Sunday, 22 September 2013

Acts 11 - Open to all - an epoch-making moment

The frist rocket into space, the first satellite, the first dog, the first man, the first man on the moon.  There are sometimes remarkable moments in history – maybe it was because Voyager 1 was launched the month we got married – 36 years on in the last couple of weeks it has become the first human creation to reach beyond the solar system.  A moment in history.

Then there are groundbreaking moments in history – the coming down of the Berlin wall, Nelson Mandela stepping free from prison.

Is this a groundbreaking moment we are seeing now in the Middle East – you have to hold your breath.  Taking an alternative to bombing Syria – The Russian and Iranian initiative – we hold our breath – will the Syrian regime ensure it happens?  Will they move to a cease fire.  Massive complexities in the Middle East – but things do change.  The Iranian President to attend the United Nations.  This week the announcement of 12 political prisoners to be released.   Two of the twelve were imprisoned as Christian believers – people Middle East Concern had been supporting in prayer and continue to support now – an email of hope amongst so many that are devastating.

Could it be a turning point?

It is difficult to appreciate how groundbreaking events were that are described in the Book of Acts.  Peter’s vision of all those animals that the Book of Leviticus makes it quite clear are unclean and not to be eaten.

Three times he hears that voice, Peter, rise up, kill and eat.

And then he goes to the very seat of the Roman occupying power in Caesarea and it is a Roman  Centurion of the Italian Cohort who comes to faith in Jesus, is baptised and receives the Holy Spirit.  This is remarkable.  And the story is told powerfully in Acts 10.

We turn to Acts 11 and we cannot help but notice how significant this story is.   Massive change like this immediately meets with significant opposition.

11Now the apostles and the believers who were in Judea heard that the Gentiles had also accepted the word of God. 2So when Peter went up to Jerusalem, the circumcised believers criticized him, 3saying, ‘Why did you go to uncircumcised men and eat with them?’

How Peter responds to the criticism is striking.

4Then Peter began to explain it to them, step by step,

I love that phrase he explains it to them ‘step by step’.

What is then remarkable is that Luke who is recording the story considers this story to be of such significance that he repeats the whole story in Acts 11:5-18.   Peter tells the whole story again.

This is brilliant story telling in its own right.  But it is brilliant story telling in Luke’s book of Acts as well.

This is groundbreaking stuff.   And it has to do with how you read the Bible.

The Bible says categorically, there can be no equivocation.  It is there in Leviticus.  What Peter has come to realise is the full significance of the way Jesus opened up the Scriptures to his followers – he had lived out a different way of reading the Bible –  The Bible says no work on the Sabbath – but Jesus healed on the Sabbath, and was categorical the Sabbath is made for us  we are not made to fit into the rigid letter of the Sabbath.  It is absolutely clear ou shall not touch a leprosy sufferer – they must stay outside the camp.  And Jesus touches them and brings healing to them.   A Woman in the period of her menstruation – unclean.  And Jesus istouched by the woman with the issue of blood and simply brings healing to her – and goes on to Jairus’s daughter – a president of the Synagogue without going through the purification ceremonies laid down in the Bible.   This is groundbreaking stuff.  It is not that he rejects the Bible – he sees it as reaching a point of fulfilment in him such that he is able to say – you have heard it said, but now I say to you.

And the Bible in Leviticus says absolutely categorically this food is unclean you shall not eat it.

This is groundbreakgin stuff.

This is a moment of breakthrough.

And the whole story is told a second time.

THer’s a wonderful moment in what Peter says … the way the gift of God’s very presence in the Holy Spirit in all its strength was given to Gentiles as well …

7If then God gave them the same gift that he gave us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could hinder God?’

This is the breakthrough moment.

 18When they heard this, they were silenced. And they praised God, saying, ‘Then God has given even to the Gentiles the repentance that leads to life.’

A remarkable insight.

So how does this play out in what’s going on in the world at that time.

Back to the consequences of persecution –

Now those who were scattered because of the persecution that took place over Stephen travelled as far as Phoenicia, Cyprus, and Antioch, and they spoke the word to no one except Jews.

There is a clear marking line.

But then others from Cyprus and from Cyrene – that’s North East Libya – still a region known by that name in Libya in North Africa.  Simon of Cyrene had carried the cross for Jesus.

They came to Antioch – a major city in Syria.

And they preached to Gentiles as well.

But among them were some men of Cyprus and Cyrene who, on coming to Antioch, spoke to the Hellenists also, proclaiming the Lord Jesus. 21The hand of the Lord was with them, and a great number became believers and turned to the Lord.

News of this reaches the church in Jerusalem.  And what do they do?

They send a particular individual to help.

Barnabas is someone we have already been introduced to back in Acts 4:36.

There was a Levite, a native of Cyprus, Joseph, to whom the apostles gave the name Barnabas (which means ‘son of encouragement’).

I always think of Barnabas as the ‘son of encouragement’.

But it is also significant that he was a Levite.  From the priestly family.  One very involved in the temple.

Signifcant that he is chosen from Jerusalem to go – this really is ground breaking stuff.

23When he came and saw the grace of God, he rejoiced, and he exhorted them all to remain faithful to the Lord with steadfast devotion; 24for he was a good man, full of the Holy Spirit and of faith. And a great many people were brought to the Lord.

What he saw was the grace of God.

Wonderful model here.

Who are the encouragers?   Are we on the look out for the grace of God?

Our task is to remain faithful to the Lord, with steadfast devotion.

A great many people were brought to the Lord.

The task to share our faith so that others can come to follow the Lord in a very real way.

He cannot do it alone … and so he sees the value of getting someone in.

Again someone who has come from being ardently Jewish and has discovered the gospel for the gentiles.

25Then Barnabas went to Tarsus to look for Saul, 26and when he had found him, he brought him to Antioch. So it was that for an entire year they associated with the church and taught a great many people, and it was in Antioch that the disciples were first called ‘Christians’.

A year of teaching.  Borne out by action.  Recognising the needs of others.

Prophet predicts famine.  Claudius – comes to the throne.  There are difficult days ahead.  One of the first things Claudius does is to initiate military campaigns – and he launches an attach on the islands that had defied the Roman legions.  – it is AD 43 that he launches an attack on these islands that is successful in the way the previous century Julius Caesar had failed.

There is a brutality in the air.  And that means there will be severe hardship.  Especially in Judea.

Agabus a prophet reads the signs of the times …

At that time prophets came down from Jerusalem to Antioch. 28One of them named Agabus stood up and predicted by the Spirit that there would be a severe famine over all the world; and this took place during the reign of Claudius. 29The disciples determined that according to their ability, each would send relief to the believers living in Judea; 30this they did, sending it to the elders by Barnabas and Saul.

We often think of Paul as a theologian, a thinker, a preacher, a missionary in that sense.   But from the outset we encounter Paul as a teacher – and with a determination to help people practically.

At the very first we find him organising collections – around a fundamental principle.

From each according to their ability to each according to their need.

A principle that underlies giving to people in need – and has come into western society.

And in church this coming week – we shall at Harvest be having our special harvest collection – shared between our own work of mission through our Children’s worker project and then with the wider work of Middle East Concern.  Do join us at our supper to hear more about Middle East Concern and the very real help it gives to Christians facing persecution.

Sunday, 8 September 2013

Acts 10 - Open to all!

One of the important things about ‘church’ is that it gives us an opportunity to find space in the middle of whatever kind of week we may have.  It may be a weekly routine of not seeing many people and not really getting out much – church provides that space to meet with others, find fellowship and renew that sense of the presence of God with us.  It may be a busy round of things to do, concerns that need addressing.  Church gives that space to find moments of quiet, a time to sense again the peace of the presence of God and the strengthening we need to face the week to come.

Taking time out.  Making space … is something we all need at different times.

Paul plays a central part in the Book of Acts.  But it is quite wrong to think that his is the single most important part in the growth of the church.   One of the things that’s fascinating about Paul or as he is still known at this point in Acts is that he takes time out.  He needs to find space.

He meets with the risen Christ on the Road to Damascus and then needs to take time out, needs to find space.  A momentary visit to Jerusalem where he has a mixed response from the people he has been persecuting and he takes time out – fourteen years.  Maybe these were years of preparation.  Maybe a time to get his mind round the teachings of Christ.

I’ll be joining with around 40 people from our churches on our course this coming week as they are taking time to think through Christian faith, the Bible, the world around us.  It can take five years – and now we have the opportunity to build up another level that can be two more years.  Part time study takes a longer period than full time study.  And our idea is that people are very much involved in the life of the churches they are serving as they share in that period of reflection and study.

Maybe it is the strength of the later mission and ministry Paul shares that he has taken this time to sort things out, straighten things out in his mind.

Jesus is very much within the Jewish world but he has this wonderful good news that the time has come for the rule of God to break into the world and draw all peoples from the whole world into that closest of relationships with God as Father.

All people?  That takes some getting your mind round.

Luke’s story returns to Peter … and we find him on his travels – going here and there among all the believers.  It is as if he is making sure that things are going well – keeping the momentum going.

We encounter two of those people and find how Peter brings the healing presence of Christ into their lives.  It’s a man and a woman.  As if there is a stress that this Good News of the ‘Christian faith is for all – it’s inclusive of everyone.

Aeneas who has been ill in bed for eight long years and Tabitha, otherwise known by her Greek name of Dorcas.  A wonderful follower of Christ who put the Good News into action in deeds of love and care, of charity and all sorts of good works she had become ill.   Taken ill, she died … and Peter is called into her house, he kneels, he prays, he takes her by the hand, he helps her up and calling the saints and widows he showed her to be alive.

Peter stays for a while in the seaside town of Joppa in the house of Simon the Tanner.

This Good news is for all.  But can that be?  Saul in that encounter is to become an instrument chosen by God to bring his name to the Gentiles and kings and before the people Israel.

But it is to Peter that a remarkable, life-changing vision is given.

And it is remarkable.

Simon Schama in the first part of his series telling the story of the Jewish people spoke of the different names for God and spoke of the way God is sometimes referred to simply as ‘the name’.  That’s what we see in that verse 15 of chapter 9.  At one point he showed a remarkable helicopter film of the aqueduct built by Herod the Great to bring water to his port town of Caesarea not that far from Joppa.

If Joppa was home to Jewish people, Caesarea was a brand new city.  And it was most definitely not for the Jewish people.  It was a Roman city.  The centre of their control of the region of Judea and Samaria.   Philip’s journey had taken him in the direction of Caesarea.

But now the action changes and we are brought face to face with a Centurion who is based in Caesarea.  There is a double shock here.  The very fact of his being a Centurion in the occupying army based in Caesarea but also the fact that he is a centurion of the Italian cohort.  Somehow this makes this all the more startling.

But he is thoughtful, has been drawn to the God of the Jewish people.  He id devout.

One afternoon at 3-00 he sees an angel who says his prayers have been answered and he is to send to Joppa.

A soldier and two devout slaves are sent by Cornelius.

The next day they are drawing near to the house of Simon the Tanner and Peter is on the roof taking time to pray.

A fascinating glimpse of the customs of the early church.  Is this another instance of keeping a timetable of prayer.  It was about noon – was this an hour for prayer.  He has takenhimself to a quiet spot.

To get the force of the prayer you have to read that passage in Leviticus 11 that spells out exactly the kind of things that cannot be used for food..

Peter sees a vision of all manner of things that are forbidden in Leviticus 11.   Indeed the things that are in the sheet that is lowered down are the kind of things you would find on the menu of a Roman banquet.

Rise up, kill and eat says the voice of the Lord.

Peter responds, By no means, Lord; for I have never eaten anything that is profane or unclean.  The voice said to him again, “What God has made clean you must not call profane.”

Peter takes some convincing.  He had denied Jesus three times.  Three times Jesus had asked him, do you love me.  And now three times he has to be instructed to eat.

Even after the three times, Peter is greatly puzzle about what to make of the vision.

It is at that moment that the three men sent by Cornelius appear, ask for Peter and he goes down to hear them say, “Cornelius, a centurion, an upright and God-fearing man who is well spoken of by the whole Jewish nation was directed by a holy angel to send for you to come to his house and to hear what you have to say.”

Peter invited them in, they stay over night and the next day he goes with them – but not on his own!  He takes some believers with him.

Peter goes to Cornelius house …

Cornelius falls at his feet and worships him – but Peter insists he’s only a mortal just like everyone else.

Then Peter talks with Cornelius.

Something is happening.  Peter has crossed over a boundary.  He has travelled to Caesarea.  He has entered into conversation with a Centurion.

And he is conscious that what he is doing goes against what the Bible says …  “You yourselves know that it is unlawful for a Jew to associate with or to visit a Gentile; but God has shown me that I should not call anyone profane or unclean.  So when I was sent for, I came without objection..

Something very significant is going on here in what is happening.

Just as on the Road to Emmaus, Just as on the Road to Gaza with the Ethiopian Eunuch we are discovering that the Bible is not simply a book and then every letter taken at face value.  Peter is recognising at this point that actually following Jesus means that you must read the Bible differently.

Peter’s vision has given him a message – about what is clean and unclean.  And it is something that comes from Jesus.  Read elsewhere in Leviticus and you will find strict instructions about what the letter of the law expects – avoid the leprosy sufferer, don’t let the menstruating woman touch you, don’t touch the injured man for fear you will be unclean, don’t lift a finger on the Sabbath – but Jesus has broken those and shown that God’s love reaches out to the lame man on the Sabbath, to the leprosy sufferers, to the woman with the issue of blood.

Repeatedly in the Sermon on the Mount he said,  It is written, but I say to you.

At the heart of the good news of jesus Christ is a new way of reading the Scriptures – a way that is possible because all the Law, the Prophets and the Writings have found their fulfilment in Jesus.

Verse 28 is a real breakthrough in this instance.

Cornelius is overwhelmed by this and speaks of the way four days ago at that very hour of 3-00 he had been praying and had a vision of an angel and he wants to find out what it is God is saying.

That then prompts Peter to speak as Cornelius, his family and some close friends listen.

And what Peter has to say really does turn the world of clear boundaries upside down – it has an inclusiveness to it that is so important.

This  is the exciting thing at the hear of the Gospel for Peter … and it is something the full impact of which he is only just beginning to appreciate.

‘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.

An open welcome lies at the heart of our vision for the church here at Highbury.

A place to share Chrsitian friendship, explore Christian faith and enter into Christian mission with Christ at the centre and open to all.

There can be no limits to that inclusion as the love of God is something for all and for everyone.

It’s a wonderful speech that goes through the story of Jesus, his suffering, his death, his resurrection – sees him as the one testified to by the prophets – and as he began so he finishes on this note of inclusion.

“Everyone who believes in him receives forgivensess of sins through his name.”

It’s telling that the believers who had come with Peter were Jewish, circumcised.  There is a moment of disclosure.  A moment of excitement as the Holy Spirit is present as people are hearing this word – and it truly  is a word from God.

There’s a wonderful breakthrough – the barriers are down.  The mission is open for the Gentiles as well.

This is momentous.  And so Peter returns to Jerusalem – and with bated breath he describes what has happened.   The whole story is recounted again in Acts 11.

And they come to a conclusion … Then God has given even to the Gentiles the repentance that leads to life.  A wonderful climax.

A breakthrough.

And it all hinges on reading the Scripture through the eyes of Jesus who has opened up a new way of handling the Scriptures.

We need to take great care in our approach to the Scriptures, not least passages in the Torah, in Leviticus and read them in the light of the principles of inclusion that peter has discovered that reflect the way Jesus opened up the Scriptures and drew all people into the embrace of the God of love. 

The scene now shifts … and we are invited to come to a place called Antioch where this inclusiveness is brought home.

Another place that has been in the news recently.  A tragic place where the destructiveness of all that has been happening in Syria has come to a head.

Very much for our prayers this weekend once again.

Sunday, 1 September 2013

Acts 9 - Meeting Christ on the road to Damascus - then and now

Our stay in Jerusalem was coming to an end and we visited the Garden Tomb.  In the bookshop I spotted a book we had been recommended.  I purchased it and before the day was out got people in our party to sign it including people who were working at reception and in the office at the Tantur Institute.  Two of the signatures were Issa – and when I enquired I found it was the Arabic version of Jesus.

Not inappropriate as the book was a book that worked in a number of ways – Peter Walker’s In the Steps of Jesus is in one way a commentary on Luke’s Gospel.  Taking Luke’s Gospel as the framework it takes you on a journey in the steps of Jesus.

An opening section in each chapter tells the story of Jesus in that location and a final section looks at that site as a visitor might encounter it today – and in between the two sections is a list of key dates or a table of key information.

It’s a wonderful memento of our visits to the Holy Land, a wonderful commentary on Luke’s Gospel, filled with wonderful insights into the world of Jesus’s day.

A year or so later I found that Felicity’s mum had acquired a copy of the book and its sequel.  Having done such a book on Jesus based on Luke’s Gospel, Peter Walker turned to the second volume of Luke’s work Acts and did a sequel – In the Steps of Saint Paul.

It works as a wonderful commentary on Acts from chapter 9 onwards as a memento for one wonderful holiday I had as a student travelling in the steps of St Paul and is filled with insights into the world of Paul’s day.

It has the same structure.  Each chapter has an opening section telling the story of St Paul in a particular location and a final section ‘looking at that site as a visitor might encounter it today; … an din between a list of key dates which gives the reader an overview of all the significant events associated with that place – both before and since the time of Paul.

As we reach chapter 9 of Acts today I took Peter  Walker’s book down from the shelves and turned to the first chapter.  It is simply entitled ‘Damascus’.

The final section of the chapter describes ‘what a visitor might encounter today.

Damascus can lay claim to being the oldest continuously inhabited city in the world … the city still works its magic.  On a clear spring day the snows of Mount Hermon are clearly visible.  And the Old City is truly impressive with its spice bazaars, its narrow streets, its places of historic worship and its ancient walls (complete with eight gates).”

Little did I imagine that I would be reading these words on the day when Damascus is in the news for such very different reasons.

The atrocities committed so it would seem by the Assad regime do not bear thinking about: horrific as they are in the extreme.  The complexities of the political situation defy understanding.

The civil war that rages seems the worst kind imaginable and worse still. The scale of the suffering, the exodus of refugees unimaginable.

And yet one analogy comes so firmly to my mind.

One of the most frightening kinds of fires is a chip pan fire -  God forbid it should happen.   How easy to imagine you have got to do something about it and you fill a bucket with water and throw it over the blazing chip pan.  Horrific as the chip pan fire is the resulting conflagration is so much worse.

The decision seemingly inevitable as I write, maybe already carried out by the time I preach these words, to bombard targets in Syria, maybe here in this most ancient of cities as well is to my mind like pouring a bucket of water on a chip pan fire.   [I had been writing on Saturday 31st August before hearing the news that President Obama would seek the support of Congress before taking any military action]

Totally the wrong reaction to take.  To my mind an inspiration that our parliament should decide so decisively to reject the proposal to take military action – the first time my sons, the elder of whom is now 30, had seen a Government defeated in such a crucial vote.

It may be that things we have done in the past make us the least appropriate people to imagine that we can ‘do something’ today.  Not only in Iraq, but also in Afghanistan, in our complicity with the use of Drones, and further back in our involvement as papers released 60 years on in the States have demonstrated recently in the overthrow of an elected Government in Iran and the imposition of a non-democratic government, in our support of Sadaam Hussain during the Iran – Iraq war when chemical weapons were used, our involvement in the days of the British Mandate in Palestine and what became Israel from 1917 to 1948 and beyond.  Maybe we have a hard lesson to learn as a country that we may not be the ones to ‘do something’ always.

 It maybe there are other very significant things we can do perhaps to do with diplomacy, perhaps to do with the non-sale of arms, perhaps to do with humanitarian response to the refugee crisis, perhaps to do with working towards dialogue and political solutions.

But maybe there are other things that need to be going on in us at such a time as this.  And maybe for us we can come to this chapter that takes us to Damascus and make connections with the way we are thinking, the responses we are making, how we influence our decision makers, the attitude we have.

As chapter 9 opens we are left in no doubt of the atmosphere of persecution that surrounds the followers of Jesus as they have had to flee Jerusalem and their faith has spreads out to the south towards north Africa and Ethiopia and towards the north to Damascus … what I am drawn to for the first point of connection, the first point of reflection is the title those followers of Jesus are given …

Meanwhile Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest 2and asked him for letters to the synagogues at Damascus, so that if he found any who belonged to the Way, men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem.

The first followers of Jesus are described as people who ‘belonged to the Way’.   That’s a wonderful description of Jesus from these very earliest days of the church.  It is also a wonderful insight into what is at the heart of our understanding of who we are as followers of Jesus.

Jesus did not come to form a new religion – he invited people to follow him.  And they did.  Maybe we should think of ourselves not as people who belong to a religion, but as people who are following a  Way.

Jesus opened up a way, a later writer calls it a new and living way into the very presence of God.  AT the same time Jesus mapped out a way of life to follow.

Our priority each of us individually is to follow the way into the presence of God and to follow the way mapped out for us by Christ.  That’s at the heart of our service today – as we break bread and share a cup, as we join together in fellowship and in prayer as we look once more to Jesus let’s follow that new and living way into the very presence of God and sense even in this turbulent world with all that is going on on a big scale and maybe in our own lives there is a very real presence of God with us.

But then it is that we should take seriously the way Jesus has mapped out for us to follow.  That boils down to love for God, love for neighbours … and by extension Jesus suggests love for enemy too.  One senses the first followers of Jesus came to be known as those who belonged to The Way because they took seriously that way of life and followed it.  Later this very Saul once he was known as Paul took these words of Jesus from the sermon on the mount very seriously when he said that following the way Jesus maps out means that we must love be genuine, we must hate what is evil and hold fast to what is good – it involves blessing those who persecute you – and most important of all it means Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.

Let’s take our stand on this Way – and take that seriously.

How can following such a way be sustained?  How can it be real.

I want to read on in the story.  The Road to Damascus has come into our language as a phrase – and it means a sudden conversion – the blinding light and we see things so differently.  You can have a Damascus Road experience in all sorts of different contexts and anyone who experiences an about change is said to have a Damascus road experience.  Then we have all sorts of discussions – is that the only way conversion can happen, is it sudden or a process.

But let’s look again at what’s happening here.

It is not the conversion that Luke focuses on.

It is a meeting.  An encounter.  A meeting, an encounter with the risen Christ.

A key moment at the end of Luke’s Gospel happens on the Road to Emmaus when the two filled with fear meet with the risen Christ and failed to recognise him at first.

It’s a wonderful encounter …

Now as he was going along and approaching Damascus, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. 4He fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him, ‘Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?’ 5He asked, ‘Who are you, Lord?’ The reply came, ‘I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting.

I am Jesus – it is a moment of meeting.  As far as Paul was concerned much later he recalled the moment not as a ‘conversion experience’ but as an appearance to him, as to one untimely born, of the risen Christ.

It is the risen Christ who meets with us that is so real.  That risen Christ we can seek, but he is the one who finds us – and he comes to meet us at all sorts of unexpected moments – and in those moments he brings nothing less than the very presence of God, the God who said let light shine out of darkness has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.”

Be prepared to meet with the risen Christ, for the risen Christ to meet with us.  It is here around the table of the Lord as we meet together in his name that we can once more meet with the risen Christ as the two on the Road to Emmaus did, as Paul did on this road to Damascus.  And it is that presence that then makes all the difference.

Maybe too we meet Christ in the needs of those we encounter who are in need.  The voice of Jesus says, Saul, Saul why are you persecuting me … but Saul has never met Jesus.  It is all he does to the followers of Jesus that makes Jesus say he has been persecuting him. There are echoes here of Matthew 25 when Jesus says inasmuch as you do it to the least of these my brothers and sisters you do it to me.   Maybe it is this experience that leads Paul later to speak of those followers of the Way, those who make up the church as ‘the Body of Christ’.

Then Jesus says the unexpected …

It is easy to gloss over it … but it seems important for us as well.

But get up and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do.’

You have to get back into the world -  you have to go into the middle of things.  Return to that world.

The story switches to Ananias – who is told in a vision to seek out Saul and cannot believe his ears – the reputation Saul has means he is the last person he should meet.  But no, he is to go to the street called Straight.

And in that old city the street is still there.  Damascus had been rebuilt by the Romans to the classic plan which Peter Walker describes as the Hippodamian plan – through the centre of the city is a long, colonnaded street – you can see it in Roman Jerusalem, you can see it in Roman Tiberias and you can see it in Roman Damascus – and Damascus then was a big city with a main Straight Street 27 metres wide running for more than a kilometre.  This is the main thoroughfare.

And somewhere along it is the house of Judas and that’s where Saul is.  In the middle of the city.  The summons of Jesus is to go back into the middle of the city.  We can come aside from those things that weigh us down, find again the presence of Christ, but then we have to go back into the middle of things.

It is telling that the voice of the Lord to Ananias shapes the preaching of the Gospel that Saul is to go on to share in:  “God, for he is an instrument [remember the Prayer of St Francis, make me an ‘instrument’ of your peace] whom I have chosen to bring my name before  Gentiles and kings and before the People of Israel’.  Sometimes people claim Paul’s message is a spiritual message of personal salvation and not to do with politics.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  At the outset he is charged by the voice of God to speak to the Roman world – to gentiles and kings – and to the Jewish world, the People of Israel.  His message is nothing less than the good news of the Kingdom Jesus had come to proclaim.  And he is true to that calling to the last as Acts 28:31 makes clear which leaves Paul in Rome ‘preaching the kingdom of God and teaching about the Lord Jesus Christ’.

He is found by Ananias, receives his sight, tells of the Good News of Jesus and faces opposition such that he has to flee over the wall of the city in a basket.  He makes his way to Jerusalem faces severe opposition from the Hellenistic Jews, is hounded out of the city … and the church meanwhile throughout Judea, Galilee and Samaria has peace and was built up.

In a sense I want to finish with that last summing up verse 31 as we think of that house on Straight street.  Think of those people. For today the complexity of that horrific situation in Syria is the presence among the opposition that the military strikes are designed to support fighters who are bent on destroying the way in Syria different faiths have lived side by side.  And so this day of all days as we arrive in Damascus how good it is in our communion collection that we are supporting an organisation that seeks to support those who are facing persecution in the Middle East – in practical ways, in supporting legal cases that come and in particular in prayer.  Just a small gesture – but one of those small things that can make a difference.

And that brings me to that last sentence in verse 31.

Living in the fear of the Lord, in the worship of God, and in the comfort of the Holy Spirit, it increased in numbers.

I guess the longing for those Christian people we have a particular concern for is the longing that through their worship of God they may sense the comfort the strengthening, that presence alongside of the Holy Spirit in the middle of all that is going on.

And for each of us facing times of darkness we too need building up, we need the strengthening of the Spirit.

Acts 8 - Getting it right - the need for guidance in reading the Bible - Acts 8

Sunday, 26th August we looked at Acts 8 and the mission of Philip.

Conscious of the way we are going on in September to support  Middle East Concern and Christians facing persecution in the Middle East we noticed the persecution faced by the followers of Jesus at the outset and how that resulted perversely in the spread of the Gospel.

Telling the story of Philip we noticed how the Gospel spread to and took root among unexpected people.

The Samaritans who discovered Jesus and the power of the Holy Spirit.

Simon the magician who has given his name to Simony who following his reprimand asked the Apostles for prayer.

And then the Ethiopian Eunuch.   We noticed the draconian measures the Law decrees against those who are Eunuchs in Deuteronomy 26 and the vision of Isaiah 56 that looks to the day when Eunuchs too are drawn into the covenant.  We noticed the intriguing word of Jesus in Matthew 19 about those who are born Eunuchs, those who are made Eunuchs by others and those who choose to be Eunuchs for the Kingdom.  Again an instance of the unexpected being drawn into the Kingdom by the Christ who has room for all.  All interesting stuff to reflect on in the context of conversations on sexuality today.

We noticed that the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King's I have a dream speech was coming up this week and made connections with his dream of the kingdom.

And then we focused on the way the Ethiopian needed someone to guide him in the reading of the Bible.  Yes, there is an immediacy to the Bible that means we can understand it without explanation.  But there is here a recognition that there is a need for guidance in reading the Scriptures.

One of those themes we come back to time and again in Acts is the way that followers of Jesus focus on Jesus and the way he brought to fulfilment the whole of the Law, the Prophets and the Writings.

The climax to the Gospel of Luke is all that happens on the Road to Emmaus and the way Jesus spends a seven mile walk opening the Scriptures to the two and subsequently the rest of that evening demonstrating how all the Law, the Prophets and the Writings find their fulfilment in him to the disicples in teh upper room.  It is as if as Acts unfolds that those followers of Jesus have taken to heart his last words and the way he offered them of reading the Hebrew Scriptures.  So in their reading of the Scriptures we can join them in reading the Hebrew Scriptures through the eyes of Jesus.

The response of the Ethiopian leaves the Gospel heading towards North Africa and Philip sharing the Good News through all the towns on the way towards Caesarea ... another 'unexpected' place for the Gospel to go as soon we shall see.

But that's for another occasion!