Sunday, May 27, 2012

Sermon for Sunday May 27th

2 Kings 2:9b                                                                       The Day of Pentecost, May 27th 2012
‘A Double Share of Your Spirit…’

Today is the day of Pentecost, sometimes called the birthday of the Christian Church – the day we remember the coming of the Holy Spirit on the first followers of Jesus in Jerusalem in fulfilment of Jesus’ promise that his disciples would be baptized in the Holy Spirit and would be his witnesses to the ends of the earth. We’ve heard the story in our first reading for today: the believers were all together in one place when they heard the sound of a mighty wind that filled the room, and they saw little tongues of flame that rested on each one of them. Then they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages as the Spirit gave them that ability. This was evidently a noisy event; a crowd began to gather, and some of the languages were recognised. People began to ask questions – some even asked if the disciples were drunk – not, I suspect, a question that’s asked very often about people coming out of church at St. Margaret’s on a Sunday morning!

But I’m not going to preach on this passage this morning. Instead, I want to take you to a rather obscure verse in the Old Testament, because I think it sheds a lot of light on what we’re celebrating today. In the 2nd Book of Kings, we read this request from the prophet Elisha to his old mentor, Elijah, who is about to be taken up into heaven by the Lord: “Please, let me inherit a double share of your spirit” (2 Kings 2:9b).

Right, so what does this mean? Who are Elijah and Elisha, and what do they have to do with the gift of the Holy Spirit promised to the Church in today’s readings? Let’s remind ourselves of their story – or, perhaps, for some of you, let’s hear it for the first time.

Elijah was the first great prophet of the people of Israel, and he lived about 850 years before Christ. He appeared without warning in 1 Kings chapter 17, during the reign of King Ahab, one of the most wicked kings ever to rule the northern kingdom of Israel. Ahab was married to Jezebel, a Sidonian princess who worked hard to introduce the worship of the Sidonian god Ba’al in her new country. Ahab went along with her, and together they won over much of the population of Israel to the extraordinary idea that there could be more than one god worshipped by Yahweh’s chosen people.

So Elijah of Tishbe appeared in 1 Kings 17 and announced to King Ahab, “As Yahweh the God of Israel lives, before whom I stand, there shall be neither dew nor rain these years, except by my word”. Then Elijah disappeared into the wilderness, and for the next three years there was no rain in Israel. Crops failed, livestock starved, and people were in dire straits. Jezebel and all her friends prayed hard to their god Ba’al, while the minority - those who are faithful to Yahweh the God of Israel - prayed to him too, but to no avail.

Eventually after three years Elijah appeared again (I’m summarizing here!), and he challenged the prophets of Ba’al to a public contest on Mount Carmel. “Let’s each build an altar and lay out a sacrifice”, he said; “and we’ll each pray to our god. Whichever god answers with fire to burn up the sacrifice, we’ll know he’s the true god”. The prophets of Ba’al agreed (there were 450 of them, by the way), and Elijah invited them to go first. So while all the people were watching, they built an altar, laid out their sacrifice, and began to pray. They prayed and danced and worked themselves up into a frenzy all day long, but no fire came.

Then Elijah, who apparently had absolute confidence that Yahweh would hear his prayer, built his altar and laid out his sacrifice. He poured buckets of water over it to make it even more difficult for Yahweh. Then in a very simple prayer he asked God to vindicate his name and show everyone that he was the only true god. Immediately fire from heaven fell and consumed the sacrifice and the stone altar. The people were suitably impressed and all fell down and worshipped Yahweh, the God of Israel. As for the prophets of Ba’al, they quickly came to a sticky end.

One person who was not impressed, of course, was Jezebel, and she sent word to Elijah that she’d make sure he died just like the prophets of Ba’al had died. So Elijah, the great man of faith, ran away. He went to the desert, to Mount Sinai where Moses had received the law of God. There he prayed to Yahweh and complained that there were so few followers of Yahweh left, and that Jezebel was trying to kill him. But God met him in a quiet place on the mountain and told him to go back; “There are more of my followers out there than you think”, he said. He told him to anoint new kings in waiting for Israel and Judah, and he specifically commanded him to take on an apprentice, Elisha son of Shaphat, to learn the prophet-business from him and to take his place when he was gone.

So Elijah did as he was told; he went and found Elisha and, in a symbolic action, “threw his mantle over him” (1 Kings 19:19c). Obviously the mantle symbolized Elijah’s prophetic office, and Elisha understood immediately what was going on; he went home, told his parents he was leaving, and then ‘set out and followed Elijah, and became his servant’ (19:21c).

There are a few more chapters of stories about Elijah in 1 Kings; always he is speaking the word of the Lord in judgement against the idolatry and injustice perpetrated by Ahab and Jezebel. But eventually, in the last chapter of 1 Kings, God’s judgement comes upon Ahab. He goes into battle against the Arameans at a place called Ramoth-Gilead, and even though he has disguised himself so it won’t be obvious who he is, he is struck by a chance arrow, and in the evening he dies. His death is the last major scene in the first book of Kings.

And so we come to 2 Kings chapter 2. Elisha has been following Elijah around as his servant for some time now, and we can assume that he’s been suitably impressed with the old man’s faith and courage. I think we can also safely assume that he’s terrified by the idea that one day the old man will be gone and he, Elisha, will have to take his place. After all, that’s how we would feel, isn’t it? Imagine yourself in Elisha’s place; you’ve been watching all this time as Elijah boldly prays to God for miracles, fully expecting that God will answer – and God does! Elijah is constantly speaking the word of God to kings without fear – or so it seems to Elisha – and his words always seem to come true! Talk about a big pair of shoes to fill!

So 2 Kings chapter 2 tells us that the time has come when the Lord is going to take Elijah up to heaven in a whirlwind: the old prophet is so great that he will not even die a normal death! So Elijah and Elisha walk together to the place where this will happen. Apparently there is a company of prophets following them as well, who keep saying to Elisha “Do you know that today is the day that God is going to take your master from you?” to which Elisha keeps replying, in effect, “Yes, I know – now would you please be quiet and leave us in peace?”

They come to the Jordan River, and Elijah takes his mantle – the very same mantle that he threw over Elisha’s shoulders when he took him on as an apprentice – he takes his mantle and strikes the river with it. The water is parted before him, and Elijah and Elisha walk together on dry ground.

Now at last Elijah speaks to Elisha. He says, “Tell me what I may do for you, before I am taken from you”. Elisha replies, “Please let me inherit a double share of your spirit”. Elijah says, “You have asked a hard thing; yet, if you see me as I am being taken from you, it will be granted you; if not, it will not” (2 Kings 2:9-11). Here’s how 2 Kings continues with the story:
As they continued walking and talking, a chariot of fire and horses of fire separated the two of them, and Elijah ascended in a whirlwind into heaven. Elisha kept watching and crying out, “Father, father! The chariots of Israel and its horsemen!” But when he could no longer see him, he grasped his own clothes and tore them in two pieces.

He picked up the mantle of Elijah that had fallen from him, and went back and stood on the bank of the Jordan. He took the mantle of Elijah that had fallen from him, and struck the water, saying, “Where is the Lord, the God of Elijah?” When he struck the water, the water was parted to the one side and to the other, and Elisha went over.

When the company of prophets who were at Jericho saw him at a distance, they declared, “The Spirit of Elijah rests on Elisha”. (2 Kings 9:11-15)

And indeed, as the 2nd Book of Kings continues, Elisha does the same sort of things as Elijah, only more so. He speaks the word of God without fear to kings – not only Israelite kings, but foreigners as well. He performs extraordinary miracles, and God protects him in spectacular ways. I haven’t counted myself, but I’ve been told by someone who has that Elisha is recorded as performing exactly twice as many miracles as Elijah – obviously the writer wants to make the point that God answered the prayer for ‘a double portion of Elijah’s spirit’ in a literal way!

Now, what connects the story of Elijah and Elisha with the story of Jesus, the Day of Pentecost, the Holy Spirit, and us today?

The first thing is the miracles. A lot of people have the impression that the Bible is full of miracle stories from start to finish. Actually, it isn’t. The miracles tend to cluster around specific periods in biblical history. The time of Moses and Joshua is one of those periods; the time of Elijah and Elisha is another. The third period is the time of Jesus and the early apostles. It’s not that miracles are absent at other times; it’s just that they’re rather rare.

Elisha prayed that he would receive a double portion of Elijah’s spirit, and his prayer was answered: God worked mighty miracles through him, even more so than through his mentor Elijah.  Interestingly, Jesus promises his early followers the same sort of thing. In John 14:10-14 he says,
“The words that I say to you I do not speak on my own; but the Father who dwells in me does his works. Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father is in me; but if you do not, then believe me because of the works themselves. Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father. I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If in my name you ask me for anything, I will do it”.
Greater things than Jesus? How can that be possible? It’s possible because he is ‘going to the Father’, and he is going to send the promised Holy Spirit on his followers.

Now, the truth is that we do not see the early Christians performing twice as many miracles as Jesus did. Yes, there were many spectacular healings, but there were also times when they experienced unanswered prayer, just as we do today. But where their works did exceed those of their Master was that the early Christians preached the gospel to far more people than Jesus did. Jesus had restricted himself mainly to the people of Israel, but the early Christians obeyed his command and went not only to Jerusalem and Judea and Samaria, but also to the ends of the earth, and many thousands became believers through their witness.

I’m sure that they found it hard to believe that they would do ‘greater things’ than their master, just as Elisha would have found it hard to believe that he would actually receive a double portion of Elijah’s spirit and do greater things than his beloved mentor. And I’m also sure that the early Christians would have had a hard time believing another thing Jesus said to them, something we heard in our gospel reading this morning:
“Nevertheless, I tell you the truth, it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Advocate will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you” (John 16:7).

‘The Advocate’, of course, is the Holy Spirit. Now if you’re like me, you might have found yourself thinking from time to time that we modern believers are at a disadvantage. We’ve never seen Jesus in the flesh. We’ve never heard his voice with our physical ears. We’ve never seen any of the miracles he did in the gospels. So aren’t we somehow ‘second class Christians’? Isn’t it actually to our disadvantage that Jesus ‘went away’?

Not at all. After all, if something is being taken away from you, your reaction will depend on what’s being given to take its place. And in our case, the gift of the Holy Spirit is not an inferior gift at all! In fact, in several places in the Book of Acts the Holy Spirit is referred to as ‘the Spirit of Jesus’ - just as Elisha talked about receiving a double portion of the spirit of Elijah. When Jesus walked the earth as a human being, he could only be in one place at a time, so if he was with a group of his followers in Jerusalem, he couldn’t be in Galilee at the same time. But now that the Spirit of Jesus is available to every believer we can all experience the help and support we need from him as we try to do the work he has called us to do.

So today, my sisters and brothers, you and I are probably in the same sort of place Elisha was in as he contemplated his beloved mentor being taken from him. How could he possibly carry on Elijah’s work? The old man had such a powerful faith, while Elisha, in contrast, probably felt his own faith was weak. Elijah seemed fearless, while Elisha probably was desperately aware of his own fears. And when we think of carrying on the work Jesus began, we probably have similar feelings.

But remember last week’s gospel reading, and Jesus’ command to his followers: “Stay here in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high” (Luke 24:49). As Jesus spoke these words, was he perhaps thinking about the story of Elijah’s mantle falling from heaven to clothe his successor, Elisha? ‘The spirit of Elijah rests on Elisha’, and just as surely the Spirit of Jesus rests on you and me today. So let’s turn from our fears and pray that the Spirit will fill us and give us the gifts we need - and the courage we need - to do the work that Jesus has asked us to do. And then let us go in the power of the Holy Spirit and do even greater things than Jesus did, just as he promised, taking the message of his power and love to people who have not yet come to know him, so that his kingdom will come and his will be done on earth as it is in heaven. In the name of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

Friday, May 25, 2012

May 27th, 2012 - June 3, 2012

May 27th – June 18th, 2012  T. Chesterton is away on business and holidays.
May 28th, 2012  Office is closed.
May 31st, 2012
7:00 am  Men’s & Women’s Bible Studies @ the Bogani CafĂ©
3:30 - 6:00 pm  Music Rental
June 1st, 2012
7:30 pm Wine and Cheese Gathering @ St. Margaret’s
June 3rd, 2012   Trinity
9:00 am Morning Worship
10:30 am Morning Worship & Sunday School

June Roster

June 3rd, 2012  Trinity Sunday  (MW)  (Doug /Brian)
Coffee between services
Greeter/Sidespeople:  T. Cromarty/T. Willacy
Counter:  T. Cromarty/ T. Willacy
Reader: S. Watson
(Isaiah 6: 1 – 8, Psalm 29, Romans 8: 12 - 17)
Intercessor: M. Rys
Lay Reader: B. Popp (John 3: 1 – 17)
Altar Guild (white): N/A
Sunday School (School Age): M. Cromarty
Sunday School (Preschool):  T. Laffin
Kitchen:  The Martens
Music:   W. Pyra

June 10th, 2012  2nd after Pentecost
Greeter/Sidespeople:   The Schindels
Counter: D. Schindel /S. Jayakaran
Reader:  C. Aasen
(1 Samuel 8: 4-20, 11: 14-15, Psalm 138, 2 Corinthians 4: 13 – 5:1)
Lay Administrants:  E. Gerber/M. Rys
Intercessor: L. Thompson
Lay Reader: D. MacNeill  (Mark 3: 20-35)
Altar Guild: (green):  M. Lobreau/A. Shutt
Prayer Team:  M. Chesterton/S. Jayakaran
Sunday School (School Age):  M. Aasen
Sunday School (Preschool):  S. Doyle
Kitchen: A. Shutt
Music:  E. Thompson
Altar Servers: E. Jayakaran

June 17th, 2012 3rd after Pentecost  (MW)(Lloyd/Elaine)
Counter:  G. Hughes/L. Kalis
Reader:  R. Goss
(1 Samuel 15: 34-16:13 , Psalm 20, 2 Corinthians 5: 6-17)
Intercessor: D. MacNeill
Lay Reader: E. Gerber  (Mark 4: 26-34)
Altar Guild (green): N/A
Sunday School (School Age): C. Ripley
Sunday School (Preschool):  M. Horn
Kitchen:  D. Molloy
Music: M. Eriksen

June 24th, 2012  St. John the Baptist Birth (Baptisms)
Greeter/Sidespeople: B. Cavey/ A. Shutt
Counter:  B. Cavey/D. Sanderson
Reader:  J. Chesterton
(Isaiah 40: 1-11, Psalm 85: 7 – 13, Acts 13: 14b - 26)
Lay Administrants: G. Hughes/D. MacNeill
Intercessor: C. Aasen  (use Baptismal Intercessions)
Lay Reader: L. Thompson  (Luke 1: 57-80)
Altar Guild: (white)  J. Mill/L. Pyrs (Baptism)
Prayer Team: K. Hughes/L. Sanderson
Sunday School (School Age):  J. MacDonald
Sunday School (Preschool):  M. Eriksen
Kitchen:  K. Goddard  (Baptismal Cake pls)
Music:  R. Mogg
Altar Servers:  E. Jayakaran

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Sermon for May 20th - Acts 1:1-11

Acts 1:1-11                                                                                               Ascension Sunday 2012
You Will Be My Witnesses

Many years ago when you were travelling to a foreign country and going through customs, it was common to hear a uniformed officer ask you “Have you anything to declare?” If you said, “Yes”, you knew you were in for some questioning! So, many people who had some illegal product to declare actually said, ‘No’, to save themselves the trouble. Some got away with it, and some didn’t.

Today I often wonder if the world is unconsciously asking this question of the Christian Church: ‘Have you anything to declare?’ In other words, in the face of all the pain in the world, do we have a message from God to declare, a message that will make a difference, and bring hope to people’s lives? Because a church with ‘nothing to declare’ has no reason to exist, except to be a kind of spiritual country club for its members. A strong church needs a strong message to declare to the world. Our reading from Acts today shows us this message, and how to declare it.

What is the message of the Ascension? Simply put, it is that Jesus Christ is Lord of all. That’s what Ascension Day means.

The Ascension is often seen as the day Jesus left the church. On the face of it this seems reasonable – one moment he was with the disciples, the next minute a cloud took him out of their sight, and he was gone. But in fact nothing could be further from the truth. Peter gives the true meaning of the Ascension in his sermon in the next chapter of Acts, where he says that Jesus has been ‘exalted at the right hand of God’ (Acts 2:33). The right hand of God is the place of authority and power.

Do you know which passage from the Old Testament is most often quoted by the New Testament writers? I’m sure you’ll be surprised to hear which one it is. You might suspect it would be ‘the Lord is my shepherd’, or the Ten Commandments or the passage from Isaiah about the Suffering Servant, but it isn’t. The verse from the Old Testament that is most often quoted by the New Testament writers is Psalm 110:1:
‘The LORD says to my Lord, “Sit at my right hand until I make your enemies your footstool’.

Why did the New Testament writers quote this verse so often? Because they believed that this is exactly what God the Father had done for his Son Jesus Christ: he had raised him from the dead and given him, as Paul says, ‘the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father’ (Philippians 2:10-11). They believed this to be true in an objective sense: whether we acknowledge it or not, whether it pleases us to think of it or not, God the Father has made his Son Jesus Christ ‘Lord of all’. At the moment his rule is hidden, but the New Testament writers are unanimous in telling us that one day it will be revealed to all people, on the day when (as the creeds tell us) ‘he will come again in glory to judge both the living and the dead, and his kingdom will have no end’.

Why is this message ‘good news’? It’s good news because it gives us hope. So often, in the world as we know it, it’s the forces of evil that seem to have the last word. The tyrant says that ‘resistance is futile’ – sooner or later, his death squads are going to get you. The chairman of the multinational corporation plants his business beside your small town, and within a few years all the little ‘mom and pop’ businesses - that have been a feature of local life for so many years - go belly-up. The people of good will work hard on a peace plan, but the terrorists on either side plant their bombs, and off we go again for another round of ‘you kill one of ours and we’ll kill ten of yours’. And so it goes on.

Ascension Day tells us that one day this seemingly endless cycle is in fact going to end, because Jesus Christ is Lord of all, and one day his lordship will be revealed to all. And this means that the last word in the universe will not go to the ones who think that profit justifies walking all over the little people. The last word won’t go to the ones who kill and murder and oppress. The last word will go to the one who taught us the way of love and compassion, the one who loved us and gave his life for us – Jesus Christ our Lord. And this gives us hope for the future, and also strength for the present, as we choose to be faithful to him and to live the way he taught us in our ordinary, everyday lives - even though much of the world around us does not acknowledge his lordship.

Jesus is Lord of all; this is what the Ascension symbolises, and this is the message of hope that we are called to ‘declare’. Which leads us to our role in God’s plan: this passage tells us that we are Jesus’ witnesses.

How is Jesus’ kingdom spread? The apostles had a plan for this; in verse 6 we read: ‘So when they had come together, they asked him, “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?”’ In other words, ‘Lord, if you will just make Israel into a superpower, then our armies will be able to enforce your authority everywhere!’ And we can understand their perspective, can’t we? If you’re going to end genocide and fight against tyranny, you need a powerful army to do it. That’s been the standard way of changing the world since day one: meet the sword with the sword.

But Jesus, it seems, has a different plan to change the world – the coming of the Kingdom in the power of the Holy Spirit. Look at verse 8: ‘But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth’.

In order to understand this verse we need to go back to the Old Testament book of the prophet Isaiah. In Isaiah chapter 43 God has brought a complaint against his people Israel because of their idolatry. Listen to verses 8-13:
Bring forth the people who are blind, yet have eyes,
who are deaf, yet have ears!
Let all the nations gather together,
and let the peoples assemble.
Who among them declared this,
and foretold to us the former things?
Let them bring their witnesses to justify them,
and let them hear and say, ‘It is true’.
You are my witnesses, says the LORD,
and my servant whom I have chosen,
so that you may know and believe me
and understand that I am he.
Before me no god was formed,
nor shall there be any after me.
I, I am the LORD,
and besides me there is no saviour.
I declared and saved and proclaimed,
when there was no strange god among you;
and you are my witnesses, says the LORD.
I am God, and also henceforth I am He;
there is no one who can deliver from my hand;
I work and who can hinder it? (italics mine)
The message Isaiah is bringing to the people in these verses is ‘Your God is not like an idol you can see with your eyes, and so your spiritual eyes need to be opened so that you can ‘see’ the invisible Lord God of Israel, who is the only true God. Then you will be his witnesses in the world’.

In the same way, after the Ascension the apostles will no longer be able to see Jesus with their physical eyes. However, when the Holy Spirit comes to them and opens their spiritual eyes, then they will be able to see Jesus at work wherever they go – in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth. Seeing him, they will point people toward him, the Lord God of Israel, the only true God, now made flesh in Jesus Christ, the Lord of all.

So the issue for us today is this: Has the Holy Spirit opened our eyes to see the saving work of Jesus Christ in our world? This, you see, is why the Holy Spirit is not an optional extra: until he opens our spiritual eyes to see, we quite literally can’t be Jesus’ witnesses. You can’t be a witness when you haven’t seen anything.

William Barclay used to tell a story about a factory hand who had been a horrendous alcoholic. Eventually, through the gospel of Jesus Christ and the ministry of Alcoholics Anonymous, he found freedom from his addiction. However, his old drinking buddies and his friends at the factory gave him a rough time, and would often make fun of his faith in Christ.

One day one of them said to him, “How can you believe the Bible? It’s full of impossible stories! Turning water into wine? Everyone knows that’s impossible; how can you possibly believe that Jesus could do that?”

“I don’t know if he turned water into wine”, the man replied, “but in my life I’ve seen him turn beer into furniture”.

“Beer into furniture? What’s that supposed to mean?”

“Well, when I was drinking, all my money went to beer, and we had no money for any furniture or anything else around the house. But when God helped me quit drinking, suddenly we had a lot of extra money available, and we were able to replace all the broken furniture and get the new stuff we’ve been wanting for so long!”

It’s a great story, and I know many AA members who could tell similar stories. But the point is, of course, that many people don’t see God at work there. They see some sort of natural process, group psychology or self-help or turning over a new leaf. But the person whose eyes have been opened by the Holy Spirit sees that Jesus Christ is Lord of all, which means he’s also Lord of addictions, and is able to strengthen his people to break free of their chains and walk into a new way of life. And when we’ve seen Jesus do things like that, then we can be his witnesses to others.

So the question for us is this: What good news about Jesus have I witnessed, have I experienced, that I want to share with others? And if the only honest answer is ‘nothing’, then we need to earnestly pray that the Spirit would fall on us and open our eyes. And we should not be satisfied with just praying this once and then giving up in despair. We need to keep on praying until we receive the gift the Father promised, as Jesus told us in our gospel for today.

This leads us to the third thing this passage shows us: we can’t be Jesus’ witnesses without the Holy Spirit. In Acts 1:4-5 we read:
While staying with them, he ordered them not to leave Jerusalem, but to wait there for the promise of the Father. ‘This’, he said, ‘is what you have heard from me; for John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now’.

They are to ‘wait’. Only the Holy Spirit can make Christians witnesses, as we already saw in verse 8: ‘But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses…’. They need above all to be ‘baptized’ in the Holy Spirit. The Greek word ‘baptizo’ means ‘to sink’, like a ship sunk under the ocean – they need to be immersed, surrounded, and totally filled, not with water, but with the power of the Holy Spirit, like sponges soaking him up! And when this happens, it has an amazing effect on people’s lives, as we see in Acts where a group of scared disciples is transformed into a band of bold missionaries who preach and heal without fear in the name of Jesus.

The Church has always remembered that the Holy Spirit is essential to our task. In the service of Confirmation the bishop lays hands on the head of the person being confirmed, and prays, ‘Strengthen, O Lord, your servant with your Holy Spirit; empower him or her for your service…’ And in the ordination service, the bishop lays hands on the person to be ordained priest and prays ‘Send down your Holy Spirit on your servant…’. The Church has always known that without the Holy Spirit, the Christian life is not just difficult – it’s impossible!

But the Church has often forgotten the little word Jesus uses here: ‘Wait’. We pray the prayer, and then we move on to the next part of the liturgy, because our Sunday lunch is calling us, and we’ve got other commitments to go to. But might God be saying to us “Wait! Do you really mean it? Do you really want it? How badly? Are you willing to stop for a while? Are you willing to fast and pray and not to let go until you get what you’re looking for?”

So let me leave you with this challenge. The Christian Church really does have something to declare, something good: the great news that Jesus our Saviour has defeated the power of evil and that he will bring in his kingdom in all its fulness in God’s good time. The world needs this good news, shared by people whose eyes have been opened by the Holy Spirit to see Jesus at work among us even now.

So: Have your eyes been opened? Has the Holy Spirit filled you and made you one of Jesus’ witnesses? And if not, are you willing to ‘wait’ until he does? Are you willing to pray persistently, without giving up, until you experience what those early Christians experienced on the Day of Pentecost – a baptism, a drenching, a complete immersion, in the power of the Holy Spirit of God?

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Sermon for May 13th: Acts 10

Seeking God and Finding Jesus

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

Sooner or later in our journey with Jesus, many of us will be able to tell stories like this. But there are times when the guidance from God is even more spectacular, and such is the case in the tenth chapter of Acts. In our first reading today we heard only the last few verses of this chapter, which probably wasn’t too helpful in giving you the whole drift of the story, so I’m going to start this morning by telling you the whole story. And I want to say right from the start that this is a story of two conversions, not just one. On the one hand, a Roman centurion called Cornelius, who is already a believer in the God of Israel, is converted by the power of the Holy Spirit and becomes a Christian. But on the other hand, Peter and his fellow-apostles, who up until now have concentrated almost entirely on Jewish people in their work of spreading the Gospel, are beginning to be converted to the idea that God wants them to reach beyond the borders of Israel to the Gentiles as well - in other words, to people like you and me.

So let’s set the scene for this story. We are in the tenth chapter of Acts, which is the book that tells the story of the work of the Church after Jesus has been raised from the dead and has ascended into heaven. Peter and the other apostles have preached the Good News of Jesus in Jerusalem, throughout the country of Judaea and to the borders of Israel. They have even been adventurous enough to go to the Samaritans! Everywhere they have gone, people have heard them with joy and turned their lives over to Jesus. Little communities of ‘Followers of the Way’, as they were called, are springing up all over Israel - people who believe that Jesus is the Messiah who has come to set Israel free.

Up until now, however, the message has only gone to Jewish people, or to people like the Samaritans who have some kind of connection with Israel. And the early Christians probably see that as a natural thing; after all, Jesus was the Messiah of Israel, the one God was going to use to save Israel and restore her to God’s plan. The idea that Gentiles - people who were not Israelites - would be included in that plan might never have occurred to them.

However, even though Israel as a whole was not interested in the Gentiles, the fact is that some Gentiles had become very interested in Israel. Throughout the ancient world at this time there were many people who had become disenchanted with the traditional religions and gods of Greece and Rome. These people were attracted by the simple monotheism of Israel and also by the high ethical standards set out in the Ten Commandments. A number of them had begun to attend synagogues and practice the three duties of godly Jews - prayer, fasting and giving to the poor. They had not taken the step of becoming full Jews by circumcision, but they had moved a long way toward Judaism, believing in one God and trying to obey his commandments.

Cornelius, the Roman centurion who lived in the town of Caesarea, was probably one of these ‘God-fearers’, as they were called. And we read in Acts 10 that one day when he was praying at three o’clock in the afternoon, which was one of the official ‘hours for prayer’ in Judaism, an angel appeared to him and told him to send for a man called Simon Peter, who was staying in Joppa at the house of Simon the Tanner. So Cornelius sent some messengers to fetch Peter. That’s the end of scene one.

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

As he’s still thinking about this, the messengers from Cornelius arrive, and as they pass on their message, Peter begins to understand. Could it be that God is calling him to go to the house of a Gentile? Jews would not do this, you see, because of the danger of eating unclean food, but Peter begins to get an idea that God is leading him somewhere new. So off he goes with the messengers. That’s the end of Scene Two.

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

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

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

But what about us today? What is this story telling us about the mission of the Christian Church? Three things:

First, the story is telling us that God is in charge. Nothing in this story happened by human initiative; God guided Cornelius to call for Peter, and God guided Peter to go to Cornelius. In other words, God is taking the initiative, leading people to faith in Jesus and leading his Church to those people to help them in their journey.

In fact, God had been guiding Cornelius for a long time. What was it that caused Cornelius to lose faith in the ancient gods of Rome like Mars, Diana, Neptune and so on? It must have been a shattering experience for him to realise that he no longer believed in these gods, whose stories he had been told from childhood. But somehow he came to realise that these false gods were unable to meet his deepest needs, and he began to look elsewhere for help. Somehow – we don’t know how - he found out about the God of Israel, and was attracted to this belief in one God, the Maker of heaven and earth, and also to the high moral standards this God required of his followers. So Cornelius began to put his faith in this God, and to try to practice his commandments. And now God was leading him even further along, to faith in Jesus who is Emmanuel, ‘God with us’.

And this same kind of thing is happening today; God is leading people home to himself. All around us there are people who are discovering that the false gods we worship in our modern society – things like money and possessions, success, youth, beauty, power, popularity, and so on - are not delivering the lasting happiness and fulfilment that they promise. Some years ago a British newspaper columnist named Bernard Levin wrote these words:
Countries like ours are full of people who have all the material comforts they desire - together with such non-material blessings as a happy family - and yet lead lives of quiet, and sometimes noisy, desperation, understanding nothing but the fact that there is a hole inside them, and that however much food and drink they pour into it, however many motor cars and television sets they stuff it with, however many well-balanced children and loyal friends they parade around the edges of aches.

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

So this story is telling us that God is in charge, leading people to Jesus and leading his Church to those people. And this leads us to the second thing the story tells us: Jesus is the issue. It’s quite clear in this passage that the mission of the Church is not just to persuade people to believe in God. Cornelius already believed very strongly in God. He had already turned away from the idols of Rome and believed in the Creator of heaven and earth, and he had done his best to live a godly life. But from God’s point of view, something was still missing.

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

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

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

And this is what the mission of the Church is about today as well. It isn’t just to get people to believe in God, as we have seen, and neither is it just to give them historical information about Jesus. Rather, the Holy Spirit wants to make Jesus a living reality to people today. He wants to help people connect with God in a personal and experiential way.

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

So in this story we learn that in the mission of the Church God is in charge, Jesus is the issue, and the Holy Spirit ‘seals the deal’. Nicely Trinitarian, isn’t it! Let me close with two more brief comments.

First, the Church must help Cornelius! I’m absolutely convinced that we live in an age of great spiritual hunger. Jesus said, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty” (John 6:35). These are the words of our Master. Do we believe them? If we do, how can we fail to help people connect with the One who can satisfy their spiritual hunger?

But secondly, perhaps you are Cornelius! Perhaps someone here this morning has heard the story of Cornelius and says, “Yes! That’s me! I believe in God and I’m trying to be a good person, but I’ve never seen before that Jesus is the key to knowing God, and I’ve never experienced the presence of the Holy Spirit! That’s what I want!” If that’s you, then you can take a very simple step of faith this morning. Jesus is present with you right now, even though you can’t see or feel him. Simply turn to him in your heart, put your faith in him, ask him to help you know him and follow him and to send his Holy Spirit to bring you closer to him. I know that he will answer your prayer.