Sorry I haven’t (so far) been able to post last Sunday’s sermon, the first after my summer holiday. I have some computer problems. If I can post it when those issues are resolved, I will. In the meantime, here is the latest sermon in the series on Acts for this coming Sunday.
The desire for popularity starts young. Will you be picked first for a sports team at school, or will you be the one left at the end, who is unwanted by either captain? You fall in and fall out with the trendy girl.
In adulthood, you may want to be popular with the boss, or you may participate in cultural expressions of popularity, such as so-called TV talent shows. Either you vote for your favourite singer on The X Factor or you even enter for it.
And more widely, we have the irony that among the people most admired in society are often those who have loosened themselves from addiction to the approval of others. They say and do what they think and care about, regardless of whether people agree or support them, and strangely that is applauded. Perhaps when we laud those who are not addicted to approval, we realise deep down inside that our own desire to be endorsed by others is an unhealthy trait.
In our reading, Paul and Barnabas – who have just escaped possible death in Iconium – find themselves subject to an opposite manifestation of mass hysteria: huge acclaim. Not that they went looking for it, but if a lame man is healed through your words (verses 8-10), then maybe it isn’t surprising if you find yourself on the receiving end of adulation. Today, the TV crews would be there, experts would be pronouncing on the matter, and all this a few hours after it had been extensively dissected on Facebook and Twitter.
What goes right and what goes wrong in this story when it comes to the question of popularity?
Firstly, the crowd goes wrong, because they instantly lapse into idolatry. Granted, it is a spectacular deed, both unusual and miraculous, and you can’t blame them for thinking that God is at work somehow. The trouble is, they identify the human messengers with God. But it’s quite a leap to assume that Barnabas and Paul must be the Greek deities Zeus and Hermes (verse 12), and the priest of Zeus, who wants to offer a sacrifice of bulls and the honour of wreaths to the apostles (verse 13), doesn’t exactly show much discernment.
Now we may well find it hard to identify with the specific details in this part of the society. Probably very few of us have seen a verified miraculous healing, and it’s unlikely that any of us have been venerated as divine beings.
But perhaps we have known something like this on a more modest scale. God may have helped us to do something important. Perhaps we helped someone in need, and it all seemed rather ordinary to us, but then people began to praise us. How do we handle that?
I touched on this a few weeks ago when we considered the death of Herod Agrippa, who failed to give glory to God when he was wrongly praised for being divine. You may recall that he didn’t pass the praise onto God. There are healthy and unhealthy ways to respond to praise. Perhaps you remember me telling you the story of Corrie ten Boom, who said that when she received a compliment, she thought of it as being like a bunch of flowers that are not meant for her. So she enjoyed the smell of the praise, rather like she would a bouquet. But then she would pass the accolade on to Heaven, saying, “This is all for you, Lord.”
We can see here how very quickly the apostles reject the status accorded to them. They are deeply distressed, as the tearing of their clothes (verse 14) shows. But let’s be very careful, because although Barnabas and Paul are careful to direct all the praise to God, what they do is not an example of what some people call ‘worm theology’. That is, just because they want God to be praised rather than themselves, they do not say things such as, “I am only a worm.” All the elevating of God that they do is not done to project themselves as worthless wretches. This is not the Uriah Heep definition of ‘very ‘umble’.
The apostles know that God was the author of the lame man’s healing, and so they speak passionately about his goodness. They speak about his provision to all (verses 15 to 17), just as Jesus had said that God made the sun shine on both the just and the unjust (contrary to the misquote that ‘the sun shines on the righteous’). They spoke of God’s goodness to all in creation and provision, something that John Calvin was later to label as ‘common grace’. Even before anyone discovers the saving grace of God in Jesus Christ’s death and resurrection for them, God has already shown ‘common grace’ in the way he has laid on good and necessary things for the sustaining of love, and has done so without favouring one group over another. It is not true that God only blesses the Christians: he starts by blessing all people.
And it is this kind of God who, the apostles say, calls people to repentance. We hear no description of a God whose severity is such you think he suffers from permanent indigestion. No: we hear the call to turn to him because everything else is so worthless in comparison to his goodness (verse 15).
Their concern is not to make fans for themselves, but disciples for Jesus Christ. I wonder whether that is our prime desire when someone praises us. If we too, believe in such a good God, a God of love, then should we not be more concerned for his popularity than ours?
And how might we respond if we do witness something out of the ordinary? Is it with adulation? Is it with some kind of ‘fan club’ mentality for the human beings at the centre of it? Isn’t it about time Christians stopped participating in the celebrity culture that obsesses our society? And isn’t it time that we stopped playing the same game in the church?
Some Christians today talk about ‘making Jesus famous’. To me that’s rather clumsy language, but it does make the point about the priorities we are to have when it comes to popularity. Whose fame are we concerned about? Do we want to burnish our own reputation, or do we want Jesus Christ to be promoted?
Secondly, the Jews from Antioch and Iconium also go wrong. Their problem is not idolatry – they knew their Ten Commandments – their problem is jealousy.
Now it’s all too easy today to take a misguided steer when it comes to the New Testament tales of Jewish people opposing Jesus and the early church. We know from the appalling legacy of history that the last thing we want to do is recreate what a Jewish friend of mine at work experienced as a child, when she was regularly called a ‘Christ killer’ in the street.
But neither can we simply take these stories in terms of the way Martin Luther and some of his successors interpreted them, namely that here was a group of people who had treated religion as a list of rules rather than as an experience of grace. The real situation was probably rather different. They were deeply devout, committed people, who wanted to know how God drew the boundary markers to denote who was ‘in’ when it came to faith and who was ‘out’. They understood that in their faith God had saved them by grace, but they saw good deeds not so much as saving them as proving they were members of the chosen people.
In other words, they weren’t that dissimilar to a lot of modern religious people. We may know that God has forgiven us in Jesus Christ and his death upon the Cross, but we then have certain standards to determine who we think are real Christians. Those standards may have some connection with the Bible, or they may have a little more to do with our wider cultural. Sometimes they will be explicitly stated, and at other times they will implicit assumptions.
Why go through all this about the Jewish opponents of the Gospel, including those who stone Paul and leave him for dead here (verse 19)? Because I want us to understand that it’s quite dangerous when we look down on them. We can be uncomfortably like them. We too, in our desire to protect and honour the name of our God, can also fall into the same poisonous, lethal trap. In our zeal for God, we can, if we are not careful, unleash deadly energies as a result of our jealousy that can damage others.
I have seen it happen in churches when a new, young, enthusiastic Christian grasps something about the Gospel and runs with great energy and excitement with it. Many people are thrilled, but some others who are more experienced in the faith think that they should be the people receiving recognition. So they plot – usually quietly, behind the scenes. The young Christian is subject to whispers, questions, and ‘concerns’. Only if these don’t work does the game become more aggressive and public.
I have also seen it happen in churches when some people think that a certain area of church life belongs to them. They have a monopoly on it. Nobody else is allowed to enter their domain, or to make creative suggestions, because no-one can possibly do it better than the existing incumbent. So when someone else does come up with a good idea and people love it, they throw a tantrum and wreck relationships.
Oh, we may not try to stone someone physically, but if we have not guarded our hearts against having a jealous reaction when someone else achieves popularity, then we are capable of causing other forms of destruction.
What can we do about this? How can we avoid jealousy when someone else is in the limelight and not us? I believe the simple answer is to remember that everything in the Christian life is about grace – the undeserved favour of God. It is not simply that grace comes into play so that we initially receive forgiveness and a place in the family of God. Everything from there on in as well is about God’s grace. All the good things we receive are not because we have kept certain rules or standards that maintain a place within the ‘boundary markers’. No! It is always about grace. However much we change (and even that is by the grace of God), we are still not rewarded according to our perfection. God continues to bless and to use sinful, broken, frail people in the Church. And yes, that most certainly includes me.
In other words, let us pause to reflect upon the fact that we shall always be dependent upon God’s grace in Jesus Christ. We are never so good that we can dispense with it. And if that is the case, then we must live like Jacob, with a limp, a limp that says we are sinners in permanent need of God’s mercy. And when we see ourselves like that, it is hard to keep up a sense that somehow I deserve something better than that upstart who has taken the spotlight off me.
Friends, we owe it to God, to the Church, to the world and to ourselves to guard our hearts with our perpetual need of grace.
And it is that same deep awareness of grace that will also make us see how ridiculous it is to promote ourselves instead of Christ. Once we recall how much we owe to him, we just look petty and silly when we think we should be elevating our own cause rather than his.
So – come, Holy Spirit, fill our hearts with a profound appreciation of grace. Convict us of sin where we have inflated our own self-importance in place of all that Jesus did for us on the Cross and in leaving the tomb empty. Enable us to be unconcerned about our own place in the church or society. Instead, fill us with a passionate desire to see Jesus Christ gain the glory for all that is good.
Sound consultant Julian Treasure shares insights into what constitutes good speaking, in both a technical and an ethical sense. Well worth ten minutes of your time.
Alan Hirsch argues that hyperbolic church growth depends on an understanding of Christians being constant disciples, not simply worshippers, attenders, members or consumers.
What would be on your list?
Read Carey Nieuwhof’s piece ‘5 Things Netflix Is Showing Church Leaders About The Future‘. Not all of these developments are good: who wants a model of Christiani disciples as isolated content consumers?
But in other places, there are some big and positive challenges to the church here: to see Sunday morning as more than singing and speaking, but about building relationships. To tell our great story well. To focus on our purpose, and to call people to something greater than themselves.
See what you think and let me know in the comments below.
A break from the Acts series this week, as I visit a church that generally uses the Lectionary for its sermons. If you want to hear something on Acts of the Apostles, go to Knaphill Methodist’s media page in the next couple of days and you’ll hear the recording of the all age service there in the sermon series.
On Wednesday, our daughter left junior school. My wife Debbie and I went to the Leavers’ Assembly at the school that afternoon, which was taken by the entire Year 6 cohort. They didn’t just look back at their favourite memories of junior school life, they also looked forward. Three of the children acted in a series of sketches, imagining themselves sixty years on at a reunion. Some children – including our Rebekah – stood up and told everyone what their ambition was. Becky’s, by the way, is to become a wildlife photographer.
Did you have a dream for your life? What happened to it? Did you realise it in full, or perhaps in a modified form? Or did it fall away?
And did you have a dream for what you would accomplish through your faith in Jesus Christ? I wonder what has happened to that over the years. Is it still intact? Or did it slip through your fingers?
Today, as we come to the end of Matthew 13, the great chapter in this Gospel of parables, we encounter a set of five final parables about God’s dream – his kingdom. Unlike our dreams, God’s dream of the kingdom, which is his ambition for creation, is one that will be fulfilled.
Let’s explore these parables in outline with the hope that we might recover our God-dreams for his kingdom. To do this, I’m not going to look at any one parable in detail, but rather pick out the big themes. Between them, the five parables give us three major themes.
Firstly, Jesus calls us to dream small. We have the parables of the mustard seed that starts small but grows into a tree (verses 31-32), and the parable of the yeast, a small amount of which leavens three measures of flour (verse 33).
Yes, these things end up big, but they start small. And the trouble with many of our dreams is that we want to go big from the start. In fast food terms, it’s as if we want to supersize them. So you can go to some major Christian conferences and leave with a rallying call to ‘take this nation for Jesus’. Or you can hear other Christians talking up massive social justice campaigns.
But, says Jesus, the dream of God’s kingdom starts small before it grows. An American Christian called James Davison Hunter has thought deeply about this. He has noticed these big projects of both conservative and liberal Christians to change society. The conservative Christians tend to believe that if we could only launch some mass evangelism efforts and see many people converted, then our culture would change. The liberal Christians identify a social evil and attempt to rally people to that cause, thinking that a political change will improve things.
Hunter, though, says that neither strategy works. What we need, he says, is ‘faithful presence’. We need Christians who will be a faithful witness where they already are. This, he argues, will be salt and light in society, and ultimately have more of a chance to bring sustained change to our world.
In this light, think back to the video you watched after we heard verses 31 to 33.
Jeremy Cowart grew up in a Baptist church in Nashville, Tennessee. He wanted to become a painter, and indeed that is how he started out in his working life. Through painting, he discovered an interest in graphic design, and through that got to learn the famous computer software Photoshop. And through Photoshop, he discovered what would become his true life’s passion – photography.
Still living in Nashville, one of the centres of the American music industry, he had several friends who were musicians. Some of them asked him to take the photos for their CD booklets. As some of those bands became more successful, so they recommended their friend Jeremy to their record companies, and this eventually meant he was asked to go to Los Angeles to shoot pictures of musicians. He became very well known among some of the world’s most famous musicians, and through that was also asked to take official photos for television programmes and some of the most famous celebrities on the planet.
As a Christian, Cowart wondered what he could do with his fame and influence. He has even been named ‘the most influential photographer on the web’. He realised that photography could bring a sense of dignity to many downtrodden and poor people in the world. Alongside all their known needs for food, shelter, money, housing and other essential things, he knew that many of these people would have their self-esteem vastly improved if they could be given a professional portrait photo.
So he started to contact people around the world in his industry: fellow photographers, but also hairstylists and make-up artists. A few years ago, on a December Saturday, they offered their skills to people in various communities. It is now an annual event, with over 20,000 professionals involved each year. They take their expensive cameras and lenses, lighting and backgrounds, make-up and so on to a local centre. They befriend people, take their photos, print them on the spot, and give them free of charge. The photographers pay all the costs, and are encouraged not just to take and give the photo, but to go the extra mile for these people.
There are wonderful stories coming out of this movement. Prostitutes have given up their trade after many years, because they finally felt loved and realised who they could be again from looking at their image. One group reported this story:
The lady with the lighter blonde hair was the first to get her photo taken. We asked her if she’d like us to do her hair and use some makeup. She was ecstatic and didn’t know what to say. She sat there with a smile on her face the whole time and was so thankful for someone to care for her.
One lady just looked at us, almost in tears, and said “why are you doing this for us?” We explained that it wasn’t because of anything in us, but because of what God has done in us that causes us to love one another and bear each other’s burdens.
We ended up giving out our contact information to everyone who attended that day and we’ve had several responses back for prayer, needing help finding a job when you have 2 felonies, and helping finding places to live and get established.
We also partnered with Crossway Publishers. They gave us 40 brand new ESV bibles to give away. We signed and gave away 38 bibles. Some people were even coming in and asking for a Bible, but didn’t necessarily want a portrait.
We got so many hugs that day!
Jeremy Cowart started out anonymous and became world-famous. His idea began small, but now touches thousands every year. This is mustard seed faith. This is the yeast at work.
Is there something small you could do for the love of God and the love of others with your talents? Who knows how it might spread and make parts of this world more like God’s kingdom.
Secondly, having begun by dreaming small we can now dream big. Here we come to the parables of the treasure hidden in a field (verse 44) and the pearl of great price (verses 45-46).
I once heard of a man who left a church in disgust when another worshipper told him that the only proper giving to the Lord’s work was a tithe, that is, ten per cent of his income. The man walked out, saying, “How dare he! It’s none of his business! It’s up to me to choose how much I decide to give!”
Was the disgruntled worshipper right? No. Was the advocate for tithing right? No – even though a case can be made from the Scriptures for Christians to tithe. (Although it’s a contentious issue, and I’m not going to enter into it now.)
No. The offering God wants from us is not ten per cent, but a hundred per cent. The one who discovers the treasure sells all he has to acquire it, and so does the merchant who discovers the supremely valuable pearl.
As I once heard it said – and the first part of this at least goes down well in Surrey: God is a capitalist. He only believes in takeover bids.
God and his kingdom, with its wonderful vision for how things can be and how things will be, is such a captivating, heart-stirring sight that the only proper response to it is to give our entire selves in the cause.
There was a slogan at the recent World Cup Finals which caught the mood of this well: ‘All in or nothing.’ That could summarise what commitment to Christ and his kingdom is about. When we think of what he has done for us – especially on the Cross – how can it be any less?
You start by dreaming small, simply aiming to take your gifts and talents and create a faithful presence in the world. But you back it up with a big commitment. You put heart and soul, mind and body behind that small faithful presence. It’s one thing having a dream, but it’s no good sitting around, waiting for it to happen. It takes commitment of the blood, sweat and tears variety to make it come into being.
And all of this means it’s about time we stopped playing church. You know – coming on Sunday, thinking that means we’ve done our duty to God and ignoring him for the rest of the week. Or moaning and groaning about everything we don’t like, as if faith were some consumer item to be loved or loathed. Recently I heard the story of a person who said to the preacher after the service, “I didn’t like the hymns you picked this morning.”
“That’s OK,” replied the preacher, “we weren’t singing them for you.”
Church is not being run for your benefit or mine. Church is here to give glory to God in worship and in mission, and to train us all up as wholehearted disciples. God is completely devoted to that. The only fitting response on our part is to back our small dreams with big commitment.
Thirdly and finally, we need to dream long. We come to the parable of the net, in which the good fish from the catch are kept but the bad ones are discarded, as a sign that the separation of the evil and the righteous will happen at the end of the age (verses 47-50). In today’s reading it stands alone, but just as there is a pairing of the mustard seed and the yeast parables, and of the hidden treasure and the pearl of great price parables, so the parable of the net pairs with the story of the wheat and the weeds (tares) that Matthew placed earlier in the chapter, at verses 24 to 30.
These two parables encapsulate the long-term dream of God’s kingdom as a place where righteousness is all-pervasive, and evil is conquered. War, chaos, suffering, famine, sickness, and other ugly members of their family are gone, not least because God has banished those who perpetuate wickedness.
Somewhere in the heart of our kingdom dreaming is often a desire to obliterate evil now. so when sin rears its head again, or violence wins another day (and we have too many examples of that in the news right now), then we can become discouraged. Why doesn’t God throw away the bad fish now?
And if we’re not careful, our deeply committed discipleship turns into an aggressive crusade against others. What’s more, if we dare to look in at ourselves, we too are a disturbing mixture of good and evil. If we need mercy ourselves, how much more should we seek it for others?
So we need patience. God is playing a long game. There will be setbacks along the way, but none of these need deter us. To put it another way, sometimes we treat the Christian life like a hundred metre sprint, but actually it’s a marathon. So we keep plugging away, even when – as marathon runners say – we ‘hit the wall’.
The parable of the net (and the parable of the wheat and the weeds) reminds us that it is worth the slog of keeping going in kingdom things. One day people will be receptive and we shall be encouraged, but on other days we won’t.
In one of the darkest periods of my life and ministry, there was one Bible verse that just about kept my head above water, even though I didn’t understand what God was doing in the situation. It was the final verse of 1 Corinthians 15, Paul’s great chapter on the Resurrection, where in the light of that great hope he tells his readers, ‘your labour in the Lord is not in vain.’ Nor is ours.
And as those who face far worse than we do – such as our persecuted brothers and sisters who have fled Mosul in Iraq in the face of the evil ISIS movement – one day there ‘will be weeping and gnashing of teeth’ for the wicked. I know we get edgy about longing for judgement and that’s reasonable when our desire for God to judge people is really some religious blood lust. But when people are suffering serious premeditated wickedness, as is happening in northern Iraq and other parts of the globe, then this is purely a heartfelt cry for justice, even if it comes within the framework of God’s long game, while he longs for even the most sinful of people to repent and find his mercy.
The long dream is one with an awesome climax, and it requires us to dream big in the level of our commitment. But it all starts with the small dream, the faithful presence in the world using our gifts to bless people outside the church now.
Will you leave this place this morning to begin – or to re-engage – small, and trust God for what he will do?
‘We Know More Than Our Pastors’. That was the title of an article written ten years ago by a former pastor who argued that Christian participants in the emerging world of social media on the Internet (at that time, largely confined to blogging) had a greater reach and a greater access to knowledge than the typical church minister.
Actually, ‘we know more than our pastors’ isn’t a recent phenomenon. There have been many occasions in church history when new vision has come not from the centre but the margins of the Christian community.
And we have one such example in today’s reading. We have spent the last few weeks caught up in the apostle Peter’s agonies over taking the Gospel beyond the Jewish community to Cornelius the Gentile Roman centurion. But today we discover that some anonymous disciples had shared the Good News of Jesus with Gentiles before he had!
Now those who had been scattered by the persecution that broke out when Stephen was killed travelled as far as Phoenicia, Cyprus and Antioch, spreading the word only among Jews. 20 Some of them, however, men from Cyprus and Cyrene, went to Antioch and began to speak to Greeks also, telling them the good news about the Lord Jesus.21 The Lord’s hand was with them, and a great number of people believed and turned to the Lord. (Verses 19-21, italics mine)
Stephen is killed in chapter seven, and the persecution breaks out in chapter eight – all before Peter is challenged to visit Cornelius. So-called ‘ordinary Christians’ are miles ahead of the apostle here.
When that happens in our religious institutions today, the common instinct is to come up with a set of rules, many of which are about prohibitions to make sure such messy and disorderly behaviour doesn’t occur again. But thankfully, the reaction of the early church was positive. It recognised a work of God. And rather than trap people with regulations and tie them up with red tape, the dominant tone of our reading is encouragement.
And encouragement is a vital quality when it comes to Christian mission. Which makes this an appropriate reading for a service I am sharing with the church Mission Team. I think it’s fair to say that most of what our Mission Team doesn’t so much involve us in direct mission, but in encouraging others who are involved in mission. That isn’t to say we should use that as a cover for not engaging in mission ourselves, but it is to say we need to draw attention to the importance of encouragement in the sustaining of Christian mission.
So if we’re talking about encouragement, then step forward Barnabas, whose name means ‘Son of encouragement’, and who has lived up to his name earlier in Acts. How does encouragement work in relation to Christian mission in this passage? Here are three ways:
Firstly, encouragement is needed in the teaching of new disciples:
News of this reached the church in Jerusalem, and they sent Barnabas to Antioch.23 When he arrived and saw what the grace of God had done, he was glad and encouraged them all to remain true to the Lord with all their hearts. 24 He was a good man, full of the Holy Spirit and faith, and a great number of people were brought to the Lord. (Verses 22-24)
The missionary task of bringing people to faith by evangelism isn’t enough. Any church that is serious about mission will also be serious about teaching the faith to the congregation, old and new. It won’t usually be in some detached, theoretical, academic style. It will be teaching with a specific purpose. And that purpose is one of discipleship. It will be teaching how to live in the ways of Jesus. After all, that’s how Barnabas encouraged the people here: he ‘encouraged them all to remain true to the Lord with all their hearts’ (verse 23). Christian teaching that merely tickles an intellectual fancy is a waste of time. (Which is not to deny that we should think hard about our faith.)
After all, what are we about as a church if we are not about making new disciples of Jesus Christ and growing in our discipleship? It’s why the teaching ministry is so vital – whether from the pulpit, in the home group, or one on one as mature individual Christians teach newer Christians how to walk closely with Christ. This teaching ministry takes precedence over institutional requirements, administration, socialising, and all sorts of other areas. If our church is doing too many things to squeeze this in, then we need to look at our priorities.
Furthermore, it needs to be a priority among ordinary Christians. Each one of us ought to be able to answer questions such as these: what have I done in the last twelve months in order to be more like Jesus? How have I changed? (Granted, that one might better be answered by those who know us well.) What am I doing in my life right now that is an intentional step in learning the way of Christ? If this is so important and I am not doing it, what will I give up in order to focus on being more Christ-like? What trade-off will I accept? What sacrifice will I make? Have I filled my mind with too much trivia?
In terms of the wider mission of God’s church, this is why we release church leaders such as ministers to go to areas of the country and of the world where there are new disciples of Jesus. Help is needed to establish new converts in the faith. It’s something we can support when we give to World Mission or Mission In Britain, and when we pray for it.
Secondly, encouragement is needed in the development of new leaders.
Then Barnabas went to Tarsus to look for Saul, 26 and when he found him, he brought him to Antioch. So for a whole year Barnabas and Saul met with the church and taught great numbers of people. The disciples were called Christians first at Antioch. (Verses 25-26)
Saul still isn’t Paul. He may have begun preaching soon after his conversion, but he isn’t the hotshot apostle yet. He is someone of whom the early church leaders were understandably suspicious. But just as Barnabas vouched for him in the early days, now he encourages him again by giving him a chance to spread his wings and develop as a leader in God’s mission. Barnabas sees that potential in Saul, and recruits him. It looks like he is spot on, given both the year that the two men spend teaching in Antioch, and of course subsequent history when Saul became Paul.
The work develops – don’t just assume it’s a note of historical detail when Luke says, ‘The disciples were called Christians first at Antioch’ (verse 26). They take on a new name and a new identity. This is probably a group of Jesus followers who are a mixture of both Jews and Gentiles – remember that those who came to share the Gospel there spoke not ‘to Greeks’ but ‘to Greeks also’ (verse 20, italics mine). No longer is this merely a Jewish sect, but a group of Jews and Gentiles who, though previously enemies, have been reconciled to God and to one another through Jesus Christ. As such, they are a new entity, and they take on a new identity with a new name: ‘Christians’.
It is a rôle of Christian leaders to help disciples grow into their new identity as Christ’s followers. It is a calling, if you will, to help people ‘become who they are’ – that is, to become who they are in Christ. Jesus Christ gives us a new identity when we turn our lives over to him. We become children of God, and this is not only a new individual identity, it is also a new identity as a member of God’s pilgrim people.
It is not a rôle of Christian leaders to baptise every new and existing idea in the congregation. It is not part of the job description to turn up like Young Mister Grace in ‘Are You Being Served?’ saying, “You’ve all done very well” at any and every social function. It is not the rôle of church leaders to be managers of a building, but leaders of a movement. Nor is it the place of Christian leaders to be the ones who do all the witnessing and evangelising, as if that lets everyone else off the hook. It doesn’t.
What, then, are the practical implications for church members here? Allow (and encourage!) your leaders to concentrate on the essential tasks of leading God’s people. Let them have resources to develop themselves and so develop others – time for reading, time to go to training courses and conferences, time for sabbaticals and retreats. Support fund-raising for world mission so that leaders can be nurtured and supplied in developing churches around the globe. Support the Methodist Fund for Training in this country to provide good quality training for ministers, Local Preachers and others.
And most of all, pray for those in leadership. During my ministry, I have known of four people who have committed to pray for me every day. There may well be more than the four who have privately identified themselves to me over the years. However, two of them are now dead. Could you take it on board to pray regularly for people you know in Christian leadership? I can’t tell you what a morale-booster it is to hear that people are doing this for you.
Thirdly and finally, we move from Barnabas to Agabus. The third and final encouragement is the provision for the suffering.
During this time some prophets came down from Jerusalem to Antioch. 28 One of them, named Agabus, stood up and through the Spirit predicted that a severe famine would spread over the entire Roman world. (This happened during the reign of Claudius.) 29 The disciples, as each one was able, decided to provide help for the brothers and sisters living in Judea. 30 This they did, sending their gift to the elders by Barnabas and Saul. (Verses 27-30)
Agabus will turn up in one more incident later in Acts. He will have another prophetic message, when he warns Paul that suffering and imprisonment is awaiting him if he takes a particular proposed decision. He is proved right, and he is shown to be right here. We have other New Testament references to a collection for those suffering the effects of a famine, especially those in Judea. Paul’s teaching on Christian giving in 2 Corinthians 9 has this particular tragedy as its backdrop.
Of course, giving to disaster relief is one expression of Christian mission with which we are sadly too familiar. We have just had plates out in recent weeks for Christian Aid’s Iraq appeal. We are used to televised appeals from the Disasters Emergency Committee. But millions of others do the same, who do not claim the name of Christ, so what could be explicitly Christian about our acts of giving for the relief of suffering?
I guess there has to be a Christian dimension to the giving and a Christian dimension to the people using the gift. The Christian dimension to the giving is perhaps something we shall only know in our hearts. It is the concern to bring things in this world in alignment with heaven – ‘Your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as in heaven’.
The Christian dimension expressed by the people using the gift means, I think, that we are talking about giving to organisations that act in the name of Christ. It may be those that simply are Christians who engage in disaster relief (and, perhaps, some political campaigning), such as Christian Aid. To do so may bring a visible sign of encouragement to the downtrodden.
Or it may be an organisation that sees all Christian mission as a whole, and integrates disaster relief with uniting the churches in a particular area of the world and proclaiming a gospel message that calls people there to find hope in Jesus Christ and follow him. Here I am thinking of outfits such as TEAR Fund. And what better word of encouragement is there to someone than Christ? We just need to remember the words of William Booth: ‘If you want to give a tract to a hungry man, make sure it is the wrapping on a sandwich.’
So – in conclusion, let’s go back to the beginning. I began with that slogan, ‘We know better than our pastors.’ I rather feel that what I have presented to you this morning constitutes only some very basic ideas about the place of encouragement in the development of Christian mission. Giving, supporting, encouraging, praying – there is nothing new or unusual in the applications I have suggested.
Now if that’s the case, I think you can prove the virtue of ‘We know better than our pastors.’ Because you can do all of these things. And with baptised imaginations, you can dream, think, and do so much more. We haven’t even mentioned prayer, nor even the possibility of answering a call to mission ourselves.
So why not get dreaming? After all, you know more than me.
How many Christians does it take to screw in a light bulb?
Three, but they are really one.
How many agnostics does it take to screw in a light bulb?
Agnostics question the existence of the light bulb.
How many fundamentalists does it take to screw in a light bulb?
THE BIBLE * DOES * NOT * SAY * ANYTHING * ABOUT LIGHT BULBS!
And finally … how many Methodists does it take to screw in a light bulb?
Change? What’s this word ‘change’?
Change is what our Bible readings these last three Sundays have been making us think about. Peter the Jewish apostle had to contemplate change in order to take the message of Jesus to Cornelius the Roman centurion. Cornelius had to consider change, because although he was a good man who believed in God, he needed more. Now, after Peter’s visit to Cornelius, where God has brought about dramatic change by the Holy Spirit, he is interrogated in Jerusalem who have heard about the incident on the grapevine and don’t like it:
‘You went into the house of uncircumcised men and ate with them.’ (Verse 3)
So what if you’re like these people, not involved in the big change at the time but coming to it second hand at a later date? What if, like these people, you are among those who has to consider whether a change is good or not? How do you judge it? What if your minister or your Church Council say to the congregation, “Such-and-such is the way we should go,” but it all sounds rather flaky to you. What would a good response look like?
After all, it’s easy to judge a proposed change based on your instinctive temperament. You may have heard it said that when a group of people is faced with a proposal for change, they fall roughly into four groups:
- The radicals, who want change, and today would be too late. Yesterday would be preferable;
- The progressives, whose natural instinct is for change, but who may not be as extreme as the radicals;
- The conservatives, who would prefer not to change. However, if you can make a good case, then they will happily go along with it;
- The traditionalists, who will not change at any price.
The traditionalists are rather like the Anglican church warden who had been in office for forty years when the bishop met him one day on a visit to the church.
The bishop said, “You must have seen a lot of changes here during your forty years.”
“Yes,” replied the church warden, “and I’ve opposed every one of them!”
So, then, if you are not the first to hear the news, how do you respond toproposed change? The first constructive thing the Jerusalem disciples did was to listen.
I get the impression that when they say to Peter, ‘You went into the house of uncircumcised men and ate with them,’ it’s a rather hostile, aggressive, accusing question. I say that because Peter’s speech in response exhibits all the classic signs of an ancient defence speech. He quotes the testimony of witnesses, the evidence of signs, and concludes with a rhetorical question.
But to their credit, ‘the circumcised believers’ (verse 2, as Luke describes them) do not interrupt or hassle Peter. They listen carefully to his speech. We can be grateful that for all their initial antagonism, they are not the sort of people we sometimes find in our churches and in the wider world whose motto could be, ‘I’ve made my mind up, so don’t confuse me with the facts.’ You know the sort of person who only listens to a contrary view with the greatest of reluctance. Perhaps they are actually afraid that if they listen, the truth will persuade them they are wrong and they will have to change when that is the last thing they want to do.
Not the Jerusalem disciples, though. Sceptical they may be, but their actions show they want to go in the direction of God’s truth. And since a major part of that discernment process will be to detect where God is already at work, they devote themselves to listening to Peter.
So how good are we at listening to others in order to perceive the work of God? It requires above all that we have a heart and mind that is committed to finding the will of God and following it. Sadly, there are people in our churches who are too embedded to the traditions they love that they will not take the holy risk of listening. I suggest that such people probably love their traditions more than they love God.
Or there are those of us who prefer the sound of our own voices to those of others. We have an inbuilt pride that assumes God is more likely to speak through us than through other Christians, and so we don’t invest time and energy in listening to others.
Rather, listening is an act that honours other people. What they claim to be an account of God at work is worthy of our attention. We grant them dignity is people made in the image of God and called to be servants of God by giving them our time and concentration.
Note that in all this I am not saying that listening should be naïve and uncritical. It certainly should not be the kind of exercise where we absorb everything that is said without filtering it. That is why the second element of responding toproposed change is to discern.
Here’s where I see discernment going on in the story. Peter does something very modest in his speech. He omits all reference to the sermon he preached – he is not claiming that the conversion of the Gentiles is his work. Instead, as he prepares to tell his listeners about how the Holy Spirit fell upon Cornelius and his household, he substitutes for his sermon the words of Jesus:
John baptised with water, but you will be baptised withthe Holy Spirit. (Verse 16)
Now these words of Jesus were originally aimed at his disciples, not later Gentiles, but Peter clearly sees an applicable parallel. He knows how the words were fulfilled at Pentecost, and he has just seen something similar at Caesarea. The words of Jesus are an appropriate interpretation of the recent ground-breaking events he has witnessed.
What does this have to do with discernment? These words of Jesus, taken by Peter to support a valid interpretation of the spiritual experience in question, are the decisive matter for ‘the circumcised believers’. Now they know that what they are hearing about from the apostle fits within the grand sweep of God’s purposes, because they fulfil a great biblical theme. Later in Acts the believers in the town of Berea will test what they encounter against the Scriptures, so here the listeners don’t even have to search the Scriptures themselves, a relevant one is given to them on a plate by Peter. Not only that, it fulfils ancient prophecies in which Israel is called to be a light to the nations. The call that Jonah ran away from is embraced here.
The test of discernment, then, is whether what they hear in their concentrated listening constitutes something that is in harmony with the great purposes of the God who sent his Son and later sent his Spirit.
We, too, would do well to engage in a similar approach to discernment. If something is being proposed, it will not be something with a proof text we can find in the Bible – and let’s remember how the various disciples in Acts underwent vastly different fates. Some survived and were honoured; others suffered; still others were martyred. So with varying destinies in this life, we can hardly take the proof text approach.
But what we can do is ask whether what is being proposed fits harmoniously in with what we know of God’s great story, his grand narrative of salvation. Does the proposal honour Jesus Christ? These should be the ways in which we discerningly evaluate whether to accept the suggested change. What we should not do is merely evaluate according to our own tastes and preferences.
Finally, there is a third characteristic of responding to calls for change, but it is one that only comes into play if the first two stages – the listening and the discerning – have been passed positively. If the proposal has been filtered out by those two, then what I am about to talk about does not apply. So – if the proposal for change has met the tests, this third element is praise. Hear the final verse of the reading again:
When they heard this, they had no further objections and praised God, saying, ‘So then, even to Gentiles God has granted repentance that leads to life.’ (Verse 18)
What a transformation this is for the Jerusalem disciples, who began this dialogue with a sceptical, even hostile question. The aggression has gone, and now we have worship. Division has been averted, and we have a heightened sense of unity among the believers. There is a great opportunity now for the early church to take giant strides forward, not only with those who could have been at odds united, but also with an expansion to include the Gentiles.
Nothing energises the Church of Jesus Christ like a united sense of joy in his purposes, and delight in the God who calls us to be his worshippers, disciples, and witnesses. Holding onto what we’ve got because we feel the need always to defend the old ways will not lead us into joy and praise, because it will only inculcate in us a grim defensiveness like Canute vainly telling the waves to retreat. And changing just for the sake of change will not lead us to deeper and truer praise, either, because all that will do is make us into flaky fly-by-night characters.
No: true praise bursts out from among us when we detect God taking us back in a fresh way to his ancient plans and purposes. Praise comes when we sense that God is doing something new among us, something new that is yet also compatible with all he has revealed about himself in the past.
What is our corporate voice as a church? Is it one of joy and praise, because we are committed to going forward in the purposes of God? Or do we have an uncertain voice, because we have not made up our minds whether we are serious about following God’s will rather than our own self-indulgences? Or is there a heaviness among us, because we fill our time with criticising one another or taking pot-shots at all our petty hates?
Or do we have a heart as big as the world, a heart that therefore embraces God’s love for all creation, where he longs to do his transforming work, and to which end he desires to change us first so that we might be suitable vessels for his purposes?
Last August, just before we went on holiday in Cornwall, I noticed that an old friend of mine, Steve Wild, the Chair of the Cornwall Methodist District, would be taking a service in the Methodist church in Looe, the town where we would be staying while we were there. Steve is one of the warmest, most positive Christians I have ever had the pleasure to know. And what’s more, he often turns up at services with puppets – most notably Clarence the Frog. So I contacted him and asked whether Clarence would be accompanying him to the service in Looe.
We went as a whole family to the service, and met Steve outside the chapel, where he greeted us in his customary enthusiastic manner. Inside, he led half an hour of community hymn singing before the service proper began. He desperately wanted our two children to pick something, but the church was still on the 1936 Methodist Hymn Book, and our two even find 1983’s Hymns And Psalms far too ancient. He hadn’t brought along Clarence the Frog, but he had brought one of Clarence’s friends, and he let Bex and Mark play with the puppet during the service. Also, at one point, noticing how difficult the service was for them, he conducted a commando raid on the refreshments during the middle of a hymn and came back with a supply of Jaffa Cakes for them.
All in all, Steve is good news. He embodies the good news that he has preached throughout his life as an evangelist, a lecturer, a local minister, and television presenter. And I consider it good news of another kind to hear this week that he has been elected to be next year’s President of the Methodist Conference.
Good news is our theme this morning. Not the good news of Steve, but the Good News of Jesus (whom Steve proclaims). We come to this reading on the back of the fact that both Peter and Cornelius are facing the challenge to change. Cornelius is a good man, a devout religious man, even, but his vision of a man in dazzling clothes (verse 30ff) has shown him he needs more. Peter is being challenged to move outside his Jewish comfort zone, as well. And the reason for both these challenges to change is the Good News of Jesus. We’re going to spend some time this morning thinking about that Good News.
Firstly, who hears the Good News? Listen again to what Peter says when he introduces himself, having disabused Cornelius of the idea that he is anything more than mortal:
You yourselves know that it is unlawful for a Jew to associate with or to visit a Gentile; but God has shown me that I should not call anyone profane or unclean. (Verse 28)
Never mind the notions of who’s in and who’s out, ‘Unlawful’ is a rather strong translation of a word that here should probably be taken to mean ‘taboo’. All his social conventions and cultural pressure pointed against him having anything to do with Cornelius. But Peter says: ‘God has shown me that I should not call anyone profane or unclean.’
Now that is potent. Social taboos tell us who the goodies are and who the baddies are. They tell us who is clean, and who is dirty. They wield great power, and tend to come with considerable pressure. Yet Peter resists the taboos, because God has told him otherwise. No-one is subject to God’s taboos when it comes to the Gospel.
What might that mean for us? It’s easy to draw up lists and examples of the social taboos we endorse today. Gypsies and travellers are often not welcome in an area, because they are all deemed to make a mess, but are they taboo to God? Evidently not, given the spiritual revival that has happened among them in recent years, and we have some evidence of that not far from here in the existence of a travellers’ church.
Or what about this week when we have seen two high-profile people in our society sent to prison? As a nation we have been disgusted by the phone hacking scandal that has been exposed in recent years, and it is only right that Andy Coulson, the convicted News of the World editor, has been jailed for eighteen months this week. What terrible things he authorised for victims such as Milly Dowler’s family. But has God declared him beyond the bounds of the Gospel? Was the judge right to declare these crimes ‘unforgivable’? Not at all. In fact, he desperately needs the Good News, and this would be a good time to pray for our prison chaplains.
Similarly, Rolf Harris. Many have been shocked to see his arrest, conviction and imprisonment for various sexual assaults, some upon minors. People are now queuing up to tell him to rot in prison and die there, but again – is he beyond the possibilities of God’s grace? By no means. In his twilight years, could he become like the repentant thief on the cross next to Jesus? Absolutely.
Of course, we don’t minimise the serious and deep repentance that will be needed by anyone who responds to the Good News of Jesus, but neither do we as believers in that Gospel deny people the opportunity to hear it and meet Christ.
And not only that, some of our taboos are not even about people who have done wrong. There are still taboos against people for the colour of their skin. There are various ways in which we exclude people because they are ‘not one of us’. But if God does not treat them as ‘profane or unclean’, then what right do we have to exclude them from the offer of God’s love? How can we? The heart of the Good News is a message of mercy and grace for all – including us, because we need that as much as anybody.
Secondly, what is the Good News? Many years ago, I read a Christian magazine article where famous church leaders were asked to define the Gospel in fifty words or less. One or two of them said it wasn’t possible, and implicitly they were derided for complicating a simple message.
Well, the Good News is simple, but it is also huge. Whole books have been written about it, and we can only scratch the surface by looking at how Peter described it to Cornelius before the Holy Spirit interrupted his sermon.
Some Christians will read the account of Peter’s address and major on the ‘simple’ message beginning with peace through Jesus Christ (verse 36) and ending with the forgiveness of sins (verse 43). It’s what many of us are tuned in to hear – that Jesus died for our sins and through his sacrifice we can be forgiven.
Now in what I am about to say I do not want anyone to think that I deny that message. I don’t. I believe it, and it is central to my faith, too. But I want you to notice that it is only one thing among many that Peter says – and he doesn’t even get as far as linking forgiveness to the Cross! And the broad context is that Peter gives a brief account of the story of Jesus. Yes, the message starts with peace and ends with forgiveness, but that is all part of an invitation to enter into the story of Jesus.
The danger with only emphasising the message of forgiveness is that we gain the impression that Christianity is simply a ticket into heaven when we die. But the call is not only to be at peace with God and discover forgiveness through Jesus Christ, it is also to be part of the Jesus story. It is to live a Jesus life that is made possible by God’s peace and forgiveness. It is to know that the Resurrection doesn’t simply mean we have the hope of heaven, but that Jesus
is the one ordained by God as judge of the living and the dead. (Verse 42)
‘Judge’ may not sound like good news, but this is the Jesus who has already been described as ‘doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil’ (verse 38).
The message, then, is about receiving God’s forgiveness and peace, but going on from there as a disciple of Jesus, one who learns by seeking to copy his life. Yes, there is the hope of heaven, but before then there is the call as a disciple to build for the kingdom of God and make a difference in this world. This is what Peter calls Cornelius to embrace. This is what we are called to believe and live if we call ourselves Christians. And this is the message we are to take to the world.
Thirdly and finally, how is the Good News lived? It all happens when Peter’s sermon is interrupted. How on earth anyone can come up with the popular cliché that the Holy Spirit is a gentleman when that very Spirit decides that Peter has said enough and it’s time for action is beyond me. But he falls on the listeners ‘while Peter was still speaking’ (verse 44). The Gentiles get the same beginning – ‘speaking in tongues and extolling God’ (verse 46) – that the first disciples had had at Pentecost. The ‘taboo’ people – those thought ‘profane or unclean’ until God’s intervention are most definitely nothing of the sort.
I wonder whether we have ever seen God pour out his favour upon someone of whom we disapproved? Because that’s what Peter and his team witness here. And it is so decisive that Peter orders the immediate baptism of Cornelius and his household. There is all the evidence he needs to know that these are people who have converted to the Good News of Jesus.
And now, the two groups that were previously hostile to each other are united in Jesus Christ and the power of the Holy Spirit. Here is a powerful sign of God’s ministry of reconciliation. The Gospel again is not simply about my personal forgiveness of sins. We are not only reconciled to God, we are reconciled to each other and called to live a life where we are at peace with God and one another.
Yes, living as a disciple starts right now as God unites us in Christ with people we wouldn’t otherwise choose to be our companions. The old adage that you can choose your friends but you can’t choose your family is just as true of our spiritual family. But if we are serious about seeing the healing of the nations as we work for the kingdom of God, then we need to start by being an example of a healing community right here.
What does that mean? Well, by the power of the Holy Spirit it means I am not going to ignore that person I don’t like. I am instead going to see whether reconciliation is achievable. It means I am not going to keep poisoning our community by indulging in cheap criticism of people, especially when I do it from a perspective that sounds like I think I am superior, I have got everything together, and I am the better disciple of Jesus. It means I am not going to start complaining at the drop of a hat. I do not come to church to be a consumer, and expect that the purpose of church is for everything to be according to my taste, and that I can therefore rattle off my moans when it isn’t exactly how I want it to be. No, I come to my church community to be part of God’s work of reconciliation and healing. I come on Sundays and other days to live out Jesus Christ’s vision of peace – peace with God, peace with one another, and peace for the world.
In short, as I embrace in Jesus’ name those who are socially under a taboo, and seek to lives as disciples of Jesus alongside them, I am committed to a life whose very actions speak the Good News that Christ brought.
Nothing less than that is Christian faith and Christian church.