Matthew Byrne: ‘Nancy from London’

This wonderful traditional song appears on Matthew’s most recent album, ‘Horizon Lines’.

In my opinion, Matthew Byrne is the finest interpreter of traditional folk songs in Canada today. He learned his traditional songs the old fashioned way – from his mum, who learned them from an aunt, etc. etc. He has a wonderful singing voice, and a superb guitar-playing style. As a guitarist myself, I was amazed to discover that he plays with a pick rather than with his fingers; I’ve never have believed flatpicking could sound so much like finger-picking.

His website is here. Edmontonians – my friend Bill Werthmann tells me Matthew is on the list of performers for the 2018-19 season of the Northern Lights Folk Club. January 19th 2019!

‘God of Power and Love’ (a sermon on Isaiah 6:1-8)

This past week I was away at our diocesan clergy conference, and on the last day of the conference – Thursday morning – Bishop Jane led us in a session on preaching. Part way through the session she asked us to reflect on what it was that we wanted to say in our sermons for this Sunday. And then she asked us a couple of even more interesting questions: whydo we want to say that, and how does what we want to say connect with our personal sense of passionfor God and God’s message?

Today is Trinity Sunday, and maybe the last thing you’re expecting to hear on Trinity Sunday is any sort of passion! Maybe you’re expecting a dry theological discourse about God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. Maybe there’ll be some clever sermon illustration – like the three leaves of a shamrock – or the fact that water can take the form of ice, or liquid, or gas. It all sounds a little forced and contrived, and at the end of the sermon your vision of God is somehow lessthan it was before, as if Einstein had been deluded enough to think that E=MC2can adequately sum up the whole of reality.

That’s notwhat I want to do here this morning. I want you to leave church this morning with a bigger view of God, not a smaller view. I want you to catch a glimpse of a God who is far beyond anything we can possibly understand or imagine – a God who can never be reduced to a neat formula. I want you to leave this morning excited about a relationship with a God like that. I want you to think to yourself “Wow! A God like that would be amazing to know – even if we can never adequately describe him! You could spend a lifetime getting to know him and hardly scratch the surface!”

I think we can catch some of that excitement from our Old Testament reading today, from the book of the prophet Isaiah.Let me set the scene for you. We’re told that Isaiah had this transformational encounter with God ‘in the year that King Uzziah died’ (v.1). This was a time of uncertainty and change for God’s people; Israel and Judah were feeling small and vulnerable against the might of Assyria and its new king, Tiglath-Pileser. In this context, God gives Isaiah a vision of who the trueking is, a vision that emphasizes God’s power and majesty and holiness.Isaiah seems to have had this vision in the temple; perhaps he had gone there to pray or take part in a sacrifice. What does the vision tell us about the Lord, the God of Israel? Look at verses 1-4:

‘In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord sitting on a throne, high and lofty; and the hem of his robe filled the temple. Seraphs were in attendance around him; each had six wings: with two they covered their faces, and with two they covered their feet, and with two they flew. And one called to another and said:

“Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts;
the whole earth is full of his glory”.

The pivots on the thresholds shook at the voices of those who called, and the house filled with smoke’.

 Notice: Isaiah doesn’t try to describe the Lord’s appearance. That’s a common feature in stories of God’s appearances in the Bible; they describe the edgeof the field of vision, and the ‘court personalities’ around God, but not God himself. Why? Because the authors know there’s no human language adequate to the task of describing the God they’ve seen. The most Isaiah can bring himself to say is that the Lord’s throne was ‘high and lofty’, and ‘the hem of his robe filled the temple’. I don’t know if any of you have seen the coronation photographs of Queen Elizabeth from 1953; she’s a fairly small figure but she’s wearing an absolutely enormous cloak, stretching all around the platform she’s standing on. And Isaiah sees God as the high King of all kings, with a massive cloak that stretches around him, so huge it fills the entire temple building.

Truly there’s no language we can use, no picture we can create, that can adequately describe God. The Bible uses all sorts of images for God: the rock of our salvation, the Good Shepherd, the Lord of the armies of heaven, the King of Kings and Lord of Lords, the true heavenly Father, and so on. But not one of them is big enough to give us a complete picture of God.

Nowadays I think we have an even stronger sense of the majesty and indescribability of God than Isaiah did. Think of what we know about the universe today! The universe is about 14.5 billion years old, but God was there before the big bang, and through all those billions of years God has been present, sustaining the whole thing. Ever since the big bang, the universe has been expanding at incredible speed, and the distances are truly astronomical – pun intended! Alpha Centauri is one of the closest stars to us, but it would still take us four years, travelling at the speed of light – which we can’t do, of course – to reach it. The light from some of the stars in our night sky has taken millionsof years to reach us. And yet God created all that, and God holds it all in hands of love.

How can we ever begin to describe such a God? Isaiah uses the word ‘Holy’ three times: ‘Holy, holy, holy is the LORD of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory’ (Isaiah 6:3). The word in the Hebrew scriptures is ‘qodesh’ and it means ‘apartness’, ‘set-apartness’, ‘separateness’, ‘sacredness’. When applied to human beings it means ‘set apart for God’. A holy person is a person or nation God has set apart as his own special possession; the Church is ‘holy’ because we, its members, have been set apart by God as a people belonging to him.

But obviously when applied to God himself the word has a slightly different meaning. “Set apart”. “Separateness”. We might say the emphasis is on the differencebetween God and us. God isn’t just the biggest thing in all of creation; God isn’t ‘in’ creation at all. God’s love is the force that keeps the whole of creation going. He’s completely different from us: his love and knowledge and goodness have no limits.

How can I possibly understand such a God? How can I do anything but fearsuch a God? In God’s presence I must be smaller than an ant! Me trying to understand God is like an ant trying to understand quantum physics! That’s why the Israelites were forbidden to make graven images of their god. Any image you could possibly make of God is inadequate; no image can ever do justice to the original.

And yet, that’s not the end of what the Bible has to say about God. Isaiah thinks at first that it is. He sees the glory of God and his brain feels like it’s exploding; all he can think about is what a sinner he is and how angry God must be about his sins.

“Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the king, the LORD of hosts!” (6:5).

I must admit to having a grunt of recognition here! I imagine what it might be like if God had hung a digital recorder around my neck, and on the day of judgement he just leaned forward and pressed ‘play’, and suddenly I’m listening to all the unkind and cruel and judgemental things I’ve ever said – all the lies I’ve told – all the times I’ve ever spoken without thinking – all the times I’ve put other people down – all the times I’ve said things to impress people. I’m well aware of the damage I’ve done over the years by my words. Truly, I’m a man of unclean lips. How can someone like me stand up in the presence of a holy God?

And yet there is cleansing with God. In the Hebrew scriptures the people offer sacrifices on the altar for the forgiveness of sins. In Isaiah’s vision there’s an altar there with burning coals on it: the angel picks up a live coal with a pair of tongs and touches Isaiah’s lips with it – which I can’t imagine would have been a pleasant experience! But the result is purification: “Now that this has touched your lips, your guilt has departed and your sin is blotted out” (v.7).

What are we saying to someone when we forgive them? We’re saying, “Yes, you’ve hurt me, but our relationship is worth too much to me for me just to throw it away. So I’m not going to hit back; I’m not going to cut you off; I’m going to continue to love you and be there for you”. In other words, forgiveness is an act of love.

‘Holy, holy, holy’ is Isaiah’s vision of God. But in our Gospel reading we hear another word for God: ‘love’.

‘For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but have everlasting life’ (John 3:16).

What can we possibly say about a love like this? This earth is huge to us but it’s a pin-prick in the vastness of the universe. How could God care about one tiny planet in all his enormous creation? How could he care about the two-legged creatures who’ve been walking the face of that planet for a tiny part of the time it’s been in existence? And is it even conceivable that he could care for oneof those creatures as an individual: the one I call ‘Me’?

This is the big question in the human heart, isn’t it? Does God notice me? Am I so tiny in the enormity of the universe that God misses the fact that I exist? Or is it possible – can I begin to hope it’s true – that God not only knows I exist but loves me with a love so passionate that he was willing to come and live and die for me, and for every other ‘me’ that has ever lived on earth?

This is the amazing truth the New Testament writers want us to believe. John tells us about it:

‘God’s love was revealed among us in this way: God sent his only Son into the world that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son t be the atoning sacrifice for our sins’ (1 John 4:9-10).

In other words, the almighty creating power that gave life to us and everything else that has ever existed is first and foremost a power of love. Right at the centre of the universe is an awesome and holy being who isn’t a tyrant in love with his own power. Somehow, in a way that we can never fully take in, the holy God Isaiah describes is a God who is all love– pure, holy, just, righteous, faithful and unconditional love.

‘In this is love’, John says, ‘not that we loved God but that he loved us’ (1 John 4:10). God’s love is always first; its only because he loves that I can love. And I might work my whole life long to fill up my bucket with love, while all the time, God’s love is like a mighty ocean. That’s where I can fill my bucket!

The coals from the altar touched Isaiah’s lips and brought him forgiveness. Today the bread and wine of Holy Communion will touch our lips to remind us of Jesus’ love for us; we’re invited to eat and drink our forgiveness and healing. Yes, we’ve fallen short – we haven’t loved God with our whole heart and we haven’t loved our neighbours as ourselves – but ‘God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him’ (John 3:17). So you’re invited to come to him again today – to receive his forgiveness and healing – and to go from this place knowing that you are held in the loving embrace of the God who made you for the pleasure of knowing you.

And one more thing: you’re also called to tell others about this God who loves them.

In verse 8 we read,

‘Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” And I said, “Here am I; send me!”

God is still sending people today. The love of Jesus needs to be shared with everyone, and God has chosen to share it through you and me.

In 1981 the words of this text inspired a Jesuit priest, Father Dan Schutte, to write a song that’s become a classic. Here’s the first verse

I the Lord of sea and sky, I have heard my people cry,
All who dwell in dark and sin my hand will save.
I who made the stars of night, I will make their darkness bright.
Who will bear my light to them? Whom shall I send?
Here I am, Lord. Is it I, Lord? I have heard you calling in the night.
I will go, Lord, if you lead me. I will hold your people in my heart.

Come to this God today. Don’t be afraid. He’s calling you to a journey of discovery. All your life long you’re going to be getting to know him, and you’ll never come to the end of him! There’s always going to be more to discover about God!

Come this morning; let the holy sacrament touch your lips and enter your body as the forgiving love of Jesus touches you deep down inside. And then go – you are sent, as disciples of Jesus, to spread his love wherever you go. God says to you and me today, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” I hope you will join me in the words of Isaiah: “Here am I; send me”. Amen.

‘I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh’ (a sermon on Acts 2:17-18)

One of my favourite movies is an old 1990 flick called ‘Almost an Angel’; the main character, Terry, is played by Paul Hogan, of ‘Crocodile Dundee’ fame. Terry is a criminal, but on the way out of a bank heist he sees a little girl about to get hit by a car, jumps into the road to save her and gets hit himself. To his surprise he finds himself in heaven talking to God – who looks remarkably like Charlton Heston. God seems to be a little surprised to see Terry – ‘It’s a long time since we’ve had a scumbag here’, he says – and then he tells Terry he’s being sent back to earth.

So Terry’s life changes as he sees himself as ‘almost an angel’ – “I haven’t got my wings yet”, he says. At one point later on in the movie someone asks Terry to pray for him. Terry frowns. “I could”, he says, “but it might not do any good. Last time I was talking to God, he called me a scumbag!”

I have to say as a clergy person that I gave a grunt of recognition when I first heard that line! I often get asked to pray for people! Many people seem to think that the prayers of a priest or pastor are automatically more effective than theirs. But we clergy know our own hearts, and so does God!

There’s an interesting story in the Old Testament book of Exodus. The Israelites have escaped from slavery in Egypt and have arrived at Mount Sinai where Moses first met God. God gives a dramatic display of power as he comes down on the mountain – lightning, thunder, billowing smoke, the earth shaking and so on. The Israelites are terrified, so they turn to Moses and say “Yougo up there and talk to him for us. We’ll wait for you down here! When you come back, we’ll do whatever he’s told you!”

I sometimes refer to this as ‘the cult of the mediator’. A relationhip with the living God is too demanding, too scary for ordinary people, so we set aside special, holy people and get them to do the hard work of relating to God on our behalf. They’re our ‘go-betweens’ – that’s what the word ‘priest’ means in many religions, including the Old Testament.

In the Old Testament there’s little expectation that ordinary people can know God: they’re just told to obey his commandments and show up to offer sacrifices – that’s it. Special people – kings and warriors like David or Samson, prophets like Moses and Miriam, priests like Aaron – they’re the ones who receive the Spirit of the Lord (by the way, ‘spirit’ in Hebrew is ‘ruach’ which also means ‘wind’ or ‘breath’). Kings and priests were exclusively male in Israel, and were appointed by their bloodline – a hereditary power structure. Prophets were more of a wild card – God called who he wanted, men or women, rich or poor, scholars or farmers – and they spoke the word of God in God’s name.

The cult of the mediator is still strong today. Many people think it’s Christian, but it’s really not. Interestingly enough, the word ‘priest’ is never used for Christian ministers or pastors in the New Testament. Congregations are cared for by people called pastors, or overseers, or elders. But the word ‘priest’ is used in the Church in two senses: for Jesus, our great high priest, and for the whole Christian community together. The message is clear: This is not just for the lucky few! Everyoneis invited to know God and receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.

We see this on the Day of Pentecost which we read about this morning. It seems as if a hundred and twenty believers were gathered together in one place, and we don’t read of there being any kings or Jewish priests among them. They are male and female, blue collar and white collar – all social classes. Suddenly the Holy Spirit fills them – God breathes his new life into them, and they’re aware of his presence in them in a new and amazing way. This new life overflows with joy; they begin to praise God in languages they’ve never learned, languages the people around them can understand. And this new life also overflows in witness: the crowd gathers, and Peter begins to explain to them about Jesus and his gift of the Holy Spirit. In Acts chapter 1 Jesus had promised them, “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses” (1:8) – and that was exactly what was happening to Peter.

Our first reading gives us the first part of Peter’s sermon. The believers had been accused of drunkenness because of the joy of the Holy Spirit, but Peter offers an alternative explantion. Look at Acts 2:16-18:

“No, this is what was spoken by the prophet Joel: ‘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”.

‘I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh’ (17). This doesn’t mean that everyone will automatically receive the Spirit; our God never forces himself on anyone against their will. What it means is that all mayreceive the Spirit if they choose. No one is barred because of their gender, their social status, their status as priest or lay person, their level of education and so on. All are now invited into that most intimate of all relationships – having the ‘Breath of God’ breathing in you.

The fact that this applies to both men and women is especially emphasized in Joel’s prophecy. We know that women were present on the Day of Pentecost; Acts 1 lists the male disciples and then adds ‘…together with certain women, including Mary, the mother of Jesus…’ (1:14). Joel had foretold this – a day when the ministry of prophecy would be exercised equally by men and women – ‘…your sons and your daughters shall prophesy…Even upon my slaves, both men and women, in those days I will pour our my Spirit, and they shall prophesy’ (17-18).

We have to admit that this equality was only partially achieved in Bible times. In a patriarchal society it was natural that people saw what they expected to see, and so we don’t see an absolute equality of partnership of men and women in this minstry of declaring the word of the Lord. But we do see signs of it, and Luke, the author of Luke’s gospel and Acts, seems to have particularly rejoiced in it. It’s clear in this text that gender makes absolutely no difference when the Breath of God comes down!

Let me say one more word about what this means. Our Anglican Church is a structured church with clear lines of demarcation between ordained and lay people. So it’s natural we should think in terms of ‘who can get ordained’. For myself, I’m happy and proud to be part of a Church that ordains men and women equally, and I’m happy to argue the case with anyone who disagrees.

But this text goes far beyond that issue. To ‘prophesy’ in the Bible doesn’t mean ‘to foretell the future’ (although prophets do sometimes do that). Fundamentally, it means to be given a messge from God to speak to others in God’s name. Joel is saying that the day will come when all people can do this – men or women, young or old, slave or free – simply because God’s Breath, God’s Spirit, is in them. There is no hint of a difference here between clergy and lay people: the Spirit is given to all, so all can speak God’s word to one another.

Note that we’re not talking about lone rangers, people going off on their own to enjoy a one-on-one ‘me and God’ experience. We’re talking about the whole community gathering together in ministry, listening to the Word of God together, weighing up what’s said together, submitting to each other, serving together – because everyone shares in the gift of God’s Spirit.

Even slaves! Verse 18 says, ‘Even upon my slaves, both men and women, in those days I will pour out my Spirit, and they shall prophesy’. Slaves were the lowest social class – they were possessions, or tools, owned by others. But God values them as individuals, God breathes his Spirit into them, God makes them ministers!Imagine a first-century Christian aristocrat receiving a word of prophecy from his slave! That’s revolution! As Mary had foretold in Luke 1, ‘He has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly’ (Luke 1:51b-52).

This is God’s intention: that the Gospel should go out to all people – Jews and Gentiles, men and women, slaves and free. This message is not just about having your sins forgiven and being adopted as God’s daughters and sons, although that’s wonderful enough. No: it’s also about indwelling– about God being with us and in us. God’s breath, God’s wind, God’s Spirit will live in the whole Christian community, and all can minister in God’s name. There’s no hint of the cult of the mediator here. No one else can do the hard work of relating to God for you.Youare called to be filled with the Spirit, to learn to pray, to learn to listen to God’s voice in the scriptures, and to step out in witness for him. “You shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you” (Acts 1:8). That’s your birthright as a baptized Christian.

A bit later on in the chapter, in verses 38-39, Peter gives the crowd an invitation:

“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. 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”.

The promise of the Spirit is for all who believe and are baptized. In Old Testament times the sign of God’s covenant with his people was circumcision, which was fine as far as it went, but it only went as far as half of the human race. In the New Testament the sign is baptism, which is offered to men and women alike. All can receive the Spirit and be included as equals in the covenant community.

The New Testament tells us the story of the first generation of Christians. Most of them heard the Gospel as adults; the Spirit worked in their hearts, and they put their trust in Jesus and committed themselves to him. They were baptized as adults and the gift of the Holy Spirit was poured out on them.

There are very few stories in the New Testament of Christian families applying this to the upbringing of their children; this came later. Gradually, most Christians came to believe that it was right for children of Christian homes to be received into the community by baptism. The model here is of the community as a school of disciples, wth baptism as enrolment, even at an early age. Jesus told us, “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 that I have commanded you” (Matthew 28:19-20a). So we baptize our children and enroll them as Jesus’ disciples so we can teach them to follow Jesus. The promise of the Spirit is given in baptism, but it also needs to be ‘lived into’ as we pray each day to be filled with the Holy Spirit.

Today we include little Alex in this promise. As Ryan and Jenny bring him for baptism, he will take his place with us as a full member of the community that St. Paul calls ‘the fellowship of the Holy Spirit’. And when he’s been baptized we’ll pray for him in these words: ‘Heavenly Father, we thank you that by water and the Holy Spirit you have bestowed upon this your servant the forgiveness of sin, and have raised him to the new life of grace. Sustain him, O Lord, in your Holy Spirit’. We’ll also say ‘Give him…a spirit to know and love you’. In other words, he will need to learn that Christianity isn’t just about going to church and learning Bible stories. It’s about living in relationship with God – receiving power to live for God – finding joy in witnessing to others about God’s work in our lives. AllChristians are called to these things.

Including you and me. What is this saying to us as baptized Christians?

It’s reminding us that the Breath of Godis in us– but we need to breathe it in daly! It’s not enough just to breathe once – you have to breathe over and over again! So: let’s pray daily, even hourly, that the Spirit would fill us and strengthen us and guide us to live for God.

It’s reminding us not to settle for the cult of the mediator.That’s paganism, and even Old Testament Judaism, but it’s not Christianity. You’ve been offered the Breath of God – the very life of God in you. Why would you settle for an oxygen tank brough to you by someone else? Peter says, “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).

It’s reminding us that the Church is a fellowship of the Holy Spirit.The English word ‘fellowship’ or ‘communion’ translates the Greek word ‘koinonia’ which means ‘to have something in common’, ‘to share together in something’. In the early chapters of the Book of Acts we don’t see lone ranger Christians going off on private projects for God. We see a joyful community doing God’s work together. By ourselves we don’t always find it easy to discern what God is calling us to. But the Holy Spirit is strong in the community,  so we come together, we talk things through, we pray, we wait on God, and the Spirit guides us. So we’re called to commit ourselves to this fellowship of the Holy Spirit.

We’ve seen that the passage is reminding us that the Breath of God is in us. It’s reminding us not to settle for the cult of the mediator. It’s reminding us that the Church is a fellowship of the Holy Spirit. And finally, it’s reminding us to remember our call to be a ministering community, a serving community. Men and women, rich and poor, young and old, people of all backgrounds and races and classes: we’re all joined together as priests, prophets, witnesses, servants and ministers of Christ.

A pastor called Jon Wimber told a great story about this. He was the founder of the first Vineyard Church which became a community of thousands of people with a large staff and structure. One day a person called him in a state of some agitation. “Where is everyone? I’ve been trying to get hold of someone at the church for days! I met this man who was homeless, and we got talking, and I realized he really needed a place to stay and some food. So I called the church several times, but no one answered. Eventually I had to take him home to stay with me and give him some food myself. Don’t you think the church should help people like that?”

Wimber was quiet for a moment, and then he said one simple sentence: “Sounds like the church did”.

If you are a Christian, then you are the Church, together with all Christians. The Spirit – the Breath of God – lives in you, connects you to God, and equips you for the works of service he’s called you to. So: take a deep breath, ask the Holy Spirit to guide you, and then step out in faith to follow Jesus wherever he leads.

Seeking God and Finding Jesus (a sermon on Acts 10)

C.S. Lewis tells a story of how one day he had a persistent feeling that he ought to go and get his hair cut, even though it was not very long since the last time he had done so. Eventually he gave in and walked down to his local barber. When he entered, the barber looked at him with surprise and said, “You know, I was especially praying that you would come in today; there’s something really important I was hoping to talk to you about!”

I suspect many followers of Jesus will be able to tell stories like that. But there are times when the guidance from God is even more spectacular. We read of one of those times last week, in the story of Philip and the man from Ethiopia in Acts 8. We had another one today, with the story of Cornelius in Acts 10. In our first reading we heard only the last few verses of this chapter, so I’m going to start by telling you the whole story. And I want to say right from the start that this is a story of twoconversions, not just one. On the one hand, a Roman centurion called Cornelius – already a believer in the God of Israel – is converted by the power of the Holy Spirit and becomes a Jesus-follower. But on the other hand, Peter and his fellow-apostles – who up until now have concentrated on Jewish people in their work of spreading the Gospel – are beginning to be converted to the idea that God wants them to reach beyond the borders of Israel to the Gentiles as well – in other words, to people like you and me.

Let’s set the scene. Peter and the other apostles have preached the Good News of Jesus in Jerusalem and Judaea and as far as the borders of Israel. They’ve even been adventurous enough to go to the Samaritans! Everywhere they’ve gone, people have heard them with joy and turned their lives over to Jesus. Little communities of ‘Followers of the Way’ are springing up all over Israel – people who believe Jesus is the Messiah who has come to set Israel free.

 But up ‘til now the message has only gone to Jewish people, or people like the Samaritans and the Ethiopian eunuch who have some kind of connection with Israel. And the early disciples probably see that as a natural thing; after all, Jesus was the Messiah of Israel, the one God was going to use to set Israel free. The idea that Gentileswould be included in that plan might never have occurred to them.

However, as I mentioned last week, some Gentiles had become veryinterested in Israel. Throughout the ancient world at this time there were a number of people who’d become disenchanted with the traditional gods of Greece and Rome. They were attracted by the monotheism of Israel and the high ethical standards of the Ten Commandments. Some of them had begun to attend synagogues and practice the three duties of godly Jews – prayer, fasting, giving to the poor. They hadn’t taken the step of becoming full Jews by circumcision, but they hadcome to believe in the one creator God and were trying to obey his commandments.

Cornelius, the Roman centurion who lived in the town of Caesarea, was probably one of these ‘God-fearers’. And we read in Acts 10 that one day he was praying at three o’clock in the afternoon when an angel appeared to him: “Send for a man called Simon Peter; he’s staying in Joppa at the house of Simon the Tanner”. So Cornelius sent messengers to fetch Peter. That’s the end of scene one.

Scene twoopens the next day in Joppa. Peter is at Simon’s house, and towards noon he’s gone up to the roof to have some prayer while he’s waiting for the mid-day meal. Suddenly he has a vision. He sees a great sheet let down from heaven, full of all kinds of animals, including ones like pigs and other animals that Jews considered unclean and were not allowed to eat. A voice from heaven says “Get up, Peter; kill and eat”. But he recoils from the idea: “By no means, Lord; for I have never eaten anything that is profane or unclean”. The voice replies, “What God has made clean, you must not call profane” (vv.13-15). This happens three times, and Peter is confused; is God telling him to break the Jewish food laws?

As he’s still thinking about this the messengers from Cornelius arrive, and as they pass on their message he begins to think hard. Can it be true? Is Godcalling him to go to the house of a Gentile? Jews wouldn’t do this, because of the danger of eating unclean food, but Peter begins to get the idea that God is leading him somewhere new. So off he goes with the messengers. That’s the end of Scene Two.

The next day they get to Caesarea, and when they arrive at Cornelius’ house Scene Three begins. Cornelius has gathered his friends and relatives there to hear what Peter has to say. He tells Peter the story of his vision, and now Peter begins to understand what God’s up to. He says, “I truly understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him” (34-35). He then begins to preach the good news to this Gentile crowd. He gives them a thumbnail sketch of Jesus’ life and ministry, how he went about teaching, preaching, doing good and healing all who were under the power of the devil. He tells of how Jesus was crucified, but God raised him from the dead and the disciples are all witnesses of this. He tells them that Jesus is now ‘Lord of all’, and one day will be the judge of the living and the dead. And he tells them that everyone who puts their trust in Jesus receives forgiveness of their sins.

And now the amazing thing happens. As Peter is speaking, suddenly the Holy Spirit falls on the people who are listening to him! Peter isn’t even able to finish his sermon, because the congregation starts speaking in tongues and praising God! The disciples who’ve come with Peter are amazed that this kind of thing is happening to Gentiles – exactly the same as they themselves had experienced on the day of Pentecost! So Peter shrugs his shoulders and says, “They’ve received the Holy Spirit just as we did – I guess we’d better baptize them!” And when the baptisms are over he stays with Cornelius for a few days, no doubt to give him more instruction about what it meant to be a follower of the Way.

This story in Acts 10 had an enormous impact. Of course, it had an impact on Cornelius and his family and friends – they had finally found in Jesus what they’d been looking for all this time. But it also had an impact on the early Christians. You see, not everyone was happy with this idea of taking the Gospel to the Gentiles, and for the next four chapters in Acts an enormous controversy rages on this very subject. But eventually those who are in favour of the Gentile mission win out, and the way is paved for the Christian message to spread around the world.

But what about us today? What is this story telling us about our mission as followers of Jesus? Three things:

First, God is at work.Nothing in this story happened by human initiative; God guided Cornelius to call for Peter, and God guided Peter to go to Cornelius. God is taking the initiative, leading people to faith in Jesus and leading his followers to those people to help them in their journey.

In fact, God had been guiding Cornelius for a long time. What was it that caused Cornelius to lose faith in the ancient gods of Rome? It must have been a shattering experience for him to realise he no longer believed in them, when he’d heard their stories from childhood. But somehow, he came to realise these false gods were unable to meet his deepest needs, and he began to look elsewhere for help. Somehow – we don’t know how – he found out about the God of Israel and was attracted to him. So Cornelius began to put his faith in this God and tried to practice his commandments. And now God was leading him even further, to faith in Jesus who is Emmanuel, ‘God with us’.

This same kind of thing is happening today. All around us there are people who are discovering that the false gods we worship in our modern society – money and possessions, success, youth, beauty, power, popularity, and so on – are not delivering the lasting happiness and fulfilment they promise. Some years ago, a British newspaper columnist named Bernard Levin wrote these words:

Countries like ours are full of people who have all the material comforts they desire – together with such non-material blessings as a happy family – and yet lead lives of quiet, and sometimes noisy, desperation, understanding nothing but the fact that there is a hole inside them, and that however much food and drink they pour into it, however many motor cars and television sets they stuff it with, however many well-balanced children and loyal friends they parade around the edges of it…it aches.

He’s talking about the failure of false gods– and even though this can be a frightening and disorienting experience for people, it’s also a sign that God is beginning to lead them to himself. When people begin asking questions like “Why isn’t my success making me happy?” or “Why can’t I be the kind of parent I want to be?” or “What’s going to happen to me when I die?” – then we know the Holy Spirit is working in their lives. And the same Spirit is just as able to lead us ordinary Christians to these people as he was in the days of Acts. Our job is to listen to the guidance of the Spirit and let him lead us to these people. That’s the adventure of Christian mission!

So this story is telling us that God is at work, leading people to Jesus and leading his followers to those people. And this leads us to the second thing the story tells us: Jesus is the issue.Our mission is notjust to persuade people to ‘believe in God’. Cornelius alreadybelieved in God. He had already turned away from the idols of Rome and put his faith in the God Israel believed in, and he was already doing his best to live a godly life. But from God’s point of view, something was still missing.

Peter believed this strongly, and so in his sermon to Cornelius and his family he emphasises the central place of Jesus. It’s through Jesus’ death and resurrection that we’ve been reconciled to God. Jesus, he says, is Lord of all – the one through whom God’s healing and liberation come to people – the one who one day will judge the living and the dead. Peter is not saying that Cornelius’ faith in one God is wrong; far from it! He’s saying it’s incomplete; if Cornelius wants to experience the full salvation that is God’s will for him, he needs to put his faith in the one who God has sent as Messiah and Lord – Jesus.

A friend of mine was teaching a ‘Christian Basics’ course once when a woman made this comment to him: “I don’t like it when you talk about Jesus. ‘God’ is safe; I can make that word mean anything I want, but ‘Jesus’ is far too close and specific”. That’s exactly the point! In Jesus, God has come close and become specific. At a certain point in history God came to live among us in Jesus, and at the end of his life he sent out his followers to all people – many of whom already believed in God – to tell them to trust in himand follow him. Our mission today is to help people come to faith in Jesusand learn to follow him.

We’ve seen that God is at work, and Jesus is the issue. The third thing we see here is that the Holy Spirit ‘seals the deal’.When Cornelius and his family hear the message of Jesus, God does something supernatural in them. The Holy Spirit comes to live in them and fills them with new joy, and they begin to praise God and worship him in a new and living way. Jesus is no longer past history; the Holy Spirit has come to live in them and makes Jesus real to them.

This is what our mission is about today as well. It’s not just to get people to believe in God, and it’s not just to give them historical information about Jesus either. Rather, the Holy Spirit wants to help people connect with Jesus in a personal and experiential way.

In the story of Cornelius this personal connection was entirely at God’s initiative. Sometimes you hear stories about that today, too. Some people say, “Jesus has always been real and close to me; I never remember a time when I didn’t know him”. But there are also many people who haven’tyet found their way to a living faith in Christ. We have to help those people find what they’re looking for as they learn to follow Jesus.

So in this story we learn that God is at work, Jesus is the issue, and the Holy Spirit ‘seals the deal’. Let me close with one final comment.

The Church – and that means you and me, and all who call themselves followers of Jesus – must help Cornelius.We live in an age of great spiritual hunger. Jesus said, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty” (John 6:35). These are the words of our Master. Do we believe them? If we do, how can we fail to help people connect with the one who can satisfy their spiritual hunger?

But here’s the thing: We must not miss the fact that, humanly speaking, Cornelius was Peter’s enemy. He was a soldier of the occupying army, the invaders of Israel, the ones who were oppressing Peter and his countrymen. So even though Cornelius had shown unmistakable signs of genuine interest in the God of Israel, there would be a huge psychological barrier in Peter’s heart when it came to sharing the Good News with him. The Good News told Cornelius his sins could be forgiven. Do you think Peter wantedCornelius’ sins to be forgiven? Do you think Peter wantedto have to share the Lord’s Supper with this enemy soldier? I doubt it.

I wonder where you draw the line? Who are the people you’re reluctant to share the gospel with, because you assume they won’t be interested, or because you have a problem with their race or socio-economic group, or sexual orientation, or the way they dress, or the politics they believe in, or the sort of music they blare out at everyone else? “I want the luxury of continuing to be mad at their group, thank you very much; I don’t wantto share the gospel with them”.

Which barrier in your own heart is God calling you to cross – like he called Peter to cross the barrier of going to the house of the enemy, the Gentile, the oppressor? We’re called to share the good news of Jesus with everyone, by our words and our actions. If you’re honest, what are the current limits of ‘everyone’ for you? And what’s the Holy Spirit saying to you about that?

The Book of Acts is all about evangelism – but it’s not about the kind of reductionistic evangelism in which individual people give their hearts to Jesus and then carry on much as before, with Jesus as one of their accessories. That’s not what God’s doing. God is spreading the Kingdom one heart at a time, as people are captivated by the way of Jesus and learn to live it together. Different people – young and old, rich and poor, men and women and everything in between. Jews and Gentiles, Africans and Europeans, Asians and North Americans. Left and right. Liberal and conservative. Jesus is inviting them all into his new community, the community of disciples. Together this community is learning to pray: ‘Lord, help us to learn to see life as you see it and live life as you taught it’.

The Holy Spirit is leading people into this community. He’s led us into it. Now he wants to use us to reach others. The others will probably not look like us, but that shouldn’t surprise us. That’s how God works. And you and I, like Peter, are called to be part of that work.

Forty Years

Forty years ago tonight, I stood at the front of St. James’ Cathedral in Toronto with Ed Keeping, Bert Lang, Keith Osborne, Paul Thoms, Sharon Towne, Christobel Wade, and Marion Willms, for our licensing as evangelists in the Anglican Church of Canada and commissioning as officers in what was then the Church Army in Canada (now Threshold Ministries). I would serve for twelve and a half years as a Church Army officer before being ordained a deacon in 1990 and a priest in 1992. Today I’m pleased to still be associated with Threshold Ministries and to serve on its national board.

I was thinking this morning about that scared young man who was commissioned on May 5th 1978. What would I say to him if I had a chance to talk to him? Here are some things that came to mind:

1. God loves you. You can believe that.
2. Praying is important
3. Loving is equally important
4. Never rain on someone’s enthusiasm for Jesus
5. This is not about career advancement or comfortable jobs, it’s about sharing the Gospel
6. Decide what’s important and do your best not to get distracted by what’s not important
7. God is real. We forget this sometimes, and then we think we have to do God’s job.
8. Grace means there’s nothing we can do to make God love us less, and nothing we can do to make God love us more. God already loves us infinitely, and nothing is going to change that (thank you, Philip Yancey).

That’ll do for now.

Oh – and here we are at the front of the cathedral.

Commissioning 1978 - cathedral 2