Sunday, 28 April 2013

Acts - Mapping the Church of Tomorrow

Today has been a day of prayer and a Gift Day at Highbury as we are in the process of shaping a church for tomorrow here in Cheltenham.

Our vision for the church here at Highbury is that it be a place to
share Christian Friendship
explore Christian Faith and
enter into Christian Mission
with Christ at the centre
and open to all

Where better to find a map for the kind of church we want to be than in the Book of Acts.

And so this evening we have begun a journey through Acts to seek a map for the church of tomorrow in our own church at Highbury.

It had never occurred to me before.

Over this Easter period this year we have been looking at what it takes to be  Easter people.  For the first time in a long time I found myself turning to the longer ending of Mark’s Gospel and also to the Shorter ending of Mark.

The earliest manuscripts finish at Mark:16:8.  Was it that the ending had been lost and later writers felt a need to supply an ending?  Or was it as I am persuaded that Mark’s gospel finishes with that note of fear in Mark16:8, as a reminder that the beginning of Good News of Jesus Christ, Son of God, speaks very much for a people facing a world of fear now as much as in the mid 60’s when the gospel was first written.

Reading through both the shorter and the longer ending I was struck by the way the writer of each ending uses the other three gospels. From the beginning to Mark 16:8 it doesn’t feel as if Mark is using the other gospels at all.  To the contrary I am persuaded there is every indication that it is the other gospel writers who are using Mark.

But in both of those endings it is the other way round.  They really do read as if they are summarising and bringing together the accounts of the resurrection in the other three Gospels.

Each of those endings brings the gospel to a climax precisely at the point at which Luke begins the second part of his magisterial account of Jesus Christ and of the Body of Christ let loose in the world, the book of Acts.

And all that had been commanded them they told briefly to those around Peter. And afterwards Jesus himself sent out through them, from east to west, the sacred and imperishable proclamation of eternal salvation. 

In those last words we have moved from a summary of the climax to the other three gospels to effectively a summary of what is described in the Book of Acts.

The climax to the longer ending is even more closely linked to the Book of

So then the Lord Jesus, after he had spoken to them, was taken up into heaven and sat down at the right hand of God. And they went out and proclaimed the good news everywhere, while the Lord worked with them and confirmed the message by the signs that accompanied it.

That captures the beginning of the Book of Acts and in a sense sums up what Acts is all about.

Today has been a special day for us as a church family.   It is our Gift Day and it is a Day of Prayer that we have called to uphold the life of our church in prayer.

We had a good Deacons Day yesterday when we looked at our proposed structures and prepared the way for us to look to appointing Ministry Leaders to help lead us forward in the worship, the pastoral care, the mission and the discipleship of our church, and in our work with children and with young people.

We will be doing a progress report of the work so far and the work we shared yesterday at our Church Meeting on Thursday.  Do join us for what promises to be another important Church Meeting.

As we now move towards identifying the part we each can play in the church life we share together and in seeking those Ministry Leaders I thought it would be good to focus on the Church as the Body of Christ in our services.

 In the mornings we shall be taking a thematic approach, beginning by exploring the different parts of our mssion statement.

I want to complement that by digging more deeply into the Bible in our evening services.  Where better to turn than to the Book in the New Testament that more than any other tells about the beginnings of the Church and gives us a glimpse of the kind of Church life we are called to model our church life on.

And so I thought it would be good to read through the Book of Acts together on Sunday evenings.  It will take us quite a while – at 28 chapters it is the longest book in the New Testament.  But it will be full of variety, full of excitement and will give us a rich glimpse of the nature of the Church at its very beginning.

One thing I like to do in reading a book is to have a look at the blurb on the back cover.  It will as often as not give a concise summary of the content of the book, and often include commendations from other other writers.

The last part of that longer ending of Mark’s gospel could serve as a commendation from the anonymous author of that appendix to Mark of the whole of the Book of Acts.

So then the Lord Jesus, after he had spoken to them, was taken up into heaven and sat down at the right hand of God. And they went out and proclaimed the good news everywhere, while the Lord worked with them and confirmed the message by the signs that accompanied it.

It shows us the precise point at which the Book of Acts begins – as the Lord Jesus is taken up into heaven and sits down at the right hand of God.

And then it encapsulates what the whole of Acts is about.  It shows how in the space of a generation the newly born church goes from a tiny rump of a handful of dejected followers of Jesus locked away in an upper room in Jerusalem to a significant movement that has penetrated the heart of the Roman empire and is about to become the most significant force for change the world had ever seen.

They went out and proclaimed the good news everywhere.

That’s the thrust of Acts.

But Acts is equally clear that those first followers of Jesus could not do that on theironw.

It’s the story of the way the Lord worked with them and confirmed the message by the signs that accompanied it.

At the heart of the life of the church we are called to be is a passion to go take that good news of Jesus Chrsit everywhere.  And at the heart  of the life of our church is the conviction that we are not alone, but the Lord is with us in all we do.  And the message we share is not simply words but is confirmed in the actions that themselves become signs of the truth at the heart of the Good news.

If that’s the commendation on the back cover of the book.  The opening verses provide us with a summary of what the whole book is going to be about.  Indeed, there was no blurb in the days Acts was written, but the opening verses are the nearest we get to it.

Someone thinking of reading the book as a  whole will have their imagination caught at the very outset and they will be left in no doubt as to what it is all about.

Not only that but it immediately becomes apparent that it is the second part of a two volume work.

In the first book, Theophilus, I wrote about all that Jesus did and taught from the beginning until the day when he was taken up to heaven, after giving instructions through the Holy Spirit to the apostles whom he had chosen. 

As in the best of TV serials the opening begins with a succinct recap of the first volume.

After his suffering he presented himself alive to them by many convincing proofs, appearing to them over the course of forty days and speaking about the kingdom of God. 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.’

Resurrection was accompanied by a promise.  The promise of an unseen yete very real strength.

That period of resurrecton lasted 40 days.

At the very last the disciples are still full of questions.

So when they had come together, they asked him, ‘Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?’ He replied, ‘It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority. 

They feel as if they are on the threshold of something great.  But not for them to know times and seasons.

We live as Easter people.  But we also live as people of the end times.  But not for us either to know times and seasons.

Then comes something Jesus says that gives the framework for the whole of the Book of Acts.

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.’ 

That’s exactly the story that’s going to unfold in Acts.  The upsurge only starts as the power of the Holy Spirit comes up on the disciples.  They then become witnesses.  And what they witness to begins where they are in  Jerusalem (chapters 1-7).  The Good News will then spread out through Judea and Samaria (Chapter 8) to the ends of the earth (9-28) and the heart of the Roman Empire, Rome itself.

It’s the model for our church today.

We need the strength and the power of the Holy Spirit.

We are to be witnesses of the Good News.  Our task is to share the news.

We are to begin where we are but not limit our horizons.

That’s the thrill of being part of the world-wide church.

It’s a privilege for us to have partnerships with the world wide church of Jesus Christ through the Council for World Mission.  This year we celebrate the bi-centenary of the birth of arguably its greatest missionary, David Livingstons.  We don’t hold his name in such high regard here now.  But it is held in very high honour in Malawi.  And it is wonderful that we are going to be welcoming a group from Malawi over here.  They arrive this week and they will be in Witney for three days.

On Thursday afternoon they are going to come over to meet us.  Come along on Thursday afternoon to be inspired by sharing our stories with them and hearing their stories too.  Very much part of this world-wide partnership that starts small and goes to the ends of the earth and only does that in the power of the Holy Spirit.

When he had said this, as they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight.While he was going and they were gazing up towards heaven, suddenly two men in white robes stood by them. They said, ‘Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up towards heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.’

It’s one of those powerful moments in the Gospel story.

I haven’t marked it before.

But this year our friends at St Luke’s have invited the other churches of Cheltenahm to join them on the evening of Ascension Day.  It’s our Open the Book evening but I thought it would be good to go and share.

That sense that the risen Christ is one with the Father, and yet let loose by his Spirit in the world.  It is the climax to the story so far.  And we stand in between whiles looking to his final coming in glory as well.

Acts captures what it meant to be church.  It captures what it means to be church.  And I for one look forward to meeting some of those great characters from the church and finding they speak as much to us today as ever they have spoken.