels of our focus on Middle East Concern.

One of the things our friend from ME Concern was sharing with us was the sheer importance of the solidarity of prayer.  People facing immensely difficult times that he meets value among many other things that sense of not being alone but of people praying not just for them, but praying with them.

IT resonates for me as well today as we welcome Lorraine and Diana as Pastoral Ministry Leaders.

Prayer underpins all we do as a church, and nowhere is that more apparent than in pastoral care.

It is only possible to sustain the work of pastoral ministry that I share in, that we are asking Lorraine and Diana to share in, that our wonderful team of pastoral visitors are engaged in through prayer.  How important it is that we uphold one another in prayer.  How good that we avail ourselves of that prayer chain that Lorraine co-ordinates.

We pray for people, but we also pray with people.  And that gives us a very real sense of being part of this wonderful people of God.

There is a breathless excitement as this story unfolds.

When he knocked at the outer gate, a maid named Rhoda came to answer. 14On recognizing Peter’s voice, she was so overjoyed that, instead of opening the gate, she ran in and announced that Peter was standing at the gate. 15They said to her, ‘You are out of your mind!’ But she insisted that it was so. They said, ‘It is his angel.’ 16Meanwhile, Peter continued knocking; and when they opened the gate, they saw him and were amazed. 17He motioned to them with his hand to be silent, and described for them how the Lord had brought him out of the prison.

It was something Peter could not keep to himself.  It was something to share.  It was another James he wanted to share with.  The James who was the brother of Jesus, the one who later was to write that remarkable letter that bears his name.

And he added, ‘Tell this to James and to the believers.’ Then he left and went to another place.

There is a cruel streak in Agrippa that Luke in telling the story of Acts draws out attention to.  These people were up against a pretty awful time as they supported each other in prayer.

18 When morning came, there was no small commotion among the soldiers over what had become of Peter. 19When Herod had searched for him and could not find him, he examined the guards and ordered them to be put to death. Then he went down from Judea to Caesarea and stayed there.

Caesarea was that port city that was the seat of Roman government.

Josephus tells us of the death of Agrippa 1 within a couple of years.

Luke’s account implies grandiose ideas that had got the better of Agrippa 1.

He ruled with menace in that region.

And he began to think of himself as others of the Herodian dynasty had done as like the Roman Emperor, a son of God.

20 Now Herod was angry with the people of Tyre and Sidon. So they came to him in a body; and after winning over Blastus, the king’s chamberlain, they asked for a reconciliation, because their country depended on the king’s country for food. 21On an appointed day Herod put on his royal robes, took his seat on the platform, and delivered a public address to them. 22The people kept shouting, ‘The voice of a god, and not of a mortal!’

Luke sees him as getting his just deserts for his abandonment of the things of God.

23And immediately, because he had not given the glory to God, an angel of the Lord struck him down, and he was eaten by worms and died.

Then comes one of those marker verses Luke likes to add into his story, telling us how the church was going from strength to strength.

After the unsavoury account of Agrippa 1’s death, it’s good especially when we are thinking today of Pastoral ministry to finish on this note.

But the word of God continued to advance and gain adherents. 25Then after completing their mission Barnabas and Saul returned to Jerusalem and brought with them John, whose other name was Mark.

Our prayer for the life of our church here at Highbury as we take on a new framework and commission our Pastoral Ministry Leaders is that the word of God may continue to advance and gain adeherents here in this place at Highbury.

And we pick up the story of Saul as with Barnabas he returns to Jerusalem and brings John, whose other name was Mark.

Why finish there.  Because it’s with a good sense of partnership.  And a lovely sense of Barnabas – the son of encouragement, who was a good man full of the Holy Spirit and of faith.

That spirit of encouragement, those are the qualities that we see and we seek in those we call to share in ministry with us today as Pastoral Ministry Leaders.