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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.

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Sermon: Testing Truth And Error

I’m back tomorrow from a week off, and return with another sermon in our series on 1 John, which follows below. Then in the evening we have our annual All Souls service for bereaved people, and I’ll be posting my brief sermon for that service here on the blog tomorrow.

1 John 4:1-6
During the 1960s and 1970s, denominations such as the Methodist Church and the Church of England tried various experimental forms of worship. From that period comes the story of an Anglican bishop who visited a parish. He went to begin the service with the new form of words he had become used to. He said: “The Lord is here,” expecting the response, “His Spirit is with us.” But when he cried out, “The Lord is here,” nobody responded.

He said it a second time, slightly louder, in case people hadn’t quite heard him properly. “The Lord is here!” But again, there was no response.

A third time he said, “The Lord is here,” but again no-one said anything in reply. Finally, in desperation, he found himself saying, “The Lord is here, isn’t he?” To which the vicar replied, “Not in our service, he isn’t.”

How do we tell when the Holy Spirit is present? It’s an issue we have to deal with in the church. How do we assess people’s claims when they say that the Holy Spirit led them to say or do certain things?

Here is one occasion when perhaps I should have thought a little more discerningly about that question. We were sitting in the living room of an Anglican rector friend’s rectory. Several of us from an ecumenical group in our area were present, along with two other pastors from elsewhere in the county. One was a prominent vicar of a huge church ten miles away that attracted a huge congregation from all over London and the South East. The other was the pastor of a large independent church from down on the coast.

We were gathered along with the representative of an Argentinean evangelist to consider inviting him to lead a conference for the whole county. In the middle of the prayer time, the independent pastor started making huge claims about how he could feel the Holy Spirit very close to him, telling him what we should call the conference.

As it happens, the conference wasn’t bad – a few exaggerated spiritual claims from one or two people, but nothing sinister. Except the time when the aforesaid independent pastor made the appeal for the offering. He dished out twenty minutes of emotional manipulation about giving, some of it connected to the idea that the more you gave, the more likely it was that God would make you rich, and all to a background of stirring music. If I hadn’t been on the team organising the conference and if I hadn’t had a rôle to play that night organising the team that prayed with and counselled people afterwards, I would have walked out. In retrospect, I think I should have seen the warning signs when he started making his grand claims a few months earlier about how close he claimed the Holy Spirit was to him.

You may not find yourself in that situation, but we all hear claims from time to time that the Holy Spirit has led someone to say something contentious or do something controversial. We have to weigh these claims carefully. Just because something is out of the ordinary doesn’t necessarily mean it’s wrong – but nor does it automatically mean it’s right.

John faced a similar situation in the community to which he was writing. People were making bids for leadership in the community, and claimed the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, but clearly John himself was dubious about some of these people. He had to give counsel to the church about how to discern the godly from the fake. There are two tests he offers in this passage, and we’ll explore them for how they help us to separate the work of the Holy Spirit from that which is merely of the human spirit, or even of another kind of spirit.

The two tests are a test of belief and a test of behaviour. Let us consider, firstly, John’s test of belief.

This is how you can recognise the Spirit of God: Every spirit that acknowledges that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, but every spirit that does not acknowledge Jesus is not from God. This is the spirit of the antichrist, which you have heard is coming and even now is already in the world. (Verses 1-2)

John’s opponents are teaching that Jesus only appeared to be human – a denial of the doctrine of the Incarnation. A word from the Holy Spirit will glorify Jesus, the true Jesus. It will not undermine Jesus as fully divine and fully human. It will not deny the Cross and the Resurrection, the Ascension and his Return. In fact, a word from the Holy Spirit will bring praise to the name of Jesus Christ as Saviour and Lord.
So take, for example, the question of how you might respond to someone who tells you they have had a particular spiritual experience that seems strange or unsettling to you. Depending on your own Christian life and what you have become used to, that could be any one of a number of things. If, for example, you’re not used to the idea of people speaking in tongues and someone says to you they have received the gift of tongues, the question to ask is not, do I find this spooky and unsettling? Instead, the question to ask is, does this person praise Jesus more as a result of their experience?
Similarly, suppose someone tells you that they received prayer at a meeting and they claim that the Holy Spirit came powerfully upon them – so powerfully, indeed, that they couldn’t remain on their feet and they fell to the floor. The question to ask is not so much about the falling down as about the standing up afterwards. Did they acknowledge Jesus, the Jesus of the New Testament, as a result of their dramatic experience?

If the answer is yes, then you have a decent sign that the Holy Spirit was at work, because Jesus told his disciples (as recorded in John’s Gospel) that the work of the Spirit was to point to him. On the other hand, if someone’s conversation afterwards is all ‘me, me, me’ then you have reasonable grounds to doubt whether they had an authentic experience of the Holy Spirit.

Equally, if the spiritual experience is allied to a viewpoint that denies essential truths about Jesus, you can also be properly sceptical about its authenticity. So if someone claims something remarkable but it is in the name of, say, the Jehovah’s Witnesses, then you have every right to doubt not the reality but the validity of that experience. After all, Jehovah’s Witnesses dilute the full biblical revelation about Jesus into making him just a demi-god, rather than fully divine. The Holy Spirit bears no witness to claims like that.

It’s with things like that in mind that John talks about ‘the spirit of the antichrist’ – you have to delete from your memories the ideas you have had about some end times spiritual terrorist that you might have gained from horror films or tawdry Christian paperbacks. Instead, you have to see ‘the antichrist’ as all that opposes Jesus Christ in all his truth and majesty. Such opponents will not be drawing you into a legitimate experience of the Holy Spirit.

Secondly, let us consider John’s other test, the test of behaviour. Listen again to how this section ends:

We are from God, and whoever knows God listens to us; but whoever is not from God does not listen to us. This is how we recognise the Spirit of truth and the spirit of falsehood. (Verse 6)

The point John is making as a founding apostle of the Church is this: look for how people react to the teaching of the Church. John and his fellow apostles were witnesses to the Resurrection and many had spent time directly with Jesus, as John himself had. They were best qualified, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, to say what was authentic faith in Jesus. Therefore it was reasonable to expect that anyone claiming true spiritual experience would listen to them and respond positively to their teaching. (It still is.)

If we want to know whether someone is being led by the Holy Spirit, we have a right to ask whether they are walking in ‘the faith once delivered to the saints’, as received, interpreted and transmitted by the Church over the centuries. We shall always be open to new insights into the Scriptures, and it is also true that following ‘what the Bible says’ is by no means always a simple and clear matter. However, we can still discern whether there is a desire to be faithful to the apostolic testimony.

It is therefore often a sign of someone living under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit that she or he finds the Scriptures coming alive, and that this experience is accompanied by a desire to live out the teaching found there. If a person who is living like that speaks about experiences of the Holy Spirit, it is worth taking them seriously. That doesn’t mean being uncritical, but it does mean being warmly disposed towards them.

I can look back on the experience I had in my first circuit when we had an ecumenical project that put youth worship in the local night club. Some people thought that the loud and exuberant worship of the teenagers was spiritual froth. But I recall how some of those youngsters took part-time jobs in local care homes, where they washed and cleaned incontinent elderly people out of their love for Christ, and I say they passed John’s test of behaviour.

I look back too at what has happened to several of those teenagers and young adults in the intervening years. I see some who entered church leadership. I see a scientist who works on pioneer treatments for people with HIV/AIDS. And so I say yes, the test of behaviour was met by many of them.

On the other hand, we should seriously question those who make great claims to spiritual experience but who are not prepared to match it with a desire for holy living. The person who claims remarkable insights into the ways of God yet is also rather too acquainted with the emptying of alcohol bottles is not to be trusted, as is the person who shows dangerous signs of greed and acquisitiveness, or the Christian who treats the opposite sex with less than complete respect.

Likewise, too, we should be suspicious of those who take the apostles’ teaching and twist it to their own ends, in order to justify their own behaviour. Be wary, for example, of the Mormons, who claim all sorts of spiritual experiences, but who also teach the highly dubious notion of ‘celestial marriage’, despite Jesus’ clear teaching that ‘there will be neither marrying nor giving in marriage in heaven’. And in promoting ‘celestial marriage’ they end up privileging married people and demeaning the single, the divorced and the widowed. They don’t seem to notice Jesus’ own marital status. In fact, they fail both the behaviour and the belief tests.

But although I’ve used examples of sub-Christian groups such as the Mormons and the Jehovah’s Witnesses, let’s remember that John was specifically addressing a problem of people who infiltrated the church herself with their dilution of who Jesus was and is, and their rejection of apostolic teaching. They tried to claim a following, but the whole problem with them was that their whole approach to life and faith was captive to the world’s way of thinking and living, not Christ’s:

They are from the world and therefore speak from the viewpoint of the world, and the world listens to them. (Verse 5)

Being sucked into the vain values of a world opposed to Christ is a danger we all live with. It is something each of us needs to guard against. To give into the world’s ways and seek approval there is one of the surest recipes for cutting ourselves off from true, Christlike spirituality. So as well as exercising discernment over the claims of others by examining their belief in Christ and their behaviour in response to apostolic teaching, we do just as well to guard our own hearts and minds. Let us devote ourselves to the full, biblical Jesus and to the teaching of the apostles, that in doing so we may be more open to the work of the Holy Spirit.