Sunday, 21 July 2013

Acts 7 - How do you read the Bible?

I enjoyed another evening with the Cotswold Humanists on Wednesday of this week.  Once again they were debating religion and I joined Sharon and a friend at what was a very stimulating and thought-provoking evening.

They showed a DVD of a debate between the late Christopher Hitchens, billed not just as an atheist but as an antitheist and Douglas Wilson, Minister of a Presbyterian Church in Moscow – an American evangelical.

That evening in the Echo was an account of members of PG Wodehouse’s family getting together locally to celebrate the centenary of Jeeves – it was a shared love of PG Wodehouse that broke the ice for Christopher Hitchens and Douglas Wilson.

It was good to see that the two were engaging with each other and sharing their thoughts together, each listening to the other.

The discussion that ensued was good – and good to have an opportunity to share something of my faith with people from the Humanist group in that discussion – in a way that listens to one another.

My biggest frustration in watching a film like that is that Christopher Hitchens describes a version of Christianity he rejects that I too reject and is so very different from my understanding of the faith.  Douglas Wilson was not as I feared he might have been, but again I found his description of the Christian faith not as I would make it.

And that I found was frustrating.

One of the things that Christopher Hitchens kept on coming back to was the ugly side of the Old Testament – the viciousness and utter brutality of some of what was described there.  In his view to be a Christian was to accept the whole view of God from the Old Testament, lock stock and in a disturbing way smoking barrel.

That’s one of the things I simply do not accept.

For me there is a very real sense that the whole of the Old Testament, the Law, the Prophets and the  Writings is fulfilled in Christ.  If we as Christian people are to value the Old Testament as we should then we need to learn to read the Old Testament through the eyes of Jesus.

That, I believe, is one of the things that Jesus shared with his disciples.  Indeed it was the most important thing he shared with the two on the Road to Emmaus and with the disciples in the upper room subsequently as he opened the Scriptures for them and showed how all the Law, all the Prophets and all the Writings find their fulfilment in him.

I have a feeling that what Jesus shared at that time then shaped the way his followers read the Scriptures of the Old Testament.

One of the things that was new about Jesus was the way he offered his followers a way of reading the Bible, the Old Testament, that some people found offensive.

I think it really is important that we grasp that there are ways of reading the Bible that we as Christians need to be aware of if we are to be true to Christ and true to our Christian faith.

How I wanted the opportunity to share those insights in the context of that discussion with Chrsitopher Hitchens.  How important it is.

One of the things I think is interesting to look out for in reading Acts is guidelines it offers for reading the Old Testament.

This comes to a head in what happens in the aftermath of the tensions that had arisen between the Hellenists and the Hebrews among the followers of Jesus.

Hellenists and Hebrews had fallen out.  The widows of the Hellenists were not receiving the support that was their due.  At the prompting of the Apostles the Church in Jerusalem set aside seven to meet those needs – it is no coincidence they were from the Hellenists community – all with Greek names.

One of their number made his mark in a way that has left its mark on the church ever since.

His name was Stephen.

Like Peter and John and others before him he faced a tough time.

He fell out with members of his own community.   The Hellenists were the Jewish people who were quite happy to take on board elements of Hellenistic culture and language.   Indeed they used Greek as their main language.   In Jerusalem there was at least one synagogue which met where people used not Hebrew as the language of prayer, but Greek.  They used the Greek translation of the Law, the Prophets and the Writings as the basis for their worship and the services they shared.

It was some of those who belonged to the synagogue of the Freedmen (as it was called), Cyrneians, Alexandirans and others of those from Cilicia and Asia.

These were Jewish people of the Jewish Diaspora in North Africa and over into Asia minor – Hellenists, Greek speakers they used Greek in their synagogue as they gathered together.

But as Hellenists, greek speaking Jewish people in Jerusalem they were fiercely jealous of the traditions of the Jewish people in Jerusalem and in particular they were passionate about the importance certain things they felt were central to their Jewishness..

 they secretly instigated some men to say, ‘We have heard him speak blasphemous words against Moses and God.’ 12They stirred up the people as well as the elders and the scribes; then they suddenly confronted him, seized him, and brought him before the council.

The Hellenists set up false witnesses who laid a very specific accusation against Stephen and they bring that before the people of power in Jersualem – the council, made up of the Herodians, the Priests, the Sadduceees – the power people of Jerusalem.

Notice their accusation …

They set up false witnesses who said, ‘This man never stops saying things against this holy place and the law; 14for we have heard him say that this Jesus of Nazareth will destroy this place and will change the customs that Moses handed on to us.’

It’s exactly the false accusation levelled against Jesus at the trial – that he would destroy the temple of God and rebuild it in three days – Matthew 26:61.

And all who sat in the council looked intently at Stephen and they saw that his face was like the face of an angel.

Don’t just think ‘angelic face’ ‘a cherub’.  The word ‘angel’ literally means ‘messenger’.   He had about him the feel of one was a messenger – who had a message from God.

It is a wonderful picture of an  inspirational person …

Good standing
Full of the Spirit
And of wisdom
Full of Faith and the Holy Spirit
Full of grace and power

One who recognised he could not do it alone, but who knew he was not alone – he had that sense of the Spirit filling him with that strength that he did not have on his own.

That wisdom, that faith, thar grace and that power are evident in the account Stephen gives of what is at the hearat of his faith.

What’s interesting then is that his speech amounts to a reading of the Old Testatment.  Acts 7 is one of those chapters in the New Testament that sums up the Old Testament.

Stephen’s account of who the people of God are begins with Abraham who obeyed God’s command and entered into that covenant relationship with God that was sealed in circumcision.

Stephen skips through the story of Isaac, Jacob and the twelve sons of Jacob who become the father figures of the twelve tribes of Israel and then Stephen focuses on the story of Joseph, and then Moses and the forty years that passes after his flight to Egypt.

Then Stepehn focuses on the sense of the presence of God that comes to Moses as he encounters the name of God in the burning bush.

Then comes the account of the exodus and the wandering in the wilderness.

And again the focus is on the presence of God that finds its focus in the tabernacle that follows the people on their journey through the wildnernes.

The story turns to Joshua  and the settlement in the land – the story fast forwards to David, the great king and he reaches the point at which Solomon builds a temple.

So far, so good.

This is a reading of the Old Testament that would have pleased the Council and the people of power in Jerusalem.

But then Stephen homes in not on the glory of the temple as they would have expected.  Instead he draws attention to a strand in the Old Testament story that comes in with the prophets that is critical of the decision to build a house for God.

This is very interesting.

But it was Solomon who built a house for him. 48Yet the Most High does not dwell in houses made by human hands; as the prophet says,
49 “Heaven is my throne,
   and the earth is my footstool.
What kind of house will you build for me, says the Lord,
   or what is the place of my rest?
50 Did not my hand make all these things?”

It is at this point that Stephen interrupts his story.

It is as if he has got to the point of what he has to say.

The whole message of the Old Testament is about the presence of God with his people – where the God of creation touches earth and is made real in the presence of the people.

Then instead of tracking through the dominant line – he focuses on the line of the prophets.   He doesn’t recount the kings … but instead focuses on the prophets who stood out against the kings.

‘You stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears, you are for ever opposing the Holy Spirit, just as your ancestors used to do. 52Which of the prophets did your ancestors not persecute? They killed those who foretold the coming of the Righteous One, and now you have become his betrayers and murderers. 53You are the ones that received the law as ordained by angels, and yet you have not kept it.’

Luke has been careful to identify who Stephen is addressing – this now is the council – the power people who keep the Temple running with its exorbitant tax system.  The people Jesus had vented his anger on in exactly the way the prophets of old did – turning the tables of the people who carried out that tax system and saying of them and the Heoridain powers that be – my father’s house should be a house of prayer but you have made it a den of thieves.

Why does Stephen take this line?

My thought is that this is the kind of way that Jesus had pointed when he had shared with those two on the road to Emmaus and the disciples in the upper room.  This is the way the line of the prophets finds its fulfilment in Jesus.

It is in Jesus that the presence of God is made real.  The veil of the temple is torn in two at the cross.  The presence of God is opened up through Chist.

Those who hear his words and act on them are like the wise man, Solomon, who built his house, the house of God, on the rock.

Paul later would speak of all Christian believers as being the very temple of the Holy Spirit.

This is where God’s presence is let loose – no longer in a specifc location in a house made of stone – but in the hearts of all who follow in the footsteps of Jesus.

This was what the fulfilment of the Scriptures meant in the lives of the followers of Jesus.

And just as the powers that be took offence when Jesus mapped this teaching out and spoke of his own resurrection when he said that the temple would be desttoryed and rebuilt in three days, so too they took offence when Stephen followed that way of reading the Scriptures of the Old Testament.

What happens to Stephen is moving.  I want to finish with that.

But what is going on here is fundamentally  important for us as Christians when it comes to reading the Bible.

We are offered here a way of reading the Bible that doesn’t go with the main line of the kings – but focuses on the prophets who spoke out against the kings.   And sees in Jesus the fulfilment of those prophets.

And sees that in Jesus the very real presence of God is let loose in the world.

I come back to the conversations Christopher Hitchens had with Douglas Wilson – what I would be wanting to share is that actually Jesus offers us a radical new way of reading the bible and that is what we are called to follow.

Like Stephen let us seek to be of Good standing
Let us seek to be Full of the Spirit
Let us seek to be full of wisdom
Full of Faith and the Holy Spirit
Full of grace and power

So that in our reading of the Scriptures we can discover the Christ who brings the very presence of God into our lives.

In the Autumn for our Harvest collection we are going to be thinking of the persecuted church and those who face persecution for their Christian faith in the Middle East at the moment …

The final part of Stephen’s story is an inspiration as he embodies that Spirit of Christ in the manner of his dying, finishing with words of forgiveness that are full of grace.

When they heard these things, they became enraged and ground their teeth at Stephen. 55But filled with the Holy Spirit, he gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. 56‘Look,’ he said, ‘I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God!’ 57But they covered their ears, and with a loud shout all rushed together against him. 58Then they dragged him out of the city and began to stone him; and the witnesses laid their coats at the feet of a young man named Saul. 59While they were stoning Stephen, he prayed, ‘Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.’ 60Then he knelt down and cried out in a loud voice, ‘Lord, do not hold this sin against them.’ When he had said this, he died.

Then Luke strikes an ominous note that sets the scene for the next part of our story …

And Saul approved of their killing him.

Sunday, 14 July 2013

Acts 6 - Multi-culturalism? Feared or favoured? A look at the infant church in Acts 6

I’ve always focused in Acts 6:1-7 on the fundamental importance of meeting the needs of the poorest.  That’s why that reading was linked with Deuteronomy 15:7-11 which speaks of the need to give to the neediest with an open hand and generous heart and Psalm 46 which speaks of the need to care for the neediest.

But as I turned to this chapter this week my eye fell on the opening verse and I found myself reflecting on big issues around us in the world today.

How do we cope with living in a world with a multiplicity of languages, a multiplicity of ethnicities, a multiplicity of cultures?  Do we hanker after some supposedly long lost time when there was a single culture.  In these islands, speaking as someone who speaks Welsh, we would be hard pressed to find such a time.  Speaking as someone whose elder son is a Yorkshireman even within England there have always been different forms of English.  Indeed the oldest, often shortest, most authentically English words are Angl-Saxon, but come to think of it that language emananates from central Europe.  And then there are so many words brought in from Latin and the Romans and from  French and the Normans.

Maybe, there never has been such a time.

Maybe, we should actually recognise that in every generation there is a multiplicity of peoples, languages and cultures in any land.

 How do we cope with such a multiplicity?

Fear it?  Or grasp it?

It is very easy to read the Gospels and the New Testament in a ‘black and white way’, the way I read them in Sunday School long ago, thinking the Jewish people were the Jews.  Jesus introduced something different and his followers were ‘Christians’, as if there was a single way of being Jewish at the time of Jesus and a single way of being ‘Christian’ at the time of the infant church.

It was a small step to thinking that the Jewish way was based on Law and the followers of Jesus discovered ‘grace’ as if there was no grace in the Old Testament.   I have a feeling those who follow such a path need to look again at the text of the Old Testament!

What’s fascinating is that at the time of Jesus there were many different ways of being Jewish.  Indeed the Jewish world was touched by the different cultures of that time.

The inscription on the cross was in Latin, Greek and Hebrew – maybe Jesus would have understood Latin, spoken Greek, read Hebrew and been very much at home in Aramaic.  Why do we assume he was a mono-linguist, those of us brought up in England?

The different cultures around gave rise to very real tensions.

Those tensions were very much to the fore in the Jewish world in the time leading up to the time of Jesus.  At times the tensions were greater.  At times they were less.

It was about 170 years before the time of Christ that things came to a head.  It was with the spread of Greek thinking and Greek culture that the faith of the Jewish people was put under pressure.

The Seleucid empire centred on Syria was putting pressure on Judea and the Jewish people – so much so that with the accession of Aniochus IV, Epiphanes, someone called Jason became High Priest thanks to his willingness to engage in all sorts of bribery and corruption.

Interviewed by the King he offered 360 talents of silver – a massive sum of money.  And got the job.

What 2 Maccabees tells us gives a glimpse of the way the Jewish people felt threatened by the adoption of too much of the Greek way of life.

2 Maccabees 4:11-17  He set aside the existing royal concessions to the Jews, secured through John the father of Eupolemus, who went on the mission to establish friendship and alliance with the Romans; and he destroyed the lawful ways of living and introduced new customs contrary to the law.  12 He took delight in establishing a gymnasium right under the citadel, and he induced the noblest of the young men to wear the Greek hat.  13 There was such an extreme of Hellenization and increase in the adoption of foreign ways because of the surpassing wickedness of Jason, who was ungodly and no true high priest,  14 that the priests were no longer intent upon their service at the altar. Despising the sanctuary and neglecting the sacrifices, they hurried to take part in the unlawful proceedings in the wrestling arena after the signal for the discus-throwing,  15 disdaining the honors prized by their ancestors and putting the highest value upon Greek forms of prestige.  16 For this reason heavy disaster overtook them, and those whose ways of living they admired and wished to imitate completely became their enemies and punished them.  17 It is no light thing to show irreverence to the divine laws-- a fact that later events will make clear.

The Maccabean revolt sought to redress the balance.  It did for a while.  But then the Romans came to power.  And the pressures were on once again.

One good barometer was sport.  How sport came to rule the roost.  Ambivalence.  Andy Murray last week, a thrilling finish to the Test this week.  Junior Rugby on a Sunday morning.  Junior Cricket on a  Sunday.  Big pressures.

Let’s bring Christian values into sport – we’ll do things on a different day.  But the Christian values are squeezed out.  Is this right?  Big pressures.

It’s not long once the Romans really come to power that Herod comes to power and the Herodian dynasty is established.  The High Priests are appointed by first Herod the Great, then his son Archelaus has the responsibility before it is then put into the hands of the Roman procurator.

This is a real hellenizing tendency.

Herod has no qualms – a contemporary Jewish historian describes his remarkable building works …

Herod the Great extended his generosity to many cities outside his boundaries.  F or Tripoli, Damascus and Ptolemais he provided gymnasia, for Byublus a wall, for Berytus and Tyre hhalls, colonnades, temples and market-places, for Sidon and Damascus theatres, for the coastal Laodicea an aqueduct and for Ascaoln baths, magnificent fountains, and cloistered quadrangles remarkable for both scale and craftsmanship.

Even Athens and Sparta, Nicopolis and Mysian |Pergamum are full of Herod’s offerings!

But his endowment of Elis was a gift not only to Greece in general but to every corner of the civilised world reached by the fame of the Olympic Games.  Seeing that the games were declining for lack of funds and that the sole relic of ancient Greece was slipping away, he not  only acted as president of the four-yearly meeting held when he happened to be on his way to Rome, but endowed them for all time with an income big enough to ensure that his presidency should never be forgotten.”   (Jewish War: I:422 translated by G.A.Williamson (Penguin Classics)

This all gave rise to big tensions.

We know from earlier on in Acts and for that matter in Luke that Jesus drew followers from all parts of the Jewish world and from beyond as well.  In Jerusalem those who were all in favour of this kind of Hellenisation and thought that these different cultures could be harnessed together who followed Jesus.  They were at home in Greek, satisfied with the Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures we know as the Septuagint and they were content.

There were also people who followed Jesus who had no time for this kind of compromise across cultures – their understanding of Jewishness was very much more clear.  No, we must stand out from the world and its culture and not go along with it.

There is a tension between the two groups of people that is keenly felt.  And that tension spills over into the church.

It is very easy to look back at the past through rose tinted spectacles and imagine that the past was a time with few problems, no problems.    But from the word go the church had differences.

Maybe that should come as no surprise.  For Jesus spoke into different cultures.  What he had to offer was for everyone.  He drew Galileans, zealots, Pharisees, experts in the law, Samaritans, Centurions – a whole range of people to follow him.

By the time we reach Acts 6:1 it is highly significant that in the infant church there are Helenists and there are Hebrews.

What is interesting here is how the church community, the followers of Jesus that church in Jerusaelm dealt with the divisions that reared their ugly head.

People from both those tendencies were drawn to Christ.

And they brought into the church the tensions that were around in the Jewish world.

The first of those fracture points comes in the tension between the Hellenists and the Hebrews – those content to be Jewish through the medium of the Greek language and harness the Greek culture, and those who wanted their Jewish to stand out and be different.

Acts 6:1  Now during those days, when the disciples were increasing in number, the Hellenists complained against the Hebrews because their widows were being neglected in the daily distribution of food.

Clearly there was a falling out.

He Hellenists are convinced the Hebrews are neglecting their widows.

Fascinating glimpse of the way the church worked in that society – a daily distribution of food.  And within that those ancient laws taken seriously that the needs of the most neediest should be uppermost.

What happens is fascinating.

There is quite a specific problem.

Acts 6:2  And the twelve called together the whole community of the disciples

This is one of the those moments when we in our Congregational Way of Being the church find our roots in the New Testament.  The apostles call the whole church together.  This is something that needs to be resolved by everyone together.

They share the problem and then suggest a way for the whole church to address the problem …

Acts 6:2-5   2 And the twelve called together the whole community of the disciples and said, "It is not right that we should neglect the word of God in order to wait on tables.  3 Therefore, friends, select from among yourselves seven men of good standing, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we may appoint to this task,  4 while we, for our part, will devote ourselves to prayer and to serving the word."  5 What they said pleased the whole community,

So there are to be seven people who will serve as deacons – the apostles will devote themselves to prayer and serving the word while the deacons will serve the needs of the community and the most poor.

This is put to the church … and notice that there is a sense in which the whole church come to a mind … the process we seek to follow through in our Church meeting.

5 What they said pleased the whole community,

The whole community choose …

Acts 6:5   5 What they said pleased the whole community, and they chose Stephen, a man full of faith and the Holy Spirit, together with Philip, Prochorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas, and Nicolaus, a proselyte of Antioch.

Do you notice something?

They all have Greek names!

So the whole community decide that to meet the needs of the widows of Hellenists they will choose people best placed to serve those needs with the same language, the same kind of cultural background from the Hellenists’ community.

At this point there is not the attempt to get everyone into the same way of thinking – to say the Hellenists must all become Hebrews or vice versa, but in the church even at this point there is a willingness to affirm the different communities within the one community of the disciples of Christ.

There is a wonderful conclusion.

Acts 6:6-7  6 They had these men stand before the apostles, who prayed and laid their hands on them.  7 ¶ The word of God continued to spread; the number of the disciples increased greatly in Jerusalem, and a great many of the priests became obedient to the faith.

Even the final comment.  The priests.  Were they more of the Hebrews, or were they comfortable to work within the Herodian temple?  Interesting thought.

Isn’t it wonderful that the picture of the early church is actually a picture of a church with a multiplicity of languages, a multiplicity of ethnicities, a multiplicity of approaches to culture and they affirm those differences while harnessing everyone to work together in  Christ.

Maybe this is the key for us today.  To affirm the multiplicity, delight in it and seek to follow Christ in such a way as to enable those differences to live side by side, yet find a oneness in Christ.

It was Jonathan Rowe at our weekend away who drew our attention to the nature of Heavenly glory when it is people from all tribes and peoples and languages who stand before the lamb singing.   It is the essence of God’s glory that the multiplicity of languages is heard.

If you want a foretaste of heaven on earth don’t look for a place with a single culture, a single language, look instead to a High Street where every language under heaven can be heard … for that will be a foretaste of that rich multiplicity there is in heaven!

After this I looked, and there was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands. They cried out in a loud voice, saying,
‘Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb!’
And all the angels stood around the throne and around the elders and the four living creatures, and they fell on their faces before the throne and worshipped God, singing,
‘Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom
and thanksgiving and honour
and power and might

be to our God for ever and ever! Amen.’ 

Sunday, 7 July 2013

Acts 5 - The Gamaliel Principle

It as great welcoming Eric last week … and sharing with him.  It was good to hear the response he shared with us for his grandson Noah, giving an account of the faith that is within him.

I put a summary of the thoughts Eric shared morning and evening up on the web site in the hope that maybe the family would be able to have a look and see some of Eric’s thoughts.

I also put up the video clip I played on Sunday morning in which he told of his invitation to come here to Highbury and of that first meeting at which Dick was present as a Deacon.

It was ? Wright’s sense of vision that caught Eric’s imagination.  Highbury was looking for someone who was prepared to experiment even if the experiment should fail.  With a vision like that Eric thought this was a church worth belonging to.

It’s been great to have such encouragement from Eric and indeed from Lawrence, Eric, hrough Bunyan meeting in Bedford, Clifford, and of course Clifford  Small.

It is an honour and a privilege and humbling to share in ministry.   But the ministry I share as Felicity observed last Sunday is shaped by all of us who belong.  We are part of  one another.

It is easy to forget just how radical Eric’s thinking was as he moved from afternoon Sunday School to Junior Church and all age church with his tremendous emphasis on children, young people and the whole family of the church of every age and every generation.

It was that sense of vision and risk taking that Eric shared as he arrived here – put across in that little book and put into practice here that is very much the spirit of the church as we go forward.

But that  has risks.

How do we know that it is of God?

I think there is much to learn from the book of the  Acts of the Apostles and the experience of the early church.

It’s hard to realise now how radical and different thigns were among the first followers of Jesus.

Something was happening that for them was the fulfilment of all the prophets of old and very much the fulfilment of all it meant to be authrencitally Jewish.

The waiting in fear and expectation, above all in prayer of chapter 1

The outpouring of the Holy Spirit in chapter 2 and the devotion they had to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.

There was a sense of awe as the healing and loving ministry of Jesus that had seemed to be cut short at crucifixion was now let loose into the world by the unseen yet very real strengthening presence of the Holy Spirit of God.
And so chapter 3 finds Peter and John bringing healing to the lame man at the beautiful gate and going head to head with the authorities.

Something new is happening.

The people are moved.

But it is disconcerting for the powers that be – the priests, the captain o fthe temple, the Sadducees, the Council – the Herodian power base in Jerusalem had been un-nerved by Jesus’ take on what it means to be Jewish … and they were now deeply disturbed that this Jesus thing had not been suppressed but seemed to be catching on like wildfire.

They had Peter and John imprisoned, instructed them to keep quiet.  But with the prayers of the believers they refuse to keep quiet.

There was a sense of the filling of the Holy Spirit and they found they spoke the word of God with boldness.

And they shared.  They lived out a life of love.

Now the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common.

A real sense of sharing and of community.

This is something new … but how do you know it is authentic?

Ananias and Saphira found out the hard way.  They thought they could play the game their way – holdback some of their possessions.   Their untimely death was seen by the early Christian community as a warning.

The way hurting people were healed was seen by that Christian community as a sign of the presence of God with them.

Here are two indications I think we can draw on today as we test out the authenticity of what it means to be church.

I read the Ananias and Saphira story as a story of consequences.  It is as we depart from the pattern of sharing, of caring of mutual love that consequences happen – divisions creep in, things fall apart and things turn to dust.  It is important in church to reaffirm the basic commitment we have to one another in a community that shares and cares and loves with one another.

And at the heart of what we do we bring healing to hurting pople’s lives.  Not to underestimate the importance of prayer for healing.   It was moving at our Church Meeting on  Thursday when we agreed the new framework for the life of the church, and having already got a Minsitry Leader for children in Carolyn, appointed the second of our Ministry leaders to a job share Ministry Leader for Pastoral Care – Lorraine and Diana.

David and Betty, Phil and Joyce, took on the role of co-ordinating pastoral care from Olga and Joan and said they would do that for five years.  Earlier in the year, they said they wanted to hand over by the end of August.  And it seemed right not just to appoint someone to co-ordinate that work, but to appoint our Ministry Leader for Pastoral Care.

Part of that process involved an interview the main part of which Lorraine and Diana shared at the Church Meeting.  It was moving to hear Diana speak of the way as a student physiotherapist and member of the Christian Union she visited in hospital of a Sunday afternoon and would share a prayer with those she visited.

Moving too to hear Lorraine speaking of her commitment to hospital chaplaincy and the prayer chain that has become so very much part of the prayer life of the church.

It is not just a ministry of pastoral care, it is a ministry of healing as we sahre in that prayer … and that sense of healing is a mark of what church is.

Then the powers that be step in.  It is the herodian dynasty Luke is careful to tell us – The High Priest took action, he and all who were with him (that is the sect of the Sadducees).  This is no the Jews – it is that narrow band of people with power.  Power that had scandalised and deeply offended Jesus’ sense of what it truly means to be Jewish.  Power that stood in the way of Peter and John and the others.

So it is they are brought before the council and questioned by the High Priest.

And then comes a remarkable statement in response to a clear question …

The high priest questioned them, 28saying, ‘We gave you strict orders not to teach in this name, yet here you have filled Jerusalem with your teaching and you are determined to bring this man’s blood on us.’ 29But Peter and the apostles answered, ‘We must obey God rather than any human authority.

This statement has been the inspiration of a William Wilberforce, of a Martin Luther King – the grounds of so much authentic Christianity – the willingness to stand over against the powers that be.

30The God of our ancestors raised up Jesus, whom you had killed by hanging him on a tree.

Luke is very careful – it is not ‘you’ the Jews.  But ‘you’ the power base of the Jerusalem Herodian hierarchy.  This is so important for us to realise!!!

 31God exalted him at his right hand as Leader and Saviour, so that he might give repentance to Israel and forgiveness of sins. 32And we are witnesses to these things, and so is the Holy Spirit whom God has given to those who obey him.’

If the cap fits, wear it.

And those Herodians when they heard it were enraged and wanted to kill them.

But then it was that someone spoke out.

A Pharisee.

A cursory reading of the NT can make the Pharisees appear to be the baddies.  A careful reading shows that among the Phariseess were some very genuine people, seeking to live out their faith and seeking the truth.

Here we arrive at a key principle.

A key thing to test innovation, change, the kind of experimenting Highbury looked for in Eric, the kind of risk-taking Eric saw to be so important to the church’s vision, the kind of change we are at the moment working through.

But a Pharisee in the council named Gamaliel, a teacher of the law, respected by all the people, stood up and ordered the men to be put outside for a short time. 35Then he said to them, ‘Fellow-Israelites, consider carefully what you propose to do to these men. 36For some time ago Theudas rose up, claiming to be somebody, and a number of men, about four hundred, joined him; but he was killed, and all who followed him were dispersed and disappeared. 37After him Judas the Galilean rose up at the time of the census and got people to follow him; he also perished, and all who followed him were scattered. 38So in the present case, I tell you, keep away from these men and let them alone; because if this plan or this undertaking is of human origin, it will fail; 39but if it is of God, you will not be able to overthrow them—in that case you may even be found fighting against God!’

It’s what I think you could call, ‘the Gamaliel Principle’

if this plan or this undertaking is of human origin, it will fail; 39but if it is of God, you will not be able to overthrow them—in that case you may even be found fighting against God!’

It is by the fruits that people’s faith can be seen and that the church is known to be truly the church.

Into God’s hands.

We do what we can.  We seek out wisdom.  In all our sharing we listen to each other, and then in Chruch meeting we seek the mind of Christ.  And then we act on it.

If it is of  God it will go forward and will be to his glory.  And if not it will fail.

We don’t know.  We need to take the risk and go with it.

Interestingly even the powers that be could not gainsay Gamaliel.

They were convinced by him, 40and when they had called in the apostles, they had them flogged. Then they ordered them not to speak in the name of Jesus, and let them go.

What was their response?

 41As they left the council, they rejoiced that they were considered worthy to suffer dishonour for the sake of the name.

And did they obey the authorities and from that time on keep quiet?

Did they water down their message?

Not a bit of it!

42And every day in the temple and at home they did not cease to teach and proclaim Jesus as the Messiah.

Worth testing –

  1. Seek to be of one mind and not just out for your own
  2. Be caring and bring healing where people hurt
  3. Stand firm for Christ against the powers that be
  4. If it’s of God it will go from strength to strength
  5. And most important of all – do not cease to teach and proclaim Jesus as the Messiah