Monthly Archives: June 2014
There is an old joke that takes a Bible verse about some people not dying before the Second Coming of Jesus and applying at as a motto for a crèche or other gathering of babies:
“We shall not all sleep but we shall all be changed.”
Change. Children change your lives like nothing else. Marriage is a big change, but having children requires far greater adjustment.
In our Bible reading today, we meet two people who are on the verge of major change in their lives – Cornelius the centurion, and Peter the apostle. Both are in a comfortable place in their lives, but things are about to take dramatic twists for both of them as their lives are about to meet.
First, Cornelius. To the readers of Acts, who are probably Roman, Cornelius as a centurion is an all-round good guy. Roman citizens admired their centurions, rather like the way many in our society see our soldiers as heroes. One Roman writer put it this way:
“They wish centurions not so much to be venturesome and daredevil as natural leaders, of a steady and sedate spirit. They do not desire them so much to be men who will initiate attacks and open the battle, but men who will hold their ground when worsted and hard pressed and be ready to die at their posts.” (Polybius, Histories, 6.24.9)
And not only that, Cornelius would have been regarded as a good egg by Jews – at least, as good as a Gentile could be:
He and all his family were devout and God-fearing; he gave generously to those in need and prayed to God regularly. (Verse 2)
He hadn’t quite gone all the way to becoming a Jewish convert – that would have required a painful snip for him – but in prayer and giving to the poor he practised two of the three basic disciplines expected of a Jew (the other being fasting).
But we can’t stop there. According to the angel who appears to him, even God has taken a shine to him:
Your prayers and gifts to the poor have come up as a memorial offering before God. (Verse 4)
It’s all good, isn’t it? Admired in society, respected in the community of faith, and pleasing to God.
Except … God still has an agenda of change for him. That’s why he needs to meet Peter and hear Peter’s message. He believes in God, he does good deeds, and contributes to the well-being of society. Yet God says, ‘Cornelius, you need more. You need change in your life.’
Perhaps we know similar people today. We might be one of them. Good people – after all, the church has no monopoly on goodness. They may pray or even turn up at worship sometimes, but some say, “I don’t need to go to church to be a good Christian.” They may work hard at their job, love their families, and put in extra effort of an evening to do something positive in the local community.
And maybe God says the same today. ‘You need more. You need change.’ Specifically, I think he says something similar to what he effectively says to Cornelius. ‘You need to meet someone who will tell you about Jesus.’ Because that is what Peter would go on to do when they finally met.
Why do we need to meet Jesus when we believe in God, and do good in our community? Well, if we are serious about our belief in God and wanting to do what he likes, then we shall want to be acquainted with the One he sent to bring peace, forgiveness and true purpose of life. That One is Jesus. If God has been quietly working in our lives and we’ve been seeking to respond to him, then when we hear about Jesus we’ll be positive. If on the other hand all our talk about believing in God and being good is a smokescreen to avoid serious commitment, then the mention of Jesus will expose the truth of our hearts.
Happily, Cornelius wasn’t like that. He was truly interested in God and God’s ways. Change would come for him. Dramatic change, but good change.
Second, Peter. In order to get inside Peter’s attitude to life, let me ask you this question: have you ever been concerned with the fear that bad company corrupts good character? Perhaps if you are the father of a daughter and you are bothered what kinds of boyfriends she might have, you will understand this mindset. Can any young man ever possibly be good enough for your princess? What will you want to do to him if he wickedly steps out of line – say, he brings her back from a date five minutes later than promised? Really, you don’t want your angel influenced by such a wayward soul.
Translate that into a religious context and what you’ve got is a guy who has been brought up to believe that you shouldn’t mix with the wrong sort of people or your pure religious faith will be contaminated. And so, as a good Jew, he had believed he should have nothing to do with those who, in religious terms, were ‘unclean’. Cornelius, despite hanging out at the synagogue, was in some sense unclean to him, because he hadn’t become a fully fledged Jew.
Now, it has to be said, Peter isn’t always consistent in his convictions. We learn in this story that ‘He is staying with Simon the tanner’ (verse 6), and that is suspect behaviour for a devout Jew. Why? Because a tanner in his trade deals with the skins of dead animals, and good Jews were not meant to have anything to do with dead bodies. Yet Peter accepts hospitality from such a man. Either he’s compromising his convictions or he’s beginning to change before this incident. I suspect it’s the former.
But here, everything definitely begins to change for him when he gets hungry at lunchtime. As he falls into a trance he sees this strange vision of a huge sharing platter. Some of the items on the menu are foods regarded as unclean by Jews. The call to eat ritually unclean food becomes a metaphor for mixing with people he would normally shun (verses 9-20).
If Peter is to live in the will of God according to the love of God, then he has to make a drastic change to his life. He has to begin hanging out with people who are different from him. He needs to start relating to people whom he would otherwise consider anathema. What’s more, he will have to do all this for the sake of sharing God’s love in Jesus Christ.
You see, up until now, the followers of Jesus were effectively nothing more than a small Jewish sect. Just about everybody who had begun following the way of Jesus had been Jewish. There was the odd exception, like the heretics of Samaria, but the new faith hasn’t burst outside Jewish boundaries. The question of whether it should hasn’t even been raised.
But it is about to be raised, and effectively it’s God who does so. God calls Peter to a radical change that will take his life-transforming love in Jesus beyond the Judaism where it has begun to the rest of the world. Christianity as a world faith is about to begin in this story, especially in next week’s episode.
And you know what? It means something similar for those of us who are church regulars, too. Those who have heard me a lot here won’t be surprised to hear me say this, but it needs repeating, because we must take this on board. It might feel nice and safe to draw most of our friends from the people like us who share our beliefs and values, but really that’s the way to build a spiritual ghetto. We need to make friends with people outside the church if we are going to make a missionary difference today. I hope we will not be known as the kind of religious people who are forever looking down their noses at those whose values we query.
The church is not a social club. It is a worshipping community and a base from which to launch God’s mission of love for all people. If we are to see God’s love spread to more people, then like Peter we may need to embrace a radical change where we don’t wait within the walls of the church building for people to come to us on our terms. Instead, we risk getting dirty in the world showing the love of God to people.
Maybe then we shall meet the Cornelius types. People where God is already on their case and who are reaching out for him. Perhaps we can have the humble privilege of making the introductions.
You know, it could even happen today if people are reaching out for God.
This summer at Knaphill, we return to the Book of Acts two years after spending a previous summer in it. And we return with a bang, starting with this story about the healing of Aeneas and the raising of Dorcas. Just the sort of incidents we encounter every day? Maybe not …
And perhaps that’s both one of the reasons these stories are in Acts and also one of the reasons they can be a problem to us. These are not exactly everyday occurrences. I want to tackle the passage by looking both the specific issue of healing and the general issue of blessing.
Firstly, then, the specifics of healing – and by ‘healing’, I am including the raising of Dorcas alongside the healing of Aeneas.
Perhaps where the place many of us begin is with our experiences. This week we have witnessed someone having a heart attack combined with brain damage, then not coming out of the induced coma, and having the life support machines turned off. I bring the experience of my Mum’s death in February and my Dad’s on-going health troubles. Should I have prayed for Mum to be healed? When she died, should I have prayed that she be raised, like Dorcas?
One of my college friends was confronted with a question like that when he was on a summer placement. A much-loved member of the church died, and somebody told my friend that they should go to the hospital mortuary and pray for this person to come back to life. My friend didn’t know what to do. There are a few biblical stories of people being raised back to this life, but at the same time the final enemy of death has not yet been ultimately defeated, and in those circumstances it seems wise to pray for a ‘good death’.
Certainly that is what we did when we knew my Mum didn’t have long. We prayed that her passing would be quick, peaceful and painless. God answered all those prayers. She declined rapidly in a few days, a community nurse stepped in to manage her pain control when she could no longer swallow tablets, and she slipped away peacefully in the early hours of the morning with a Christian nurse by her side as she took leave of the church militant to join the church triumphant. It wasn’t a raising from the dead, but it was an answer to prayer.
Or what about other experiences that we bring to these miraculous stories of healing and restored life in the Scriptures? How many people have you seen healed in answer to your prayers? To my knowledge, I have only seen one person healed when I have prayed for them.
Perhaps you have seen more healings than me when you have prayed. Or maybe in your disappointment you have lapsed back into tacking the words ‘If it be your will’ onto the end of your prayers as a catch-all clause that protects you from feeling let down when what you want to happen doesn’t occur.
And it is true that not everyone is healed in answer to prayer. We are dealing with the fact that the kingdom of God has come, but it has not come fully yet. In God’s kingdom there will be no more suffering or pain, and so we can expect healed bodies. Sometimes that does indeed happen in this life when we pray – as well as what the God-given skill of medical professionals achieves. But on other occasions, we see no healing. The kingdom of God has not yet come in completeness, and thus some suffer and struggle with chronic illness.
Against all that, let me set the testimony of one man whose approach to the healing ministry affected the Christian church for good in the late twentieth century. I refer to the American pastor John Wimber. He became famous for healings and for other ‘signs and wonders’ when he preached, and amongst the Christian denomination he founded, the Vineyard Churches. Back in 1984 I was one of thousands who crammed into Westminster Central Hall to hear him preach and lead prayer ministry for those present.
But it wasn’t always a smooth ride for John Wimber, either before his ministry became so popular or later, when he was diagnosed with cancer and died at the age of just 63 in 1997. Wimber’s healing ministry started with frustration, discouragement, and – dare I say – a spoonful or two of unbelief.
What happened was this: Wimber was converted from a life of drinking, smoking and drug-taking as a rock musician. (He had been the pianist for the Righteous Brothers.) When he found Christ, he heard the Bible stories about Jesus performing great miracles, and innocently asked at church, “When do we get to do this?”
Upon being told that they didn’t go in for such things at church and only held Sunday services, Wimber replied, “You mean I gave up drugs for that?”
Sometime later, he felt challenged by God to preach about healing from Luke’s Gospel. So he did. And faithfully every week, not only did he preach on the subject, he offered prayer ministry to anyone who had a need, especially those who were sick.
And nothing happened. Nobody was healed. If anything, some people got worse.
Wimber argued with God in prayer about this. God challenged him: “Are you going to preach your experiences or my Word?” So he kept on preaching the stories of the healing miracles. He continued to offer prayer ministry for anyone in need after the services. And then it all changed. Healings began to happen. The trickle became a stream became a river.
Might it be, then, that for all our disappointments, it is the right and worthwhile thing to do to keep praying for people to be healed, even if we don’t see those answers to prayer? When people told John Wimber that they were afraid to pray for people to be healed in case it didn’t happen, he had a wise response. “What’s the worst thing that could happen to someone who is prayed for? The very worst,” he said, “is that they will get blessed!”
Let us continue, then, to pray for people to be healed, and to believe that God will do what is blessed. At least we can ensure that people are blessed.
Secondly, having mentioned blessing, I want to talk about the generalities of blessing. As I said, the least that can happen when we pray in faith, even if we don’t see our desired outcome, is that people will be blessed.
And this gives us a way of finding stories like this one relevant when we don’t have the relevant spiritual gifts. Yes, we should pray and ask for people to be healed, but we also know that not everyone has the spiritual gift of healing. What about those of us who fall into that category?
Well, it seems to me that our lack of an appropriate spiritual gift should not stop us praying for people and blessing people. “I don’t have the gift of healing” should never be a cop-out clause. Every single Christian has the ability to bless people. Why? Because we are indwelt by the Holy Spirit, we have the divine resources with which to affect people for the better.
If I am unable to bring about God’s healing through my prayers, then although I do not have that specific gift to offer, I do have the general gift of blessing. People can experience love – God’s love – through me. Do you believe that? What does it look like?
Well, it is unconditional. There is no hint in our story that Aeneas had to do anything in order to receive God’s blessing (of healing) through Peter. The apostle turns up, finds the paralysed man, and speaks God’s word to him. The miracle happens. There is no sense of Aeneas doing something to deserve this. He doesn’t receive healing because he is a good man. He is blessed simply because God loves him, and God’s servant shows that.
Can we look around and say, I may not have the gift of healing, but who needs a blessing? We are not to worry whether they deserve the favour of God – after all, none of us does! We look not at the earning of God’s favour, but simply on the need. Sometimes those who need a blessing will be those who straightforwardly evoke our compassion because of their desperate situation – as doubtless Aeneas did with Peter. But on other occasions, they will be difficult people, prickly people, the awkward squad, the annoying types. But they have a need, and the answer is the blessing of God’s love. We have a calling to offer unconditional blessing. It’s the way of Jesus. He scandalised the religious leaders of his day by blessing the undeserving, and it is our call today also to risk upsetting the pious by pouring out God’s love not on those who deserve it but on those who need it. A scandal! But it’s what Jesus would have done. You don’t need a WWJD bracelet to know that.
And not only do we ask, ‘Who do we bless?’, we also ask, ‘Where do we bless?’ Dorcas (or Tabitha) may be the greater miracle – a raising from the dead, not ‘merely’ the healing of paralysis, but it happens within the family of the church. According to verse 36, she is a disciple. Her miraculous blessing comes rather in the way we pray for one another in the church. Aeneas? Well, he may be part of the church, too, given that Peter encounters him when he comes to Lydda ‘to visit the Lord’s people’ (verse 32). This healing stuff is challenging enough as it is, so let’s keep it within church structures! We’ll pray, we’ll have a prayer list for our intercessions, and we might put on the odd healing service (although we might feel rather awkward if someone from outside the church turns up – what will do or believe then?). But let’s keep it there.
The trouble is, the news gets out in both cases, which must mean that the disciples of Jesus at Lydda were well connected with their wider society. They cannot have been like many modern Christians whose only friends are other church members. They are plugged into the wider world, and when people get blessed – healed, or raised from the dead, even – their society gets to know that in both cases, Luke tells us that many people ‘turned to the Lord’ (verse 35) or ‘believed in the Lord’ (verse 42).
Isn’t it the case that too often we settle for some kind of soft life as Christians, a set of easy options where we enjoy one another’s company and do good things for each other, but make nothing like as much effort to bless the world as we do to bless one another? Yet if we were to give the sort of priority to blessing people in the world that we do to socialising with fellow Christians, or arguing about church politics, or rearranging the deckchairs on the Titanic (which is what a lot of church structures and hierarchies want to do), then I do believe we would see a change in the public perception of the Christian faith. Ultimately we would see a softening of people’s hearts to Jesus Christ, and our willingness to let blessing leak out from the church to the world might just begin a spiritual transformation in our society.
You know, it’s quite common before a service in the vestry for a church steward to pray a prayer with the preacher that asks for the service to bring a word that will connect with what people will do in serving God on a Monday morning as well as on a Sunday. Well, the way in which the astonishing news of Aeneas’ healing and Dorcas’ raising break out beyond the community of Jesus’ disciples in this story gives us such a word with which to climax this sermon. Whether we have the gift of healing or not, will we go out into the world this week and ask this simple question: who is God calling me to bless, regardless of whether they deserve it, and only giving regard to whether they need it?
If the Christian church did that consistently, I truly believe things would begin to change in the long term.