Sunday, 9 February 2014

Acts 23 - Keep up your courage!

Each time we use a microwave oven we owe a great deal to Nobel prize winner Isidor Isaac Rabi (1898 – 1988) – “a Polish-born American physicist and Nobel laureate, recognized in 1944 for his discovery of nuclear magnetic resonance, which is used in magnetic resonance imaging. He was also involved in the development of the cavity magnetron, which is used in microwave radar and microwave ovens.”

When Nobel prize winner, Isidor Rabi, arrived home after school, his mother would talk to him about his school day. Every day she would ask him, "Isidor, did you ask a good question today?" Rabi concluded that it was the ability to ask the good questions that gave him the passion to become a scientist.

“What ‘good questions’ are you asking yourself at the moment?”

That’s a question posed on a website I stumbled across called simply ‘moments’.

 Our Christian journey is filled with many challenges and I believe it would be wise to ask ourselves some tough questions. There is a defining question that John Wesley always asked of his friends and fellow Christians - “How goes it with your soul?”

How goes it with your soul?

Maybe that’s a question I should ask as Minister more often.  I seek to ask that question in a roundabout way … and in a funny way it is an important part of ministry.

It’s possible to see the ministry in terms of the cure of souls – keeping our inner being whole and healed.

You can’t control a conscience.

It is that small voice.

But you can nurture and feed a conscience.

Conscience pricks.

It can be painful.

It can haunt.

So alongside conscience comes grace – the grace of God’s forgiving love, that touches and restores and heals and makes whole.

So how goes it with your soul?

It is a question I should ask as Minister.  But it is also a question that I as a Minister need to be asked.

Who pastors the pastor?

Something a church family shares.

Something for me to ask of myself.

As Paul is brought before the Council in Jerusalem, that body that years before had put Jesus on trial, he says quite plainly.

While Paul was looking intently at the council he said, ‘Brothers, up to this day I have lived my life with a clear conscience before God.’

What a claim – he speaks a great deal about conscience in his letter to the Romans written not long before this as his journeying is coming to an end.

There is evidence of the ways of God in nature, in creation – somehow built into our psyche (Romans 1:20-21)  There is a timeless truth that speaks to all people – the measure of conscience has to do with patiently doing good, seeking glory, and honour and immortality – that distinction between what is good and what is wrong is there for all to sense. (2:1ff)

And the reality Paul makes clear is that we all of us have our failings but we receive God’s kindness, that grace that leads to a whole new way of thinking.

There is no partiality.  Conscience is clear.

Paul has sought to live his life in such a way that he has lived it with a good conscience.  Not that he has done everything as he should but that he has received that grace of God for renewal.

Shortly after this occasion – when he is imprisoned in Rome he writes again of the life he can now look back on … and it is a wonderful passage.

I recall sharing with Margaret Copeland one of those staunch members of the church here who lived to a ripe old age … and the reading we shared in her memory was from Philippians 4 …

for I have learned to be content with whatever I have. 12I know what it is to have little, and I know what it is to have plenty. In any and all circumstances I have learned the secret of being well-fed and of going hungry, of having plenty and of being in need. 13I can do all things through him who strengthens me.

This is the mark of a good conscience.

How goes it with your soul?

Paul in that passage in Romans 2 castigates those who judge others.  Such a question should not be condemnatory but should be pastoral, to build people up.

Tragically that is not how this statement was received by the powers that be in the council.

2Then the high priest Ananias ordered those standing near him to strike him on the mouth. 3At this Paul said to him, ‘God will strike you, you whitewashed wall! Are you sitting there to judge me according to the law, and yet in violation of the law you order me to be struck?’ 4Those standing nearby said, ‘Do you dare to insult God’s high priest?’ 5And Paul said, ‘I did not realize, brothers, that he was high priest; for it is written, “You shall not speak evil of a leader of your people.” ’

This is strong stuff.  And disturbing stuff.

But it is very important to realise who this council is made up of.  It is not just ordinary Jewish people … the High Priest is part of the Roman Herodian regime in Jerusalem, appointed by the  Roman Procurator – part of the system castigated by Jesus when he acted with such rage in the Temple and accused the powers that be of turning what should have been a house of prayer into a den of thieves.

Ananias had been appointed by Herod of Chalcis – Herod Agrippa I’s brother and one of that Herodian regime.   He had been hauled over the coals and sent to Rome after treating a number of Jewish zealots harshly – he had been acquitted by Claudius and allowed to return.  A ruthless regime such that Josephus tells us that when the revolt against Rome happened one of the first things the rebels did was to assassinate this Ananias.

These next verses are fascinating ones too.  They again highlight the different groupings there are within the Jewish world of Jesus’ day and Paul’s day.

The Sadducees were the powerful, rich elite who supported the Herodian High Priests and the Temple management as it had become.

The Pharisees had reacted against the Roman Herodian way by urging people to return to the purity of the Law – Paul had studied and grown up among the Pharisees.

We learn about some of other fundamental differences.

Paul is following on from Jesus and from John the Baptist and taking a stand at being Jewish in a very particular kind of way.  And the Sadducees and the Pharisees don’t like it.

6 When Paul noticed that some were Sadducees and others were Pharisees, he called out in the council, ‘Brothers, I am a Pharisee, a son of Pharisees. I am on trial concerning the hope of the resurrection of the dead.’ 7When he said this, a dissension began between the Pharisees and the Sadducees, and the assembly was divided. 8(The Sadducees say that there is no resurrection, or angel, or spirit; but the Pharisees acknowledge all three.)

A great clamour arose.  Interestingly, the Pharisees are the ones who are more sympathetic to Paul.

9Then a great clamour arose, and certain scribes of the Pharisees’ group stood up and contended, ‘We find nothing wrong with this man. What if a spirit or an angel has spoken to him?’ 10When the dissension became violent, the tribune, fearing that they would tear Paul to pieces, ordered the soldiers to go down, take him by force, and bring him into the barracks.

11 That night the Lord stood near him and said, ‘Keep up your courage! For just as you have testified for me in Jerusalem, so you must bear witness also in Rome.’

This is the text I want to finish with.

Keep up your courage.

Paul was facing difficult times, troubled times, not only for him personally but politically in the land as well.

He finds himself at this moment back under guard in the safety of the barracks and yet in that very alien world he stands out agaist.

It is very much a world that demands courage.

And it is the word of God that  heartens Paul.

Keep up your courage.

He finds himself the victim of a plot – and then sent under armed guard – overnight to  Caesarea the modern Roman city build on the coast by Herod the Greeat that is the seat of Roman power in that region – you catch a glimpse here of the Roman presence.

In a little while we will hear tell the story of Jesus arriving in Jerusalem on a Donkey on Palm Sunday – and we will reflect on the way this is so different from the warrior king who comes on a fine steed.

This gives a glimpse of what the Roman force could be like – as Paul is taken under cover of dark by two centurions with 200 soldiers, 70 horsemen and 200 spearmen.

This is military occupation at its most brutal.

Paul is then kept under guard in Herod’s Praetorium, in Herod’s headquarters.

He ends up at this point imprisoned in the seat of Roman power.

How he needs to heed the word of that vision.

Keep up your courage!

What troubles do you face?

Keep up your courage.

A sense of the presence of God – a strength from beyond ourselves in times of weakness.   He’s just written of the way the  Spirit comes alongside groaning with us in those desperate moments when now words come to our prayers.

Keep up your courage for God is with you.

But there’s more.

Keep up  your courage because even now you have a job to do.

For just as you have testified for me in Jerusalem, so you must bear witness also in Rome.

There is a sense of tension here … and of challenge.

Evven in the most adverse of circumstances there is a witness to share to this remarkable God who is with us come what may.

We can draw on those wonderful words at the end of Romans …

Keep up your courage!

Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword?

37No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. 38For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, 39nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Sunday, 2 February 2014

Acts 22 - A Defence of the Faith

There are moments when faith can feel very much under threat.

This was one of those moments.

Paul had done everything possible to ensure he would be well received in Jerusalem … he had bent over backwards to ensure that he would be seen to be doing the right thing.

He had been warned to stay away – it was a dangerous place.

But he insisted he had determined to take the collection he had made personally for those who were afflicted by severe shortages in and around Jerusalem.

For the best part of a week all seemed to go reasonably well.

It was on the seventh day of the festival as Paul was in the temple that he was tracked down by people he had crossed on his travels in Asia.

Jerusalem was a tinderbox of tension, always on the brink of very real trouble.   The trouble held down by the Roman garrison.

It got completely out of hand – the crowds became a mob.  Paul’s life was under threat – the soldiers intervened and he had to be carried shoulder high to safety.

The soldiers brought him to the barracks when Paul spoke to the senior officer, the Tribune.  Above the shouts and anger of the crowd he asked, May I say something to you?”

The Tribune is taken aback that he speaks Greek- he had been mistaken by the Roman garrison for a freedom fighter who had come from Egypt and had roused a militia of 4,000 in the wilderness.

Paul pleaded with the tribune to allow him to speak to the people.

It was into the middle of the anger – in a moment that was fraught with danger that Paul spoke.

There was a hush as he began and he switched languages to the Hebrew that would be understood by the Jerusalem people who were in the temple.

“Brothers and father, he said, listen to the defence that I now make before you.”

Let’s just pause there.

Sometimes there are circumstances when it becomes necessary to give a defence of the faith that is in you.  The Greek word is ‘apologia’ –

I well remember on my father’s shelves a book with a curious Latin title … Apologia pro Vita Sua – not so much an apology for living in a sewer as many a wit has suggested – but a defence of the faith that was in him by John Newman as he became a Catholic.

How do you defend the faith that is important to you?

When faith is under fire how do you give an account of what you believe.

The crowd became even more quiet and Paul began.

He begins by telling them about himself – and he concentrates on the way he had grown up steeped in the traditions and faith of the Jewish people …

‘I am a Jew, born in Tarsus in Cilicia, but brought up in this city at the feet of Gamaliel, educated strictly according to our ancestral law, being zealous for God, just as all of you are today.

He begins with the faith he had grown up with, the studies he had made at the feet of Gamaliel.  Then he describes how zealous he was in attacking the  Way – persecuting the followers of Jesus.

 4I persecuted this Way up to the point of death by binding both men and women and putting them in prison, 5as the high priest and the whole council of elders can testify about me. From them I also received letters to the brothers in Damascus, and I went there in order to bind those who were there and to bring them back to Jerusalem for punishment.

Then as the heading goes, Paul tells of his conversion.  And there is a detailed account of what happened to Paul on that road to Damascus.

It’s interesting that two stories are each told three times in Acts.  One is the breakthrough moment for Peter when he has that vision that persuades him it is all right to share his faith with non Jewish Gentile people.

And the other is this account of what happened to Paul when he was on the Road to Damascus.

See it as simply an account of his conversion and you in a sense miss the oint.  It is not the moment when Paul ceases to be Jewish and becomes the follower of another religion, ie Christianity.

No, something happens on that Road that makes him see his faith differently, that fills out for him what his faith is all about.

‘While I was on my way and approaching Damascus, about noon a great light from heaven suddenly shone about me. 7I fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to me, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” 8I answered, “Who are you, Lord?” Then he said to me, “I am Jesus of Nazareth whom you are persecuting.”

He wants to know what he is to do, he is directed to Damascus, to someone whom he describes as a devout man according to the law, to the Torah, who is well spoken of by all the Jews there.

It is not a conversion.

Paul is adamant that what he hears from this wise, devout person steeped in the Torah is not a denial of his faith, but the moment it comes to fulfilment.

14Then he said, “The God of our ancestors has chosen you to know his will, to see the Righteous One and to hear his own voice; 15for you will be his witness to all the world of what you have seen and heard. 16And now why do you delay? Get up, be baptized, and have your sins washed away, calling on his name.”

It wasn’t long before Paul found himself in Jerusalem in the Temple and again, he senses the presence of Jesus with him.  He describes a moment of a trance – and the challenge

“Hurry and get out of Jerusalem quickly, because they will not accept your testimony about me.”

Paul is very conscious of the horrific things he has done to the followers of Jesus, in many places, culminating in standing by as Stephen is stoned to death -– and is distraught.  Only to find the rich depths of the forgiveness of Christ who says, “Go for I will send you far away to the Gentiles.”

It is at this point that the crowd lose it and intervene, baying for his blood.

The Tribune intervenes, orders Paul into the safety of the barracks where he is to be tortured to get the truth out of him.  Or as the NRSV says, he ordered him ‘to be examined by flogging’

Then comes one of those surreal moments as Paul switches back to Greek the language of the Eastern Mediterranean world of the Roman empire

when they had tied him up with thongs, Paul said to the centurion who was standing by, ‘Is it legal for you to flog a Roman citizen who is uncondemned?’ 26When the centurion heard that, he went to the tribune and said to him, ‘What are you about to do? This man is a Roman citizen.’ 27The tribune came and asked Paul, ‘Tell me, are you a Roman citizen?’ And he said, ‘Yes.’ 28The tribune answered, ‘It cost me a large sum of money to get my citizenship.’ Paul said, ‘But I was born a citizen.’

Among the Jewish people he is so very Jewish.  And among the Romans he is born a Roman citizen.

29Immediately those who were about to examine him drew back from him; and the tribune also was afraid, for he realized that Paul was a Roman citizen and that he had bound him.

The Tribune has a plan B

And so arranges to hand Paul over to the Council, the Jewish authority that has control of the  Temple but is willing to act under the overall  control of Rome.

It is an exciting story and a wonderful insight into what makes Paul tick.

But there is something more that I want to come back to in this chapter.

For Paul what makes sense of his life, what makes sense of the world with all its troubles is not a set of beliefs that he defends, it is not a set of principles that he defends.

It is an encounter with Jesus Christ.

That to me is the key to the difference our Christian faith can make.

When confrtoned with things that call faith in question on the news in our own lives it’s easy to be drawn with our rational minds into trying to figure it out.

Start with the  God of the philosophers and you come up against a massive brick wall.

If God is all powerful, if God is all knowing, and if God is all loving how can he allow this to happen?

There is no answering that.

But that’s not the starting point for the faith that is at the heart of what we share in the church family and as we meet around the table.

Let’s start with Jesus Christ.   It may be we meet him in a moment, it may be we get to know him over a life-time of reflecting and thinking and exploring who he is.

Start there and what do we find – no easy answers about why God allows things to happen.

But rather we see that Jesus comes alongside people in their hurt and their pain.  He remains with them through the awfulness they experience.  And he draws them into the love of God to find that that love is a lover that restores and strengthens, that brings forgiveness and peace.

He shares with us at the point at which things are at their worst – sharing the awfulness of God-forsakeness on the cross.  And then remains with us through to something beyond.

And through it he opens up a relationship with God that finds God to be our father, close to us through that valley of deepest darkness and into the glory of his eternal love.

Paul’s apologia, moving as it is, is moving precisely because it is not a conversion moment from one religion to another, but a reminder that it is in the meeting with God that comes in Christ that our faith comes into its own.

And it is here as we gather around the table of our Lrod that we claim his presence and celebrate his presence hearing those words …

Come to me all you who are weary and heavy laden and I will give you rest.