Jesus Saves (a sermon on Luke 8.26-39)

One of the most beautiful titles given to Jesus in the Bible is ‘Saviour’. A ‘saviour’ is someone who saves us from something too powerful for us to control. We might think of a person in the grip of an addiction of some kind: perhaps an alcoholic or a drug addict. The first step of Alcoholics Anonymous says ‘We admitted that we were powerless over alcohol—that our lives had become unmanageable.’ Step two goes on to say, ‘We came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.’ This illustrates for us what it means to have a saviour, a rescuer, a deliverer.

In the Gospel of Luke Jesus is the Saviour of all who call on him. He doesn’t differentiate between Jews and Gentiles, men and women, rich or poor. As Paul says in our epistle for today, ‘There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.’ (Galatians 3.28) And today’s gospel reading is a powerful example of that.

Jesus and his disciples have just come through a storm on the lake. The disciples thought they were lost. Many of them were experienced fishermen, but even they were afraid as the waves rose and the winds howled and the water began to swamp the boat. They cried out to their Master for help, and then an amazing thing happened. He simply spoke a word of rebuke to the wind and the waves, and immediately the storm ceased, and there was a calm. The disciples were astounded: “Who then is this, that he commands even the winds and the water, and they obey him?” (v.25). It’s as if God was giving the disciples a bit of preparation for what was about to happen. It’s as if God was reminding them that there was more to their Master than met the eye.

So now they land on the other shore, in Gentile territory; this is actually the only time in Luke’s gospel that a trip to Gentile territory is mentioned. As soon as Jesus steps out onto the land he’s met by someone we would probably have described as a madman. Luke describes him as ‘a man who had demons’. He’s totally naked, dirty and wild-looking, and he doesn’t live in a house, he lives in the local graveyard. Luke gives us a bit of his history in verse 29:

‘Jesus had commanded the unclean spirit to come out of the man. (For many times it had seized him; he was kept under guard and bound with chains and shackles, but he would break the bonds and be driven by the demon into the wilds.)

Henry Wansbrough describes the man like this:

He is exiled from all civilisation, living in the haunted abodes of the dead and not even properly dressed. His strength is daunting and uncontrollable, and as soon as he has broken his bonds he rushes off into the hideous desert, the eerie home of evil spirits. What makes it almost more tragic is that the attacks seem to have been periodic, presumably with periods of lucidity in between. It was only when the attacks came on that people would fetter him in an unsuccessful attempt to restrain him. But he always ended up in the wilds. Such periodic derangements to a friend whom one thinks one knows are easily ascribed to a powerful and evil spirit alien to himself.[1]

A feature of stories of unclean spirits in the gospels is that they always know the identity of Jesus. Humans don’t; some believe he is the Son of God, some believe he’s an imposter, many don’t know, at least not at first. But it seems the unclean spirits are in no doubt about the identity of their great enemy, and this is true here. As soon as he sees Jesus, the man screams out, “What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I beg you, do not torment me!” (v.28).

But Jesus is determined that the demon has to leave, and he’s already begun to command it to come out of the man. He asks the man his name, but it seems that the man is no longer in control of his personality. A voice from inside him shouts out ‘Legion!’—‘for many demons had entered him’, says Luke. A Roman legion has five thousand soldiers, so that was quite a horde of unclean spirits! They see a herd of pigs feeding on the steep hillside by the lake, and they beg Jesus not to send them straight back to the abyss, but let them go into the pigs. Jesus agrees, and immediately the entire herd rushes down the steep bank into the lake and is drowned—a dramatic visual aid to convince the man that his old enemies are gone and vanquished forever.

But of course, we can’t expect the pig farmer to be pleased! The swineherds run off to town and tell everyone, and a great crowd comes out to see what’s going on. When they arrive they see a poignant scene.  No doubt the man is a well-known figure in the area, but he’s been completely transformed. Luke says he’s ‘sitting at the feet of Jesus, clothed and in his right mind.’ (v.35). But the townspeople are afraid, and no doubt the owners of the pigs are angry, as we would have been if our property had been destroyed like that. They don’t rejoice over the man’s deliverance. No: they ask Jesus to leave them. They’re afraid of what might happen next if he hangs around!

What does Jesus do? Maybe they’re afraid that a man with that kind of power might force himself on them, but that’s not Jesus’ way. He gets into the boat, and the man who had been healed begs to be able to go with him. This is usually a request Jesus honours, but this is the only time in the gospels where he refuses: he’s got a more important plan for this man. “Return to your home and declare how much God has done for you.” So he went away, Luke says, ‘proclaiming throughout the city how much Jesus had done for him.’ (v.38).

Some modern readers of this story find the demonic element hard to take. Evil spirits aren’t part of our contemporary world view, and they give the story a kind of legendary feel. We would be more comfortable if this man was described as being mentally ill, in the grip of some sickness of the mind that has him hearing voices and shouting in a strange voice and exercising surprising feats of strength.

Other modern readers aren’t so sure. American psychiatrist Scott Peck, the famous author of a book called ‘The Road Less Travelled’, also wrote a book called ‘The People of the Lie’ in which he told some stories of his own encounters with what appeared to be evil forces, and how he had dealt with them. And Christians who minister in the developing world frequently tell stories of these sorts of ‘power encounters’ and what comes of them.

It all comes down to a question of our world view. Do we believe we live in a world that has unseen spiritual elements in it, elements that can act on people in our own dimension of reality? Well, obviously we do, because we believe in God, and God fits that description quite well! Do we then also believe in angels? It’s clear to me that many people today, Christian and non-Christians, do in fact believe in guardian angels, and they even have names for them and pray to them! Even if we don’t go this far, angel stories are part of our Christian scriptures—the angel who announces the conception of Jesus to Mary, for instance—and we don’t tend to be offended by those stories, even though we don’t fully understand them.

So if we grant that such creatures might exist, and if we remember that God seems to give free will to all his creatures, it’s not illogical to suppose that there may in fact be ‘fallen angels’: angelic beings who have chosen to rebel against God and work for evil purposes in the world. Certainly Jesus believed that and acted on that belief, and so did his early followers.

But even if we don’t believe that—even if we believe that Jesus and his disciples were people of their day with a pre-modern world view, and that this man was suffering from a particularly severe mental illness—that still doesn’t detract from the amazing miracle Jesus was able to perform. Psychiatrists spend years of therapy with people like this, and sometimes the improvements are only marginal. Jesus simply speaks a word of command, the evil forces leave the man, and almost immediately he’s dressed and in his right mind, sitting calmly at the feet of Jesus and begging to be allowed to follow him. Jesus is truly the Saviour of all, even the last, the least, and the lost!

So what does this story have to say to us today?

We began by reminding ourselves of the beautiful title given to Jesus in the gospels: ‘Saviour’. I say it’s a beautiful title, but sometimes we Anglicans are ambiguous about it. A ‘saviour’ is someone who saves people from forces or situations from which they couldn’t save themselves. But when we hear about people claiming that Jesus has ‘saved’ them, we sometimes get uncomfortable. “I’ve been saved,” they say, and they might even ask us, “Are you saved?”

Why does this make us uncomfortable? Maybe it’s because when they say “I’ve been saved,” what we hear them saying is “I’m better than you.” But if you think about it, that’s not what they’re saying at all. Imagine a person swimming out from a popular beach, going out too far and getting caught in a powerful current. Imagine a lifeguard going out to rescue them from this desperate situation.  ‘Desperate’ is exactly how the swimmer feels. She’s maybe even given up hope; she’s sure she’s going to drown. But then the lifeguard comes and brings her back to safety on the shore. She’s overwhelmed with gratitude; “Thank you for saving me,” she says. Is she claiming to be better than the others? Far from it; she’s been silly enough to get herself into a situation so dangerous that she was powerless to deliver herself from it! Only the skill of the lifeguard has saved her life.

We’re told in the New Testament that the cross of Jesus has brought the forgiveness of God into our lives. If God won’t forgive us our sins, we’re truly in a desperate situation, alienated from the only one who can give us the help and strength we need. And even in this day and age, many people believe that God can’t forgive them. Their sins and failures weigh heavily on them; they’ve tried to change, but the power doesn’t seem to be in them. I’m not talking about obvious things like murders and sexual assaults, although some people obviously are guilty of these things. I’m talking about our selfishness and self-centredness. We know it spoils our lives and the lives of people around us, and we try desperately to change it. But so often we fall back into the same destructive patterns of behaviour.

Can God forgive us? Can God give us strength greater than our own, so that the destructive forces in us can be cast out and drowned in the sea? Whether or not we literally believe in demons, we often use that word metaphorically, don’t we? We say of someone that ‘his demons got the better of him’, and we all know what that means.

The Gospel is Good News: it tells us that Jesus is the strong Son of God. By his cross he brings the forgiveness of God into our lives. Paul says ‘God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself, no longer counting their sins against them.’ And if we’re reconciled to God, then the presence of God can be a present reality in our daily lives. God can breathe the Holy Spirit into us, and we can have access to a power greater than our own, rescuing us from those destructive patterns of behaviour, transforming us into people who love God with our whole heart and soul and mind and strength, and who love our neighbour as ourselves. And that’s a miracle, no less than the rescuing of the man with the legion of devils.

What’s our response to this story?

Some of us are afraid, like the townspeople. Jesus has only just arrived, and already he’s destroyed a herd of pigs! What’s next? What’s he going to demand of us? If we follow him, how much more meddling is he going to do? Is he going to tell us how to use our money, or how to vote in the next election, or how to treat the dodgy-looking characters we run into on Whyte Avenue?

This fear is very real, even to religious people. Many religious people are fine with religion as long as we’re in control of it! We like the Sunday service, but we also like knowing when it’s going to end, because, you know, we live busy lives, and God needs to stay within his boundaries and not break out! That’s the problem for these Gentiles in our story today. They were fine with the gods as long as they stayed at arms’ length! But Jesus was bringing God too close! And maybe you feel that way too. Maybe this story is getting too close to home for you.

The neighbours are afraid, but the man himself has been delivered. He’s clothed and in his right mind, sitting at the feet of Jesus, and the thing he wants more than anything else is just to go and be with Jesus. And maybe, a few months down the road, Jesus was glad to see him and hear about all the things God had been doing in his life since he was saved. But not right away. Right now the story is buzzing in the air, and the last thing Jesus needs to do is take the prime witness off the scene. Jesus and his disciples are being sent away, but the man is not. He can stay and tell the story, and who knows how many other lives will be changed as a result?

Let me close with three last points of application.

First, as I said at the beginning, Step One of the Twelve Steps of Alcoholics anonymous says, ‘We admitted that we were powerless over alcohol—that our lives had become unmanageable.’ Do you sometimes feel powerless over some force within? You wish you could be different, but something’s got you chained. It might be a fear. It might be a destructive habit that’s hurting you and the other people in your life. Francis Spufford describes sin as ‘our human propensity to mess things up’ (he actually uses a far stronger word than ‘mess’!). Do you know about that? Would you like to be set free?

Second, do you believe that Jesus is in fact the Saviour, not just of the world, but of each individual in it, including you? Step Two of A.A. says ‘We came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.’ ‘A power greater than ourselves’—what a beautiful description of the Holy Spirit! Jesus promises the gift of the Holy Spirit to all who follow him, and the Spirit will get to work in our lives producing his beautiful fruit. Galatians says ‘The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.’ (5.22-23) That’s what God can do in us, if we ask him to fill us with the Spirit, and if we then keep in step with the Spirit day by day. Are we ready to ask him?

Third, as you begin to experience this work of grace in your life, you will find yourself in a social situation that gives you opportunities to share your story. Jesus might not be welcome, priests and pastors might not be welcome, but you are! Yes, we’d love to go off with Jesus on retreat for a while, just to bask in his presence, and he may well allow us to do that. But he’s going to teach us and shape us on the road as well, in our ordinary lives, among our friends and colleagues. What’s our call? “Return to your home, and declare how much God has done for you.” And what did the man do? He didn’t just talk about God; he sharpened the focus. ‘So he went away, proclaiming throughout the city how much Jesus had done for him.’ (v.38).

Two weeks ago we heard Jesus saying, “You will be my witnesses” (Acts 1.8b). Witnesses tell what they have experienced. If you are a Christian, then the presence of Christ in your life is making a difference. That difference is your story. You don’t have to be delivered from a legion of devils. Your story might be as simple as the hope Jesus gives you that the future doesn’t have to be the carbon copy of the past. Whatever your story is, Jesus needs you to share it. That’s how his kingdom goes forward, one story at a time, one heart at a time.

[1]Henry Wansbrough: Luke (Daily Bible Commentary); Peabody, Massachusetts; Hendrickson Publishers; 1998.

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The Glory of God and the Glory of Humanity

A great philosopher was once attending an astronomy lecture on the topic of humanity’s place in the universe. The lecturer concluded with these words: “So you see that astronomically speaking, man is utterly insignificant”. The philosopher replied: “Professor, you forgot the most important thing: astronomically speaking, man is the astronomer!”

Humans are the astronomers. Do coyotes look up at the sky and indulge in philosophical speculation about their place in the great big scheme of things? It seems unlikely. Do birds wonder if their life has any significance after their deaths? Probably not. Of course we can’t know for sure, but it seems as if we humans are the only beings on the planet who wrestle with things like this. It’s as if we have in our hearts and souls a longing for the infinite, a longing for eternal significance – in fact, a longing for God.

The writer of Psalm 8 felt this longing. I want to explore this psalm with you this morning under two headings: first, the glory of God, and second, the glory of Humanity.

First, then, the Glory of God. A popular book in the 1950s was called Your God is Too Small. Our ancient ancestors certainly had this problem. In the time of the Bible many people believed in local, territorial gods. The early Hebrew people probably thought of their god in that way; in fact, he’s often called ‘Yahweh the god of Israel’ in the Old Testament.

We have no right to look down on our ancestors for this, because I suspect many of us have small views of God as well. In Sunday School we were taught about God in simple ways, but often we still speak of God as if he were our personal assistant, dedicated to our well-being and pleasure—a sort of divine butler, who comes to us every morning and says ‘What can I do for you today?’—or a heavenly pharmacist who spends his time trying to find the right spiritual aspirin to take our pain away.

The author of Psalm 8 is not content with these puny views of God. Look at verses 1-2 in your pew Bibles.

O LORD, our Sovereign,
how majestic is your name in all the earth!
You have set your glory above the heavens.
Out of the mouths of babes and infants
you have founded a bulwark because of your foes,
to silence the enemy and the avenger.

Our Book of Alternative Services psalter translates the first line ‘O Lord our governor’; the NRSV has ‘O LORD our Sovereign’, with the word ‘LORD’ written in block capitals. This is to alert us to the fact that the Hebrew is ‘Yahweh’. Actually, in Hebrew this first line combines two names for God: ‘Yahweh Adonai’.

‘Adonai’ is often used for God in the Old Testament. It’s the Hebrew word for ‘lord’, ‘master’, or ‘owner’. ‘Yahweh’ is the name God revealed to Moses in Exodus chapter 3. God had called Moses to go down to Egypt and tell the Hebrew slaves that he was going to set them free. Moses said, “If I tell them, ‘God’s going to set you free’, and they ask me, ‘Which god?’, what shall I say?”

God said to Moses, “I am who I am”. He said further, “Thus you shall say to the Israelites, ‘I AM has sent me to you’” (Exodus 3:14).

‘I am’ in Hebrew is ‘Yahweh’, but it’s a very strange name, one that almost defies definition! “I am who I am! I will be who I will be! So don’t think you can tie me down or figure me out”. In later years the name was often wrongly written as ‘Jehovah’. Most modern translations use the word ‘LORD’ in capital letters.

So what does our poet have to say about ‘Yahweh Adonai’? Well, the first thing we see is his appeal to God’s creation as evidence of God’s glory.

‘You have set your glory above the heavens…
When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers,
the moon and the stars that you have established;
what are human beings that you are mindful of them,
mortals that you care for them? (vv.1b, 3-4).

For many of the ancient people ‘the moon and the stars’ were gods themselves. Today, of course, we know what they are, and we also know all about the ‘vast expanse of interstellar space: galaxies, suns, the planets in their courses, and this fragile earth, our island home.’ As people of faith in one Creator God, we don’t see these heavenly bodies as rival gods, but neither do we see them as random bits of rock and gas that appeared by chance out of nowhere. Our poet says they are ‘the work of God’s fingers’. In Psalm 33 the image shifts: ‘By the word of Yahweh the heavens were made, and all their host by the breath of his mouth’ (Psalm 33:6). Yahweh’s fingers, Yahweh’s mouth—we’re using images for God, of course, none of which are entirely adequate! But the point is clear: the vast, mighty heavens above our heads were all made by God.

Today, of course, we know far more about the wonders of creation than our poet did. We know about the enormous distances of space, and the enormous stretches of time too—over fourteen billion years since the universe came into being—approximately 4.5 billion years since our Earth was formed. We know about the wonder and mystery of DNA, and the intricacies of the human eye, and the instincts that guide birds for thousands of miles on their migrations. We see the grandeur of the mountains, the beauty of the forests, the peaceful lakes. For us as believers, all of these things speak to us of God—of God’s wisdom, God’s creative power, God’s artistic skill, God’s love of outrageous colour combinations—have you looked at a sunset lately?—and God’s fondness for extravagant variety.

Glory be to God! God is the creator of all that exists; it was all planned and made by God, and God continues to love and care for it. Our poet sees the stars and planets as praising God, and the little children and infants on earth are joining in as well! We humans can never fully understand him—our minds aren’t big enough to take him in. St. Augustine is reputed to have said, “If you think you understand it, it’s probably not God!” As we try to describe God, we’re a bit like people looking up into the sky at the sun, our eyes screwed tight shut against the brilliant light, so we can’t see too well to be absolutely clear about what we’re looking at! But we can worshipour glorious God, and we can follow his instructionfor our lives, including the particular call he has given to us human beings as we try to live for his glory. And this leads us to the second part: the glory of humanity.

In Donald Coggan’s little book about the psalms he has this to say about Psalm 8:

‘In my mind I see a man in the desert, sleepless one night. He gives up trying to sleep and emerges from his tent. He sniffs the night air and fills his lungs. He looks up into the sky and gazes at the heavens, the moon and the stars which his God has set in place. He knows nothing of what scientists many years later will discover about the immensity of an expanding universe—telescopes are things of the far distant future. But even so, something of the vastness and mystery of the night sky dawns on him. Its blackness is dotted with points of light, seen with a clarity denied to those who live in cities. What he sees is enough to frighten him—there is a dreadful silence—no answering voice comes from the stars. How frail and transitory is humankind! How frail is his own little life—‘what is a frail mortal?’ (v.4)—‘what am I?’

‘We might expect that his answer to these questions would be ‘a mere nothing, here today and gone tomorrow, a man in transit, with a life liable to be snuffed out at any moment, a breath…’ The great God up there can hardly be expected to notice him. After all, he has a universe to run. How could (God) be expected to be mindful of him, or, for that matter, any of his fellows?’

You’ve probably felt this sometimes too—I know I have. I’ve felt it when I was hiking in the mountains. I’ve felt it when I was out on the barren lands of the Arctic, in the immense silence, looking up at the night sky. “Space is so huge, and I’m so small! O God, does my life really matter?’ Or, as verse 4 says, ‘What are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them?’

What are human beings? The Book of Genesis has an answer:

‘Then God said, “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth”. So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them, male and female he created them’ (Genesis 1:26-27).

What does it mean for humans to be created in the image of God? Well, exactly the same language is used in the fifth chapter of Genesis when Adam has a son of his own: ‘When Adam had lived one hundred and thirty years, he became the father of a son in his likeness, according to his image, and named him Seth’ (Genesis 5:3). So the idea of the ‘image of God’ is a parental metaphor: we’re God’s kids! We parents understand this, because for good or ill, we often see ourselves in our kids. And we are God’s children! God the Creator has made many different kinds of creatures, but in the fullness of time it was all leading up to the arrival of his children: human beings, made in the image of their Father God.

Now one of the things about kids is this: they don’t just want to be helped or provided for. They want a role! They want to help, to contribute, to be valuable in the household! ‘I want to do it myself!’ And so the Psalm tells us that as a good parent, God doesn’t just care for human beings or provide for them; God also gives them a vital role to play.

What is that role? Part of the answer to that question is found in verses 5-8:

‘Yet you have made them a little lower than God,
and crowned them with glory and honour.
You have given them dominion over the works of your hands;
you have put all things under their feet,
all sheep and oxen,
and also the beasts of the field,
the birds of the air, and the fish of the sea,
whatever passes along the paths of the sea’.

This is royal language – to ‘have dominion’. The one who really has dominion over the whole creation is the Creator God, but he chooses to share that dominion with his human children.

So what is it we’re called to do? Verses 6-8 talk about us being given ‘dominion over the works of God’s hands.’ Older generations tended to see this in terms of taming the earth and subduing it; human life was seen as a life of conflict with the forces of nature. Of course, there are times when we still feel that: when great forest fires rage, for instance, fires so fierce we call them ‘the Beast’! But nowadays we’re also aware of the awesome power of humans over our environment. We’re aware of the possibility that our activity may even be doing something that would have been unthinkable a century ago: changing the climate of the earth. We’re aware that we have created weapons so terrifying in their power that using them might well have lethal consequences, not just for us, but for our planet as well.

And so in our time we’ve begun to notice another strand of this Old Testament teaching. In Genesis 2:15 we read, ‘Yahweh God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to till it and keep it’. ‘To keep it’ has the old sense of ‘to guard it’. The Common English Bible has a wonderful translation: ‘to farm it and to take care of it’. God calls us human beings to be good stewards of the earth. And in our time, a time of climate change and massive extinctions of wildlife species, it’s become an urgent matter that we respond to this call.

This creation call to humankind has never been revoked. We are still placed on the earth to till it and to guard it. God our Creator took great care when he first made this home of ours, and he continues to take great care as life here continues to evolve and develop. If we are made in his image, sharing his dominion over his creation, can we do any less?

To sum up, then: what is it that makes our lives significant? We humans are frail, and short-lived in terms of the life of our planet. Why are we important? Why is your life important? Why is mine?

We’re important because we’re made in God’s image and created for relationship with God. It’s significant that in this psalm God is addressed throughout in the second person: ‘Yahweh our Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth!’ Many psalms speak about God in the third person—‘Come, let us sing to the Lord—but in this psalm we address God directly, because we’re called into relationship with God, as his beloved children.

This psalm calls us to reflect on the wonder and majesty of God. One of the best ways to do this is to get outside, into God’s natural creation. You’ve heard me say before that if we do all our praying indoors, we’ll end up thinking of God as a being who lives in small rooms. But if we get out into God’s creation regularly, we’ll learn a different view of God. We’ll walk there with the great Creator, and our hearts will be full of praise for him.

And of course, our lives are important because God has chosen to share his care for creation with us. He’s not going to do it without us. He’s not going to revoke our job description. His rule over creation is not the rule of a despot, a tyrant who exploits the world to feed his own self-centred greed. God rules and cares for his world with love, patience, and skill. And he calls us to learn to do that too.

So maybe, as we think about these things, the question we ought to ask ourselves is this: is God’s natural world a better place because of me? And if the answer is ‘no’, then we’ve got some thinking and praying to do. One day we’re going to be asked to give account for our stewardship. On that day, I don’t think, “I just did what everyone else was doing” will be an acceptable answer.

Let us pray:

O Lord our God, how majestic is your name in all the earth! Today we join in the praise and worship offered to you by all created things. Today we thank you for making us in your image and calling us to be stewards of this wonderful, beautiful earth which you have made. Help us to care for it as you care for it, our God, that we may truly live our lives to your honour and glory. This we ask through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

On Not Losing the Plot (a sermon on Luke 24.44-53)

Sometimes, churches can lose the plot. We can get caught up in doing the things we’ve always done—holding services and Sunday School, baptizing and marrying and burying people, holding Bible study groups, and trying desperately to raise enough money to pay for it—and we can lose sight of why we’re doing these things. What’s the church actually for? Why is it important that it exists? Why does God think it’s important? If we can’t find a compelling answer to that question, we probably won’t have much motivation for making sure the work of our church goes forward.

So we need to recover the plot—and today’s Gospel for Ascension Day will help us do that.

It’s interesting to note that if all we had was the Gospel of Luke, we’d assume Jesus’ resurrection and ascension took place on the same day! Luke begins chapter 24 with the women coming to the tomb on Easter morning and finding the body gone. Then he tells the story of two disciples walking to Emmaus on Sunday afternoon, and how Jesus came and walked along with them without them recognizing him. When they got to Emmaus and invited him for supper, he took bread, blessed it and broke it, and their eyes were opened, and they recognized him, and he vanished from their sight. They ran back to Jerusalem to find the eleven apostles in the upper room, very excited because the risen Lord had apparently appeared to Simon Peter. And while they were still speaking with each other, Jesus appeared to them. “Peace be with you”, he said, and showed them his hands and feet. They couldn’t believe it, until he took a piece of broiled fish and ate it in their presence.

Then comes today’s gospel. Jesus explains to them how everything that has happened to him has been in fulfilment of the scriptures. He commissions them to be his witnesses and promises them the gift of the Holy Spirit to equip them for the task ahead of them. And then he leads them out to Bethany, blesses them, and is carried up to heaven. It seems like the whole forty days of Easter is compressed into a single day!

Did it actually all happen on a single day? Probably not. Luke also wrote the Book of Acts, which tells the story of the early church. The first chapter overlaps with Luke 24, and in Acts chapter one Luke tells us that ‘After his suffering (Jesus) presented himself alive to (his disciples) by many convincing proofs, appearing to them during forty days and speaking about the kingdom of God.’ (Acts 1:3) So Luke is well aware of the extended chronology of the Easter season. Nonetheless, in his Gospel he’s giving us the big picture, so he squeezes it all into a single twenty-four-hour period.

Let’s look closely at what Jesus says to his disciples in today’s gospel. First, he gives them an overview of what the past was really about. Look at verses 44-46:

‘Then (Jesus) said to them, “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you—that everything written about me in the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms must be fulfilled.” Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures, and he said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day.”’

Jesus joined together two strands of Old Testament prophecy that hadn’t been joined before. One strand was the idea that God was going to send a Messiah, a king like David, who would lead his people in battle, destroy their enemies, and set up God’s kingdom of justice and peace on earth. The other strand was the idea of God’s Suffering Servant that we find in the second part of the Book of Isaiah. The Servant is a mysterious figure who will suffer because of his faithfulness to God, but in some strange way God will use his suffering to bring healing to his people. Isaiah says,

‘Surely he has borne our infirmities and carried our diseases; yet we accounted him stricken, struck down by God, and afflicted. But he was wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the punishment that made us whole, and by his bruises we are healed.’ (Isaiah 53:4-5)

Jesus says, “Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer.” (v.46) Of course he is; that’s what the whole idea of God becoming a human being was all about. God’s world is now shot through with human suffering. Some of that suffering is caused by human sinfulness: war and injustice, cruelty and oppression, violence and selfishness and greed and prejudice. But some of it is caused by natural forces: earthquakes and diseases and other natural disasters.

How can God be a God of love and hold himself aloof from all this suffering? If he truly loves the world, surely he has to come into it and share in its sufferings. We humans don’t tend to trust people who shout advice to us from the safety of the command post. We trust leaders who know what it’s like to be in the trenches and have the scars to prove it. Jesus shows us a God like that.

Luke loves the fact that Jesus reaches out to suffering people. His gospel stories focus on Jesus’ care for the lepers and outcasts, Gentile soldiers and tax collectors, shepherds and children and women—people who were seen as being on a lower social level in his day. Those folks are often ‘despised and rejected’ by others, and ‘acquainted with grief.’ Jesus enters into their suffering. Like them, he’s despised and rejected by the leaders and the powerful people of his day. But he’s faithful to God in his suffering, even going so far as to forgive those who crucify him: “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” (Luke 23:34)

And God is faithful to Jesus: he vindicates him by raising him from the dead, and our reading today ends with him ascending to heaven, the place of authority. In the Ascension he isn’t ‘going away and leaving us.’ He is being honoured by the Father as Lord of all. This is the big picture of Luke’s gospel: Jesus has come among us and lived out the love of God for all people, including the weak and the outcasts, the poor and the rejected. And in the end, love is stronger than death. The love of God wins the victory over death, and the risen Jesus, the Lord of love, is the true ruler of the world.

So what’s the church called to do? Follow in the footsteps of Jesus. We’re not called to separate ourselves from the sin and suffering and messiness of the world. We’re called to get involved in it, reaching out to all people, whether we like them or not, whether we think they deserve it or not. And we’re especially called to reach out to those who are rejected by others. We’re called to suffer with them, even die with them if need be, all the while reaching out in love and forgiveness to those who persecute us. And we’re called to trust that God will be faithful to us in our suffering; he won’t abandon us, but will raise us up with Jesus one day.

So Jesus gives his disciples an overview of what the past was really all about—what his life and suffering and death and resurrection really meant in terms of God’s love for all people. And we as a church need to ask ourselves: how are we fulfilling that mandate? How are we getting involved in the lives of ‘the last, the least, and the lost?’ How are we embracing the pain of the ones God loves, and bringing them a sense of the healing touch of God? How am I doing that? How are you doing it?

But Jesus also looks ahead and gives his disciples a sense of what the future is going to be all about. In verses 47-49 he says,

“…repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in (the Messiah’s) name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things. And see, I am sending upon you what my Father promised; so stay here in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high.”

They are witnesses. Witnesses have seen things. The disciples have seen God’s love at work in Jesus, reaching out to everyone—young and old, rich and poor, men and women, sick and healthy, worthy and unworthy. They’ve seen Jesus’ faithfulness and how it led him to the cross. They’ve seen him alive again. Now they’re called to spread that story. Why? Not because it’s a pretty story, but because it has the power to set people free from guilt and sin.

We live in a world that’s not very big on forgiveness. This is a ‘one strike you’re out’ kind of world. Social media is everywhere: if politicians make one mistake, they’re finished. We live in a highly competitive economy: if we don’t measure up, we’ll be fired and replaced. And we live in a world of perfectionistic relationships, where people are quite ready to replace us if we don’t live up to their expectations.

Some people think God’s like that, but Jesus wants them to know that God is quite different. Jesus talks about a father running to meet his prodigal son and welcoming him home, even after the son has rejected his father and wasted all his property. Jesus reaches out to guilty and unworthy people and assures them that God forgives them and welcomes them when they come home to him. He even goes so far as to forgive those who are murdering him—demonstrating by his actions that God is a God who loves even his enemies.

We’re often told that we live in a world which has lost its sense of guilt and sin. That may be true, but I’m absolutely sure that people in our world have not lost their sense of failure, of not measuring up to what’s expected of them. I know I haven’t lost that; have you? I suspect not.

How do you approach God if you’ve failed? Jesus wants to introduce people everywhere to a God who loves them as they are, failures and all—a God who reaches out to them and forgives them. And so ‘repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in (Jesus’) name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem.’ (v.47) Proclaimed by who? By the church, of course. And who is the church? I am. You are. Everyone who follows Jesus and loves him is part of the church. This is the job Jesus has given us: not just to live his love, but to speak about it too. He doesn’t just say that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be demonstrated; it has to be ‘proclaimed’. Announced verbally, that is!

So again, we have to ask ourselves, how are we doing at fulfilling this mandate? Witnesses are people who tell others what they have seen and heard and experienced. What good news about Jesus have we experienced, that we would like to share with others? Who have we told about it?

Maybe you think “I know I should do that, but I don’t really know how, and I’m scared of getting it wrong.” Excellent! Then you’re in exactly the right place spiritually to become a better witness! I have two encouraging words for you.

The first is, you can learn to get better at it. It’s not a complicated thing, being a witness. Many people have done it before you. You don’t have to worry about offending people or putting your foot in your mouth. You don’t have to be scared that your friends will think you’re weird. You don’t have to go out onto street corners if that’s not the temperament God has given you. God can teach you to be a witness in a way that feels natural for you, in a way that fits the personality he has given you. If you’d like to learn more about that, please come and talk to me. Believe me, nothing would delight me more than to help you learn to enjoy being a witness for the Gospel of Jesus!

The second encouraging word is, you’re not alone. God has a gift for you. Jesus says, “You are witnesses of these things. And see, I am sending upon you what my Father promised; so stay here in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high.” (vv.48-49) This is our theme for next Sunday: the coming of the Holy Spirit. Every follower of Jesus has been given the gift of the Holy Spirit; the Spirit is the one who connects us to God and fills us with the love and power of God. And when it comes to this work of being witnesses, the Spirit has a special role to play.

First, the Spirit goes before us, working in the hearts and minds of receptive people, preparing them to receive the good news of Jesus. We saw this two weeks ago in our reading from Acts, when the Spirit worked in the life of Cornelius, leading him to turn away from the worship of the old gods of Rome and turn to the one true God, the creator of the world. By the time Peter got to Cornelius, he was more than ready to hear about Jesus. And the Spirit still does that kind of thing today.

Second, the Spirit guides you and me. If we ask him to lead us, and then stay attentive to his voice, he will give us the nudges we need toward the people who are ready to find out more about the good news of Jesus. We saw that last week in our reading from Acts, when the Spirit guided Paul to Philippi, where Lydia was ready to hear the gospel message. Again, the Holy Spirit has not stopped doing this. I’ve had many experiences of being led to the right person at the right time, just when a word of witness was needed. If you ask, the Spirit will guide you.

So, brothers and sisters, let’s not lose the plot! We’re about following in Jesus’ footsteps as he reaches out to everyone with the love of God, especially the last, the least, and the lost. We’re called to do that naturally, as a part of our daily lives. We’re about being witnesses, sharing the good news that God forgives us and welcomes us into a loving relationship with him. We’re called to pass that invitation on to others so they can know God for themselves. And we’re not left alone to do this by ourselves; we’re not smart enough or strong enough for that! No, God wants to pour out his Spirit on all flesh, and that includes us.

That’s the plot: that’s what church is all about. Now let’s make sure these things are front and centre in our life as a congregation, and in our own daily lives as well. Amen.

God is Working His Purpose Out (a sermon on Acts 16.6-15)

Why are you here in this church today? 

After all, the majority of the people of Edmonton aren’t in churches this morning. And fifteen years ago, the majority of you weren’t here at St. Margaret’s—I know, because I was here and most of you weren’t! So how has it happened that you are here this morning, a part of this community of faith, come to worship God and learn the way of Jesus with us?

I sometimes ask that question myself! How did I get to be the rector of St. Margaret’s? After all, I was born in an industrial city in the English midlands. How did I end up married to a girl from Ontario, and how did it happen that we’ve spent our entire married lives in the west and the north? And how, after twenty years in rural ministry, did I become the pastor of a suburban parish like St. Margaret’s?

As I was reading our passage from Acts for this morning, I found myself wondering whether Paul asked himself a similar question. What on earth was Paul doing in the city of Philippi? He was a young Jewish man who had gone to Jerusalem to be tutored by the famous rabbi Gamaliel. He had a deep devotion to the law of Israel and the traditions of the Pharisees. According to those traditions, Jews were to stay away from Gentiles, who were not God’s chosen people. But now Paul found himself in a city in the province of Macedonia, in what is now northern Greece—a city that was a Roman colony, a city with so few Jews that there wasn’t even a synagogue where they could gather for prayer. I wonder if he asked himself, “What am I doing here?” And we might ask the same question this morning: what on earth was Paul doing in Philippi? 

We can begin to answer that question by making a general statement: Paul was in Philippi as a missionary of Jesus Christ, trying to persuade people who were not Christians to put their trust in Jesus Christ as their Saviour and Lord.  

Why was he doing that? He was doing it out of obedience to Jesus. Every single gospel writer tells us that at the end of his ministry, Jesus sent his disciples out to announce his good news to people everywhere and call on them to turn to him as their Lord and Saviour. For example, in Luke Jesus says repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning in Jerusalem, (Luke 24:47) and in Acts he tells his disciples, ‘You will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judaea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.’ (Acts 1:8)

Paul had become one of those witnesses. On the road to Damascus he’d had a supernatural encounter with the risen and ascended Jesus. He’d heard God speak to him with the voice of Jesus, and God had called him to become a missionary for the gospel of Christ. And he’d been faithful to that call, travelling all over the Mediterranean world announcing the good news and challenging people to turn from their previous allegiances and become followers of Jesus.

So biblical faith is missionary to the core; it always has been. And if you think about it, that’s part of the answer to the question, ‘Why are you here this morning?’ Some of us came to faith in Christ gradually, as a result of our parents’ witness. Some of us had a conversion experience that brought us out of darkness into the light of Christ. But in both cases, the only reason we’ve been able to respond to the Christian message is because missionaries brought it within earshot. We wouldn’t be followers of Jesus today if it hadn’t been for the work of those missionaries. And we in our turn are called to pass it on to others, just as Paul was doing.

So it’s worth asking ourselves the question “What’s my family tree of faith?” If you were raised in Christian faith and grew into it gradually, how far back can you trace Christian commitment in your family? I don’t mean just nominal Christianity; I mean real commitment to Christ. And if you are an adult convert to Christianity, who are the people that God used to bring the message of Jesus to you? They are a big part of the answer to the question, “Why am I here today?”

So Paul was in Philippi as a missionary, to share the gospel and challenge people to turn to Christ. But we can go on to make a further statement: Paul was in Philippi because God had clearly and explicitly directed him to come there, even though it wasn’t in Paul’s original plan.

Paul had originally planned this trip for two reasons: to revisit churches he’d already planted in what is now southern Turkey, and then to move on to new areas. He had a pretty clear idea in his mind of the route he wanted to take. But look at what happened in Acts 16:6-8:

‘They went through the region of Phrygia and Galatia, having been expressly forbidden by the Holy Spirit to speak the word in Asia. When they had come opposite Mysia, they attempted to go into Bithynia, but the Spirit of Jesus did not allow them; so passing by Mysia, they went down to Troas.’

Troas was on the extreme north-western coast of Turkey. Now look what happens next in verses 9-10:

‘During the night Paul had a vision: there stood a man of Macedonia pleading with him and saying, “Come over to Macedonia and help us”. When we had seen this vision, we immediately tried to cross over into Macedonia, being convinced that God had called us to proclaim the good news to them.’

This was a huge step. They were crossing from Asia into what is now Europe. They were crossing from a region where there were a lot of Jewish synagogues to an area where Jewish people were much fewer and further between. And their first stop when they got into Macedonia, the city of Philippi, was not just any ordinary city but a Roman colony – that’s to say, it had been founded as a place where retired Roman soldiers could settle. You would think those retired soldiers would be pretty unlikely to be interested in the story of a Galilean carpenter who’d been executed as a rebel against the emperor!

If I was Paul I might be tempted to say, “God, this doesn’t make sense. We had a perfectly good plan to move into new areas where we had every reason to believe people would be receptive to the gospel. Instead, you’re guiding us to a place where it seems very unlikely that people will be interested in Jesus. Are you sure this is a good idea?” But Paul didn’t say that. Instead, he responded immediately to God’s guidance. Paul knew from long experience that God knew what he was doing. And I’m sure Paul had discovered what many generations of Christians after him have also discovered: the evangelism you don’t plan often works better than the evangelism you do plan, especially when it’s guided by the Holy Spirit!

I’ll give you an example. Some ago our Diocese of Edmonton began putting a lot of emphasis on congregations having ‘Mission Action Plans’. We were encouraged to look at the needs of our neighbourhoods and plan ways we could reach out and serve our communities in the name of Jesus, and also share the gospel with them. So here at St. Margaret’s we had a number of meetings and conversations with different groups and people in our parish, and then we took what we heard and distilled it into a Mission Action Plan. If I remember correctly there were about seven or eight different initiatives that we set out in that plan.

But you know what happened? About two thirds of what we planned didn’t work. We tried to get people to come to coffee mornings to share their faith stories and no one showed up. We tried to organise a Vacation Bible School and couldn’t get volunteers. On the surface, it looked quite discouraging. But something else was happening; a lot of new people were coming to our congregation, and a lot of them were bringing babies with them. I got the sense that our parish was starting to grow. And at the end of the year, when we added up the numbers, our average Sunday attendance had gone up dramatically. 

This is the way God seems to enjoy working. You know the old saying: ‘If you want to make God laugh, tell him your plans!’ Of course, we have to plan, but the chances are good that the future is going to turn out very differently from what we had in the plan—and that’s nothing to be afraid of.

So Paul hadn’t planned to be in Philippi, but God had brought him there. Twenty years ago I definitely wasn’t planning on moving to a city, but God brought me here too. And a few years ago some of you probably weren’t even planning on being followers of Jesus, let alone being members of St. Margaret’s Anglican Church! But God was at work guiding our steps, and here we all are today!

So we’ve seen that Paul was in Philippi as a missionary of Jesus Christ, and that he was there because God had clearly guided him there. But there’s a third thing we can say, too: Paul was in Philippi because of Lydia. Look at verses 13-15:

‘On the Sabbath day we went outside the gate by the river, where we supposed there was a place of prayer; and we sat down and spoke to the women who had gathered there. A certain woman named Lydia, a worshipper of God, was listening to us; she was from the city of Thyatira and a dealer in purple cloth. The Lord opened her heart to listen eagerly to what was said by Paul. When she and her household were baptized, she urged us, saying, “If you have judged me faithful to the Lord, come and stay at my home”. And she prevailed upon us.’

Luke tells us Lydia was ‘a worshipper of God’, which probably means she was one of the people at that time who had gotten tired of the gods of the Greek and Roman world and had begun to worship and obey the God of Israel. These folks were always fertile ground for Christian evangelistic activity, and Lydia was no exception.

But note how Luke phrases this: ‘The Lord opened her heart to listen eagerly to what was said by Paul’ (14b). This seems a little strange to us. We tend to stress the human side of things—the fact that I chose to be a follower of Jesus—but there’s another way of looking at it, a way that stresses divine initiative: I am a Christian because of the work of God.

We’re treading on holy ground here, on the mysterious intersection between God’s work and our response. To us, it seems as if we’re dealing with two opposite ideas that can’t both be true. If we human beings have free will to accept or reject God’s invitation to follow Jesus, then God can’t be in control of the process. On the other hand, if God is the one who opens our hearts to hear the gospel and respond, then we can’t have genuine free will, can we?

We need to be careful about using human logic when we’re dealing with God. After all, God being who he is, it’s not surprising there are some things in the mind of God that I can’t understand! And in this instance, the truth is not at one extreme, or at the other extreme, or in the middle, but at both ends. Yes, Paul went to Philippi to preach the gospel, and through his preaching God was inviting his hearers to use their free will to choose to become followers of Jesus. Yes, God opened the heart of Lydia so that she could hear and respond to the gospel. Both of those statements are true. God had prepared Lydia to receive the gospel, and God had brought Paul to Philippi so that she could hear and respond to the gospel. God was working his purpose out, as he always does.

Which brings us back to the question we started with, ‘Why are you here at St. Margaret’s this morning?’ We might say we’re here because of the missionary work of people long ago, or because our parents shared the gospel with us. We might say we’re here because our last church wasn’t too inspiring. We might even say that we’re here because we got out of bed on the right side this morning and the kids didn’t give us too much trouble as we were getting ready!

None of this would be wrong, but it’s not the whole truth. The other side of the truth is this: you’re here this morning because God has brought you here. Behind the human chain of events that led you here this morning is the unseen hand of God at work. You’re here for a reason. And I wonder what truth God is opening your heart to pay attention to this morning?

And let’s take this one step further. You are not only Lydia in this process; you’re also Paul. God doesn’t only want you to hear and respond to the gospel; he wants you to share it with others too. Even now, in your life, God is at work bringing you into contact with people who he has prepared to respond to the Christian message. Who is the person God wants you to invite to church? Who is the person God wants you to begin a spiritual conversation with? Keep your eyes and ears open. Listen to people and listen to God. God’s the one who is at work here, but he’s chosen to ask us to co-operate with him in this work. So let’s pray for the guidance and wisdom of the Holy Spirit, so God can indeed work through us, drawing other people to himself.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 In this story we can see two conversions taking place.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Over to us!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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