Tuesday, 28 January 2014

Acts 21 - What is success?

Highbury works closely with neighbouring St Luke's and around the time of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity we share together in united services.   Mike Workman, the Minister at St Luke's, preached on Acts 21 on Sunday, 26th January ...

‘What is Success?’          Acts 21:1-36  2 Corinthians 4:6,7,16,17

First - thank you for inviting me here this evening.  There’s nothing I enjoy more than distilling what this book means, working it out;  and sharing what I discover with others.  I’ve been blessed through my discoveries in Acts 21, and as I pass them on, I hope you will be too.

As it’s God’s word we’re approaching, we’re on holy ground.  So first, let’s pray.

‘Father, as Jesus is ‘You with us’, the ‘light of the world’, we pray that we may see him now, and learn how we should respond to him. We pray in his name; and for his sake, Amen’.

I wonder how you reacted to Acts 21 when we read most of it just now? The travelogue of a passionate Christian. St Paul’s ‘blog’; written by his friend Luke.  It shows how difficult it was to travel the 800 miles from Ephesus (in what is now Turkey) to Jerusalem.  Two ships, 4 transit stops and 3 landings!  I doubt there were transit lounges in the ports!  Though in three of them, no lounge was necessary; Paul’s party did the Christian thing to do.  They found where the local Christians lived, and stayed with them.
Paul was looking forward to delivering the gift for Jewish Christians that he’d been collecting from Gentile believers; and to reporting back to ‘headquarters’ all that God had been doing through him and his team.
It had been an emotional journey. He’d needed to say ‘goodbye’ to the elders of the church at Ephesus who he’d got to know well during his previous years there. The week-long transit with the believers in Tyre was so meaningful that when it was time to leave them, their whole families came down to the beach, knelt and prayed with Paul and his party before they got on the boat.

Because - there was foreboding.  In Tyre, and in Caesarea too, Paul was warned he was headed - for trouble. That he would be bound and imprisoned in Jerusalem because of the things the Jews had heard about him.  But he was a disciple of Jesus - in life, and if necessary, in death.  I mean, if we’re serving the One who made death die, what does death matter?  So Paul presses on.

In Jerusalem he was received very warmly. The church elders were thrilled at what he told them. But there was a problem.  Not about the ‘Way of salvation’  - there was no doubt about that.  Jesus, the Son of God, had died for sin and was giving believers his life.  The problem was rather, about the ‘Way of discipleship’.   Should the non-Jewish Christians follow the laws of Moses? Should they circumcise their children, like Jews?  On the other hand, should Jewish believers continue to observe all the Jewish cultural practices?   

Paul shows great generosity of spirit.  All Christians must be depending on Christ alone. And all Christians must obey the moral law.  All Christians who were converts from paganism must keep away from anything to do with idol-worship - with its offerings, blood and guts, and sex.  But, surely it is OK for Christians of different origins to express their faith in different ways. Jewish Christians can still go to the temple, and take the vows provided for in the Old Testament. And, on the other hand, non-Jewish Christians don’t need to be circumcised.  Christians are citizens of heaven, where circumcision doesn’t count for anything.

Which means I’m not worried that in the UK, today, we have Congregationalists and Anglicans and Baptists and so on (provided they adhere to what is says in this book). Different types of Christian are like different colours of the rainbow.   But I am worried when Christians are  stuck in their particular denominational style, so won’t recognise the good in anything else.  

Paul shows great generosity of spirit. Having been away from Jerusalem for so long, he makes a point of going through the purification he needed to enter the temple again.  Not only does he join there with local Christians who’d made a temple-vow of being separated to God, but he pays their expenses.  A clear act of respect for Jewish customs, and of Christian unity. He applies the principle that he’d written to the church in Corinth about: that to win Jews, one must become ‘as a Jew’, and to win Greeks, ‘as a Greek’ and so on. That he must start from where they are.  The principle is the same for maintaining Christian unity. If it’s only a matter of style or culture or ceremony or tradition - get over it.  Join in!  These things don’t matter.  (Which is why, for example, I’m wearing a tie this evening, because that’s what your minister’s style is!) What matters is not the local culture, but the centrality of Jesus, and our obedience to him.

But.   The forebodings were correct. In Jewish eyes, Paul was a blasphemer and traitor. Not only was he proclaiming  the upstart Jesus as Messiah, he’s surely defiled the temple by bringing  a Gentile into the ‘Jews-only’ area.  (This is in verses 27-36, beyond where we read).  There was uproar.  ‘Let’s get rid of him once for all!’ There are hysterical demands for his death.  A mob tries to lynch him.   Roman soldiers rush there, only just stopping the crowd from killing him, needing to carry Paul to their barracks over their heads!

Paul’s whole career abruptly changes at this point. After three successful missionary journeys, he is assaulted, arrested, bound and tried.  What happened in Jerusalem was the beginning of him being taken to Rome.  Till now, he’s been on the offensive. From now on he’ll be on the defensive. Is it all going wrong?

You’ll have seen from the service sheet that I’ve entitled this talk ‘What is Success?’ Because ... I want us to ask whether Paul was successful. What he was doing was fraught with difficulty.  The travel.  The need of the Jewish church for financial support;  The different styles of Christian practice; The opposition of the Jews as a whole to what God was doing; That he would now be a prisoner for years.  Is this success?   He had had to travel lightly, without a home of his own. To say the least, his life was unpredictable.  It was full of tension - theologically and practically.   He’d been stoned several times.  The task of spreading the gospel was an uphill struggle, from one crisis to another.  In the passage we read from 2 Corinthians, Paul describes himself as perplexed.   Why does it seem to go wrong so often?  Do I have to be persecuted?  Being a Christian, quite literally, is hurting me!   He describes himself as struck down and wasting away.  What God has commissioned him to do is shortening his life!

Which contrasts strongly, with our modern emphasis that ‘church’ and ‘the Christian life’ should be 100% love, and joy and peace. And secure. Somewhere we feel at home,  where - from week to week, it’s always the same!  Where the church is a safe harbour in a rapidly changing world. 

There is love, and joy, and peace in the Christian life.  Lots of it. And the church is a safe harbour.  But, as soldiers of Christ, we also need to fight.  The world is alien to him.  And being a Christian, and church life,  are therefore  bound be  difficult.  We must be careful not to see ‘church’ as an escape from the frenzy of 21st century living.   It is the body of Christ - Jesus in action - today.  His body, on earth, again, which, if it really is living for him will have the same difficulties he had, and the same difficulties Paul had.   We carry in our bodies the death of Jesus, so that the life of Christ - (with its love, and joy, and peace) may also be visible in our bodies.  And to do this, as the old Church of England prayer book puts it, the Church must be, ‘militant, here on earth’.  It has to fight and to count the cost, as Paul did.

Richard has told me Highbury’s currently going through a re-structuring, to make it more effective. I want to ask - from Acts 21 - a question which I hope you’ve asked already:  Effective for what?  For clearer lines of communication?  Well, good.  For more of what we Anglicans call ‘every member ministry’?  That’s good too.  For smoother operating?  Well good, also, as long as the church is still pioneering, and fighting, the same as that Paul was.

Our rest, our peace, our joy, our ‘safe harbour’, isn’t  primarily  in the church.   It is in Christ.  The church will always be messy,  and hard work,   because we’re not perfect yet,   apart from world-culture being against us.   I’m not saying we mustn’t strive to do things as well as we can - we have to be as ‘fit’ for the task as is possible.   The task of spreading the gospel, which is likely to include being perplexed, and afflicted, in one way or another.   To go from place to place, sharing the Good News and strengthening new believers, like Paul did,  - no matter how difficult the journey.  To love - like Paul did, with a spirit that shares wealth and will enter into the style of other Christians.  To persevere when things seem to go wrong - so Jesus’ life may be made visible in our bodies.      Any restructuring must be preparation for work.  Not for ‘easy church’. 

The tenor of Acts 21, is of a person who has left everything behind  because he’s seeking the prize of being a servant of Christ.  There’s no security for Paul in church buildings or perfect services.  He is striving for ‘an eternal weight of glory beyond all measure, because he knows what can be seen is temporary, while it’s what can’t be seen that is eternal’.

So, I would encourage you. In your restructuring, yes, do it as well as you can, but also ask ‘What is it for?’

Having decided that I’d call this sermon ‘What is success?’ I looked up ‘success’ in a concordance and found the word doesn’t appear in the New Testament.  ‘Success’, as we use the word today, speaks of a positive outcome to something we have done.   Jesus doesn’t ask us for success, he asks for our obedience so he can work through us: ‘If you love me, keep my commandments’. 

In a year’s time you will naturally  be asking if your re-structuring was ‘successful’.  Only - if it helps Highbury in its love, in its support for others, in its pioneering the gospel.   In its disregard - of itself.

One last question.   Where did Paul get his encouragement from while all this was happening?   From the Christian families in Tyre;  from the brothers at Ptolemais;  from Philip and his daughters;   from Mnason in Jerusalem;   from James, and the Jerusalem church elders.  In a word from the love of other Christians.  There is nothing more wonderful than Christian care and hospitality and prayerfulness.   Paul was fortified - through fellowship.   May Highbury have a reputation for the strongest of fellowship as it faces the future.  

I’d like to finish with a prayer you’ll know, written by the great theologian, Ignatius.

Let’s pray:
Teach us, good Lord, to serve you as you deserve;
to give and not to count the cost;
to fight and not to heed the wounds;
to toil and not to seek for rest;
to labour and not to ask for any reward,
save that of knowing that we do your will.

In Jesus’ name. Amen. 

Sunday, 19 January 2014

Acts 20 - Paul's Parting Words of Grace

We left Paul in Ephesus, having spent a couple of years, teaching, discussing and sharing first with the Jewish community there in the synagogue and then with a predominantly Gentile community in a hall he hired from Tyrannus.

When the silversmiths who made a living from the temple of Diana of the Ephesians roused up the crowds in the theatre, Paul sensed it was time to move on.

And so we take up the story in Acts 20.

After the uproar had ceased, Paul sent for the disciples; and after encouraging them and saying farewell, he left for Macedonia. 2When he had gone through those regions and had given the believers much encouragement, he came to Greece, 3where he stayed for three months.

It was quite some tour he did, re-visiting the area around Corinth and Athens.  It’s possible to match up the letters of Paul with the story in Acts and work out that one of the things he was doing as he visited those churches again was making a collection for people back in the area around Jerusalem who were facing particular hardship.

He devotes two whole chapters in the second letter to the Corinthians urging them to give generously and describing the way he had organised the collection.

It’s a wonderful couple of chapters on giving and where we get such phrases and ideas as …

God loves a cheerful giver.

Cast your bread upon the waters.

From each according to their means to each according to their need.

Paul had a small group of people travelling with him, looking after the money he was collecting.  Here they are named.  Notice how they are identified as coming from some of the churches Paul had founded and visited.

He was about to set sail for Syria when a plot was made against him by the Jews, and so he decided to return through Macedonia. 4He was accompanied by Sopater son of Pyrrhus from Beroea, by Aristarchus and Secundus from Thessalonica, by Gaius from Derbe, and by Timothy, as well as by Tychicus and Trophimus from Asia.

This is one of those points at which the narrative changes person.  And it is as if the writer begins describing things he had seen.  Is the writer of Acts drawing on someone’s journal who was travelling with Paul?  Or is it that the writer of Acts is himself the one who at this point is the travelling companion of Paul.  Lots of good reasoning leads me to the conclusion this is Luke, the beloved physician, who for a while is a travelling companion of Paul.

Notice the detail he gives of the journey, and the length of time it takes.

It’s the days of Unleavened bread, around the Passover, what we think of as Easter.

5They went ahead and were waiting for us in Troas; 6but we sailed from Philippi after the days of Unleavened Bread, and in five days we joined them in Troas, where we stayed for seven days.

Now comes one of those precious little insights into what was happening in the church at this time.  It’s interesting that the followers of Jesus by this time had taken to meeting not on the Sabbath, but on the first day of the week, on the Sunday.  And when they met they broke bread together.

What Paul does is interesting.  He holds a ‘discussion’ with them.  The word translated ‘discussion’ is the word that comes into English as ‘dialogue.  It’s easy to picture Paul always preaching – actually a lot of his sharing of the gospel is done in the context of dialogue and discussion.

Very interesting.

As they meet Paul also teaches and preaches, until midnight … and on until dawn.   Wow!  It’s only 7-00 as I’m telling this story … so I have another five hours to a break at midnight and another seven hours until dawn!!!

There’s a salutary tale to tell about the dangers of falling asleep in a sermon.  Let those who have ears to hear, hear!!!

7 On the first day of the week, when we met to break bread, Paul was holding a discussion with them; since he intended to leave the next day, he continued speaking until midnight. 8There were many lamps in the room upstairs where we were meeting. 9A young man named Eutychus, who was sitting in the window, began to sink off into a deep sleep while Paul talked still longer. Overcome by sleep, he fell to the ground three floors below and was picked up dead. 10But Paul went down, and bending over him took him in his arms, and said, ‘Do not be alarmed, for his life is in him.’ 11Then Paul went upstairs, and after he had broken bread and eaten, he continued to converse with them until dawn; then he left. 12Meanwhile they had taken the boy away alive and were not a little comforted.

There’s more detail about the itinerary of their travels as Paul in the company of Luke and the others travels on.  There’s a sense of urgency about Paul.

He was already mature in years when he first encountered Christ on the road to Damascus.   There was a fourteen year gap before his ministry began as he got his mind round all that he would be sharing of Jesus and the Gospel.   This was the third of his journeys … and he was still planning one last journey that would take him to Rome and on to the other end of the Mediterranean, to Spain.

Another interesting detail is to notice how Paul wants to be in Jerusalem for Pentecost.  That gives a good indication of his anticipated travelling time.  But it also gives a hint that just as the followers of Jesus marked the feast of unleavened bread, the time at which Jesus was crucified and raised to life, they also, it would seem, marked Pentecost, the time of the out-pouring the Holy Spirit.

13 We went ahead to the ship and set sail for Assos, intending to take Paul on board there; for he had made this arrangement, intending to go by land himself. 14When he met us in Assos, we took him on board and went to Mitylene. 15We sailed from there, and on the following day we arrived opposite Chios. The next day we touched at Samos, and the day after that we came to Miletus. 16For Paul had decided to sail past Ephesus, so that he might not have to spend time in Asia; he was eager to be in Jerusalem, if possible, on the day of Pentecost.

Paul realises that he hasn’t time to re-visit Ephesus, but he longs to meet up with the people he has got to know so well there, and give them the kind of encouragement he loved to give in re-visiting churches he had helped to found.

He decides instead to meet up with the elders, the ones from the church who in Ephesus who are older, the senior members, older perhaps in faith, not necessarily in years.

From Miletus he sent a message to Ephesus, asking the elders of the church to meet him. 18When they came to him, he said to them:

He knows this is going to be the last time he meets with people from this church, indeed the last time he will meet with people from the churches of Asia and so he wanted to share with them the things that were really important to him.

It’s fascinating to see just what it was that Paul had to share and to look out for some of the key things that go to the heart of the message as he understands it.

In our service one of our members read the first half of the speech Acts 20:17-24, then I led the congregation in reading together as a statement of the faith we share together with each other, together with that church in Ephesus and together with Paul Ephesians 1:3-12.  Rachel then read the remainder of the speech to the end of the chapter and we sang a wonderful hymn, God of grace and God of Glory, come among us in your powers.

I then returned to the speech and drew attention to some of those things Paul had to say to the elders of Ephesus on this occasion that go to the heart of the faith we share.

‘You yourselves know how I lived among you the entire time from the first day that I set foot in Asia, 19serving the Lord with all humility and with tears, enduring the trials that came to me through the plots of the Jews. 20I did not shrink from doing anything helpful, proclaiming the message to you and teaching you publicly and from house to house, 21as I testified to both Jews and Greeks about repentance towards God and faith towards our Lord Jesus.

Repentance was at the heart of John the Baptist’s message.  Repentance was at the heart of Jesus’ message.  Repentance is at the heart of Paul’s message.

But what does ‘repentance’ mean?

It’s very easy to think of it as saying sorry for the personal sins you have committed.  But there’s much more to the word used here than that.

It’s very easy to think of it as an about turn but in a very personalised way that I make in an interior kind of way as I make an about turn from my sinful life, and turn to Jesus.

The word is even richer than that.

It’s a bout a whole change of your mind, of your way of thinking.

Paul uses an intriguing set of words here when he speaks of ‘repentance towards God’.  It is as if he is saying we have to come to the point at which the whole we think about God and the whole of life is changed, our whole world view is different.

That whole different way of looking at God is so important.

I had a fascinating conversation with one of our youngsters this morning who for RE homework had to write the arguments for the existence of God and then the arguments against the existence of God and then say what he felt.

It was a fascinating conversation … and he had got those arguments off well.

I shared what I believed as a Christian.

I think it’s brilliant working out and thinking through all the arguments for the existence of God … but you’ll never prove the existence of God through those arguments.  There will always be arguments for and against.

I, as a Christian, want to start with Jesus.  You can find out about him.  You can see what he taught, what he did, the way he came into a hurting world to bring healing, the way he experienced abject suffering to the extent of feeling that God had abandoned him.   And the way he gained a victory over death in resurrection.

Then Jesus opens up a way of seeing God that’s very different from those philosophical arguments.

Start with the God of the philosophers and you end up down a blind alley: if god is all powerful, all loving, all seeing, how can there be suffering in the world?

Start, instead with the world as it is and focus on Jesus … and you discover God to be one who is there in the middle of a suffering world always working through the likes of you and me to alleviate suffering, to set things right and inviting us to be part of that.

Then that releases within us a sense of the presence of God as a God of love who brings love into a suffering world in such a way that nothing, not even death itself, can separte us from that wonderful love.  And where do we find that love?  In Christ!

So coupled with a whole new different way of thinking of God (repentance towards God) comes faith that finds its focus in Jesus (faith towards our Lord Jesus)

This is powerful stuff!

Then with that kind of sense of the presence, released for Paul by the Holy Spirit of God, he feels able to face whatever the world will hurl at him. It has already hurled some pretty awful things … and it will do again!

22And now, as a captive to the Spirit, I am on my way to Jerusalem, not knowing what will happen to me there, 23except that the Holy Spirit testifies to me in every city that imprisonment and persecutions are waiting for me.

Paul is determined to run the course, finish the race … and take that collection in person to Jerusalem.

And at this point he goes to the heart of what the faith is all about.

He arrives at a little word that is fundamental to the thinking about God he has come to … and we must too.

For me it is a word that’s really significant because it is a word that for me represents a complete turn around in my thinking about God.

I started out by thin king that being a Christian was all about meeting the demands of Christ’s teaching to love God, love your neighbour and love your enemy.  The heart of being a Christians is to live out the Sermon on the Mount.

I was growing up at the time of Martin Luther King.

Christian faith was a wonderful way of life to follow.

My problem was that people accused me of being inconsistent, of failing to live out that perfect way of life … and that troubled me.

Then I brought to mind the fact that Jesus not only taught such a high standard, but he accepted and mixed with precisely those who failed to live up that high standard, the Zacchaeuses, the tax collectors, the sinners of this world!

I discovered, ironically while worshipping in a Baptist church, that for me the heart of Chrsitianity was not a way of life to follow, not even faith, but grace.  The initiative God takes in reaching out to us before ever we know anything about us – that plan he has for us from before the beginning of time, the way he knows us from the womb.

From having loved the verses Love God, Love your neighbout I discovered the verse in 1 John 4 …

This is love.

It is not that we loved God.

But that he loved us.

And gave his son to be the means by which our sins are forgiven.

That’s grace.

The free gift of God’s love.  And nowhere is it more vividly expressed than in the sacrament of baptism as it is shared with a tiny little baby and we celebrated the initiative and the wonder of God’s gift of grace.  With the prayer that as that little one grows older they will make this love of God their own in faith.

For me salvation is by grace through faith.

And that’s what Paul alludes to here!

24But I do not count my life of any value to myself, if only I may finish my course and the ministry that I received from the Lord Jesus, to testify to the good news of God’s grace.

[It was at this point that we had broken off for all of us to read together Ephesians 1:3-12.  We used the church Bibles, not the NRSV I have been using … but the Good News Bible.  A lovely passage to read together as a congregation …

Let us give thanks to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! For in our union with Christ he has blessed us by giving us every spiritual blessing in the heavenly world.
4 Even before the world was made, God had already chosen us to be his through our union with Christ, so that we would be holy and without fault before him. Because of his love
5 God had already decided that through Jesus Christ he would make us his sons and daughters — this was his pleasure and purpose.
6 Let us praise God for his glorious grace, for the free gift he gave us in his dear Son!
7 For by the blood of Christ we are set free, that is, our sins are forgiven. How great is the grace of God,
8 which he gave to us in such large measure! In all his wisdom and insight
9 God did what he had purposed, and made known to us the secret plan he had already decided to complete by means of Christ.
10 This plan, which God will complete when the time is right, is to bring all creation together, everything in heaven and on earth, with Christ as head.
11 All things are done according to God's plan and decision; and God chose us to be his own people in union with Christ because of his own purpose, based on what he had decided from the very beginning.
12 Let us, then, who were the first to hope in Christ, praise God's glory!

Returning to Acts 20 – the remainder of Paul’s speech continues to highlight some of those things fundamental to our faith.

It’s very easy to overlook.

We often think of Paul preaching the Gospel of salvation.

Actually he did exactly as John the Baptist had done before him.

He did exactly as Jesus had done before him.

He proclaimed the Kingdom of God, the rule of God coming into the world to shape the world in the way God wants to shape the world.

Just as John the Baptist had done, just as Jesus had done Paul lived in a world that was dominated by the Roman way of doing kingdom – they called it Empire and it regarded the Emperor as Son of God, as Saviour, it told good news ‘evangelion’ about the Emperor and his achievements.

And as John the Baptist had done, and Jesus had done, Paul proclaimed a diffeent way of doing ‘kingdom’, God’s way.  It was a way that held the kind of values Jesus put across in that Sermon on the Mount and throughout his teaching.

And the prayer Jesus taught us to pray is that God’s rule, God’s way of doing kingdom should come on earth as it is in heaven – and that happens when God’s will is done on earth as it is in heaven.

The centrality of the Kingdom to Paul’s thought comes across so clearly in these powerful words.

25 ‘And now I know that none of you, among whom I have gone about proclaiming the kingdom, will ever see my face again.

This is a poignant moment as Paul this is the last time he will meet with people who have become close friends and who have been through so much with him.

He knows full well, they will face difficult times.

He felt sure that that would be within the purposes of God.

26Therefore I declare to you this day that I am not responsible for the blood of any of you, 27for I did not shrink from declaring to you the whole purpose of God.
Paul was very conscious the world of that Roman empire had a myriad of things on offer that would purportedly make life better.

Not much diffeent from our world – where there are so many alternatives presented to us.

We have a tendency, sometimes even within the church, to say anything goes.  So long as people have faith in something it doesn’t really matter.

That’s not what John the Baptist felt.

It’s not what Jesus believed.

It’s certainly  not what Paul believed.

He reminds those older members of the church in Ephesus that they share a responsibility as ‘episkopoi’ – that’s the word that is often translated ‘bishops’.

But for Paul here the bishop is not some individual who has charge over a whole region – all those who share in pastoral oversight of this particular church in Ephesus are ‘episkopoi’.  I love that word pastoral oversight – it captures what Paul means by shepherding as overseers.  We often speak of someone being called to the pastoral oversight of the church – that’s exactly what Paul is talking about here.

How important it is to steer people away from so much that’s on offer and to point them to Christ and to the Kingdom and God’s way in the world

28Keep watch over yourselves and over all the flock, of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to shepherd the church of God that he obtained with the blood of his own Son. 29I know that after I have gone, savage wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock. 30Some even from your own group will come distorting the truth in order to entice the disciples to follow them. 31Therefore be alert, remembering that for three years I did not cease night or day to warn everyone with tears.

Paul’s coming towards the end and he has a wonderful commendation.  It’s back to that wonderful little word, grace.

Hold on to grace, the free gift of God’s love and that more than anything else will build you up in the Christian faith and in the Christian way of life!

 32And now I commend you to God and to the message of his grace, a message that is able to build you up and to give you the inheritance among all who are sanctified.

Paul reminds his friends how he paid his own way – he must have been involved in his tent-making while living and sharing in Ephesus.  But then there’s a hint of a reference here to that collection he has been making.

He may have paid his own way … but he was convinced that it was important for people then to share what they have earned with those who are most vulnerable, those who are weak.

That kind of giving to others is at the heart of the Christian way as far as Paul is concerned … and at the heart of all we stand for too!

3I coveted no one’s silver or gold or clothing. 34You know for yourselves that I worked with my own hands to support myself and my companions. 35In all this I have given you an example that by such work we must support the weak, remembering the words of the Lord Jesus, for he himself said, “It is more blessed to give than to receive.”

It’s rare for Paul to quote Jesus directly. Isn’t it interesting that one of those rare occasions is this comment about giving.  It shows how high on the scale of priorities is a commitment to the poor in Paul’s understanding of the Christian faith.

The speech over there’s one thing for Paul to do.

36 When he had finished speaking, he knelt down with them all and prayed.

In a moment we too will share in prayer … the very life-blood of the Christian’s life.

There’s no mistaking just how heart-rending this occasion was.  Everyone there knew they wouldn’t be seeing Paul again.  It was a very emotional moment.

The chapter ends as Paul is accompanied to the ship and ready to make his last fateful journey to Jerusalem.

37There was much weeping among them all; they embraced Paul and kissed him, 38grieving especially because of what he had said, that they would not see him again. Then they brought him to the ship.

What better way to finish than with that most wonderful of prayers from  Ephesians 3 …

Maybe we can hear Paul praying these words for those very people in Ephesus, maybe we can hear him praying these words for us …

For this reason I bow my knees before the Father,
from whom every family in heaven and on earth takes its name.

I pray that, according to the riches of his glory,
he may grant that you may be strengthened in your inner being
with power through his Spirit,
and that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith,
as you are being rooted and grounded in love.

I pray that you may have the power to comprehend,
with all the saints,
what is the breadth and length and height and depth,
and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge,
so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.

Now to him who by the power at work within us
is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine,
 to him be glory in the church
and in Christ Jesus to all generations,
for ever and ever.

Sunday, 5 January 2014

Acts 19 The marks of a missional congregation

There’s something new in the air at the start of a New Year … how good we can come together in quiet evening prayers and gather around the Table and share in The Lord’s Supper.

We do that as a celebration of being the Church of Jesus Christ here in this place at this time.

We do that as a celebration of being the Church of Jesus Christ worldwide, a church that links us with people the world over.

It’s that world dimension of church that has come home to me over the Christmas period.  It was one of the last of the Chrsitmas cards to come and it contained a gift.  It came from Wayne who works for CWM in the European region.

It was the new CWM Prayer Book, Praying Without Ceasing.

Inside the front cover is a reminder of what CWM is … it’s our main link with the world-wide church.

The Council for World Mission (CWM) is a worldwide partnership of 31 Churches, committed to sharing their resources of people, skills, insights and money to carry out God’s mission.

The listing of those churches takes us to Africa, the Caribbean, East Asia, Europe, Pacific and South Asia.  It is a wonderful segment of the world church representing 21 million people in 40 different countries around the world.

CWM, a partnership of churches in mission.
Our vision:  “Fullness of life Through Christ for all  Creation.

Our Mission:  “Called to partnership in #Christ to mutually challenge, encourage and equip member’s churches to share in God’s mission.

This is a tool to build that sense of very real fellowship we have with all those churches …

Collin Cowan, General Secretary of CWM writes in his message,

“the prayers in this volume come in the form of stories, reflections, meditations and utterings to God, all pointing to how each writer encounters and experiences God.  The hope is that the account of each person will serve to bless you, the reader, and invite you into conversation with God and with your sisters and brothers around you.”

What a wonderful thought.

Being  part of a church locally means we are part of the church worldwide and this prayer book gives us a way of relating with one another in that world-wide partnership.

Elsie followed on from Margaret Copeland in making sure that we all should have the CWM Prayer handbook.  This is the one we will be sharing round – available in paper form and as an ebook too.

The hope is we shall be able to use it to make more real that sense of oneness we have with the whole church of Jesus Christ.

I want to come back to that statement of our Mission.

CWM is not about mission over there.

It is about recognising that each single church, ours included, is engaged in mission.  Called to partnership in Christ to mutually challenge, encourage, and equip member churches to share in God’s mission.

Being part of this prayer partnership is to be part of a movement for mission.

I commend the article in December Highbury News that ties in with one of the focus points for CWM at the moment: it challenges us to think and reflect on what it takes to be a ‘Missional Congregation’

A missional congregation

·         Lives a spirituality of engagement, that is reflected in its worship, and in the nurture and support of its members

·         Is attuned to the communities in which it is set and alert to the needs of the world, so that it is willing to stand alongside and speak out with those who are suffering or are marginalised

·         Does not work alone, being in active partnership with other groups who share similar concerns

·         Is a learning community, with its members taking seriously their reading of the Bible and their reflection on their experience, both as individuals and as a community.

All of which leads the congregation to be a community of transformation, manifesting the reign of God in its midst as lives are made new and justice is realised for those who have been denied fullness of life.

That’s quite some vision and accords well with what we are seeking to do.

And what we seek to do, what we share with all those churches we are in partnership with is something that in one form or another has been shared from the very start in the life of the Church.

We have arrived in Ephesus – home of the Temple to Diana,  one of the seven wonders of the world.  And Paul comes face to face with those who make their living from selling souvenir models of the Goddess Diana.

The uproar in the Theatre as the crowds, cry great is Diana of the Ephesians, makes it clear that Paul is offering a very different way of life to follow – and has courage in mapping that way of life out for everyone to heed.

But it is in the first part of chapter 19 that we have an indication of what it is that we are called to be as a church and as we seek to be that kind of missional congregation.

I notice seven things for us to take to heart.

1)  a focus on Jesus

The focus of the alternative way that Paul maps out for us finds its focus on Jesus.   He comes across people who have got as far as John the Baptist, but have yet to take seriously following Jesus.   It is the following Jesus bit that counts for Paul – and so they are baptised in the name of Jesus.

Putting Christ at the centre of what we do that is all important for us as a Church.  The way of life Jesus maps out, the way of love he opens up, the forgiving love he shares with us as we realise that body is broken for us, that blood shed for us, that sense of forgiveness and new life as we see in him the lamb of God that takes away the sin of the world, and through his life death and resurrection gives us new life.

First, a focus on Jesus.

2)  A focus on the Holy Spirit

Some have suggested the Acts of the Apostles could as well be described as The Acts of the Holy Spirit.   Throughout the book of Acts wherever the church is to be found, the church is a body of people who have a strength from beyond themselves, a dynamic that comes from God, who are energised by nothing less than the presence of God with them.

It is the Holy Spirit that makes all the difference.

Yes we have a way of life to follow – but we cannot rise to it without a strength from beyond ourselves.  And it is that strength that we find in the Holy Spirit.

3)  A focus on the Kingdom of God

that the focus of all that Paul preaches about is exactly the focus that Jesus had too in his preaching.  There are remarkable points of continuity in these verses with those opening verses of Mark’s Gospel where Jesus comes on the scene.

The focus there is on Jesus.  Jesus receives the Holy Spirit as he is baptised by John – and then his message is the Good News of the Kingdom of God.

God’s rule is breaking into the world – and God’s rule is to be followed.

You can find out what that rule entails by reading the Magnificat, or the Beatitudes, or the sermon on the Mount or the first sermon Jesus preached at Nazareth. This is what it takes to be under God’s rule – these are the kingdom values we stand for.

4)  A focus on the Way

Fourth comes a wonderful way of describing what it is to be part of the church.   In Acts on a number of occasions Luke describes the church as ‘the Way’.  Here the church is simply referred to as ‘the Way’

I think that’s wonderful.  We are people on ‘the Way’  it is the way opened up for us by Jesus when he said of himself I am the Way.  It is a reminder to be part of the church is not to be static, not to be stationery.  It is to be part of a pilgrim people who are on the move, a people on The Way.

I love the use of that expression.  We are people on the Way.  We have not yet arrived, we are on the move.  We are moving forward.

5) A focus on Disciples

As people on the way we are people always ready to learn.  When I think of that I always remember one of our older ministers when I was very much younger in the ministry.  We would travel to Nottingham to meetings from Shrewsbury and a journey would not go by without Norman Sedgeman asking me what I had learned that day.

No day can go by, he would suggest, without learning something.  He was a great one for reading, for following the news.  Always eager to learning something more.

Maybe it’s the secret to growing older – always to have something to learn.

A learner is a disciple.  And we each of us have something to learn.  We are called to be disciples.

6) A focus on healing

And sixthly, healing is at the heart of what we are about.  Bringhing healing to hurting people was what Paul was engaged in.  And it is what we are part of too.

Take seriously such a call to be church – be in partnership with that world-wide partnership and be part of that partnership in prayer – praying without ceasing.

7) A call to stand our ground
Best known of the story of Paul’s visit to Ephesus is his encounter with the silversmiths who were determined Paul should not do them out of a living.   Ephesus was home to one of the seven wonders of the world in the  Temple to Diana of the Ephesians.  The Christian Way outlined by Paul was an alternative to the way of the world.  We too need to take our stand on what is at the heart of the Christian way and stand out over against the world and its values.

Sharing in that mission – called to partnership in Christ to mutually challenge, encourage, and equip member churches to share in God’s mission.

To be equipped to share in God’s mission

  1. Let’s look to Jesus.

  1. Let’s seek a strength from beyond ourselves in the Holy Spirit.

  1. Let’s be kingdom people living by the rule of God

  1. As people who are on the way,

  1. As people who are disciples ready to learn

  1. As people who bring healing where people hurt.

  1. As people prepared to stand out against the values of the world.

Hat’s the task for us to share as 2014 opens up before us and we enter into new things in church here … and are part of a world-wide partnership in mission.

While Apollos was in Corinth, Paul passed through the inland regions and came to Ephesus, where he found some disciples. 2He said to them, ‘Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you became believers?’ They replied, ‘No, we have not even heard that there is a Holy Spirit.’ 3Then he said, ‘Into what then were you baptized?’ They answered, ‘Into John’s baptism.’ 4Paul said, ‘John baptized with the baptism of repentance, telling the people to believe in the one who was to come after him, that is, in Jesus.’ 5On hearing this, they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus. 6When Paul had laid his hands on them, the Holy Spirit came upon them, and they spoke in tongues and prophesied— 7altogether there were about twelve of them.

8 He entered the synagogue and for three months spoke out boldly, and argued persuasively about the kingdom of God. 9When some stubbornly refused to believe and spoke evil of the Way before the congregation, he left them, taking the disciples with him, and argued daily in the lecture hall of Tyrannus. 10This continued for two years, so that all the residents of Asia, both Jews and Greeks, heard the word of the Lord.  God did extraordinary miracles through Paul, 12so that when the handkerchiefs or aprons that had touched his skin were brought to the sick, their diseases left them, and the evil spirits came out of them.

23 About that time no little disturbance broke out concerning the Way. 24A man named Demetrius, a silversmith who made silver shrines of Artemis, brought no little business to the artisans. 25These he gathered together, with the workers of the same trade, and said, ‘Men, you know that we get our wealth from this business. 26You also see and hear that not only in Ephesus but in almost the whole of Asia this Paul has persuaded and drawn away a considerable number of people by saying that gods made with hands are not gods. 27And there is danger not only that this trade of ours may come into disrepute but also that the temple of the great goddess Artemis will be scorned, and she will be deprived of her majesty that brought all Asia and the world to worship her.’