‘On His Way Rejoicing’ – a sermon on Acts 8:26-40

A man came to a church one Sunday morning in a time of great need in his life. He’d had a well-paying job with an oil company, but had recently lost it to downsizing, and was now trying to make a living as a farmer. At about the same time, his wife had left him. He was feeling lost and alone in the world, and he knew he needed help.

He hadn’t been near a church for a long time, but he had a friend who was a churchgoer, who had once shared with him the story of his own spiritual journey home to Christ. So he decided to take his courage in his hands and go to the little Anglican church his friend attended. Now it so happened that there was a guest preacher at the church that day. One of the readings set for that Sunday was Jesus’ story of the lost sheep, and that’s what the guest preacher spoke about. The man said afterwards, ‘That was me; I was the little lost sheep, and I was coming home’. And so began a process that eventually led to this man becoming a Christian.

I know this story because I was the minister at that church – although not the preacher that Sunday – and I was the one who eventually baptized this man and became a spiritual mentor to him. But as I look back on that experience, what stands out for me is how God was at work. God worked through the friend who shared the story of his faith journey. God worked through the timing – having the man come to church on the exact Sunday when that lost sheep story was being read, and then having the preacher speak about that story. The timing was right, the Holy Spirit was at work, the people who needed to speak said what needed to be said, a welcome was offered, and a connection was made. And months afterwards, when we all gradually realized how beautifully it had been arranged, we shook our heads and marvelled at the way God works.

That reminds me of today’s reading from the book of Acts.

Let’s set the scene. At the beginning of Acts chapter 8 Saul of Tarsus arranges the violent death of Stephen – the first martyr, the first person to give his life for his faith in Jesus. Stephen was a member of a group of seven ‘deacons’ who served the Jerusalem church. His death marked the beginning of a time of persecution, and the majority of the early followers of Jesus fled the city for their lives. But they didn’t do what we might expect – they didn’t keep quiet about their faith. No: Acts tells us ‘Now those who had been scattered moved on, preaching the good news along the way’ (Acts 8:4, CEB). Please note: these weren’t professional preachers. They were ordinary Jesus-followers, moving to new towns and villages, setting up their businesses, and gossipping the gospel wherever they went.

Philip was one of these. He had been another of that group of seven deacons in Jerusalem. He went beyond the borders of Israel to Samaria. Samaria was suspect. The people there were partly Jewish but their bloodline wasn’t pure, and their religion was seen as heretical by the Jewish people in Judea and Galilee. But Philip had a huge impact there as he proclaimed the Good News of Jesus and healed the sick, and a large group of Samaritans became believers. You can read that story in Acts 8:4-25, just before our reading for today.

But then something strange happened; God told Philip to move on. I’m sure Philip must have been very surprised when he heard the voice telling him to leave the amazing work that was going on in Samaria, and go down to the desert road that leads from Jerusalem to Gaza. Why would he leave a place where there were many people wanting to learn about Jesus, and go off to a place where there was nobody? But nevertheless, off he went.

And what did he discover? The desert road wasn’t deserted after all. I imagine Philip walking along the road, and then hearing the noise of a carriage, or chariot, behind him. Riding in it is a man who’s obviously a person of some importance. The word ‘Ethiopian’ was often used in the ancient world to describe a black person, but in this case he seems to have been ethnically Ethiopian too. Being an important official, I expect he probably had some servants and guards travelling along with him.

Acts tells us    quite a lot about this man. Apparently he was an important official of the Kandake, or Queen, of Ethiopia; he was in charge of her treasury. So we can imagine him as a person of some wealth and power. But he’s also described to us as a ‘eunuch’. Eunuchs were often employed as government officials or servants in court circles in the ancient Near East; there was less risk of them getting up to mischief with women in the royal families. Also, since they couldn’t have children, there was less risk of them trying to overthrow their kings so they could establish their own dynasties.

So this man was a powerful royal official of Ethiopia, and he was a eunuch, deprived of the opportunity to establish a family and a household for himself. The third thing that’s very clear is that this man was spiritually hungry. We’re not told whether or not he was Jewish; we know that at that time, Jewish people could be found in many countries in the ancient near east. But we also know that there were non-Jewish people who had been attracted to the Jewish belief in the one creator God. They were called the ‘God-fearers’. Some of them went the whole way, allowed themselves to be circumcised and took on the whole Jewish law; they were called ‘proselytes’.

Perhaps this man was a God-fearer or a proselyte; we’re not told. But he had made the long journey from Ethiopia to Jerusalem to worship at the Temple. When he got there, he may well have been disappointed. The law of Moses has a rather disturbing exclusive streak in it; Philip Yancey calls it ‘oddballs not allowed’. Eunuchs were among those oddballs; Deuteronomy 23:1 says they can’t be admitted to the assembly of the Lord, and Leviticus 17 says they can’t take part in offering the sacrifices. So the eunuch would have made the long journey from Ethiopia to worship at the temple, only to discover that he wasn’t allowed to worship at the temple. Can you imagine how that must have felt for him?

But he was determined. The text doesn’t tell us specifically that he purchased a scroll of the book of Isaiah while he was in Jerusalem, but he was obviously reading it for the first time on his way home, so it seems likely it was new to him. That scroll would have cost him an enormous amount of money – far more than a year’s wages for a day labourer. Nowadays people buy Bibles and then don’t bother to read them. Not this man! He believed this scroll was scripture from the God he was seeking, so he was reading it out loud in the chariot on his way home, trying to make sense of it. No one read silently in those days; everyone read out loud.

Wow! How nicely God had arranged everything! But it was going to get better still.

The Holy Spirit whispered in Philip’s ear ‘Approach this carriage and stay with it’ (v.29). We might have expected Philip to approach cautiously, taking his time, unsure of his welcome. Not Philip! Acts says, ‘Running up to the carriage, Philip heard the man reading the prophet Isaiah’ (v.30). He was reading from chapter 53, the Suffering Servant passage that we read every year on Good Friday. Such a good thing that Philip ran! If he’d walked, the eunuch might have been in chapter 55 by the time he got to him!

Philip and the eunuch got talking, and the eunuch asked Philip to help him understand what he was reading. This was where he’d got to in the passage:

‘Like a sheep he was led to the slaughter,
and like a lamb before its shearer is silent
so he didn’t open his mouth.
In his humiliation justice was taken away from him.
Who can tell the story of his descendants
because his life was taken from the earth?’ (Acts 8:32-33).

‘Who is the prophet talking about?’ asked the eunuch, ‘himself or someone else?’ Well, that question was a real gift for Philip! So he started from that passage, and shared with the eunuch the gospel, the good news of Jesus.

Looking at those verses we can see how good that news was for the eunuch. Isaiah 53 was understood by Christians very early on as a prophecy of the death of Jesus on the cross. It talks about the Lord’s servant being despised and rejected, a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief. It says that all of us have gone astray like lost sheep and the Lord has laid all our sins on his servant. The passage has been a rich source for Christians to meditate on the meaning of the death of Jesus.

But the section of the passage the eunuch was reading refers specifically to the ‘humiliation’ of the Lord’s servant: ‘In his humiliation justice was taken away from him.Who can tell the story of his descendantsbecause his life was taken from the earth?’ (v.33). Think of the man who had probably been made a eunuch forcibly, being robbed of his ability to have a family: ‘Who can tell the story of his descendants?’ What a humiliation for him! And then to go all the way to the Temple in Jerusalem only to be excluded, kept away from the worship of the God he’d come all that way to seek. Another humiliation!

Acts tells us that ‘starting with that passage, Philip proclaimed the good news about Jesus to him’ (v.35). It’s not hard for us to guess what good news about Jesus Philip would have told him. The death of Jesus was a sign of God identifying with sinners and sufferers all over the world. The Old Testament might have said ‘oddballs not allowed’, but Jesus appears to have believed the reverse: ‘oddballs especially welcome’! One of his favourite sayings was ‘the first shall be last and the last first’. The eunuch might have been turned away at the Temple in Jerusalem, but at the cross the arms of Jesus were opened wide to welcome allpeople back to God!

Well, this message obviously fell on fertile ground. This was what the eunuch had been looking for! This rich and powerful man had a great big empty space in his heart and he was seeking a true and living and loving God to fill that space. He didn’t need telling twice! And somehow, in all that desert, at just the right time, they came to a patch of water. “Look – water! What’s to prevent me being baptized?” So they stopped the carriage, and down they went into the water, and Philip baptized him, and then the eunuch went on his way rejoicing.

This is one of the most wonderful stories in the book of Acts, and it’s full of meaning for us today. What can we learn from it?

First, what’s God up to? The baptism of this eunuch comes a few verses after the baptism of the Samaritans who became Jesus-followers. A couple of chapters later, we have the first baptism of a Roman, Cornelius – we’ll think about him next week. The message of Jesus is spreading; it started with the Jewish people, but it didn’t stop there. It went on to those heretics in Samaria – and then to a spiritually hungry eunuch from Ethiopia – and then to the enemy, the hated Romans, Centurion Cornelius and his household. And within a few chapters Paul and Barnabas are taking the Christian message far beyond the borders, out among the Gentiles who worship idols of wood and stone. And everywhere the message goes, it finds a ready hearing in the hearts of people hungry for spiritual reality.

That’s what God’s up to. We make a border and say, ‘This far the gospel can go, and no further’, but God delights in going beyond that border. People who’ve been marginalized and humiliated and excluded – sometimes by the very churches they’ve come to in their search for spiritual reality – God is reaching out to those people. On Easter Sunday we heard how the angel said to the women at the empty tomb, “(Jesus) is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you” (Mark 6:7 NRSV). We’re always playing catch up with Jesus. We’d like to keep him in the nice, safe circle of long-time followers, but he’s always reaching out beyond the borders to the outcasts and the humiliated and the marginalized and the sinners.

And some of them are willing to go to great lengths to learn about him. The three wise men came looking for the newborn king; they’d made a long journey from the east and may have been on the road for as long as two years. Even if you didn’t have to leave home, would you put two years of your life into a demanding spiritual journey? The eunuch had come all the way from Ethiopia; that’s two thousand five hundred miles, on a dangerous road, travelling by horse carriage or chariot. You’d be surprised to discover how spiritually hungry some people are, even in today’s world. When I let them ask me their questions, instead of presuming I know what their questions are going to be, I’m often amazed at the things that come up.

I teach a one-day workshop called ‘How to Relax and Enjoy Evangelism’. I’m very serious about the title. If we understand what Luke is telling us in today’s gospel, we’ll know there’s no need to get uptight about it. God is at work in people’s lives. What we need to do is learn to walk closely with God, so that when God gives us little nudges, we’ll be able to pick them up. God knows what he’s up to in the lives of our friends and family members and acquaintances. He knows the ones whose hearts are ready for a significant conversation. It doesn’t need to be a long one; in fact, it’s probably better if it isn’t. It’s always better to end the conversation while people are still wishing you’d keep going, rather than go on and on until you’re long past the point where they start wishing you’d shut up!

Likely you won’t very often get to be the last link – the one who leads them across the threshold to faith in Jesus. More likely you’ll be a link in the chain. But if you listen to the Holy Spirit and let go of your fears, you’ll be able to be the link you need to be. And who knows; one day you might help someone to the point where they go on their way rejoicing because for the first time in their lives they’ve come to know the joy of Jesus. And if you stand close enough so that some of that joy can spill over on you – well, that will be an experience you’ll treasure for the rest of your life.

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‘Small Church Essentials’ by Karl Vaters: Introduction

41qsejNasDL._SX326_BO1,204,203,200_I’ve really enjoyed reading Karl Vaters’ new book ‘Small Church Essentials’. You can find out a lot about Karl by reading his blog ‘Pivot‘ at ‘Christianity Today’ or checking out his website New Small Church.

I need to work my way through the book again and start implementing some of the many ideas I haven’t begun to practice yet. I thought blogging my way through it might help with that. So here’s the first post, on the Introduction (pp.9-13).

In the Intro Karl makes three statements about what small churches need in order to become great (hint: in Karl’s language, ‘Great’ does not automatically mean ‘bigger’):

  1. They have to believe they can be great.
  2. They have to see what a great small church looks like.
  3. They need resources designed for great small churches.

As I reflected on these questions I saw immediately that for me, as a small church pastor, point 2 is crucial. Church growth literature and denominational authorities tend to peddle visions of what a great large church looks like, but that’s not helpful for us small church pastors. We are the ones who believe that it is more than possible to have the kind of church life described in the letters of Paul in a small church than a large church. After all, for the first two or three Christian centuries the ‘house church’ was the norm – so everything essential to church life must be doable in a large living room!

My own pastoral vision is crucial here. Do I have a vision of what a great small church looks like? In this book Karl constantly comes back to the Great Commandments (‘Love God with all your heart and love your neighbour as yourself’) and the Great Commission (‘Go and make disciples of all nations…baptize them…teach them to obey everything I have commanded you’). I would add as foundational the Great Confession that Peter makes in the Gospels (‘You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God’). Our vision for small church greatness must focus on these essentials:

  1. Jesus is the Messiah (i.e. the king who sets us free), the Son of God.
  2. Jesus calls us to be his disciples, to make new disciples and to teach them to put his teaching and example into practice in daily life.
  3. Jesus calls us to love God with our whole heart, soul, mind and strength, and to love our neighbour as ourselves.

Small churches don’t have excess time, volunteer hours, and money. We need to focus on the things Jesus is calling us to do and not get distracted.

******

A bit further on in the introduction Karl talks about the stereotypes people have of small churches: they are…

  • Inward-focussed
  • Threatened by change
  • Filled with petty infighting and jealousies
  • Not reaching their communities
  • Poorly managed
  • Settling for less

His comment is ‘That’s not a description of a small church; it’s a description of an unhealthy church’. There are plenty of small churches that are:

  • Friendly
  • Outward-looking
  • Missional
  • Innovative
  • Generous
  • Worshipful

As I reflected on these two lists, it came to me once again that it’s probably a case of ‘as pastor, so church’. Which of these lists best describes me? Am I inward-focussed, threatened by change, absorbed by petty infighting and jealousies, not reaching my community, poor at time management, with a tendency to settle for less? Or am I friendly, outward-looking, missional, innovative, generous, and worshipful?

When I look at the first list, it’s the last two that convict me. I’m not a good time manager – I know it’s one of my greatest ministry weaknesses – and I really need to work on that, while not getting sucked into time management tools that work better for large churches (later in the book Karl outlines as very helpful ‘321’ planning system that works really well in small churches). And also I do tend to settle for less – ‘good enough’ – in myself and in church life – rather than pushing myself to be better and inspiring the church to be better too.

So my take-away work from the intro is:

  1. Have a clear picture of what greatness looks like in a small church (hint: it probably centres on the Great Confession, the Great Commission and the Great Commandments) and share this with others.
  2. Work on my time-management and planning skills.
  3. Instead of ‘settling for less’, develop a regular (weekly, monthly, yearly) discipline of asking ‘How could we do this better?’ (or, alternatively. ‘What could we do that would be better than this?’).

 

‘Salvation through Jesus’ (a sermon for the 4th Sunday of Easter on Acts 3 & 4)

Today’s reading from Acts contains a verse which some people will have found so disturbing that they probably didn’t hear anything else that was read after it. In Acts 4:12 Peter, speaking about Jesus, says “There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among mortals by which we must be saved”.

Many people, listening to that verse, think it means “When we die, unless we have made a decision to accept Jesus, we will not go to heaven”. Apparently God has made a totally arbitrary decision to ignore all the good Muslims and Jews and Buddhists out there, and to focus instead on whether a person believes in Jesus or not. Understandably, in these days when we’d all like people of different religions to get along better with each other,  some people don’t see that as a positive message.

I actually find it quite surprising that people would interpret this verse in this way – for two reasons. First, if you take this passage in the context of the total story of Acts 3 and 4 the issue of dying and going to heaven is not mentioned at all. The word ‘heaven’ is mentioned three times in this story, but in two of them it just means ‘the sky’, and in the third one it’s the place God will send Jesus from– in what we nowadays usually refer to as ‘the second coming’ – when the time of universal restoration finally comes.

The second reason I find this interpretation surprising is the way we hear the word ‘saved’ or ‘salvation’. Again, we’ve got a long history of interpreting that to mean ‘saved from going to hell’. But that’s not the most common meaning of it in the Bible. In the Old Testament the word ‘salvation’ is almost always used in a military sense – it means ‘to be saved from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us’, as Zechariah says in Luke 1:71. The Israelites are slaves in Egypt – they’re under the thumb of an enemy far too powerful for them – but God rescues them miraculously and leads them to freedom, and they give thanks for his salvation.

In the Gospels the word is often translated as ‘healed’ or ‘made well’. For instance, in Luke 17 Jesus heals ten lepers, but only one comes back to thank him. Jesus says to the man “Get up and go on your way; your  faith has made you well” (Luke 17:19). It’s the same word root in the original language as ‘be saved’ in our passage for today. And of course in our passage the immediate context is healing; in Acts 4:9 Peter says “If we are questioned today because of a good deed done to someone who was sick and are asked how this man has been healed…”, and the word used in the original Greek for ‘healed’is the same as ‘saved’. So we could translate 4:9 as ‘how this man has been saved’. In other words, the kind of salvation most immediately in view in this passage is healing, not dying and going to heaven.

Okay – before we go any further, let’s remind ourselves of the big picture, because our reading gave us only a part of it. This story takes place not long after the day of Pentecost. There’s great excitement in Jerusalem; the disciples are claiming that Jesus has been raised from the dead, the Holy Spirit has come, thousands of people have become believers, and there’s a real sense of the presence of the risen Jesus in the disciple community, even though he can’t be seen.

One day Peter and John go up to the temple for the daily prayer service. They enter by a gate called the Beautiful Gate, and sitting there is a man who has been lame from birth; he’s shouting out, asking people for money. Peter says to him “I have no silver and gold, but what I have I give you; in the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, stand up and walk” (3:6). He takes his hand and helps him up, and the man’s feet and ankles are strengthened and he starts walking and jumping and praising God.

All the people see the man, and they recognize him, and they’re full of awe and amazement.  A crowd gathers, and Peter immediately speaks to them. He makes it quite clear that this is not due to any power of their own. No, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob has glorified his servant Jesus – the one they had rejected. They had asked for a murderer to be released to them and killed the Author of life, but God raised him from the dead. The resurrection proves that Jesus is not only the true Messiah – he’s also the true prophet Moses promised, the one God would send to speak to the people on his behalf. It’s in the name of this Jesus – the true prophet, the true Messiah – that this man has been healed. So Peter invites the people to repent and turn to God, so that they may receive forgiveness of sins and what he delightfully calls ‘times of refreshing’ from God.

At this point the Temple authorities arrive and promptly arrest Peter and John, ‘much annoyed because they were teaching the people and proclaiming that in Jesus there is the resurrection of the dead’ (4:2). The next day they haul them up before the Sanhedrin – the Jewish ruling council, including Caiaphas the high priest and Annas his father-in-law – the very same council that a few weeks before had condemned Jesus to death. The Council asks them by what power or authority they have done this deed – by which they mean ‘Who do you think you are, preaching and healing our peoplein our Temple?’ Peter replies again that “this man is standing before you in good health by the name of Jesus of Nazareth, whom you crucified, whom God raised from the dead” (4:10). “There is salvation…” (deliverance, healing) “…in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among mortals by which we must be saved” (4:12).

The next verse is interesting: ‘Now when they saw the boldness of Peter and John and realized that they were uneducated and ordinary men, they were amazed and recognized them as companions of Jesus’ (4:13). But the man who had been healed was standing before them too – no one could deny that fact – and so all they could do was let Peter and John off with a strict warning – “No more preaching in the name of Jesus!” But Peter replied immediately, “You must judge whether it’s right for us to obey you rather than God. As for us, we can’t stop talking about what we’ve seen and heard”. After they were released they went back to the other disciples, and they all prayed to God to give them boldness to preach the Gospel, while he kept on doing signs and wonders in the name of Jesus. The answer they received was a repeat of Pentecost – the house was shaken as if by a violent wind and ‘they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke the word of God with boldness’ (4:31).

So what’s going on in this story?

Firstly, let’s be clear: for Luke, this story is a continuation of the good news of the resurrection of Jesus. This healing of a lame man was exactlythe kind of thing that Jesus had done. And Peter had done it in the waythat Jesus did it! He hadn’t prayed to God that the man would be healed. Rather, in what appears to be perfect trust in God, he’d simply commanded the man in the name of Jesus to rise up and walk, and then lifted him to his feet. And the man had been healed, and everyone who saw it was ‘filled with wonder and amazement’.

The people would have seen the connection right away. “That prophet from Nazareth who we crucified a few weeks ago – he used to do this kind of thing, didn’t he? Now his followers are doing it in his name!” The leaders make the same connection in 4:13: ‘Now when they saw the boldness of Peter and John and realized that they were uneducated and ordinary men, they were amazed…’ (there’s that word again!) ‘…and recognized them as companions of Jesus’. This is the power of the resurrection of Jesus: this band of ordinary, uneducated followers of Jesus continues to do and say things that remind people of what Jesus himself had said and done.

We have to be careful about applying this to our own situation today, because, quite frankly, very few Christians seem to have been given the power to do what Peter did: to speak a word of declaration in the name of Jesus, which instantly heals a person who has been lame from birth. We do hear of these things from time to time, but they are rare. But if the resurrection of Jesus is true, then it is absolutely essential that the life of the Christian community – the Church – reminds people of the life of Jesus. The love of Jesus needs to be tangible among us, so that people can see it in concrete ways. As John says in his first letter: ‘No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us’ (1 John 4:12).

Is this true for the Church today? To be frank again, there are a lot of things done in the name of Jesus today that seem totally contrary to the teaching and example of Jesus. In the name of Jesus, Christians have blessed weapons of war. In the name of Jesus, Christians have given support to authoritarian governments – whose leaders live in power and luxury and do all they can to keep the poor in their place. In the name of Jesus, Christians have taken children away from their parents, stripped them of their language and culture and tried to remake them in their own image.

So what would it take in our Christian community here, for people on the outside to see the things we do together, and be amazed, and recognize us as companions of Jesus? Well, you might be surprised to know that this is already happening. People are already commenting on the practical love that happens here in this community. But let’s press on, and never tire of asking ourselves the question “What can we do to be more like Jesus? How do we put the two great commandments into practice – loving God with all our heart and loving our neighbour as ourselves – so that people have a sense that Jesus is alive, and present among us?

I’ll tell you one of the answers to that question: The Jesus of the gospels is constantly spreading the good news of the kingdom of God and calling people to believe in him. And this is what Peter and John were doing in this story. Having healed the lame man in the name of Jesus, they then told the crowd boldly that Jesus was alive and was the true anointed king sent by God to bring salvation to everyone. So if we want to be like Jesus, we will also be spreading the good news of the Kingdom of God and inviting others to put their faith in him and follow him.

Note that this is not about spreading a religious system. The Temple was a very elaborate religious system, built at huge expense by Herod the Great. Every day at the Temple prayers and sacrifices were offered. Sinners came to receive forgiveness for their sins. People came to pray for God’s help. Money changers changed the unclean Roman and Greek coins into good Jewish money so that sacrificial animals could be bought. Priests and scribes instructed the people in the name of God. It was a splendid system and no doubt Annas and Caiaphas were proud of it.

Except for this: outside this temple, at the Beautiful Gate, a beggar had been sitting for a lifetime, and the religious system had been unable to help him. Religious systems are like that: over time, they tend to take on a life of their own, entirely separate from the power and love of God. And then along comes a prophet, a rabble-rouser, a person who claims God has spoken to them. Do the leaders like this? They do not! This man is threatening their authority! He’s misleading the people! We must do away with him! Nevertheless, it’s this man, not the leaders, who seems to be able to heal the sick, open the eyes of the blind, and make the lame walk.

So spreading the good news of the Kingdom of God isn’t about spreading the Anglican brand name. It’s not about ‘my God is better than your God’. It’s about the one shining fact that the New Testament proclaims from start to finish: ‘Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, through whom he also created the worlds’ (Hebrews 1:1-2).

This is not about who goes to heaven and who goes to hell – we can leave that issue in the hands of a just and loving God. It’s about the fact that the same God who has spoken to everyone in every age through wise teachers and prophets has chosen at one point in history to come among us as one of us, in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. So if we want to see the face of God and hear the word of God most clearly, it’s to Jesus that we must come.

Note: the word of God that we hear from Jesus will not always be a comfortable word for his followers! In one place in the gospels Jesus warns his disciples that because they have heard his teaching and come to know God’s will, the consequences for them if they don’t put it into practice will be much more severe. In other words, as C.S. Lewis once put it, ‘Christians are playing for higher stakes!’ And let’s not forget that in Jesus’ parable of the sheep and the goats, there were surprises about who turned out to be a sheep and who turned out to be a goat.

So as followers of Jesus we need to be content to leave the issue of people’s eternal destiny in the hands of a just and loving God. But as followers of Jesus, we’re also called to be obedient to his command that we share the good news of the Kingdom at every possible opportunity and invite people to become his disciples. Through him the salvation – the forgiveness, the healing, the deliverance – of God is poured out on all people. Like Peter and John, we get to be part of that amazing story. And two thousand years later, we’re still doing it, because we believe that Jesus is alive and that in his name everyone can receive salvation, and wholeness, and life in all its fulness.

Gregory Alan Thornbury: ‘Why Should the Devil Have All the Good Music?’

33877924Today I finished Gregory Alan Thornbury’s brilliant biography of Larry Norman, Why Should the Devil Have All the Good Music? Larry Norman and the Perils of Christian Rock. Here’s the response I wrote on Goodreads:

I was a Larry Norman fan in the 1970s and 80s but lost touch with him after that. I heard stories about his failings, but was never really familiar with his story. However, songs like ‘The Outlaw’, ‘One Way’, ‘Reader’s Digest’ and ‘The Great American Novel’ were permanently etched on my musical imagination and I continued to listen to the old albums with great enjoyment.

So I was excited when I heard about this book, and it did not disappoint. Larry Norman emerges from these pages as a real human being, one who struggles with weaknesses and failings as we all do. And yet, his influence on my life as a Christian and a musician was entirely positive, and I suspect thousands of others could say the same thing. Having heard some of the rumours about him I expected to think less highly of him after reading this book, but the opposite is the case. I will go back to the old records and listen to them again with more appreciation for the real human being who created them, and I will gladly own up to being a Larry Norman fan.

Why Should the Devil Have All the Good Music? on Amazon.ca.

Here’s the song the book is named after:

And here’s another favourite Larry Norman song:

‘What Does the Resurrection Mean?’ (a sermon for the 3rd Sunday of Easter on Acts 2:36-41)

We have an embarressing largesse of materials to help us piece together the movements of the apostle Peter from the Thursday evening of the Last Supper to the day of Pentecost seven weeks later. He’s mentioned in all four of the gospels and the Book of Acts, and even though these eyewitness accounts don’t agree in all the details, the general outline is pretty clear. I want to start this morning by just reminding you of the gist of that story, because it bears on our reading from Acts today and the things I want to say about it.

First, we need to remember the extravagent vow that Peter made on Thursday evening. At the last supper Jesus shocked all his disciples by foretelling that one of them would betray him. But he didn’t stop there; he said to them, “You will all become deserters; for it is written, ‘I will strike the shepherd, and the sheep will be scattered’…Peter said to him, “Even though all become deserters, I will not”. Jesus said to him, “Truly I tell you, this day, this very night, before the cock crows twice, you will deny me three times”. But he said vehemently, “Even though I must die with you, I will not deny you”’ (Mark 14:27, 29-31).

We all know what came of that vow. Let’s give credit where credit is due: Peter did better than all the rest of the male disciples. In the garden of Gethsemane, after Jesus was arrested, everyone else ran away in fear. But Peter followed at a distance; he followed all the way to the courtyard of the high priest’s house, where the hearings were taking place. There his courage failed him. He was recognized by some of the people there, and challenged three times: “You’re also one of this man’s disciples!” And each time he denied it: “I am not!” And then he realized what he had done, and he went out and wept.

That’s the last we hear of Peter until Easter Sunday morning, but it’s not hard for me to fill in the blanks. Peter had made his promise before all the other disciples; they had all heard him. I’m guessing that after his failure, it took a long time for him to work up the courage to rejoin the others. Maybe he hoped they hadn’t heard what had happened in the high priest’s house, but he couldn’t be sure. Likely it was only the fact that they had failed just as spectacularly as he had, that made it possible for him to show his face among them.

And so comes Sunday morning. They’re all together in the upper room when a knock comes on the door. I can imagine their fear; is is the police, come to arrest them? But no, it’s Mary Magdalene, and maybe also some of the other women; they’ve been to the tomb and found it empty, and a young man or an angel has told them that he has risen. Peter and John look at each other, and they’re off. John’s younger and he runs a little faster; Mary Magdalene follows behind. John gets to the tomb, looks in and sees that the body is gone, although the linen cloths it was wrapped in are still there. Peter arrives and goes boldly into the tomb. They see, and they remember what Jesus said, but they go back to the upper room. Mary stays, and so she’s the first one to see the risen Lord alive. Back she goes to the upper room again, and we can imagine the glow on her face as she says, “I’ve seen the Lord!”

Later that afternoon, Jesus appears to Peter by himelf. We have absolutely no idea what happened at that meeting, because it isn’t described for us in the gospels; it’s only mentioned briefly in Luke, when the couple who met Jesus on the road to Emmaus come back with the news that he is alive. But the others aren’t surprised, because they’re saying to each other, “The Lord has risen indeed, and he has appeared to Simon!” (Luke 24:34).

I would love to know what happened at that meeting! Did Peter apologize and ask Jesus’ forgiveness? Did Jesus speak individual words of forgiveness to him, “Peace be with you?” We don’t know. But we do know that after the two from Emmaus came in, suddenly Jesus was standing among them, as we heard in our gospel reasing for today. He gave his greeting of peace; he showed them his hands and side. And just in case they thought they were seeing a ghost or spirit, he ate a piece of fish in their presence.

And so the resurrection stories continue. There’s another one mentioned in John’s gospel; it takes place back in Galilee, at the lake. The disciples have gone fishing and caught nothing, even though they’ve worked all night. In the dim light of morning they see a figure by the lakeside; “Any fish, boys? Cast the net to the right side of the boat, and you will find some”. So they do, and immediately their nets fill up. No doubt Peter and Andrew remember the same thing happening right back at the beginning of the gospel story when Jesus first called them; John was there too, and he realizes who it is by the lakeshore: “It’s the Lord!” Peter is so excited that he jumps into the lake and swims to shore, and sure enough, it isthe Lord!

After breakfast Jesus does some personal mnistry with Peter. Peter had denied three times that he even knew Jesus; now Jesus asks him three times, “Do you love me?” And when Peter affirms his love, Jesus gives him a new commission – “feed my sheep” – as well as warning him that one day he will pay the ultimate price for his commitment to Jesus. ‘After this he said to him, “Follow me”’ (John 21:19).

And so Peter is again the leader of the little apostolic band. After Jesus ascends into heaven, Peter is the one who presides when the goup chooses another person to take the place of Judas. The disciples heard Jesus’ command to wait in Jerusalem until they receive the Holy Spirit, and so they do. And on the Day of Pentecost Peter and his friends receive the Holy Spirit in an extraordinary way. They hear a sound from heaven like a hurricane. They see a vision of little tongues of fire resting on the head of each believer. And then their mouths are opened and they begin to speak about the mighty acts of God in languages they haven’t learned!

A crowd gathers – some say “They’ve been drinking, that’s for sure!” And so Peter is the one to step forward. He points out an old prophecy in the book of Joel; in the last days God will pour out his Spirit on everyone – not just leaders and prophets, but young and old, men and women, slave and free. That’s what’s happening here, Peter says; these are the days Joel was talking about.

Then he reminds them of the story of Jesus, and especially how ‘you’ – that is, the leaders and the crowd) – crucified him, but God then vindicated him by raising him up. Now he’s been exalted to the throne of heaven and he’s poured out the Holy Spirit on ordinary people – not just prophets and priests, but fishermen and tax collectors, men and women, slaves and free.

I find it helpful to remember that this event takes place only seven weeks after the resurrection of Jesus. In other words, it’s still news! Peter’s still waking up in the morning and pinching himself to see if he’s dreaming! And so when he talks to people about the gospel, he goes straight to the resurrection! It’s only in the light of the resurrection that everything else makes sense to him!

But he’s had seven weeks to think about it, and he’s begun to realize what it means and why it’s so important. Look at today’s passage from Acts, which comes from the end of Peter’s sermon on the Day of Pentecost. After describing the resurrection of Jesus and quoting the Old Testament scriptures, Peter says, “Therefore let the whole house of Israel know with certainty that God has made him both Lord and Messiah, this Jesus whom you crucified” (Acts 2:36).

This is the first thing the resurrection means: it means that Jesus’ claims are true.The Messiah is the king God is sending to set his peope free and usher in the reign of God on earth. Many people in the first century A.D. came claiming to be the Messiah; they raised armies, rebelled against the Romans, and all of them were wiped out and forgotten. And for forty-eight hours, it looked like Jesus was going to be just another like them. Certainly when the disciples saw him die, they must have begun to doubt. The Messiah’s supposed to win victories over God’s enemies! He’s not supposed to be killed by them!

But the resurrection changed all this. God had vindicated Jesus! Jesus had loved his enemies, prayed for those who hated him, given himself over to death and trusted that his Father would not abandon him – and God had come through for him in an extraordinary way.

‘God has made him both Lord and Messiah’ (2:36). As I’ve said many times before, ‘Lord’ was one of the official titles of the Roman emperor. If one of Jesus’ apostles stood up today and said, “God has made him leader of the free world, this Jesus whom you crucified”, everyone would know which particular political leader they were talking about! Caesar was the most powerful leader in the world at that time, but Jesus is above him. He’s above every rival authority, every president, every tyrant, every business leader, every celebrity. At the end of Matthew’s Gospel he says to his disciples, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me” (Matthew 28:18).

So today, two thousand years later, the resurrection means that Jesus Christ is Lord of all. We Christians believe that God is gathering together a new people, a people who acknowledge and confess that Jesus is Lord, and commit to being his citizens and living by the laws of his Kingdom. We refuse to let any other Lord usurp his position. He comes first. We believe that he will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead, and his kingdom will have no end. And so we believe that our response to him matters. Following him isn’t just a matter of adding a few Sunday mornings a year to our busy social schedule. It’s about totally reshaping our lives around his leadership. That’s the first difference the resurrection makes.

Here’s the second thing. In verse 38 Peter says, “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ so that your sins may be forgiven; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit”. The resurrection means that our sins can be forgiven. Why? Because before he died, Jesus prayed for those who executed him: “Father, forgive them”. That might just have been a nice inspirational quote if death had been the end for Jesus. But death was not the end; God vindicated Jesus by raising him from the dead.

Think of those words Jesus spoke at the Last Supper: “This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins” (Matthew 26:28). We can imagine the disciples shaking their heads; “Is he comparing himself with an animal sacrifice? How weird is that?” But after the resurrection it was no longer weird. We’re told in several places that Jesus explained to them all the Old Testament scriptures concerning himself. No, this death was not an accident; it was the ultimate example of how God treats his enemies: loving and forgiving them. The resurrection validates all this.

If I was Peter, I’d have been particularly interested in this. After all, he had failed Jesus spectacularly! He must have thought that any hope he might have of further ministry for Jesus was over, dead and gone, buried in the tomb with Jesus. But now Jesus is raised, and his words are not “You really blew it, didn’t you?” but “Peace be with you”.

What about you and me? We’re ordinary, fallible human beings. We’ve all got things we’re ashamed of – words we’ve said or left unsaid, actions we’ve done and left undone. But the resurrection tells us that love wins over hate, mercy triumphs over judgement. You can come – I can come – all who are willing to repent and believe can come and ask for forgiveness, and receive it. And then, of course, we’re commanded to pass it on to others too.

One more thing. The resurrection not only means that Jesus’ claims are true and that our sins can be forgiven; it means we can receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ so that your sins may be forgiven; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit” (Acts 2:38).

This is a big deal. Nowadays people tend to believe that priests and ministers get a special dose of the Holy Spirit that’s not available to everyone else. In Old Testament times the Spirit was given to special people – prophets, kings, priests – but not to everyone. That’s why the prophecy Peter quoted from Joel on the Day of Petnecost was so important: ‘In the last days it will be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams. Even upon my slaves, both men and women, in those  days I will pour out my Spirit; and they shall prophesy’ (Acts 2:17-18).

Please don’t miss how radical this was. Women were not usually seen as spiritual leaders; slaves would not have been allowed to speak in the assembly; old people were venerated but young people would not generally be respected in the same way. But now all these groups are included in this radical new vision. Every single believer will receive the gift of God’s Spirit. All of you here – every one of us – no matter what gender we are, no matter how rich or poor we are, no matter how old or young we are – every one of us is offered the joy of having God live in us by his Holy Spirit, and so we will be able to speak in his name.

That’s what was happening on the Day of Pentecost. Please don’t think of Pentecost as being the day when twelve venerable old bishops received the Holy Spirit! These are uneducated Galilean fishermen, people who would never have gotten a look in when the priests were discussing the scriptures. And let’s not forget the women! Acts chapter one says that there were about a hundred and twenty disciples of Jesus in the gathering, and in thst group were ‘certain women, including Mary the mother of Jesus’ (Acts 1:14). I’m guessing Mary Magdalene – the first witness of the resurrection – would have been there, and Mary and Martha of Bethany too.

Peter explained the coming of the Holy Spirit in his sermon: “Being therefore exalted at the right hand of God, and having received from the Father the promise of the Holy Spirit, (Jesus) has poured out this that you both see and hear” (Acts 2:33). Jesus is risen, he has the place of authority in heaven, and as the King of all Kings he can give kingly gifts to his people. Chief among those gifts is the gift of the Hoy Spirit.

So let me announce to you again the good news that we have received. We humans rejected Jesus and crucified him – surely the most heinous act we’ve ever committed. But God rejected our rejection; God forgave us our sins and raised Jesus from the dead. God has made him Lord of all, high above any other power and authority; Jesus is the true Lord of heaven and earth. And this is good news for us, because his character hasn’t changed: the Lord of heaven and earth is still loving and merciful, loving and forgiving his enemies and his weak and fallible friends. So whatever you’ve done that troubles your conscience, don’t let it keep you away. Come and ask for forgiveness, and receive it with joy. And then come and pray again to be filled with the Holy Spirit. “For the promise is for you, for your children, and for all who are far away, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to him” (Acts 2:39).

Sermon for Easter 2 on Acts 4:32-35

Today is the second Sunday of the season of Easter. In the Christian church Easter isn’t just one day to sing Easter hymns and eat chocolate. Easter is a season and it lasts for fifty days, from Easter Sunday to the Day of Pentecost. This is the longest special season in the entire Church year, and it bears witness to the fact that the Resurrection of Jesus is the most important part of our faith, the part that everything else is based on. So we celebrate it for fifty days, reading the scriptures and singing the hymns and praying the prayers that testify to our belief that Jesus is alive and that he is Lord of all.

Easter is also a traditional time for baptisms. The early Christians of course were all converts; they could remember a time when they did not know the light of Jesus. They used dramatic language for their conversion; they said they’d passed from darkness to light, or that their old life had ended on the cross with Jesus, and their new life had been born out of his empty tomb. And so they went down into the waters of baptism – like a drowning in the death of Jesus – and they came up again, wet through and gasping for breath, beginning a brand new life as followers of their risen Lord.

Baptism in the early church was never just about individuals in isolation. It certainly had absolutely nothing to do with giving a baby a name and then sending her on her way to live a life completely separate from the Christian fellowship of the church. We Christians believe that our faith is a community thing: ‘Webelieve in Jesus Christ, God’s only Son, our Lord’. We pray a community prayer: ‘OurFather in heaven, hallowed be your name…’. We’re told to love one another, encourage one another, be patient with one another, and lay down our lives for one another. None of this makes any sense if we never take part in the community. Baptism is about joining the family of Jesus.

What’s that family all about?

In the Book of Acts, Doctor Luke – the author – gives us some lovely little summaries of the life of the early church. I want to be careful about using the word ‘church’ here, because when we hear it we think about buildings, and bishops, and robes, and organizations, and professional clergy, and so on. But the early church had none of that: no buildings, no professional employees, no canons and constitutions, no five-year plans. The early church was a loose association of little house churches, scattered around the eastern Mediterranean. Almost all their missionaries and pastors were volunteers, and everyone who joined it did so because they’d been gripped by something amazing – something that had changed their lives and given them a joy and hope they’d never imagined possible. That joy and hope had taken over the central place in their lives. It was more important than their homes and possessions, more important than their families and friends, more important than worldly success or wealth, more important even than life or death.

What was that ‘something’? Peter announced it on the Day of Pentecost, to a crowd that probably included people who had taken part in the murder of Jesus a few weeks before: “Therefore let the entire house of Israel know with certainty that God has made him both Lord and Messiah, this Jesus whom you crucified” (Acts 2:36).

In other words: ‘You thought he was a madman, a religious fanatic, a blasphemer, a man who was leading people astray. And you thought he was a danger to the Roman empire with all his talk about the Kingdom of God coming in power. So you joined together, you high priests and leaders of Israel; you got the Romans on your side, and you raised a gang of thugs, and you took him and crucified him. And you laughed at him while he was dying, and asked him where God was now, if God loved him so much. And then you watched as his loved ones put him in a tomb, and you posted a guard on the tomb, just to make sure nothing untoward happened.

‘We thought he was finished too. We’d followed him all the way from Galilee; we believed he was the King God was sending to set his people free. We were totally shattered when he was killed; we thought we’d been wrong about him. How could God allow the true Messiah, the true King, to be defeated? The only conclusion we could come to was that he’d been wrong, and we’d been wasting our time.

‘So we were ready to give up. But then on Sunday morning some of our women went to the tomb and found it empty. The body was gone! Not only that, but they said they’d seen a vision of angels who said he was alive! We didn’t believe them at first, but then one of them said she’d actually seen him. Later that day a few more of us saw him too; we couldn’t believe our eyes! That evening a group of us were all together in one place and he appeared to us, showed us the wounds in his hands and side, and told us he was sending us out, just as the Father had sent him.

‘And so it went on. Our friends kept seeing him; we never knew when he might show up. Sometimes we saw him in ones and twos. Once there were a group of five hundred of us at once. Sometimes we saw him in Galilee; other times back in Jerusalem. Those meetings went on for six weeks, until he told us they were going to come to an end; he was going to ascend to heaven to take the place of authority beside his Father, and he was going to send the Holy Spirit to give us power to be his witnesses and to tell the whole world that he is Lord of all’.

That’s what those early Christians experienced and believed. For the earliest ones, it was a matter of eyewitness testimony: they had seen the physical body of Jesus, raised from the dead. For those who came after, it was less clear-cut: they believed the evidence given them by the eyewitnesses, partly because they continued to see in the early church some of the miracles and healings that Jesus had performed. And when they committed themselves to Jesus, they knew within themselves that they had been given the gift of the Holy Spirit to connect them with the risen Jesus.

What is this community that we’ve been baptized into? What’s it meant to be all about? Looking at our text for today from Acts 4:32-35, let me suggest three things:

First, even today, it’s a community that gives testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus. This is the defining truth of Christianity. Writing to the little Christian house churches in the Greek city of Corinth twenty-five years later, St. Paul put it like this: ‘If Christ has not been raised, our proclamation has been in vain and your faith has been in vain’ (1 Corinthians 15:14). If Jesus has not been raised from the dead – if he is not alive today as Lord of all – then we’re wasting our time this morning. If all we’re about is the golden rule, then we don’t need to be Christians; even atheists can believe in the golden rule. It doesn’t define Christianity. Christianity is defined by the conviction that love is stronger than death: that Jesus loved his enemies and prayed for those who hated him, and after they killed him God vindicated him by raising him from the dead.

That means we’re people of hope. We’re people who have no need to fear death, because we know it’s only temporary. ‘Sleeping in Jesus’ – that’s what they called it in the early church! Sleep is temporary; the sleepers are going to wake up! The early Christians had seen one of them wake up – their beloved Lord Jesus Christ – and they had heard him promise that those who believed in him would live, even though they died. So we can face the moment of our death cheerfully, without fear, because we believe the promise Jesus made to us.

And this makes a difference in our daily lives. Because we believe in the resurrection we’re people of hope, and because we’re people of hope we don’t give up on hopeless people. Sometimes we feel hopeless ourselves, but we don’t even give up on ourselves! If God can raise people from the dead, then there is always hope in God. So we’re called to be a community of stubbornhope: never giving up on others, or ourselves, because God doesn’t give up on us.

This is a community that announces loud and clear to all the world that we believe Jesus is alive from the dead and Lord of all. That’s the first thing. The second thing is that this belief holds us together. Luke says in verse 32: ‘Now the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul’.

On Good Friday I felt this in a powerful way. I hope you were here on that day. If you weren’t, then do yourselves a favour and come next year! Toward the end of the service we brought in a wooden cross and stood it at the front here. Then we all came up and made a rough circle around the cross, fifty or sixty of us. Standing around the cross, we prayed our prayers for the whole world. I don’t know about the rest of you, but I was close to tears in that moment. I have rarely felt the reality of the family of God so strongly as I did then. We were younger people and older people, long time members of this church and newer folks. Some raised as Anglicans, many not. Some better off, some not. Some politically liberal, some conservative. But at that moment, what we had together in Jesus was more important than anything that divided us. We were ‘one in heart and soul’.

We baptized Christians are meant to live this out. Being a Christian is not something you can do by yourself. It never has been. Jesus called people to become his disciples, and that meant they had to join a community. This community meets together to pray and learn and support each other. It’s not meant to be a community of strangers who nod at each other on Sunday and then go their separate ways. We’re called to get to know each other, to let our guard down, to offer help and accept help. One of the most common phrases in the New Testament is the phrase ‘one another’. And it doesn’t say ‘ignore one another’! No: ‘Love one another’. ‘Encourage one another’. ‘Be patient with one another’. ‘Bear with one another in love’.

So first, this is a community that announces to the world that we believe Jesus is alive from the dead and Lord of all. And second, this is a community that is called to be one in heart and soul. Third, this is a community of grace. The last phrase of verse 33 says ‘great grace was upon them all’.

There’s always a problem when you try to translate words from one language into another. There’s never an exact equivalent! But we do our best, and we have to remind ourselves that there’s more to Bible words than meets the eye. So ‘grace’ in Greek is ‘charis’. Sometimes it’s defined as ‘unconditional love’: love you don’t have to earn, don’t have to measure up to. You don’t have to deserve it; it comes to you as a free gift. Grace is a defining characteristic of God, and Jesus lived it out in his daily life. He didn’t reject sinners; he embraced them. He ate and drank with outcasts and spent time with people everyone else rejected. ‘Grace’, says Philip Yancey, ‘means that there’s nothing you can do to make God love you more, and nothing you can do to make God love you less. God already loves you infinitely, and nothing will ever change that’.

So to say, ‘great grace was upon them all’ can mean ‘they were gripped by a sense of God’s indestructible, unconditional love for every single one of them – rich or poor, Jew or Gentile, men or women, holy people and less-than-holy people’. And that would be true.

But the word ‘charis’ is also connected to the idea of a gift – a free gift. And so you could also translate it as ‘generosity’. ‘Great generosity was upon them all’. In other words, they knew themselves to be the recipients of God’s generosity, and they also knew themselves to be called to be generous to one another.

This generosity was intensely practical. Luke says,

‘…no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common…There was not a needy person among them, for as many as owned lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold. They laid it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need’ (Acts 4:32b, 34-35).

Now, we should not take Luke totally literally here. These verses make it sound as if this was a rule among the early Christians: if you want to join our community, first of all you’ve got to sign over all your possessions to us. But even a glance at the next few verses shows that this isn’t strictly true. In the next chapter a couple named Ananias and Sapphira lie to the community; they sell some land and bring the money to the apostles, but they keep some of it back for themselves. Peter confronts Ananias about it. He says, ‘While the land remained unsold, did it not remain your own? And after it was sold, were not the proceeds at your disposal?’ (5:4). In other words, ‘No one was forcing you to give everything, Ananias? So why did you lie and say you had?’

What is clear is that these early Christians sat lightly to their possessions, and made them available to one another, especially to the needy. In Acts 4:36-37 we read about a Christian called Joseph – the apostles gave him a nickname, ‘Barnabas’, which means ‘Son of Encouragement’ He’s listed here as an example of what those early followers of the Way practiced; he was apparently a man of property, but he sold a field and brought the proceeds to the apostles, and they used it to care for the poor.

This of course is very consistent with the teaching of Jesus. Jesus told us not to store up for ourselves treasures on earth. He told us to live simply and give to those who need help. Years later, when St. Paul was reflecting on this, he remembered the Old Testament story from the time of Moses, of how God provided bread for the people to eat in the wilderness. He took a scripture verse from that time and applied it to the little Christian community in Corinth: ‘The one who had much did not have too much, and the one who had little did not have too little’ (Exodus 16:18). That’s the Christian ideal.

But it’s not a rule; it’s a freewill gift we offer to each other, and to our sisters and brothers in other parts of the world who suffer so much more than we do. In the same passage in 2 Corinthians Paul says, ‘Each of you must give as you have made up your mind, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver’ (2 Corinthians 9:7).

Let’s sum this up. We gather together this morning as a community of baptized Christians. This morning we will baptize a new member, Shiloh. She’s only a year old and has no idea what’s going on today, but her parents and godparents know what’s going on. They know that this isn’t just something magical we’re doing for her. This is about the grace of God coming into her life, giving her what she needs to grow as a follower of Jesus and a part of this community of St. Margaret’s church.

This is a community that ‘gives testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus’. We believe that he is alive and that he is Lord of all. No other Lord can compete with him – no president, no king or prime minister, no celebrity or business leader or media personality. The last word goes to our Lord Jesus. He is alive, and so there’s no need to fear.

Second, this is a community that is united by our belief in the risen Jesus. There are plenty of other things we’re divided about, but on this one thing we are united, or should be anyway: we believe that Jesus is alive and has given us his Spirit, and the Spirit draws us together as one. We are ‘of one heart and soul’.

Third, this is a community marked by great grace, or great generosity. We’re thankful for God’s generosity to us, and we’re learning every day to be generous to one another, and to let others be generous to us. Our goal ought to be these simple words of Luke: ‘There was not a needy person among them’ (v.34). We’re not there yet, because we’re not fully converted yet. Some of us would have to be honest and say that sometimes we don’t even want to be there yet! But then we come together again, and we hear the words of Jesus speaking to our hearts and we know what we’re being called to: a life of joyful generosity.

This is what it means to be people of the Resurrection. This is what it means to be baptized Christians. This is what you sign up for when you get baptized, or when you bring a child to be baptized. May this be true for us flawed and imperfect followers of Jesus at St. Margaret’s in 2018, just as it was true for the flawed and imperfect followers of Jesus in Jerusalem in the early 30s A.D. Amen.

‘There You Will See Him (a sermon for Easter Sunday on Mark 16:1-8)

For as long as I can remember, Easter has been a day full of joy.

Of course, when I was a little boy, the joy was greatly enhanced by the chocolate! We used to get great big hollow eggs in those days, with Smarties or some other candies inside! Dark chocolate, white chocolate, little mint eggs – it was all wonderful. Easter egg hunts, chocolate bunnies – we spent the whole day on a sugar high!

As I got older and came to a conscious Christian faith of my own, the day took on a deeper significance. But again, it was the joy that was highlighted. Jesus had died on Good Friday, but on Easter Sunday he was gloriously raised. The defeat of Good Friday was turned into the victory of Easter Sunday! There was no longer any need to be afraid of death; Jesus had overcome it, and he had promised that he would overcome it for us as well. So we sang the joyful resurrection hymns, and we set out the Easter lilies, and we dressed the church all in white. As St. Augustine says, ‘We are an Easter people, and “Alleluia” is our song!’

Which makes it particularly surprising that in today’s gospel reading – taken from Mark, the earliest of the four gospels – there is no mention of joy at all. What emotions do we see here? ‘They were alarmed’ (v.5). ‘So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid’ (v.8). This isn’t surprising at the beginning of the reading, when the women saw that the tomb was empty and didn’t know what had happened to the body. But apparently the message of the resurrection didn’t lessen their fears; it actually increased them. ‘They fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them’ (v.8).

Throughout most of human history, people would have had no difficulty understanding that terror and amazement. Terror is an entirely appropriate emotion to feel in the presence of a god. The ancient Greeks and Romans never knew what their gods were going to get up to. They were completely amoral and completely unpredictable, and the best and safest thing to do was stay out of their way. And some of the Old Testament stories give the same impression: Yahweh comes down on Mount Sinai in thunder and lightning and warns people not to come close to the mountain on pain of death. Even today we get that same feeling sometimes; when we’re walking alone through dark woods at night, and we feel the hair standing up on the back of our necks and a shiver down our spine. Something’s out there, and we’re not quite sure what it is!

Religion is all very well when you can predict it and control it! You know what time the service is going to start and what time it’s going to end. You know exactly when you’ve fulfilled your obligations to God, and then you can go home and relax and enjoy the fact that the rest of the day is yours to do with exactly as you like! You can live the rest of your week without worrying about God at all; after all, he usually stays comfortably far away, and he never cramps your style.

Until now. Now a body that you watched being placed in a burial cave is gone, and the angel seated there says he’s been raised from the dead. God isn’t far away any more – God has come frighteningly close. God isn’t just an idea in a book the preacher reads from on Sunday; it turns out that God is quite equal to the task of reversing the process of decomposition and breathing new life into a corpse. And now you’ll never know for sure where he is; he won’t stay safely nailed to the cross or sealed in the tomb. Now he’s ‘going ahead of you’, and you’ll forever be playing catch up with him.

It’s absolutely vital for us to recover some of this sense of ‘terror and amazement’ that the women felt. The God who created every single star and planet in this enormous universe has done something incredible! So what’s he going to do next? What will he do to Peter, who denied three times that he even knew Jesus? What will he do to Pilate and Herod and the Jewish leaders, who conspired to kill him? They all thought Jesus was the holy fool and they were getting rid of his foolishness, but who’s the fool now?

A real encounter with God is like that. It’s thrilling and joyful, yes, but if it’s not even just a little bit scary as well, I question whether it’s real. I think of C.S. Lewis’ Narnia stories, when the children are asking Mr. Beaver if Aslan the Lion is safe. “Safe? Who said anything about safe? Of course he’s not safe! But he’s good!” And a few lines later Mrs. Beaver tells the children that if they can stand in the presence of Aslan without their knees knocking, there’s something very foolish about them! This is what Jesus is like in the gospels, isn’t it? He’s not ‘gentle Jesus, meek and mild’. He loves his disciples, of course, and they love him – but I get the sense that they were usually just a little bit nervous in his presence, too – and rightly so!

This is what it means to be a Christian who believes in the Resurrection of Jesus. It means that we don’t have a comfortable God who we can control. It means we have a wildly unpredictable God who is constantly surprising us by doing things we thought he would never do. Calling women to be his witnesses, for instance, in a culture where the testimony of women was not even admissible in court. Calling them to be his followers in the first place, in a culture where married women weren’t expected to have dealings with men outside of their own family. Giving them dignity and respect, along with working class fishermen and Roman centurions and lepers and Revenue Galilee employees and all the rest. And later on, taking the message of the Gospel outside the nice safe borders of Israel to Samaria and Antioch and Corinth and Rome, where those nasty idol-worshipping pagans lived. What on earth was God thinking, doing a thing like that?

Before C.S. Lewis became a Christian, he spent months and even years struggling with his beliefs. Was he still an atheist? Was he an agnostic? Was he a sort of vague theist? Gradually he began to get the sense that he wasn’t the one asking all the questions here; there was Someone Else, another Presence in his life, a Presence that might want to question him! In a letter to a friend he said, “I’ve begun to realize that I’m not playing solitaire anymore; I’m playing poker!’ In other words: there’s another player at the table, and his presence is real!

I’m reminded of a story told by Anthony Bloom, a Russian Orthodox archbishop who was a medical student in Paris in the 1930s. At the time he was an atheist, but one day a priest came to speak to a youth group he belonged to. He listened to the talk and found himself getting more and more angry at what he was hearing; it was totally repugnant to him. But he wanted to check the truth of what he had heard, so he went home, discovered that the Gospel of Mark was the shortest of the four gospels, and sat down at his desk to read it. Here’s how he describes what happened next:

While I was reading the beginning of St. Mark’s Gospel, before I reached the third chapter, I suddenly became aware that on the other side of my desk there was a presence. And the certainty was so strong that it was Christ standing there that it has never left me. This was the real turning point. Because Christ was alive and I had been in his presence I could say with certainty that what the Gospel said about the crucifixion of the prophet from Galilee was true, and the centurion was right when he said, ‘Truly he is the Son of God’. It was in the light of the Resurrection that I could read with certainty the story of the Gospel, knowing that everything was true in it because the impossible event of the Resurrection was to me more certain than any event of history. History I had to believe, the Resurrection I knew for a fact…It was a direct and personal experience.[1]

That’s what Resurrection means. Jesus is not just a nice story in a book. Jesus is alive and real and doing things in people’s lives. And don’t you dare think you’re taking him anywhere! The angel says to the women, “He is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you” (v.7). We don’t ‘take’ Jesus to people; Jesus is there long before we show up! Usually we’re the ones dragging our feet; the truth is that we’re going to spend the rest of our lives playing catch up with him!

So what message does he want to send to his frightened followers – the male ones, that is – the ones who fled for their lives while the women were standing near the cross? What message does he want to send to Peter, who denied three times that he even knew Jesus?

I think we need to remember how this must have been weighing on Peter’s mind. Just a few weeks before, Jesus had spoken these words to Peter and the other disciples:

“If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 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…Those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels…” (Mark 8:34-35, 38).

That’s exactly what Peter was guilty of. Instead of denying himself and taking up his cross with Jesus, he had denied Jesus. He had been ashamed of Jesus and his words, and now he must have been fully expecting that Jesus would be ashamed of him. He had forfeited all right to be part of the disciple community. He had sworn that even if everyone else deserted Jesus, he would not, but what had his proud words come to? Nothing! He had promised, but he had not delivered.

Can you identify with Peter this morning? How many of us have made commitments and then not kept them? Commitments to spouses and children, parents and friends, fellow-workers, other church members. Commitments to God in baptism and confirmation. We’re all afflicted with the human propensity to mess things up, to break things, to break relationships, to break people. We’re called to love God with our whole heart and soul and mind and strength, and to love our neighbour as ourselves, but we fall short every day.

So is a risen Lord good news for us? This must have been a serious question on Peter’s mind. Yes, of course he was overjoyed to hear the news, but a part of him must have been apprehensive about meeting Jesus again. What would Jesus say to him? Jesus had never been shy about upbraiding his disciples for their failures. Would Peter still be the leader of the apostolic band? Would he even be part of it?

Yes, he would. The angel says to the women, “But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him just as he told you” (v.7). He doesn’t just say, ‘his disciples’; he explicitly says, ‘his disciples and Peter’. Jesus embraces his failures and makes them his fellow-workers. There’s forgiveness for the past, whatever we’ve done, and a readiness to move into the future and a fresh start with Jesus.

In Mark’s gospel the meeting with the risen Lord is not described. The original text of Mark breaks off abruptly at verse 8. Verses 9-20 are not present in the two earliest manuscripts of Mark that archeologists have discovered. And they don’t read like the rest of Mark; they read like a summary of stories we find in the other three gospels, as if very early in the history of the church someone felt that ‘Mark’ was incomplete and needed an extra ending.

Scholars aren’t sure why this happened. Did the original ending get lost? Or did Mark actually intend his story to end in this very unsatisfactory way, with the words ‘for they were afraid’?

We can’t be sure, but it does remind us that reading this story can never be the end for us. We can’t just read it or hear it read and then close the book and say, ‘That’s interesting’, or even ‘How wonderful that he was raised!’ Something’s still missing; we still haven’t met him. “He is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you” (v.7). Galilee was their home, the place they’d grown up, the place many of them had made a living for years before Jesus came along. In other words, the place you’ll meet him is in the midst of your ordinary life – maybe even when you’re not expecting it, like Anthony Bloom reading Mark’s gospel and suddenly becoming aware that Jesus was standing on the other side of his desk, even though he couldn’t see him.

We may have an experience like that, or we may not. We may discover the presence of Christ in prayer, or we may find ourselves reading his teaching and finding that it grips us, and we suddenly know, not just that it’s true but that he’s true and real. We may meet with other Christians and find somehow a sense that someone else is in the room with us as we pray and read the Bible together. We may go through really difficult times and find ourselves strangely supported through it all, to the point that we just know a power greater than our own is at work.

There are hundreds of different stories of how Christians have encountered the Risen Christ. Some of them are dramatic, most are not. Some have come at the end of a long process of seeking him; some have come out of the blue, completely unexpected. We are all different, and Jesus very rarely repeats himself.

So this is the final note in this gospel story today. Fear isn’t actually the final note. The last verse says that the women disobeyed the angel and didn’t say a word to anyone, because they were so amazed. But we know they must have eventually gotten over that fear and opened their mouths; if they hadn’t, this gospel would never have been written! And we know that the amazed disciples did as they were told, and went to Galilee, where they did indeed meet Jesus. They had many other meetings with him, too – some in Jerusalem in the upper room, some by the lake in Galilee. They met him on roads and in houses; they met him in ones and twos, and in a group of five hundred or more. They never knew when he was going to show up.

So the final word of this gospel to us is expectancy. God has raised Jesus from the dead. He is going ahead of you. If you follow after him, you can meet him too. So follow him, do the things he has told you to do, and keep your eyes and ears open. Sooner or later, you’re going to get the surprise of your life.

[1] Anthony Bloom, Beginning to Pray (Paulist Press, 1970, p. xii).