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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.

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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.