Sunday, 10 November 2013

Acts 15 and 16 Living with Disappointment - reflections on Remembrance Sunday

I didn’t quite expect him to say what he said,   What he said, however, was something that resonated with me for all sorts of reasons.   A good number of us got together on Wednesday evening to hear Rob Parsons in the Care for the Family event on Wednesday last at the Town hall.  How to get your kids through church without them ending up hating God.

As he came to the end of what he had to say he spoke of the need to  be realistic and not give false expectations to young people.  He suggested that we needed to be realistic and help them to understand that in life there are disappointments.  They will be disappointed in themselves when things don’t work out as they plan.  They will be disappointed in other people who don’t live up to the expectations you have of them.  And they will  be disappointed with God who at moments of need will seem not to be there.

What I found moving was that it was precisely the kind of theme only last Sunday I had been sharing with the young family who had come to church to share in the baptism of their daughter.

There are dark times – and the hope of our faith is not that we will escape them but that we will go through them – and as we go through them we will not be alone, even though at times it may feel that way.

The meeting of the church at Jerusalem over, the decision to send a circular letter round the churches to help bring together Jew and Gentile in a way that could be mutually supportive taken, Paul has itchy feet.

After some days Paul said to Barnabas, ‘Come, let us return and visit the believers in every city where we proclaimed the word of the Lord and see how they are doing.’

A straightforward enough proposal.

But things are not quite so straightforward.

Up until now Barnabas and Paul have been a partnership – so much so that at times Barnabas has seemed to be the senior member of that partnership.  The son of encouragement had been the one to support the then Saul at the first, had seen he was the one to come to Antioch, he had accompanied him on journeys to Jerusalem where he had spoken up for him, and on that first remarkable journey from Antioch to his home of Cyprus and on to Pisidia, Lystra, Derbe and as far as Iconium.

It was a natural thing to do to team up again.

Barnabas, son of encouragement by name and encourager supreme by nature knew immediately what to do.

37Barnabas wanted to take with them John called Mark.

John called is one of those bit players we have been very aware of – it was in his mother’s house that the church was meeting for prayer at the point at which Peter had been threatened with death by Herod Agrippa I and on his release from prison sought refuge in that house.

John Mark had accompanied Paul and Barnabas on that first missionary journey but, if you recall, had parted company with them.  It wasn’t clear what had happened.  But something meant he had left and returned home to Jerusalem.

Now it was natural to Barnabas to give him a second chance.

Paul thought otherwise.

38But Paul decided not to take with them one who had deserted them in Pamphylia and had not accompanied them in the work.

That led to an almighty row.

This is the point of my reference to that talk on Wednesday.

It’s very easy to imagine there was a time when people in churches didn’t fall out with each other.

That’s not the case.

They have done from the start.

And I guess it’s par for the course – after all we are all human.  We all have our failings.

It’s so easy to give young people the impression that they should look for an ideal church where all is well.  We give that impression because that’s what we hanker after.

If you are for ever on the lookout for the perfect church then you will for ever be on the look-out.  As someone has wisely said, if you do find the perfect church, be sure not to join it – as it will then no longer be perfect!!!

What happens is a rift.  There’s no escaping it.  It’s not on theological grounds.  It’s a falling out over people.

39The disagreement became so sharp that they parted company; Barnabas took Mark with him and sailed away to Cyprus.

The best thing is to do go their separate ways.  And they do.  Paul finds himself with a new travelling companion Silas, who has just been introduced to us as one of those prophetic figures who speaks the word of God forthrightly and is himself one who has the gift of being able to ‘encourage and strengthen the believers’  (15:32)

40But Paul chose Silas and set out, the believers commending him to the grace of the Lord. 41He went through Syria and Cilicia, strengthening the churches.

Sometimes you have to go your separate ways.

And fruit comes of that.

You have to read between the lines carefully in the Gospel story.  Quite a bit later on in the missionary travels of Paul there’s reference first to Barnabas in 1 Corinthians 9:6 where he clearly is once again in close contact with Paul.   And even more exciting is a reference that’s found to John Mark in a letter Paul writes from prison in Rome in Colossians 4:10 where it becomes apparent that John Mark, there described as a cousin of Barnabas, is part of the church community supporting Paul in prison.

Differences happen.  But no grudge is kept.

Something to hold on to there.

I wonder what the secret of that is?

Perhaps in the commendation of the church community in Jerusalem as they are setting off – they commended them to ghe grace of the Lord.  That’s the key.  Always come back to that grace of God in Jesus Christ that can make such a difference.

People disappoint – but God remains with Barnabas and Mark and Paul and Silas – as they are commended to the grace of God.

Notice where they go.

He went through Syria and Cilicia strengthening the churches.

My eye fell on that line this Remembrance Sunday!

What is happening in Syria is inextricably linked with our Remembrance of the First World War.  I found myself reading that leaflet from Middle East Concern about how to pray for the Middle East as I was standing right next to the war memorial roll on the wall of our church.

“There are, it suggests, three historical eras that set that context:
  • Ottoman Empire ruled much of the region (and followed a number of previous empires)
  • Western Colonial era post World War One; current nation states created by the West; most countries are colonial constructs, ruled either by a monarchy (e.g. Jordan) or endured one or more coups leading to one-party dictatorships (e.g. Egypt, Iraq, Syria)
  • This era is being ended (or is it?) by a clear call for the people’s involvement in their governance; it is unclear what will emerge.

I have always felt that to honour the memory of those who lost their lives in war we should echo the longing they had in the midst of that war for peace and commit ourselves to work for the peace they longed to see.

If we are remembering that First World War this day, how important it is to seek peace in Syria

Our friend from Middle East Concern was urging us to remember in our prayers the churches of the Middle East.   Now as much as in the time of Paul they need strengthening.

It’s interesting to see how Paul set about doing that strengthening as we move on to Acts 16.

Paul went on also to Derbe and to Lystra, where there was a disciple named Timothy, the son of a Jewish woman who was a believer; but his father was a Greek. 2He was well spoken of by the believers in Lystra and Iconium. 3Paul wanted Timothy to accompany him; and he took him and had him circumcised because of the Jews who were in those places, for they all knew that his father was a Greek. 4As they went from town to town, they delivered to them for observance the decisions that had been reached by the apostles and elders who were in Jerusalem. 5So the churches were strengthened in the faith and increased in numbers daily.

Just as an aside … notice the appearance of Timothy here.  Two of the last three letters of Paul are addressed of course to Timothy and in II Timothy 4:11 who should Paul refer to?  But John Mark!!!  Get Mark, he writes to Timothy, and bring him with you, for he is useful in my ministry.

What Paul does is to take the letter around that had been agreed in Jerusalem – clearly including all without the expectation of circumcision but at the same time seeking an accord, an understanding of the ‘other’s’ point of view.

There are lots of wise things going on here to help us live with difference when differences disappoint.

The exchange of letters is so important – a way of strengthening churches then.  And also a way of strengthening churches now.

Email has released a new wave of letter writing where twenty-five years ago with the phone many had said the art of letter-writing had passed.

The clipped, abbreviated form of the telegram has seemed a thing of the past until the text arrived!

And so this week we received a letter from one of those who is a key part of one of our international fellowships who is involved with a church in Syria.

It is heart-rending to read the appeal he has sent to our churches this week for prayer and support … and moving too as one realises that it is into the middle of this conflict they seek to bring the presence of Christ

“Considering this inhumane and sad situation our Church has established a polyclinic to serve our  community regardless of denominational affiliation by assisting those in need of medical care, and especially trying to help patients with chronic diseases in need of long-time medical assistance.”  The letter goes on to describe the 400 strong congregation meeting Sunday by Sunday for worship and says, “Our people will continue to work and pray for peace and safety.”

The crisis facing the people of Syria is beyond our imagining and the worst humanitarian disaster for many, many years.  That’s what has prompted us from Thursday’s Deacons meeting to support the Syria Appeal of Embrace the Middle East.

Working through our Lebanese partners, we are empowering a network of Syrian churches to provide emergency food parcels to the most vulnerable families.

The task we are doing is precisely the task Paul carried out in going through Syria and Cilicia strengthening the churches.

And the key to it all is grace!

No comments:

Post a Comment