Two Conversions (a sermon on Acts 11.1-18 for May 19th)

A friend of mine, who is a gifted evangelist, likes to run ‘Agnostics Anonymous’ groups; he invites people of no faith, or very uncertain faith, to come together and have conversations about their doubts and questions about God and Christianity. One of the interesting things he’s discovered is that when he presents what he thinks are good arguments for the existence of God, most of the people in the group aren’t particularly moved by them. But when he asks if anyone in the group has had unexplained experiences of God or the supernatural, heads started to nod all around the room! 

We are in the Easter season, in which we celebrate our belief that Jesus is alive and active in the world today. This has implications for how we see our work of spreading the gospel to others. If Jesus is alive and if he is the Son of God, it stands to reason that he’s at work long before I arrive on the scene. And experience would seem to bear this out. Spiritual hunger is alive and well in the world today. Twelve-Step groups are predicated on the existence of ‘God as we understand him’, and they’re springing up all over the place. First Nations spirituality is firmly based on faith in the Creator. And many, many people who never darken the doors of a church are actually quite curious about God. 

Canadian sociologist Reg Bibby has spent his lifetime analysing data about faith in Canada. In a book published in 1995 he indicated that 40% of the people he interviewed believed it was possible to have contact with the spirit world, and 90% said they had asked questions about what happens after we die. 30% believed in reincarnation, 80% believed that God exists, and an amazing 35-45% claimed to have experienced God in some way. I also remember Reg Bibby saying once that a large percentage of people are willing to admit they have unmet spiritual needs. Sadly, though, the majority don’t believe they can get those needs met in churches. 

So we have a situation where church attendance has been steadily falling for decades, but interest in the spiritual dimension of life is not—in fact, there are signs it’s rising. Many Canadians are spiritually curious, but they aren’t convinced the church has anything worthwhile to offer them—at least, not convinced enough to cross the barriers we unintentionally put in their way. And yet, most churches still hope unchurched people will start attending church. Most clergy see success in terms of increasing church attendance. And when we’re asked what we’re doing to try to reach new people, we talk in terms of the welcome we give them when they come to church. But of course, they have to come in order to experience that welcome. And most of them aren’t coming.

When we turn to the pages of the Book of Acts we discover a completely different story. The followers of Jesus in the Book of Acts don’t seem to have had public church services to which the general populace was invited. They didn’t wait for people to come to their services. The movement was entirely in the other direction. Ordinary Christians—not just apostles and evangelists, but ordinary Christians too—saw it as part of their Christian journey to pass their message on to others. And that’s exactly what they did.

Some of them—apostles like Peter and John and Paul and Barnabas—went on long missionary journeys around the Mediterranean world, announcing the good news and planting little communities of new disciples. But it wasn’t just apostles who spread the gospel. Acts 8 tells us about a severe persecution that broke out against the Christians in Jerusalem. Many of them scattered around the countryside to escape with their lives. But verse 4 says, ‘Now those who were scattered went from place to place, proclaiming the word.’  

I can imagine how that happened. These early disciples moved out to new communities and set up businesses there. They got involved in their communities and made friends. And in the context of those friendships, from time to time conversations would take place about faith and spirituality. Just like today, spirituality was a hot topic in the ancient world! And those ordinary disciples were excited about Jesus. They believed he was alive and was living in them by his Spirit, and they were finding joy and hope and strength in him. It was natural for them to tell others about him and to invite them to follow him too.

But there was a barrier they had to cross. And Luke, the author of the Book of Acts, is very interested in that barrier—so interested that he takes several chapters to tell the story of how it was crossed.

The early Christians were all practising Jews. They believed Jesus was the Messiah of Israel, the fulfilment of all the promises God had made to his ancient people. It was obvious to them that his message needed to go out to all Israel, so God’s people could hear about their Messiah and pledge their allegiance to him. They didn’t need persuading about this. When the Holy Spirit fell on them on the day of Pentecost, it led to an explosion of witness, as Jewish Christians went to other Jews and told them the good news.

But they weren’t so quick to go beyond the borders of ethnic Israel. Samaritans were the first outsiders they reached out to. In Acts chapter eight we read of how Philip was the first to proclaim the gospel to the people of Samaria, and a phenomenally successful mission took place there.

But the Samaritans had some connection with ancient Israel. Gentiles were an entirely different story. To many Jewish Christians, it made no sense to take the message of Jesus to Gentiles. Jesus was the Messiah of Israel, the fulfilment of God’s promises to his ancient people. Yes, of course Gentiles could become Christians—but they needed to become Jewish first. So the men would have to be circumcised, and then men and women would have to be taught to obey all the laws of Moses, keep a kosher kitchen, observe the sabbath and all the Jewish holidays. And all of that was beforethey could be baptized and become Christians!

But apparently God had other plans. Acts chapters ten and eleven tell the amazing story of Cornelius, the Roman army officer who was curious about the God of Israel. Our first lesson today told the second half of the story but let me remind you of the first half.

Cornelius was a centurion living in the coastal town of Caesarea. Acts 10 says he was ‘a devout man who feared God with all his household; he gave alms generously to the people and prayed constantly to God.’ (10:2) This is extraordinary. Here is a man who presumably was raised to worship the ancient gods of Rome. But somehow he’s turned from all that, and now he’s a worshipper of the one God of Israel. He’s begun to practice at least two of the three spiritual disciplines of godly Jews: prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. Clearly, God is already at work in his life. He hasn’t been circumcised or become fully Jewish, but he’s certainly on the fringe.

Apparently this was not an unusual story in the ancient world. Here and there the early Christian missionaries ran across Gentiles who were curious about Israel’s God. Apparently they’d become dissatisfied with the old pagan gods, and they were attracted to monotheism and the ethical standards of the Ten Commandments. There were enough of these people that they had a name: they were called ‘God-fearers’. And Cornelius was one of them.

Acts 10 tells us Cornelius was praying one day when he had a vision of an angel telling him his prayers had been heard. He was to send to Joppa to the house of Simon the Tanner, where a man called Simon Peter was staying. Simon Peter would tell him what he needed to know. So Cornelius immediately sent his messengers on their way.

Simon Peter was indeed staying with Simon the Tanner, as we read in last week’s reading from Acts. The next day, as the messengers were getting close, he went up to the roof of the house to pray and there he too had a vision. It was a sheet being let down from heaven full of all sorts of non-kosher animals. “Up, Peter!” said the voice. “Kill and eat!” “Never, Lord; I’ve never eaten anything unclean!” “Don’t call unclean what God has cleansed!” The vision was repeated three times, and then, as Peter was reflecting on it, the messengers arrived. We can imagine the light going on in Peter’s mind. “Ah! Unclean food—unclean Gentiles—maybe there’s a connection, perhaps?”

So he went back to Caesarea with the messengers, and they came to Cornelius’ house. There they found a good-sized group, because Cornelius had called his relatives and close friends together to hear the message. Cornelius told Peter what the angel had said, and Peter immediately began to speak to the group about the story of Jesus and what it meant: he is Lord of all, and all who believe in him receive forgiveness of sins through his name.

But Peter didn’t get to finish his sermon, because the Holy Spirit fell on the hearers just like on the day of Pentecost, and they started to speak in unknown languages, praising and worshiping God. The Jewish Christians who had come with Peter were absolutely amazed that this was happening to Gentiles! Peter said, “Well, since God has obviously given them the same Spirit he gave to us, I guess we’d better baptize them! Any objections?” Hearing none, they baptized these new Gentile disciples.

But a few days later, when Peter returned to Jerusalem, he was challenged about his activities. “You went to uncircumcised men and ate with them!” So Peter explained himself. He told how the whole thing had been God’s initiative. God had sent an angel to speak to Cornelius. God had spoken to Peter in the dream about the unclean animals. And when they got to Caesarea, God was the one who had poured out the Holy Spirit in a supernatural way on these unclean Gentiles.

“As I began to speak, the Holy Spirit fell on them as it had on us at the beginning. And I remembered the word of the Lord, how he had said, ‘John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.’ If then God gave them the same gift that he gave us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could hinder God?” When they heard this, they were silenced. And they praised God, saying, “Then God has given even to the Gentiles the repentance that leads to life!” (Acts 11:16-18).

 In this story we can see two conversions taking place.

First, there’s the conversion of Cornelius. In chapter ten, after he hears Cornelius’ story, Peter says, “I truly understand that God knows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him.” (10:34-35)

Note what Peter doesn’t mean. He doesn’t mean God’s okay leaving Cornelius where he is. Peter doesn’t say, “Carry on with your prayers and almsgiving, you’re fine as you are.” This man has already been on a spiritual journey. He’s left the gods of ancient Rome behind, and begun to worship the one Creator God of Israel. And God wants him to move further now. God wants him to believe in Jesus, who is not only the Messiah of Israel but the Saviour of the whole world.

This is the consistent message of the whole New Testament. Jesus did notsay to his first disciples, “Go into all the world and tell them that they’re fine the way they are.” He said, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.” (Matthew 28:19-20a) The Lord of the church wants people to turn from their previous allegiances and become his disciples, and it’s our job as a church to take part in that process. We’re to be witnesses, and the way we’re to do that is not to wait for them to come to us. Jesus didn’t say, “Wait.’” He said “Go.”

This is the second conversion. The first conversion is for people who have not yet become followers of Jesus to turn to him and begin to follow him. We assume these days that they don’t want to do that. But in fact, Jesus is not an unattractive figure. Many people don’t know much about him, but when they hear about him, they tend to like him. But they need help learning about him and learning what it would mean to be his followers.

That’s the second conversion. You and I are the ones who need to be converted. We need to be converted from our preoccupation with what goes on inside the doors of the church. We need to be converted from our reluctance to open our mouths and say anything about Jesus to other people. We need to be converted from our tendency to put barriers in the way of people who might be interested in Jesus.

What barriers? One of the biggest ones is our refusal to talk about Jesus outside the doors of the church. Why do we do that? Maybe we’re afraid people will think we’re fanatical or intolerant. Maybe we’re afraid our friends will reject us. But whatever the reason, most Christians won’t open their mouths. And that means non-Christian people have to come to church to hear about Jesus.

Do you know how hard that is? We don’t think it’s hard, because we’ve been doing it for a long time, but for most Canadians, especially young Canadians, it’s totally unfamiliar territory. Hymns, pews, service books, eating someone’s body and drinking his blood—this all looks and sounds weird to them! I’ve invited non-Christian friends to church, and some of them have told me how difficult it was for them to step across the threshold. You may not think it’s a barrier, but it is.

Why do we make them cross that barrier before they can hear about Jesus? After all, they’re our friends, our family members. We have good, trusting relationships with them. Why would we not listen for the guidance of the Holy Spirit, trust that he’s been at work in their hearts already, and then look for opportunities to have some natural conversations with them about Jesus and what he means to us?

This is the second conversion. To Luke, the author of Acts, it was a huge thing. It meant those early Jewish Christians leaving their comfort zone, crossing the barrier and going to the outsiders, and discovering to their amazement that Jesus had been there before them. The Holy Spirit had already been at work in Cornelius’ heart, preparing him to hear the gospel message. All Peter had to do was show up and open his mouth, and God did the rest.

Will you give God permission to do that through you? Will I? That’s the challenge God is giving us in this story today.

Over to us!

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When Jesus Saw Their Faith

‘One day as Jesus was teaching, Pharisees and teachers of the law were sitting round him. People had come from every village in Galilee and from Judaea and Jerusalem, and the power of the Lord was with him to heal the sick. Some men appeared carrying a paralysed man on a bed, and tried to bring him in and set him down in front of Jesus. Finding no way to do so because of the crowd, they went up onto the roof and let him down through the tiling, bed and all, into the middle of the company in front of Jesus. When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the man, “Your sins are forgiven you.”‘ (Luke 5.17-30 REB)

For a long time now I’ve believed that the ‘their’ in ‘when Jesus saw their faith’ refers to the four friends, not the paralyzed man. The subject in the previous sentence is clearly the four friends, and it makes grammatical sense for this to be carried over. Also, we know that people who struggle with chronic illnesses often find it difficult to muster up faith that their situation can change.

But the faith of these four friends was strong and active, and Jesus ‘saw’ it—that is, he saw the actions it produced. Faith leads to action!

So God may call on me to exercise faith on behalf of others who find it difficult, and to pray faithfully for them. And he may also call me to ask for the prayers of my friends at times when I find faith difficult.

Lord Jesus, I believe: help my unbelief. When my faith is weak, please strengthen it. Help me take steps to grow in faith, stepping out in obedience to you. Help me be faithful in prayer for my friends. And thank you for the friends who are faithful in prayer for me.

‘Do You Love Me?’ (sermon for the 3rd Sunday of Easter on John 21.1-19)

In the early 1970’s Keith Miller wrote a superb little book called The Taste of New Wine, in which he told the story of his encounter with Christ and his experience of the grace of God. This was followed by several other books, and he also began to travel and speak at Christian conferences and retreats. He was involved in the ‘Faith Alive’ movement, which was a mission movement amongst lay people in the Episcopal Church in the US. As an intelligent and committed Christian layman, Keith was a huge gift to the church and God used him to bring many people closer to Christ.

But there was a price to pay, and ironically, the man who had often encouraged people to slow down and take time to love their families found that he was unable to do that himself. He had his first extra-marital affair in 1974, and eventually in 1976, after a time of struggle and counselling, Keith and his wife were divorced. He faced the future with only a sense of failure and uncertainty. Many years later, I heard him say, “I knew that if I was ever going to have any sort of Christian ministry in the future, it would only be through the grace of God and not through any expertise or strength of my own, because I had none. I felt I had nothing left to offer to God.”

I wonder if you’ve ever felt like that? I wonder if you’ve experienced some spectacular failure in your Christian life that has left you thinking, “Well, that’s the last God’s ever going to want to see of me!” Or perhaps it hasn’t been anything really spectacular at all—just a sense that God couldn’t really use you, because you don’t measure up to your idea of what a really good Christian ought to be.

If you’ve ever felt like that, you can understand how Simon Peter felt after the death and resurrection of Jesus.

Of all the disciples, Simon Peter was the one who had promised most strongly to follow Jesus no matter what the cost. Mark tells us that at the Last Supper Jesus warned his disciples, “You will all become deserters,” but Peter protested, “Even though all become deserters, I will not.” (Mark 14:27, 29) In John’s Gospel Peter said, ‘“Lord, why can I not follow you now? I will lay down my life for you.” Jesus answered, “Will you lay down your life for me? Very truly I tell you, before the cock crows, you will have denied me three times”.’ (John 13:37-38)

I think some of us instinctively warm to Peter here, because there are times we’ve felt like there’s nothing we wouldn’t do for Jesus. Maybe we’ve had a time in our lives when the love of God has seemed so real to us, when the Holy Spirit has seemed so close, when the joy of Jesus has come flooding in. Maybe at that moment we found ourselves thinking, “This is it! It’s me and God together, and nothing can stop us now!”

Did Peter honestly feel that, deep in his heart? Maybe—or maybe he just liked to sound confident, to impress the others. But whether he really felt it or not, later on that night harsh reality broke in for him, and he discovered that Jesus knew him better than he knew himself.

He was brave at first! When Jesus was arrested, Peter followed him as the guards led him to the high priest’s house. He even went into the courtyard and stood there for a while with the servants and the others. John’s Gospel tells us they were warming themselves around a charcoal fire. But there, Peter’s courage ran out. When he was confronted and accused of being a follower of Jesus, he denied it three times to save his own skin. And then he ran away.

So I find it easy to imagine the conflicting emotions in Simon Peter on that first Easter Sunday, as the reports of meetings with the risen Jesus start to come in. The gospels actually hint that on the Sunday afternoon Jesus appeared privately to Peter, although no one has ever recorded the details of that meeting. But I would guess Peter probably felt the same way Keith Miller did, after his marriage fell apart because of his own bad choices: “If I’m ever going to have any sort of ministry after this, it can only be because of grace, not through any expertise or strength of my own,” In fact, I’d be surprised if the idea of grace even entered Peter’s head at all. I expect he thought he was finished, plain and simple.

And so we come to the story recorded for us in today’s gospel. We don’t know exactly when it happened. It would have been some time in the weeks between Jesus’ resurrection and his ascension, but the exact chronology wasn’t important to John.

In the story, some of the disciples have gone fishing on the lake, but they’ve caught nothing all night. In the morning as they come in to shore someone is standing on the beach, and he calls and tells them to cast the net on the other side of the boat. They do, and they catch a huge amount of fish—a hundred and fifty-three, says John, but the net wasn’t torn. Peter swims to shore, convinced it’s Jesus, and so it turns out. Jesus is standing on the beach beside a charcoal fire. Once again, the New Testament uses the specific word for a charcoal fire, and don’t you think the smell of it immediately takes Peter back to that night—that painful, awful night—when he denied Jesus three times? And then Jesus asks him three times, “Simon, do you love me?” ‘Simon’, not ‘Peter’. ‘Simon’ is his original name. ‘Peter’ means ‘rock’, but the rock hasn’t turned out to be quite so rocky after all. “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” (John 21:16, 17)

Peter doesn’t even feel like he can give an unqualified answer. When Jesus asks the question, the word John uses for love in the Greek language is ‘agapé’. As I’ve often said, this is not a feeling love, but an action love, the sacrificial love Jesus showed by giving himself on the cross. But when Peter responds, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you,” the Greek word John uses for love is ‘phileo’—a lesser word, more about friendship than committed and sacrificial love. The New English Bible translates it “Yes, Lord, you know I am your friend.” Of course, Jesus and Peter would have been speaking in Aramaic, not Greek, so we don’t know what the exact nuances were, but we can guess that Peter is feeling a lot less self-confident now. “Lord, you know everything,”he says to Jesus—and we can guess what he means. Lord, you know what I did. You know how weak I am. I can’t pretend to be anything other than a failure.”

But Jesus isn’t finished with Peter. Peter was always an enthusiastic follower, the sort of guy who volunteered for all the jobs without looking in his calendar, the sort of guy who would always speak up, even if his brain wasn’t quite in gear yet. And Jesus warmed to that. Jesus loved the enthusiasm and wholeheartedness of Peter’s discipleship.

But now Peter has gained another priceless qualification—an awareness of both the true cost of discipleship, and his own weakness. He now knows that following Jesus can cost you your life, and he now knows that he should be careful about promising what he can’t deliver. And Jesus is quite up front with him about where this path is going to lead. He tells him quite plainly that the day is going to come when he, Peter, will also be called on to make the ultimate sacrifice. And then Jesus says to him again, “Follow me.” (v.19)

So what’s it like for us ordinary, fallible human beings—who have let the Lord down, not once but many times—to have an encounter with the risen Lord? Nowadays our encounters with Jesus tend not to be as dramatic as in those early days after his resurrection. We don’t live in that forty-day period when Jesus was still walking the earth in a physical resurrected body, inviting people to touch his wounds and to watch him as he ate and drank in their presence.

And yet the New Testament tells us that a meeting with the risen Lord is still possible for us, in a spiritual or mystical sense. Paul talks in dynamic language about it: ‘I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection.’ (Philippians 3:10) He even talks of us being ‘in’ Christ, and Christ being ‘in’ us, and he prays for the Christians in Ephesus ‘that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith.’ (Ephesians 3:17) This will happen, he says, as we are ‘strengthened in (our) inner being with power through (God’s) Spirit.’ (Ephesians 3:16)

So what’s this like? Well, of course, it’s a joyful thing.We read in today’s gospel of these poor tired disciples who’ve been fishing all night long, and then, completely unexpectedly, on the advice of a stranger, they suddenly have a bumper catch of fish. Maybe something like that has happened to us, too. Maybe we were starting to get interested in Jesus, and we started reading his story in the gospels. Maybe some command of his spoke vividly to us, and we thought, “Wow, I’ve never thought of it like that before! I’m going to try that out.” So we did—we ‘cast our nets to the right side of the boat’, so to speak—and to our surprise it worked out well. Maybe a relationship was healed, or we found strength to do something we’d never been able to do before. We were amazed and excited, joyful and fearful. We thought, “Wow—I’m playing poker, not solitaire! There really is someone else out there getting involved in my life!” And this realization wasn’t just scary—it was joyful too.

We see that joy and excitement quite clearly in this gospel reading. When Peter realizes it’s the Lord standing there on the lakeshore beside the fire, he can’t help himself—he leaves his companions in the boat to look after the fish, while he jumps in the water and swims ashore as fast as he can. How like Peter! But we shouldn’t imagine the others didn’t feel the same way. They may not have been as demonstrative as Peter, but they must have felt their hearts leap for joy too, when they saw the Lord they loved.

But it’s not just about joy; it’s also about honesty, because an encounter with the risen Lord is also an encounter with our own true selves. In fact, I would say we’ll be unable to have a genuine encounter with the risen Lord unless we’re willing to reveal our true selves to him—or rather, that the genuineness and depth of the encounter will depend on how genuine we’re prepared to be with him. “Lord, you know the whole story, you know I’m your friend, but you know I’ve failed you too. I can’t hide anything from you.”

It makes sense, doesn’t it? God wants to have a relationship with me—the real‘me’, not the fake persona I create to impress the people around me. This is not rocket science! The Old Testament people knew it well. They wrote psalms asking God to curse their enemies, or complaining about how God had abandoned them, or lamenting their own wickedness. They weren’t putting on masks and pretending to be holier than they really were. No—their prayers are the prayers of people who know God sees the secrets of our hearts. ‘Almighty God, to you all hearts are open, all desires known, and from you no secrets are hidden.’

That’s what we need. No alcoholic can make any progress through the Alcoholics Anonymous program until they’re willing to start with Step One: ‘We admitted that we were powerless over alcohol, that our lives had become unmanageable.’ You never get past that awareness. Week by week you go to the meeting and start by saying, “My name is Jack, and I’m an alcoholic.” Imagine if our liturgy asked us to do that each time we gathered together: “My name is Tim and I’m a sinner.”

Oh, right—it does! “We have not loved you with our whole heart, we have not loved our neighbour as ourselves.” Trouble is, it’s too easy for those words to roll off our tongue. Truly meeting with the risen Jesus—truly following him each day—will confront us as never before with the reality of our own weaknesses and failures. But the good news is, those weaknesses and failures aren’t news to him. He already knew Peter would deny him three times, and he loved him anyway.

So the risen Jesus meets Peter on the shores of the lake, reminds him of that threefold denial in the courtyard of the high priest’s house, and then asks him again three times, “Do you love me?” Despite his failures, Jesus gives Peter a new job description: “Feed my lambs” (v.15), “Tend my sheep” (v.16), “Feed my sheep” (v.17). Jesus is the Good Shepherd, and now he invites Peter, the failure, to share with him in that shepherding ministry. And at the end of the paragraph, after warning him about the price he will pay, he says to him again, as he did when he first called him, “Follow me.” (v.19)

That’s the third thing about an encounter with the risen Lord: if it’s real, it will lead to a deeper life of discipleship, of following Jesus. In other words, we’ll be asking Jesus each day to teach us to see life as he sees it and to live life as he taught it. And we’ll do this, knowing there will be a price to pay. Not everyone in our life will be jumping for joy because we’re following Jesus, and some of them will let us know about it, in no uncertain terms. We may not have Peter’s experience of paying with our lives for our allegiance to Jesus, but there’ll be a cross for us to carry too. And we’ll accept that cross joyfully, because we know it’s worth it. As Jesus said, “For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.” (Mark 8:35)

So yes, it is possible for us—even today, even though we have failed the Lord many times—it is possible for us to know the risen Lord as he lives in our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us. He knows we’ve failed him and let him down, but this need not disqualify us. Failure wasn’t the end for Simon Peter, and failure isn’t the end for us either.

So don’t count yourself out. Don’t say, “Because I’ve done this or that, I’ve disqualified myself and Jesus could never want to have anything to do with me or use me to serve others.” Don’t say, “I don’t have any qualifications he could use.” Jesus knows all about your failures and he isn’t asking you about your qualifications. He has one simple question he wants to ask you: “Do you love me?” If the answer is “yes,” then we’re in business.

Do you love him? Are you his friend? Will you follow him? Those are the most important questions any of us can face. And if we understand them properly, the most eloquent prayer we could possibly pray this morning may be Peter’s prayer of total honesty: “Lord, you know everything; you know that I’m your friend.” It’s not a perfect answer, but it’s an honest answer, and with that honesty, we’re on the road to a genuine relationship with the risen Lord.

Good News about Jesus (a sermon for the 2nd Sunday of Easter on Acts 5.27-32)

I’ve often noticed that when a new baby is born, no one in the family has to be reminded to spread the good news! The parents make the initial announcement and then the word just seems to mysteriously travel. The parents maybe make a few phone calls and then, just when they think they’re finished, one of them says, “Oh, we forgot about Auntie Susan—you know, the one who’s not really related to us, but we always call her ‘Auntie’ anyway!” So they pick up the phone and call Auntie Susan, and she says, “Oh yes, I already heard—your mom called me an hour ago!”

That’s how it happens with good news—no one needs to tell us to spread it. When we’ve had a wonderful experience that enriched our lives, no one has to tell us to share the story. We can’t keep it to ourselves. “The Edmonton Symphony was fantastic last night. Are you a subscriber? Well, you really should be—I know you’d enjoy it!” “We went to that new Indian restaurant the other week and it was fantastic. Have you ever been there? We would really recommend it!” “I just read the new book by J.K. Rowling. You know about her, right? No! Wow! Well, let me tell you…!” And so it goes on. 

We sense that excitement in the Book of Acts. Acts is a collection of stories from the early church, from just after the time of the resurrection of Jesus until about thirty years later, when Paul made it to Rome as a prisoner and began to preach the gospel there. I’ve heard Doug Sanderson describe Acts as the most exciting book in the Bible, and I think there’s a lot to be said for that point of view. What we see there is the overwhelming sense of joy of those first disciples, who had seen the risen Lord after his resurrection. They thought it was all over, but then to their amazement they discovered it was just beginning! Jesus filled them with the Holy Spirit and gave them a deep sense of wonder at his continuing presence with them, and they just couldn’t keep it to themselves.

It’s appropriate that every year in the Easter season our lectionary gives us readings from the Book of Acts. These readings are very significant for us. Like us, the Christians in Acts no longer had access to Jesus as a physical presence in their lives. Like us, many of them hadn’t actually seen him when he walked the earth, and they came to believe the stories of his resurrection on the testimony of others. But also like us, they were given the gift of the Holy Spirit, and they experienced him as a living presence in their lives when they went out to share the gospel with others.

Our Acts reading today is from chapter five, but the lectionary only gives us a snippet of the chapter, so let me set the scene for you. This story probably takes place several months after the Day of Pentecost. The Church’s mission is going strong in Jerusalem: sick people are being healed and the number of new believers is growing rapidly. But the members of the religious establishment are getting jealous. So they have the apostles arrested and throw them in jail overnight, intending to bring them before the ruling council the next day. However, during the night an angel lets them out of the jail and tells them to go back to the Temple and keep spreading the word of the new life in Christ. 

Morning comes and there’s consternation in the ruling council: where are the apostles? Apparently they’re back in the Temple, preaching about Jesus! The council sends guards to bring them in, and when they arrive the High Priest gives them a tongue-lashing: “We gave you strict orders not to teach in this name, yet here you have filled Jerusalem with your teaching and are determined to bring this man’s blood on us!” (v.28). 

This context is important. When Peter explains the Gospel in this passage he isn’t speaking like Billy Graham at an evangelistic crusade after months of prayer and hours of careful preparation. He’s on trial, possibly for his life, and he only has a few minutes to make his points. He chooses to use those few minutes, not to save himself, but to summarise the Christian message, the Good News. What does he have to say?

First, he affirms that Jesus is Lord. In verse 31 he says, “God exalted him at his right hand as Leader and Saviour”. The word translated in the New Revised Standard Version as ‘leader’ often means ‘Prince’ or ‘Ruler’. So the good news Peter proclaims is that Jesus is the true Ruler of the world.

Around the world today many people feel as if they have no control over their own lives. They feel helpless in the face of what are often called ‘forces beyond our control’. They might be workers who’ve lost their jobs because of corporate downsizing, or citizens under a tyrannical government, or small business owners whose businesses are closed down because of ‘the realities of the market’. Many of us know the feeling of being powerless, of having our lives controlled by someone else, maybe someone without a face or a name. 

In the time of Jesus that ‘someone’ had a face and a name: he was the Roman emperor. His armies were all-powerful and his cult was spreading around the Mediterranean world. He claimed the titles of ‘Saviour’ and ‘Lord’: after all, he was the Lord of the known world and could save any who called on him if he chose to do so. His puppets in Judea were the Sadducees: the rich families who had compromised in order to win a share of the power from their Roman overlords. Most of the members of the ruling council—the people who had arrested Peter—were part of that group.

Now, in this context, Peter and the other apostles made this great Gospel announcement: “The world has a new King, Jesus the Messiah, the one who will bring justice and peace for all. He’s seated at the right hand of God, the place of authority. It’s true his rule is hidden at the moment, but don’t be deceived by appearances: he will have the last word! Not Caesar, not the Sanhedrin, not the High Priest, but Jesus! At his name every knee will bow, and every tongue will confess that Jesus the Messiah is Lord, to the glory of God the Father!”

The true ruler of the universe is Jesus, the Son of God, the one who lives not by the love of power but by the power of love. We Christians have come to believe this message, so we’ve have turned away from our previous allegiances and pledged ourselves to Jesus, the rightful King. That’s what it means to be a baptized Christian. Our baptism is our citizenship ceremony, the moment we placed ourselves under the authority of this new King. Or, for most of us, the moment our parents placed us under his authority—an authority we accepted for ourselves when we were confirmed. 

What does that mean for us? It means no prime minister, no premier, no multinational business, no philosophy or ideology, can have more authority over us than Jesus. Following his teaching, seeking first the Kingdom of God—it’s our joy and delight to make these things the highest value in our lives. That’s what it means to be a baptized Christian.

But we might ask, “How do we know all this? How do we know Jesus is Ruler and Saviour of all?” And the answer is, we know because God raised him from the dead.In verse 30 Peter says, “The God of our ancestors raised up Jesus, whom you had killed by hanging him on a tree.” 

Peter was there, of course. He was one of the first to be called to follow Jesus. He’d spent three years following him around the country, getting to know him better, sharing in his mission. He’d come to believe Jesus was the Messiah: the king like David who God had promised to send, the king who would set God’s people free from foreign oppression and establish the earthly kingdom of God. And what would be the sign of this? The sign would be that God would give the Messiah’s armies victory against God’s enemies.

But this didn’t happen. Jesus showed no interest in military or political power. And when the time of the great confrontation finally arrived, God didn’t deliver him—God abandoned him. At least, that was how everyone saw it. Instead of leading a victorious army in the name of God, Jesus was hanged on the cross, the symbol of Roman oppression. When the apostles saw that, there was only one conclusion they could draw: Jesus was a false Messiah and they’d been wasting their time. 

But then on Sunday morning the reports began to come in. The women went to the tomb and found it empty. Peter and John confirmed it. Later on, Mary Magdalene was the first to see Jesus alive, and she brought the message back to the astonished apostles. That afternoon a couple walking out to the village of Emmaus met Jesus on the road. In the evening ten of the eleven were gathered in the upper room where they’d eaten the last supper, and suddenly there he was among them! They knew he wasn’t a ghost, because they touched him and saw him eating a piece of fish. 

And so the appearances went on for the next seven weeks, and the apostles gradually realized what it meant: God had vindicated Jesus. Jesus was the true King. Jesus was so powerful that even death couldn’t keep him down. And now all who followed him were promised a similar resurrection. So they had no fear of death: why would they? They ignored the threats of the rulers and told everyone they met that Jesus was alive and was Lord of all.

Jesus is alive from the dead. He’s won the victory over the ultimate weapon used by all oppressors to keep people in their place: death itself. God has made him the true Ruler of the world and Lord of all. Now: what does that mean for us? Two things: forgiveness of sins and the gift of the Holy Spirit. Look at verses 31-32:

“God exalted him at his right hand as Leader and Saviour that he might give repentance to Israel and forgiveness of sins. And we are witnesses to these things, and so is the Holy Spirit whom God has given to those who obey him.”

Forgiveness of sins is the central message of the Gospel. It’s what scandalized people about Jesus when he walked the earth: the fact that he wandered around announcing forgiveness to the most unlikely people, the rich and the poor, respectable and outcast, great and small. The message of the Cross is that God loves his enemies and refuses to take revenge on them. All who repent can be forgiven. All they need to do is turn to God and ask.

At first the apostles didn’t realize how wide this was meant to be. Peter talked about Jesus giving ‘repentance to Israel’. But gradually as time went by the apostles became convinced that God had a much wider group in mind. Jews and Gentiles—worshippers of the God of Israel and worshippers of the Greek and Roman gods—the message was meant to go to everyone. God wanted everyone to have the chance to hear this good news and experience the joy of Jesus for themselves. 

Forgiveness of sins is still central. Many people today are burdened by their guilt. It’s like a huge weight on their backs, bearing down on them. Never mind God’s standards: they can’t even measure up to their own standards! “How can God ever love me? How can I be sure God would forgive me?” The Christian answer is clear: Jesus said it, and God confirmed it by raising Jesus from the dead. So you also can be raised from the deathly hand of guilt to the new life of forgiveness and peace with God.

And you can also experience God’s presence in your life today. That’s what the Holy Spirit means. Ancient Israelites may have seen the wind as a sign of God’s presence. And so when they looked for a word to convey their sense of God’s presence with them, they found the Hebrew word ‘ruach’, which means ‘wind’ and ‘breath’. Their scriptures told them that at the moment of creation a wind from God moved over the waters, and when God created humans he breathed into them the breath of life. The Spirit is God’s breath. He lifts us up from spiritual death and breathes God’s new life into us.

Today I want to invite you to take a deep breath! Jesus Christ is the true Ruler of the universe. God has shown this by raising him from the dead. He is alive forever and is longing to pour out the forgiveness of sins and the gift of the Holy Spirit to all who will believe in him. Today Brad and Lizelle are going to stand up and profess their trust in God and their desire to live this new life. They want Blake and Sophia to experience it too, which is why they’re bringing them for baptism.

But the promise isn’t just for Blake and Sophia and Brad and Lizelle: it’s for all of us here. Your sins are forgiven! God’s Spirit is the breath of life in you! Jesus is alive forever, and so there’s no need to fear the power of death. We can go boldly from this place, full of joy in our Risen Saviour, full of confidence in his Holy Spirit who lives in us. So take a deep breath, and then go and share this good news with someone who needs to hear it!

‘Death Itself Begins to Work Backwards’ (Following Jesus Through Narnia #7)

Many years ago when you still bought music on circular pieces of vinyl called ‘LP records’, the story went around that some rock bands had started putting secret messages about death and suicide and drugs and that sort of thing on their recordings. The trick was that you had to play the songs backwards to be able to hear the messages. Then someone with a low opinion of country music came up with a joke about this. “What happens if you play a country song backwards?” Answer: “Your wife comes back to you, your farm is rescued from bankruptcy, the kids get free of drug addiction,” and so on, and so on…!

It’s a joke, but I suspect many of us wish we could find a way to do that. We’ve all made foolish choices from time to time, and now we find ourselves living with the consequences of those choices. If only there was some way of playing the record backwards—going back to the place where things started to go wrong and starting all over again!

I’ve called today’s sermon ‘Death Itself Begins to Work Backwards’. This title comes from C.S. Lewis’ Narnia story The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. In this story, Aslan the Lion, the Christ-figure of the magical country of Narnia, is explaining to the children what they have just seen. He says:

‘If (the White Witch) could have looked a little further back, into the stillness and the darkness before time began…she would have known that when a willing victim who had committed no treachery was killed in a traitor’s stead, the Table would crack and Death itself would start to work backwards.”

What on earth is Aslan talking about? Well, let me tell you the story.

All through Lent, here at St. Margaret’s, we’ve been using C.S. Lewis’ Narnia stories as our spiritual guide. We’ve been looking at some of the characters in the stories each week, asking ourselves the question, “What do these characters teach us about following Jesus?” We’ve met Aslan the Lion, the Christ figure of Narnia, who has come to rescue his country from evil. Narnia is under the reign of the tyrannical White Witch, who has put a powerful enchantment on the whole land, so that it’s always winter but never Christmas. One of the ways she enforces her power is by her ability to turn people into stone. Over time, the courtyard of her castle has become filled with statues: people who used to be her enemies.

The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe starts when four children, Peter, Susan, Edmund, and Lucy, are evacuated from London during the blitz. They find themselves at the house of an elderly professor out in the country, and Lucy, the youngest, finds her way into Narnia through an old wardrobe in a spare room.  Eventually her brother Edmund gets into Narnia too. There he happens to meet the White Witch. She knows about the old prophecy, which says that when two sons of Adam and two daughters of Eve sit on the four thrones of the castle of Cair Paravel, her reign will be over. So when she hears that Edmund is one of four, she immediately sets out to entice him to her side. She gives him enchanted Turkish Delight to eat, and she goes on to appeal to his pride: she wants a nice boy, she says, who can be king after she is gone. But the king will need servants, so he should bring his brother and sisters back to Narnia and bring them to her house, where he will rule over them.

So Edmund is deceived and he becomes a traitor. When all four children get into Narnia, Edmund slips away to the White Witch’s castle and tells her where the others are. But to his surprise, he isn’t treated as he expected. Gradually he comes to realise that the Witch is evil; she’s been using him to trap his sisters and brother, and she intends to kill them all.

Aslan’s forces rescue Edmund and restore him to his brother and sisters. However, his troubles are not yet over. The Witch asks for a meeting with Aslan, at which she reminds him of a law put into Narnia at the very beginning by the Emperor: the law that says every traitor belongs to her, and for every act of treachery she has a right to a kill. So Aslan sends the others away and talks privately with the Witch. Eventually he announces to everyone that he’s settled the matter, and the Witch has renounced her claim on Edmund’s blood. The Witch then leaves Aslan’s camp.

But Susan and Lucy notice that Aslan seems sad and distracted. His army moves camp, and later on that night he sneaks away by himself. Susan and Lucy see him and follow him. He goes to a place where there is a great stone table. There we see the Witch and all her evil followers waiting for him. Aslan allows himself to be tied up, and the Witch’s servants shave off his magnificent mane and drag him up onto the Stone Table. There the Witch kills Aslan with a terrible stone knife. She and her followers then leave to attack Aslan’s army.

Susan and Lucy come out of hiding and throw themselves on the body of Aslan, crying bitterly until they have no tears left. They spend the night keeping vigil at the Stone Table. When dawn comes they both feel very cold, so they get up and walk around. Suddenly, when the first ray of sunrise comes over the horizon, they hear a great cracking sound. They turn and see that the Stone Table is cracked and the body of Aslan is gone.

      “Who’s done it?” cried Susan. “What does it mean? Is it more magic?”

      “Yes,” said a great voice behind their backs. “It is more magic.” They looked around. There, shining in the sunrise, larger than they had seen him before, shaking his mane… stood Aslan himself.

It doesn’t take long for Aslan to convince the girls that he’s alive, and they have a wonderful romp around the Stone Table together. But eventually, after giving an earth-shaking roar, Aslan tells the girls to climb onto his back. He then races across Narnia to the castle of the White Witch. She and all her armies are gone, and Aslan jumps the wall and lands in the courtyard, which is full of the statues of people she has turned into stone. As the girls watch, Aslan runs around the courtyard and begins breathing on the statues. Gradually, by the breath of Aslan, the whole courtyard comes alive again. Aslan’s breath creates colour, where before there was only the deadly grey of the stone. Where there was only silence, now Aslan’s breath sets voices free: “happy roarings, brayings, yelpings… shouts, hurrahs, songs and laughter.” Aslan’s words are coming true: death itself is working backwards.

I won’t tell you the rest of the story; if you’ve already read it, you don’t need me to remind you of it, and if you haven’t—well, what are you waiting for? But you may be asking “What’s this got to do with us today, on Easter Sunday at St. Margaret’s?”

Today we’ve heard once again the story of the resurrection of Jesus, which was as much of a surprise to his followers as the resurrection of Aslan was to Susan and Lucy. The first disciples of Jesus were hiding behind locked doors on the evening of Easter Sunday, for fear they would be arrested and crucified in their turn. They were terrified that Jesus’ death would lead to their own deaths. They didn’t dare hope that in fact Jesus’ resurrection would one day lead to their own resurrections.

But this is in fact what the New Testament tells us. Let me quote again to you the words of Aslan with which I began this sermon:

“If (the White Witch) could have looked a little further back, into the stillness and the darkness before time began…she would have known that when a willing victim who had committed no treachery was killed in a traitor’s stead, the Table would crack and Death itself would start to work backwards.”

This is exactly what the death and resurrection of Jesus mean for us today. You and I are Edmund—we have believed the lies of evil and so we’ve turned away from our true King and become traitors to him. But our acts of treachery have been laid on Jesus. Out of love for us, God sent his Son into the world to take our place and die our death, so we could go free.

But death was not the end for Jesus. I once heard a story of a spider spinning a magnificent web across the mouth of a railway tunnel in an attempt to derail a train. That spider was suffering from a case of hubris, wouldn’t you think? And in the same way, for Herod and Pilate to think they could derail the love of God in Jesus turned out to be a similar case of hubris. “They put him to death by hanging him on a tree,” says Peter, “but God raised him on the third day.” (Acts 10:39-40)

This is wonderful enough, because it means the Saviour of the world is not dead but alive, and he can still act in the lives of men and women today. But this isn’t the end of the story. The New Testament doesn’t see the resurrection of Jesus as an isolated event. Rather, Jesus has started a resurrection movement. Here’s how Paul describes it in 1 Corinthians 15, as translated by Eugene Peterson in The Message:

But the truth is that Christ has been raised up, the first in a long legacy of those who are going to leave the cemeteries. There is a nice symmetry in this: Death initially came by a man, and resurrection from death came by a man. Everybody dies in Adam; everybody comes alive in Christ. But we have to wait our turn: Christ is first, then those with him at his Coming. (1 Corinthians 15:20-24)

Imagine being a participant on the most incredible Caribbean cruise, on the most wonderful luxury liner afloat. Imagine on the first night out, as you sit in the dining room, hearing the captain describe all the pleasures that are in store for you—beautiful islands, warm weather, swimming, luxury dining and entertainment and so on. But then imagine the chill that would fall on the room if the captain then said, “But of course, it’s not going to end well. We know that before the cruise ends the ship is going to be involved in a collision and all of us are going to drown. So, let’s do our best to have a good time while we can.” I think that would cast a pall over the proceedings, don’t you?

That’s a bit like our human situation. We may try hard to keep our bodies fit, but they’re still going to die one day. We work hard to earn money, but we’re going to leave it all behind one day. We can try to make good marriages and raise good families, but death will still separate us from them. We humans might prefer to forget this, but it’s the indisputable fact that lies behind our entire existence.

And then Jesus says, “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live.” (John 11:25) He’s talking about our being raised from the dead, with new physical bodies like his resurrection body, no longer subject to illness or decay or death, but living forever with him. Just like Aslan breathing on the statues in the White Witch’s castle, Jesus is going to breathe new life into us one day, and we will share in his resurrection.

This hope affects every moment of our present lives. If you know you’re going to live forever with God, if you know that when you read about Jesus’ resurrection body you are reading about what you are going to be like some day—well, that changes everything. You’re going to live forever, so it makes sense to ask God to help you be the best possible person you can be—forever! You can do things and say things now that will have an eternal effect. Nothing will be lost, nothing will be wasted, every good deed will be remembered as significant.

So you see, it’s not just our future that’s transformed by Jesus’ resurrection—it’s our present too. You know how we sometimes say to people, “Get a life!” Most of the people we say this to are, in fact, biologically alive! But we know instinctively that there’s more to life than biology. It’s possible to be biologically alive and yet still be missing out on life in all its fulness.

The way to discover life in its fulness is to live by faith in Jesus. The author of John’s Gospel explains to us why he wrote his book: “…these (things) are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.” (John 20:31) According to John, the way to ‘get a life’ is to bet your life on Jesus, to trust him enough to be willing to gather up your life in your hands, give it to him, and live as his follower for the rest of your days.

That’s the invitation Easter is giving us. Jesus has been raised, so death itself has started to work backwards, and this changes everything. Don’t waste your time on stuff that’s not going to last forever. Put your trust in Jesus, put your life in his hands, and ask him to breathe new life into you. And don’t put it off—take the next step today.