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Sermon: Acts – Who’s The Governor?

Acts 12:19b-25

Ted Robbins

Ted Robbins by Thwaites Empire Theatre on Flickr. Copyright Mike Johnson Mikeseye Photographic. Some rights reserved.

One of the things about having children is that whether you like it or not, you become acquainted with some of the television programming aimed at them. One of the shows to which I admit a sneaking fondness is called ‘The Slammer’. Ostensibly set in a prison – hence ‘The Slammer’ – inmates can earn early release by performing in a weekly variety show called ‘The Freedom Show’. In reality, these are of course stage acts, and they are participating in a talent show. The children in the audience choose the winner by the loudness of their applause. Those who do not win are condemned to stay and face mealtimes where they always eat the dreaded ‘sloppy poppy porridge’.

‘The Freedom Show’ is compèred by the prison governor, who is imaginatively known as ‘The Governor’, played by the comedy actor Ted Robbins. He is assisted a warder called Mr Burgess, who is like a watered-down version of Fulton Mackay’s character Mr Mackay in Ronnie Barker’s comedy series ‘Porridge’.

However, the Governor wants to be more than a compère. He hankers to be a performer himself, and makes a big entrance to ‘The Freedom Show’ every week, often dressed garishly in clothes such as a yellow dinner jacket and bow tie.

When he comes on, he has a catchphrase. He calls out to the children in the audience, “Who’s the Governor?” and the children shout back, “You’re the Governor!”

I don’t know why it makes me laugh, but it does. Anyway, “Who’s the Governor?” becomes a suitable catchphrase for this sermon. Who’s the Governor – Herod Agrippa or God? Let me place that in context.

Herod Agrippa has just suffered a damaging reverse. Having gained political capital by imprisoning and executing some of the early church leaders, he thought he was onto a winner when he had the apostle Peter put in his ‘slammer’, and scheduled for execution. No long years on Death Row in those days. But Peter had miraculously escaped, and Herod in his temper – having been publicly shown up by the power of God – had the guards executed in a moment of pique. This has come not long after Luke has also recounted in Acts the story of the prophet Agabus foretelling a famine, and the church at Antioch responding by organising a relief collection for the disciples in Judea.

So we’re about to see a contrast between the worst of human rulership and the best of God’s kingly rule. As we do this, we shall learn more how to pray and witness today, even in the face of adversity, and more about the true nature of the God we serve.

Here are three areas of contrast:

Firstly, compassion. What’s wrong with this picture?

Now Herod was angry with the people of Tyre and Sidon. So they came to him in a body; and after winning over Blastus, the king’s chamberlain, they asked for a reconciliation, because their country depended on the king’s country for food. (Verse 20)

What’s wrong is that in the Hebrew Scriptures, a king was to look after the people. To be in dispute over the need for food was not good. To withhold food even from those of another nation was not normal behaviour for a good king. But the people of Tyre and Sidon need to grovel to get what they need from Herod. This is not right.

We already know that this Herod was a violent man from his treatment of the church leaders, and perhaps this is no surprise for a man who was the grandson of the so-called Herod the Great, the man who ordered the slaughter of the innocents in Bethlehem, and who might better be called Herod the Terrible. The Herod of our story, Herod Agrippa, had also been educated in Rome, and was a friend of the Emperor Caligula, to whom he owed his power[1].

We don’t know what this unsavoury ruler was going to do about the request from Tyre and Sidon, because he doesn’t get the chance. All we do know is that he had consciously allowed an unjust situation to develop, and there was only any possibility of resolution because one of his officials, Blastus, had taken a chance. This meeting was not by Herod’s initiative. He had shown no interest in the welfare of these people.

We know enough about heartless tyrants in the history of the world and in current affairs. Starving a population is a tactic both ancient and modern. From ancient Assyria to modern Syria, this is a common practice.

Contrast this with what we have seen in the church not long ago in Acts. The prophet Agabus has appeared on the scene and prophesied a coming famine. But the response of the church is to organise support for those who will suffer the most. It is like a reflex action. Think of Joseph in Genesis storing Egypt’s food in the seven years of plenty before the seven years of famine, and you will see a similar approach.

Esther McVey MP

Esther McVey MP by the Department for Work and Pensions on Flickr. Some rights reserved.

What it comes down to is that while the tyrants of the world starve people into submission, the God of the Bible is compassionate, and his people are called to witness to that compassion by modelling it in their own behaviour. That is why it is good that we hosted the Runnymede Food Bank here for its first two years of existence. That is why it is also good that the growth of the food banks in our country, usually started by Christians, have become an embarrassing indictment against heartless government policies. When we see cases like that of David Clapson, the diabetic ex-soldier who was penalised by a Job Centre for missing an appointment, had his £71.70 benefits stopped, couldn’t then afford food or electricity, and died from a condition resulting from not being able to take his insulin because he couldn’t keep the fridge going, then it’s important that Christians witness to the compassion of God in the face of a serious lack in high places. Earlier this year, Esther McVey MP, the minister for employment, admitted

that the number of sanction referrals made by jobcentre advisers is part of a “variety of performance data” used to monitor their work.

Our witness to the God of compassion, who inspired Joseph to feed Egypt, Agabus to warn the early church, and Jesus to feed the multitudes, is needed more than ever today. How will you do it? Buying supplies for the food bank? Supporting a charity? Directly helping someone in need that you meet? It needs doing.

Who’s the Governor when it comes to compassion?

The second area of contrast is that of authority. There’s no doubt that Herod Agrippa enjoys power. We know what he does with it. It’s no surprise to see that he has an ego to match his sense of self-importance:

On an appointed day Herod put on his royal robes, took his seat on the platform, and delivered a public address to them. 22The people kept shouting, ‘The voice of a god, and not of a mortal!’ 23And immediately, because he had not given the glory to God, an angel of the Lord struck him down, and he was eaten by worms and died. (Verses 21-23)

Elsewhere in Acts, apostles like Paul are wrongly acclaimed as gods by adoring crowds, but they are always quick to deny it. Herod doesn’t. Was it all too appealing to him? He had turned up dressed in all his splendour, and had done everything to impress the need people of Tyre and Sidon with his status and power. It does him no good.

Corrie ten Boom

Corrie ten Boom on Flickr. Some rights reserved.

The Christian knows that the proper response in times like these is to do what Herod didn’t do, and to give the glory to God (verse 23), like the great Dutch Christian Corrie ten Boom. You may recall her story ‘The Hiding Place’, in which she and her family, including her sister Betsie, sheltered Jews from the Nazis and ended up in Ravensbruck concentration camp for their troubles, where Betsie died but Corrie survived. Corrie became a popular and famous Christian author and speaker, and as you can imagine, received much adulation. But she had a wise approach to the receipt of compliments: she described a compliment as like a bunch of flowers. She would say, “These smell nice, but they are for you, Lord.”

How might we approach a proper humility, then? There are some behaviours that look like humility, but aren’t. These include the so-called ‘humblebrag’, where we say something great about ourselves, but set it against a self-deprecating comment, yet really we are trying to tell people how wonderful we are. There is the wrong use of the word ‘humbled’ when we actually mean ‘proud’ – for example, “I am so humbled by the number of people who said they liked my sermon last week.” It’s OK to admit to excitement, but let’s not re-label pride as humility. There is the failure to take a compliment when God gave us the gifts – we need to remember Corrie ten Boom’s bouquet of flowers. Or there is the “All the glory goes to the Lord” school of hyper-spiritual sanctimoniousness. Again, Corrie ten Boom had the balance right.

There is a lovely quote from C S Lewis on the subject in his book ‘Mere Christianity’:

True humility is not thinking less of yourself; it is thinking of yourself less.

Who’s the Governor when it comes to authority?

The third and final area of contrast is that of judgement.

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

24 But the word of God continued to advance and gain adherents. (Verses 23-24)

Does this sound unlikely to you – that Herod was struck down, eaten by worms, and died? What if I told you that the Jewish historian Josephus records this incident, too? His account is different from Luke’s, but it is complementary. Where Luke says that Herod didn’t give glory to God, Josephus says he failed to rebuke the impious remark. And where Luke says that an angel struck Herod and he was eaten by worms, Josephus tells us that he was struck by severe stomach pains for five days, and then he died.[2] The one who judged violently and unjustly was himself judged.

We know the frustration and horror of looking on while the depraved thrive in power. We can name any number of wicked despots from the present day or the recent past. So too could the biblical authors. They wondered aloud why the wicked prospered, often at the expense of the righteous. They asked why God wasn’t doing anything. And of course we know that Jesus told stories like the parable of the wheat and the tares and the parable of the net which indicated that the separation of the good and the evil would not happen until the last judgement.

Yet here we see an example of judgement being executed in this life. So perhaps this is a time to remember that when we are dealing with the kingdom of God, we speak about it as being both ‘now and not yet’. There is a ‘not yet’ about the kingdom of God in that all will come finally and fully under God’s rule at the end of all things, after the last judgement. But we should not lose sight of there also being a ‘now’ element to God’s kingdom, in that we do see some examples of God reigning in kingly power and overthrowing wickedness, sin, and suffering in our own day and time. That seems to be what the early church witnessed when God sent his angel to strike down Herod Agrippa.

And there are examples from even the darkest times in recent history. Rees Howells, a Welshman deeply affected by the Welsh Revival of 1904-1905, and the founder of the Bible College of Wales, was deeply affected by spiritual awakenings he witnessed as a missionary in southern Africa. During World War Two he was led by Christ into a deep ministry of intercession, which you can read about in the classic book ‘Rees Howells Intercessor’ by Norman Grubb. While some of the story is a little strange, Howells and his colleagues prayed with passion and vigour throughout the war, sensing particular direction from the Holy Spirit at certain times to pray in particular ways for certain specific outcomes. The book is an astonishing account of how God led and answered their prayers, leading eventually to the downfall of the Axis powers. We can talk about the genius of military leaders, the inspiration of politicians, tragic tactical mistakes, and so on. But there is an obscure yet vital story to be made known about the spiritual dimensions of Hitler’s downfall through intense, committed prayer.

Given that, let us not lose hope when we pray for the needs of the world today and every day. We may have to wait, because God’s actions are ‘not yet’, but we never know when he might execute justice ‘now’. So if that is possible, why should we not in prayer ask him to be at work in our time, tipping the thrones of the unjust until they fall from their perches?

Remember this question: who’s the Governor when it comes to judgement?

And more generally, that should be a question to guide our lives: who’s the Governor?

[1] Ben Witherington III, The Acts of the Apostles: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary, p 383f.

[2] Op. cit.., p 390.

Sermon: Acts – Supporting Mission (The Church At Antioch)

Acts 11:19-30

Knowledge

Knowledge by Jean-Jacques Halans on Flickr. Some rights reserved.

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:

Teach/Learn

Teach/Learn by Duane Schoon on Flickr. Some rights reserved.

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.

Following the leader in sunset reflection

Following the leader in sunset reflection by John on Flickr. Some rights reserved.

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.

Famine Memorial

Famine Memorial by Tobias Abel on Flickr. Some rights reserved.

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.

Sermon: Acts – Explain Yourself!

Acts 11:1-18

Light bulb

Light Bulb by JohnPoulos on Flickr. Some rights reserved.

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![1]

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!”

Listen

Listen by Ky on Flickr. Some rights reserved.

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.[2]

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.

Critiquing Eyes

Critiquing Eyes by David Goehring on Flickr. Some rights reserved.

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.

Praise God

Praise God by Tim Shields on Flickr. Some rights reserved.

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?

 

[1] The first three light bulb jokes are taken from http://txipl.org/lightbulbjokes

[2] Ben Witherington III, The Acts Of The Apostles: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary, p363.

All Age Talk On The Bravery Of Stephen

Here is a brief talk for the morning service in our sermon series on Acts. But first, the PowerPoint:

Acts 6:8-15

I was on the bus home from secondary school one day. Several of us used to take the same bus each day.

Clifford spoke up, with a sneering voice. “I hear you had a spiritual experience last weekend,” he said to me.

“No,” I said, hurriedly.

But Clifford was right. I had been away on a youth weekend, and had felt much closer to God. Yet when Clifford raised the issue and I knew he was going to make cruel remarks about my faith, I denied it.

I wasn’t much like Stephen in our story today. He had had a spiritual experience. He had become a follower of Jesus and Luke has already told us he was filled with the Holy Spirit. Because of that spiritual experience, Stephen had started serving the poor and boldly telling people about Jesus.

The thing is, Stephen didn’t have to cope with someone who would mock him for his faith. He had to deal with a crowd of people who wanted to do far worse to him. They hated him, because all his talk about Jesus showed that what they believed about God was wrong. So they made up some lies to get him into trouble. The biggest trouble of his life.

Unlike me, Stephen was brave. He knew this mob could have him killed. The same group, more or less, had stitched up Jesus and had him crucified. He could surely expect no better. In fact, there are lots of parallels in Stephen’s story with the trials and execution of Jesus.

What would you do if you were on trial for your life? Think about that for a moment …

Here’s what Stephen did: ‘his face was like the face of an angel’ (verse 15). What does that mean?

‘The point of this expression is to convey the idea of a person reflecting some of God’s glory and character as a result of being close to God and in God’s very presence.’[1]

Stephen was close to God, and that made him reflect more of what God is like to people. He clearly stayed close to God at this bad time. That helped him to be brave.

But he is facing something terrible, something most of us don’t face due to our faith. He could die because he loves Jesus! It’s wrong! It’s unfair! Why doesn’t God come down from heaven and beat up these evil people?

I think there is one other thing that helps Stephen to be brave. Just as there are so many parallels between what is happening to him and what happened to Jesus, he knows what put Jesus’ story right: God raised Jesus from the dead. Stephen knows that one day, God will raise him from the dead, too, and make all things right. That is the second thing that helps him to be brave. Even if things go wrong now, even if bad things happen to him, God won’t let evil have the last word. He will raise his people back to life. He will judge the world and put all things right.

So here are two things to help us be brave in standing up for our faith in Jesus when people don’t like that:

  1. Stay close to God. That means praying, reading the Bible, spending time with other Christians, worshipping, and living as much like Jesus as you can with the help of the Holy Spirit.
  2. Remember the resurrection. God put things right for Jesus, and he will do the same for us one day.

Sabbatical, Day 76: Are Numbers Important?

A day that has been filled with bringing Rebekah back from her two-day sleepover in Kent (so successful, she’s been invited back for a week in the summer. Yippee!), the main thing I noticed before leaving this morning was the news that Ashton Kutcher had beaten CNN to a million followers. It had become some kind of competition.

To which my main reaction has been, ‘Who cares?’ There are people on Twitter who are obsessed with gaining as many followers as possible. Heaven knows, I’ve had enough strange Internet marketers start to follow my tweets, probably in the hope I’ll be another sucker who follows them and bolsters their figures. I put this alongside those stupid experiments like the ‘I bet we can find ten million Christians on Facebook’ groups. Which proves exactly what? Is truth being decided by a popularity poll? It’s hardly the narrow way of Jesus which, he said, few would find.

If the Kutcher/CNN face-off proves anything, it’s simply that Twitter has gone mainstream. It’s reached way beyond the geeks now. After all, Oprah Winfrey tweeted for the first time today. That means the service will change and become more populist, just as Facebook did when it broke out beyond the student communities. It’s like when a cult band suddenly gets mainstream success and the select few who have followed them from early days become disillusioned and accuse them of selling out. I think we’ll see something like that over Twitter now. There already is a move by some geeks towards FriendFeed. (Yes, I’m on there, too.)

Yet even if numbers are used for facile publicity stunts or immature spiritual exercises, there is also a place for them. OK, my major subject at school was Maths, but there are obvious biblical examples: a whole book called Numbers, and Luke’s interest in the numerical growth of the early church in the Acts of the Apostles. (They need to be set against the troubling story of King David’s pride in numbering the nation, of course.) There is rejoicing when more people embrace the kingdom of God. Statistics can alert us to important trends we might otherwise have missed.

The problem comes when rejoicing turns to obsession. Ask any Methodist minister who has to go through the annual trudge of the ‘October count’ of statistics.

How about we keep our numbers as useful tools rather than instruments of dehumanisation or proof of our banality?