Sunday, 8 December 2013

Acts 18 - God is with us - remembering Nelson Mandela

Part of me said, let’s have a break.

After all, Advent got off to a wonderful start last Sunday evening with our special Communion service of words and music for Advent with the choir, we had a wonderful Christmas Café yesterday getting us into the Christmas mood and our Christmas decorations are up in all their splendour.

And then I looked again.

We’ve arrived at Acts chapter 18 and Paul has arrived in Corinth.

And in a strange way we are propelled right the way back into the themes that are at the heart of our Advent celebration.

Two particular verses caught my eye and I thought I would stick with Acts and together visit Corinth.

As the events of the week unfolded, I made more and then more connections and somehow or other words from Acts 18 spoke very much into all that’s going on in a strangely remarkable week.

Paul leaves Athens and makes his way over to CorinthCorinth is at one end of a narrow isthmus that now has a canal that cuts the journey time between the Turkish coast and Rome drastically – in Paul’s day the short cut was just as valuable.  They could drag boats over rollers along the short isthmus.

That made Corinth a significantly large, cosmopolitan city that was at the crossroads of some of the most important routes in the ancient world.  And there was a rich mix of people there.

Paul makes a beeline for fellow Jewish people who had recently fled the wrath of the Emperor Claudius when he had expelled Jewish people from RomeAquila and Priscilla.  Their names turn up again in the closing chapter of Paul’s letter to the Romans as key members of the Church in Rome who had risked their lives for Paul.

Interestingly, we learn here that they had the same trade as Paul – they were tentmakers.  Not only did he stay with them but he also worked with them during his stay in Corinth.

Every Sabbath Paul would find his way to the synagogue, the gathering place for Jewish people and ‘argue, trying to convince Jews and Greeks.

Fascinating to see the place played by discussion, debate, dialogue, reasoning and argument in the way Paul got his message of Good News across.

Sadly, however he was not well received.  He had gone on ahead of Silas and Timothy: when they joined him Paul was immersed in what he was doing, proclaiming the Word as he looked to Jesus as the Messiah.

The opposition to Paul got more vehement to the point at which he seems to have had enough and he moved from the Jews to the Gentiles – almost a key moment in the shift to a focus on that gentile mission.

Tragically it contains reference to the angry outburst of Paul that is one of those verses to be taken quite out of its context.   Your blood be on your heads, says Paul, warning of the consequences of the course of action he was trying to persuade them to turn from.  We have to take great care at this kind of point – because the reaction to particular circumstances here led over the centuries to such a gross distortion that led to anti-semitism and the awfulness of all that culminated in the holocaust.

Paul remains a Jew and his Jewishness is very much to the fore in that letter he writes to the Romans at around this time indicating his plans to visit the church in Rome.

Paul may go next door to the house of Titius Justus, a worshipper of God and the community that becomes this church is made up among many others of Jewish people too.

It is a hostile environment.

And it is in this setting that one night the Lord spoke to Paul in a vision.

‘Do not be afraid, but speak and do not be silent; 10for I am with you, and no one will lay a hand on you to harm you, for there are many in this city who are my people.’

That’s it!  That’s the first of my connections!

‘Do not be afraid, but speak and do not be silent; 10for I am with you,

Fearful situations are real.  They cannot be escaped.  But into the darkness of a fear-ridden place comes a promise.

“I am with you.”

This is the parting promise of Jesus to his disciples at the end of Matthew 28.  Lo, I am with you always.

This is the promise that we encounter right at the outset in Matthew’s gospel.

an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, ‘Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.’ All this took place to fulfil what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet:
‘Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son,
   and they shall name him Emmanuel’,
which means, ‘God is with us.’

The antidote to fear comes in the voice of the Lord to Joseph.

And in the child that is to be born he sees Emmanuel.  God is with us.

In the face of fears, no matter what the anxiety, this is the promise to hold on to.  Not, oh God will get us out of this.  Not,  God will stop it all happening.  Not God will help us to  escape.

But rather,   Emmanuel, God is with us.

Lo, I am with you always.

And in this place, Acts 18:10 in the vision to Paul when he is surrounded by hostility.

“Do not be afraid … for I am with you.”

I had settled on this chapter and on this text on Thursday morning.  And then we got to the Church Meeting on Thursday evening.  It was another of those Church Meetings we have had recently that was a very important step into the future that lies ahead of us as a Church.

We heard that our new governance document has been accepted by the Congregational Federation and formally sealed so we are now operating under our new governance system.

But more importantly, we had had interviews of four people who had come forward to fill the posts of Ministry Leader and we heard their presentations.  Effectively it gave us at the Church meeting the opportunity to share a vision for the future shape of Highbury and engage with those who were sharing it.   The meeting then shared a ballot and we have appointed as our Ministry Leaders, Shirley  Fiddimore for worship, Karen Haden for discipleship, Jean Gregory for mission and outreach and Mary Buchanan for young people.  Joining Lorraine and Diana for pastoral care and Carolyn for children our team is now complete.   We next will be seeking the appointment of Deacons and a Church  Secretary and once that is in place at the Annual Meeting in March we will be ready to launch our new Diaconate and Ministry Leadership team.

I wanted to find a reading appropriate.  My mind went to the first of the letters Paul wrote to the church in Corinth, 1 Corinthians 12 with its talk of the rich variety of gifts there are in the church.  But then my eye switched from 1 Corinthians 12 back to Paul’s very first stay in Corinth and the vision he had.   Surely this is a vision for our Ministry Leaders too.

There is some apprehension in starting new things – and in undertaking new roles.  Into that apprehension these words speak …

‘Do not be afraid, but speak and do not be silent; [use the gifts God has given you!]  for I am with you, and no one will lay a hand on you to harm you, for there are many in this city[in this place]  who are my people.’

A wonderful sense of God’s presence – don’t be afraid, use those gifts God has given you for I am with you.  Emmanuel.  God with us.  The promise to take to heart. Lo, I am with you always.

No one will lay a hand on you to harm you, for there are many in this place – in this church family who are my people.  The whole work carried out in the context of the whole family of the church.

I got home from the church meeting to hear the news of the death of Nelson Mandela.

And it struck me those words spoke into his story too.

With his roots in a Methodist church Nelson Mandela is one who has sought to take seriously what is at the heart of the Christian faith – forgiveness.

I went on Thursday evening to the journal I kept when Ivisited Johannesburgfor a CWM conference bringing theological educators together from all over theworld.  At the same time, South Africa’s very first  Children’s Parliament was meeting.  And lo and behold who should visit the Parliament but Nelson Mandela.

I got speaking to a couple of youth leaders – young, in their twenties.  The quotation I put down from them we have heard a dozen and more times in the news bulletings of the last couple of days.

“The wonderful thing about Nelson Mandela is the way he was able to forgive.” 

When he spoke to the children, he spoke very directly of the fear of illness and of dying – sobering thoughts when you think that a high proportion of those youngsters were living with HIV Aids.

He urged them to he open about illness problems – in talking and sharing is real help.

He spoke of the importance of children to the future of the nation.  In ringing tones he challenged them, and all of us, to fulfil their responsibilities as citizens and to be caring people.

He touched on violence, On HIV Aids and on sickness too.

“Talk about it!  Don’t keep it to yourself,” he said.  And then he spoke of having TB and prostate cancer.

“They keep telling me to go to the USA and have it treated.

“But I say, no!  What would people think of our doctors and nurses if I said they were not good enough to look after me.

“They are good enough and I will stay.

“When I die,” he said and corrected himself.  “If I die …” he paused and laughter swept through the marquee.  “if I did I hope to go to the place where I will meet old friends.  And when they greet me there I look forward to being directed to the room where I will meet my ANC friends.

“Then I will say, ‘Send my prostate gland suffering from cancer to the USA.  Their doctors are so wonderful; let them treat it then.  When they return it to me I shall be back to see how you are all getting on.”

With more words about the importance of caring he greeted the members of the Children’s Parliament and his speech was over!

Great courage.  Great conviction.

One for whom the words of this text are so appropriate …

‘Do not be afraid, but speak and do not be silent; 10for I am with you, and no one will lay a hand on you to harm you, for there are many in this city who are my people.’

There is a darkness for us all at Christmas.  It was great to have our Christmas Café yesterday – with the hum of so many people around in the hall and the side rooms, the excitement of the scalextric racing it was lovely to have the tranquillity of the church – reflections prompted by carols.   The Dark Side of Christmas.  A prayer corner.  Focus on Syria, on Bethlehem, on troubles in our own town – and the need for Food Share.

Through it all these words are so I important for each of us to take to heart.

‘Do not be afraid, but speak and do not be silent; 10for I am with you, and no one will lay a hand on you to harm you, for there are many in this city who are my people.’

Sunday, 24 November 2013

Acts 17 - the ground of our being

It is difficult to appreciate the majestic setting of Athens in the bustle of the modern polluted city.

It was no less bustling a city in the days of Paul.

The centre point of the City then as now was the Akropolis.

A city set on a hill with the most remarkable of buildings that 2000 years later still  have a remarkable majesty about them.  And crowning glory of all the temple home of the Goddess  Athene – the Parthenon – complete, then, with its telling of the story of Athene and the great stories of the Greeks.   The Parthenon still stands in all its splendour, though the story is now told by the Elgin Marbles a couple of thousand miles away in the British Museum.

And under the Parthnenon a fine theatre still used for many a performance.  And so many fine temples, not least of which of course is the one to which we owe a debt of gratitude here in Cheltenham for the Caryatids up on Montpellier – a reproduction of the fine statues that hold up the roof of one of those temples.

It is to this cosmopolitan city that Paul and his travelling companions come.

And what happens there is so very telling.

He had plans to tour through churches in the region of what is now Western Turkey but in Luke’s account in Acts God had other ideas.  He made up for not visiting those churches in the region of Galatia by writing a letter to them.

That letter to the Galatians is a wonderful celebration of the freedom Paul so treasures

1For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.

in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything; the only thing that counts is faith working through love.

13 For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another. 14For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself.’

2 By contrast, the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, 23gentleness, and self-control.

Then it was they sensed the man from Macedonia summoning them across to what we now think of as Greece – from Philippi they made for nearby Thessalonica where Paul shared the wonderful good news of the death and resurrection of Jesus:  initially people were drawn to their message – but then they were accused of turning the world upside down and ‘acting contrary to the decrees of the emperor’

Hounded out of the city they made their way to Berea – and it wasn’t long before Paul was writing to the Thessalonians another of his early letters – urging them to hold on that resurrection faith, seeing death as but a sleep.  But they were to live as children of light and children of the day, not of the night or of darkness!

Then it was that Paul was escorted to Athens alone and had to wait to be joined by Silas and Timothy.

What happens in Athens is fascinating.

He is amazed at what he sees and in particular disturbed in a strange way by the number of idols there are in the city.  It’s a place for great discussion and reflection on the world.    A kind of coffee shop culture where people meet to explore the meaning of life and what its purpose is.  Different schools of philosophy – Epicureans who were out to enjoy life to the full with their eating and drinking, stoics, who reacted against unhelpful emotion and advocated strength of will and determination all vied with each other for support.

And so what did Paul do.

I think what he did is a key thing for us to take to hear in seeking to share our faith.

Up until now for the most part we have met with Paul and the other apsostles when they have been sharing the good news about Jesus with Jewish people who were steeped in the Hebrew Scriptures.  He rooted his account of the  Christian faith in those scriptures describing Jesus as the fulfilment of the law and the prophets.

But the people he engages with here in Athens don’t have that background.

The genius of Paul is that he engages with them on their ground, in their terms.

And this is what we need to take to heart in our sharing of the Gospel.

Advent is about to start and in the run up to Chritmas we have a wonderful opportunity to share our faith.  We are doing some things differently this year – take the opportunity to invite others – to the Advent service next Sunday evening.

To the Christmas Café the following week – we are wanting to share with people around us in the community around.

Take an opportunity through Christmas to share with others its meaning.

IN explaining the Christian faith how important it is to start where people are.

19So they took him and brought him to the Areopagus and asked him, ‘May we know what this new teaching is that you are presenting? 20It sounds rather strange to us, so we would like to know what it means.’ 21Now all the Athenians and the foreigners living there would spend their time in nothing but telling or hearing something new.

Was it a forum.  Was it on a hill overlooking the Acropolis?

A place of discussion.


And Paul has something he wants to share.

22 Then Paul stood in front of the Areopagus and said, ‘Athenians, I see how extremely religious you are in every way. 23For as I went through the city and looked carefully at the objects of your worship, I found among them an altar with the inscription, “To an unknown god.” What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you.

He starts where they are – and comes alongside them.  There is a respectfulness in what Paul says and a determination to share.

24The God who made the world and everything in it, he who is Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in shrines made by human hands,

You have to imagine the location, free from the smog of today.  Athens is set against a backdrop of majestic mountains, it is a city of hills, and in the distance the harbour and the glistening sea.

You can imagine Paul surveying the wonderful sccene of those remarkable mountains, the wonders of the sea that could be so cruel and yet so benign and these words come alive.  The sweep of his hands takes it all in and then points to even the finest of those buildings.  The finest of those buildings pall into insignificance in comparison with the majesty and the awe of the world of nature and those mountains and that sea.

This is an echo of much the same kind of thinking Stephen had shared when speaking of the Temple of the Jewish people in Jerusalem.

This is something rooted in Jesus’ insights himself – God’s presence is not located in buildings made from stone – it is to be seen and to be sensed in the whole of creation.

24The God who made the world and everything in it, he who is Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in shrines made by human hands,
25nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mortals life and breath and all things.

That sense of the glory of God in creation Paul then elaborates on.

I find this to be the roots of my valuing the world of science as a way into speaking of the sheer wonder of God in creation – it’s a great starting place.  IT doesn’t give evidence and proof of God – but it shows that there is good warrant for our belief.

26From one ancestor he made all nations to inhabit the whole earth, and he allotted the times of their existence and the boundaries of the places where they would live, 27so that they would search for God and perhaps grope for him and find him—though indeed he is not far from each one of us.

There is, suggests Paul, something built into all humanity – a questing after truth, a question after God.  In every society, however remote, there is a sense of the divine, a sense of the religious.  This sense paul makes something of.

People reaching out after God.  And at the same time God is reaching out after them.

In two quite different settings recently I have found people fascinated by the writings of Sartre and the existentialists of the 1960’s.  In response to that way of thinking then thinkers like Paul Tillich and nearer to home the Bishop of Woolwich John Robinson sought a response that would use the language of that day to present the truths of God.

This year sees the fiftieth anniversary of Honest to God John robinson’s attempt at popularising that thinking.

I have always found it helpful.  To think of God as Being, the very being that makes us be.  Being itself.

Tillich has a wonderful theology that he develops around the idea of correlation.

People seek for God.

Let’s suppose there is a God.

It would not be unreasonable to suppose God would reach out to people.

It is as people’s questing, and God’s searching meet that something is triggered off .  A moment of disclosure.  An awareness of God.

This, it seems to me is what Paul is speaking of here.

26From one ancestor he made all nations to inhabit the whole earth, and he allotted the times of their existence and the boundaries of the places where they would live, 27so that they would search for God and perhaps grope for him and find him—though indeed he is not far from each one of us.

He then goes on to quote not the Bible, but one of the Greek poets and thinkers …

28For “In him we live and move and have our being”; as even some of your own poets have said,
“For we too are his offspring.”

So God is something beyond our understanding , the very lifebreath of our existence – the ground of our being, being itself.

29Since we are God’s offspring, we ought not to think that the deity is like gold, or silver, or stone, an image formed by the art and imagination of mortals. 30While God has overlooked the times of human ignorance, now he commands all people everywhere to repent, 31because he has fixed a day on which he will have the world judged in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed, and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.’

It is then, obliquely, that he turns to the story of Jesus.

The very nature of God can be undrsood in the one in whom God’s presence dwells supreme – in Jesus Christ himself.

Now Paul reaches the climax of all he shares and he focuses on jesus Christ.

A triumph – it’s interesting that it’s not long after this he describes to the church in a neighbouring city that we are going to visit next week, Corinth, that it is this bit of the message he has come to focus on more than anything else.  We preach Christ crucified.

This kind of philosophising has its place.  But it is in the simply sotry of Jesus that the impact of our faith is felt at its greatest.

32 When they heard of the resurrection of the dead, some scoffed; but others said, ‘We will hear you again about this.’ 33At that point Paul left them. 34But some of them joined him and became believers, including Dionysius the Areopagite and a woman named Damaris, and others with them.

Isn’t it intriguing how we catch a glimpse of people, named presumably because they could be tracked down, their witness verified, because they became people who played their part in the life of the church.

Damaris – what was she like, I wonder.

There’s a wonderful website,  that explores the modern world of culture and the way in which in particular films speak of the deep things of life and touch on our Christian faith.

They have named the website after this woman, Damaris, who so valued the approach of Paul who was willing to start where people were and then draw them towards God, towards Jesus Christ and towards faith.

I for one am pleased Damaris has such a part to play in the life of the church now … just as much as then.

Sunday, 17 November 2013

Acts 16 - Citizens of Heaven

There is an immediacy to the Bible which means that we can open it and read it and hear God’s word for us. 

We left by ship from Troas and sailed straight across to Samothrace, and the next day to Neapolis. 12 From there we went inland to Philippi, a city of the first district of Macedonia;  it is also a Roman colony. We spent several days there. 13 On the Sabbath we went out of the city to the riverside, where we thought there would be a place where Jews gathered for prayer. We sat down and talked to the women who gathered there. 14 One of those who heard us was Lydia from Thyatira, who was a dealer in purple cloth. She was a woman who worshiped God, and the Lord opened her mind to pay attention to what Paul was saying. 15 After she and the people of her house had been baptized, she invited us, “Come and stay in my house if you have decided that I am a true believer in the Lord.” And she persuaded us to go.

There is also a depth to the Bible which means we can explore it and investigate it and ask question of it.  In particular God chose to work at a particular time in a particular place with particular people – that means it is good and important for us to seek to understand what was going on at the time, something of that culture and see how people respond.

As we read through Acts we get a  picture of a church seeking to follow in the footsteps of Jesus in what is often a hostile world.

The early church had its roots in the Jewish world, seeing Jesus as the fulfilment of the Law the Prophets and the Writings.  But at the same time they lived with one particular dominant culture, you could say one particular dominant power – the Roman Empire.  How are they to live with Rome?   There was a whole range of ways Jewish people sought to live with Rome – Some went along with the power of Rome and joined in with it – Herod the Great, the Herodians, the High Priests the Sadducees.  Others sought to reaffirm the purity of the law – the Pharisees maybe.

Others sought refuge in a monastic rule of life and community in the desert – the Essenes.  There were those who wanted to resist with power – rebellion against Rome.  Armed rebellion.

John the Baptist was critical – a prophetic voice in the wilderness.  Jesus lined himself up with that prophetic voice and was taken to be a prophet – indeed described himself as such – and held the powers that be to account.

What of the early church?

It is a dilemma.  Much that is good about Rome – positive stories about the Centurion helped by Jesus, the centurion at the cross.  The peace that was established under Augustus was a peace that prevailed – it gave rise to ease of travel, straight roads.  Respect for Rome.

That is one end – work with the culture, go with the flow, work within its power base.  That’s the element we find as Paul and Silas and Luke reach Philippi.

I want to home in on one verse in particular – it’s a verse that is easy to miss, easy to skip over, but significant enough for Luke to mention.  In Luke’s day it would have an immediate meaning for people reading his book.  They would have known what it meant.

Verse 12

12 From there we went inland to Philippi, a city of the first district of Macedonia;  it is also a Roman colony.

That is something that becomes of great significance and is worth reflecting on.

44 BC
Julius Caesar Assassinated

42 BC
The army of Brutus and Cassius meet in battle with the army of Mark Anthony and Octavian

Mark Anthony and Octavian are victorious.
Mark Anthony marries Julius Caesar’s lover, Cleopatra
Julius Caesar’s step son, Octavian, changes his name to Augustus, describes his father Caesar as ‘divine’ and describes himself as ‘Son of God’
In 31 BC Octavian defeats Mark Anthony and prepares the way for himself to become Emperor of Rome.  Within 16 years is acclaimed as the first Emperor of Rome.  He is still the Emperor Augustus when Jesus is born.

31 BC
Near the site of the decisive battle that effectively brought Caesar Augustus to power is a small settlement called Philippi.
Augustus refounded Philippi as a Roman colony in honour of the Julian family giving it the name, Colonia Iulia Augusta Philippensis and under his personal patronage.

‘With this change of status just over a hundred years prior to Paul’s letter, Philippi now enjoyed the considerable privilege of Italian legal status  (ius italicum): its colonists had not only citizenship but extensive property and legal rights, and they were exempt from poll taxes and land taxation.  In return, the colony carefully maintained and groomed its image as a city loyal to the emperor’s authority, in both government and religion…. Not only citizenship and political loyalties were Roman, but even the form of local government was patterned on that of Rome itself, with two chief magistrates (duumviri iure dicundo) at the hed.  Citizens of Philipp were at the same time citizens of the city of Rome
Markus Bockmuehl, The Epistle to the Philippians (A & C Black, 1997)

Very important to see that a colony in the Roman Empire is very different from colonies of other empires.  Colonia is the very special status given to a very important city – those who live within the walls of the city and are citizens are living as if they are citizens of Rome itself – they have all the luxuries all the privileges and all the responsibilities as well.

Aside:  while Paul had been on his earlier travels the Emperor Claudius had ambitions to extend his empire Westwards and conquer the last bit of Western  Europe that still the Romans had not succeded in conquering.  Julius Caesar had tried a hundred years before but failed.

Now Claudius was determined to do much better.  He had sent his legionaries in AD 43 and by AD 47 they had marched Westwards as far as the River Severn where I live!  They set up a fortress, as Paul is in Philippi they are subduing the Celtic tribes.  They establish next a city at the first crossing over the Severn – Gloucester today has a street layout that is exactly Roman – in AD 95 the Emperor Nerva granted Gloucester, Glevum as it was called the status of Colonia – only the second city in Britain to be given that status.

You can walk the walls of the city, laid out in the street plan, though hardly any walls remain.  And you can see a wonderful mural that tells a story and a pub that explains the status the city had – a colonia.

Retired soldiers able to live there with all the delights of Rome and celtic tribes people and leaders made to feel really important – and though you might not believe it now they could have the luxury of running water, baths, theatre, games, and under floor heating to keep them warm in the cold British winters.

The Romans were clever.  They went along with local customs, local cultures, they allowed local religions – but when it came to the city and especially a Colonia they expected those within the city to follow the Roman religious customs, keep to the Roman ways and culture.

Rosemary Rowe is a wonderful thriller writer locally in Gloucestershire writing detective stories about Libertus a Mosaic Maker from Corinium, moder Cirencester a short way from Glevum and linked by the straightest of straight Roman Roads Ermin Street.   The Ghosts of Glevum is set in Gloucester and it tells of a shadowy group of people who are committed to helping poor people and have a reputation for caring for people and healing people and making a difference – and they meet outside the walls of the Colonia by the riverside.

They are the followers of someone called Jesus.

Just as in the story here – you can track it through –

Paul, Silas and Luke remain in the city for a number of days.  And then

13 On the Sabbath we went out of the city to the riverside, where we thought there would be a place where Jews gathered for prayer. We sat down and talked to the women who gathered there.

Notice how it is outside the city walls – by the river.

 14 One of those who heard us was Lydia from Thyatira, who was a dealer in purple cloth. She was a woman who worshiped God, and the Lord opened her mind to pay attention to what Paul was saying.

Place of prayer – the implication is they were worshipping God – doesn’t actually say Jews.

Love that way it speaks of the way ‘the Lord opened her mind to pay attention to what Paul was saying.’

Woman who is a business woman – dealer in purple cloth – very expensive from Thyatira, particularly precious and important for the Romans.

Invitation to stay at Lydia’s house – she has a house in a colonia that makes her a pretty important person, a person of some standing.   Baptised – and ‘a true believer’ in the Lord.

Live in the colonia – the place of prayer outside the city walls.  It fits.

Then there is the account of the young girl – it is as they are going from the city to the place of prayer they are plagued by the young girl –

Abused – men making money from this young girl.

And Paul brings her healing – in the name of Jesus Christ.

The girl’s owners realise they have lost their source of money and income.  They are angry – the accusation is important to note – we will come back to that tomorrow –

16 One day as we were going to the place of prayer, we were met by a young servant woman who had an evil spirit that enabled her to predict the future. She earned a lot of money for her owners by telling fortunes. 17 She followed Paul and us, shouting, “These men are servants of the Most High God! They announce to you how you can be saved!” 18 She did this for many days, until Paul became so upset that he turned around and said to the spirit, “In the name of Jesus Christ I order you to come out of her!” The spirit went out of her that very moment. 1

When her owners realized that their chance of making money was gone, they seized Paul and Silas and dragged them to the authorities in the public square. 20 They brought them before the Roman officials and said, “These men are Jews, and they are causing trouble in our city. 21 They are teaching customs that are against our law; we are Roman citizens, and we cannot accept these customs or practice them.” 22 And the crowd joined in the attack against Paul and Silas.
Then the officials tore the clothes off Paul and Silas and ordered them to be whipped. 23 After a severe beating, they were thrown into jail, and the jailer was ordered to lock them up tight. 24 Upon receiving this order, the jailer threw them into the inner cell and fastened their feet between heavy blocks of wood.

Then about midnight Paul and Silas are singing praises to God and the earthquake happens – the gaoler is about to take his own life because he the prisoners will have escaped.  They haven’t, he hears about the Good News of Jesus and he and his household are baptised.

All sorts of wonderful things going on here – from the significant part played by Lydia to household baptisms – the house church.

And then the officials come to release Paul and co.

And this is the point I want to home in on.

Paul at this moment stresses that he is fully a Roman.  What is more he is a Roman citizen.  That is particularly significant in a Colonia.  He has rights.  They have been violated.

The next morning the Roman authorities sent police officers with the order, “Let those men go.”
36 So the jailer told Paul, “The officials have sent an order for you and Silas to be released. You may leave, then, and go in peace.”
37 But Paul said to the police officers, “We were not found guilty of any crime, yet they whipped us in public—and we are Roman citizens! Then they threw us in prison. And now they want to send us away secretly? Not at all! The Roman officials themselves must come here and let us out.”
38 The police officers reported these words to the Roman officials; and when they heard that Paul and Silas were Roman citizens, they were afraid. 39 So they went and apologized to them; then they led them out of the prison and asked them to leave the city. 40 Paul and Silas left the prison and went to Lydia's house. There they met the believers, spoke words of encouragement to them, and left.

Through this whole story the thing I notice is that it fits exactly the rules of the Colonia.  And Paul respects that.  He works with that Roman culture.  More than that he takes pride in being a  Roman citizen.

He works with it.  He goes with the flow.

There is a genius to the Colonia idea.

It was a primary way the  Romans had of winning hearts and minds.

They provided a working model in the middle of a very different culture whatever that might be of what it was like actually to live in Rome.

Within the walls of the Colonia you might as well have been in Rome itself.

This was the genius.

Those celtic tribes people around Glevum or those Macedonians around Philippi could actually experience within the Colonia what it was like to be a citizen of Rome … and it was very attractive.  It drew them.

And Paul knew exactly how it worked.

Paul’s travels take him to Corinth to Athens and back again and eventually off to Jerusalem with a collection for the poorest and victims of famine there – but of course he is arrested.  And after endless delays eventually appeals to Rome where by now Nero is Emperor.

And from prison in Rome he writes to the church in Philippi.

Is it a church still valuing the hospitality of Lydia, still meeting down by the river?

In Philippians 3:18-4:1

Paul describes a hostile world in which so much is destructive, governed by base human instincts and a brutal kind of greed.

Within this hostile world – the church gathers togheter – and are called to be a Colonia of God’s kingdom.

We, however, are citizens of heaven, and we eagerly wait for our Saviour, the Lord Jesus Christ, to come from heaven. 21 He will change our weak mortal bodies and make them like his own glorious body, using that power by which he is able to bring all things under his rule.

We are citizens of heaven.

So as citizens of heaven we are under God’s rule – just like the citizens of Rome.

Here in his place we live as citizens of heaven – inside the church – the church offers a model of what it is like to live under God’s rule.

Value of using the culture around us – but then within the church seeing the church as a colonia of heaven – where we offer a picture of what the rule of God is like.

A challenging picture for us of church and what it means to be church today.

A sermon of Martin Luther King’s

We are called to a higher loyalty, to a more excellent way

Indeed, every true Christian is a citizen of two worlds the world of time and the world of eternity

We find ourselves in the paradoxical situation of having to be in
the world and yet not of the world

As Paul said in Philippians 3 

“We are a colony of heaven ”

The Christians to whom Paul was writing understood that figure, for
their city of Phillippi was a Roman colony Whenever Rome wanted to Romanize a province, it took a small colony of people and planted them there to spread Roman law, Roman culture, and Roman customs

These people stood as a powerful, creative minority spreading the gospel of Roman culture Even though they lived in another country their ultimate allegiance was to Rome.

While this analogy has its weaknesses, if for no other reason than that it is placed in the framework of a system that has become a symbol of injustice and exploitation, - colonialism- it  does point out the responsibility of the Christian in an unchristian world

We are sent out as pioneers to imbue an unchristian world with the ideals and way of living of a higher order and a more noble realm

Even though we live in the colony of time we are ultimately responsible to the empire of eternity

In other words, as Christians we must never give our ultimate loyalty to any home-bound custom or idea of earth

There is a higher reality at the heart of our universe to which we must be conformed - God and his kingdom of love

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!

Sunday, 3 November 2013

Acts 15 - church meetings and how they work

Are we nearly there yet?

I don’t know about you but if I want to wind up the adults I’m travelling with I can mimic the question the youngsters started asking no sooner than we had just set out.

Are we nearly there yet?

Is the question we might well ask of all the changes we have been putting together for the church here at Highbury.

Yes, we’re getting there.

Since our last Church meeting we have had interviews for all our Ministry Leaders and we will be sharing the fruits of those interviews at Thursday’s Deacons meeting.  Then at our Church Meeting in December will be an opportunity to hear each of those who have come forward sharing their vision for the worship, the discipleship, the mission and outreach and the youth work we do as a church family.

Things are falling into place as then we turn to our Deacons elections and maybe most for our prayer the post of Church Secretary to fill in March.

Come our Annual Meeting things will be in place – and the end of this process will be the beginning of new things to take us forward into the future ahead of us.

And in it all we seek to root all that we do in the Scriptures, in the Bible.

That’s why in this period we are reading through the Book of Acts – to get a sense of what church is all about.

There was a time when I thought that our Congregational Way of being the church was the authentic New  Testament way of being the church.  I have boks that demonstrate that the Congrgational principle is the New Testament principle – and many of those books excite me.  In some ways I am quite passionate about believing that.  And yet in other ways I have come to feel that’s the wrong way of thinking: not just unhelpful but also damaging.

It’s very easy for me to say, I’m right and to Methodists, or Anglicans, or Roman Catholics, or Pentecostals, or Charismatics – you are wrong.

As I read the scriptures I think there is rich diversity in the church of the New Testament – as followers of Jesus who stay in Jerusalem continue to value the worship of the Temple with its high liturgy so Roman Catholic and Orthodox friends will find warrant for their worship and their understanding of priesthood in those parts of the Bible that speak of temple and its worship.  As followers of Jesus spread out into the Jewish diaspora of the Mediterranean world they take much of what became the synagogue tradition and make it their own – and we find warrant for our worship and our understandings of priesthood there.  And as followers of Jesus made contact with the cosmopolitan world of the great cities like Corinth they shared exuberance in worship that provide warrant for charismatic and Pentecostal friends in the worship they share and their sense of the way church is.

What’s important for us, I believe, is not to say our way is the right biblical way and yours is wrong.  But instead what is important for us is to say this is where we find warrant for our practices in the Scripture – these are where our roots are in the Bible.

It was when my supervisor and principal of our Theological  College in North Wales, a prolific writer and thinker in the Welsh Language, Tudur Jones spoke at one of our early assemblies here in Cheltenham he quoted a seventeenth century thinker who suggested that when it comes to matters of church and the way we do things unless the roots of it are in the Bible then it will come to nothing.

That was the inspiration my father had for the cover design of his little book on the first years of the Congregational Federation.   A tree growing with roots in the Bible.

IT’s as we come to Acts 15 that we encounter another of those glimpses of the life of the early church where I would maintain I find warrant for the way we do things in our Congregational Way of being the Church.  And yet is also a chapter that others will find warrant for the way they do things.

That too is to me not a threat, but a reminder that all our structures have partial value and none has the perfection some long for.

You only have to look at the headings in many a translation and commentary for this chapter to realise how straightaway the translators are putting a slant on things.

It’s one of those moments when the Good News Bible excites me.

The NRSV goes with the heading that many a commentator will use – so much so that I find myself referring to what happened in this chapter by this heading.

The Council at Jerusalem.

Call what happened in this chapter ‘the Council at Jerusalem’ and many Anglican and Catholic and orthodox friends will say – this is the first of those gatherings that later were to develop into the great Ecumenical Councils of the church – the Council of Nicea, the Council of Chalcedon – and then that tradition comes into the parlance of the Catholic church in the Council of Trent, the 1st and then the 2nd Vatican Council.

You get all the trappings of bishops coming together to ‘define’ the faith.

But wait a moment.

Look at the Good News Bible and what do you find as the heading for this chapter.

The Meeting at Jerusalem.

That’s interesting.

That’s a reading that draws my attention.

What’s going on here?

This is the point when things come to a head.

There is a significant difference of view among the followers of Jesus.

The issue has been simmering away from the early chapters of Acts.

It’s all to do with the relationship between Jews and Gentiles in the church.  Given that Jesus is fully Jewish, and those first followers of his we read of in the Gospels and the early chapters of Act are for the most part fully Jewish, what expectations should be placed on Gentiles who come to follow Jesus?

Peter has had his moment of inspiration when in that vision he hears the voice of God telling him to get up, kill and eat all manner of living things that are banned in the books of the Law.   The vision prompts him to visit Cornelius, a Centruiorn of all people of the Italian Cohort, who is based in the seat of Roman power over Judea and Samarai, Caesarea Maritima.

And he discovers that wonderful breakthrough moment that ‘God shows no partiality’.

Barnabas and Paul then find thesleves with a commission to take the Gospel, this wonderful good news to the Gentile world.

There is a wonderful rhythm as in these last few chapters of Acts we have seen the reach of the Gospel going into the Mediterranean world and then coming back to touch base in Antioch, and then to touch base in Jerusalem, as if the followers of Jesus are touching base with their roots in the place where the death and resuurection of Jesus happened, in the place where the Holy Spirit of God was let loose in the world.

There’s tension when people from Judea maintain that you cannot be saved unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses.

Then certain individuals came down from Judea and were teaching the brothers, ‘Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved.’ 2And after Paul and Barnabas had no small dissension and debate with them,

There’s interchange of thinking between the church in Antioch and the church in Jerusalem – it leads to dissension and debate.

That’s important first of all – it is not wrong to have dissension and debate.  IT’s what you do with that that’s important.

Paul and Barnabas and some of the others were appointed to go up to Jerusalem to discuss this question with the apostles and the elders. 3So they were sent on their way by the church, and as they passed through both Phoenicia and Samaria, they reported the conversion of the Gentiles, and brought great joy to all the believers. 4When they came to Jerusalem, they were welcomed by the church and the apostles and the elders, and they reported all that God had done with them. 5But some believers who belonged to the sect of the Pharisees stood up and said, ‘It is necessary for them to be circumcised and ordered to keep the law of Moses.’

6 The apostles and the elders met together to consider this matter.

Notice the way they are welcomed by the church and the apostles and the elders.

That’s the whole church.

What is happening here is not a council bringing together representatives from lots of different churches are geographical localities.

This is a meeting together of the church in Jerusalem.

The apostles and elders – those sent by Jesus apostles.  Were the elders those who held an office – some argue so.  Or were they, the seniors, the older, wiser people who had more experience.  That’s a looser number.

Then we see the discussion.

It’s interesting to see how the meeting works – first, there is space for ‘much debate’

6 The apostles and the elders met together to consider this matter. 7After there had been much debate, Peter stood up and said to them,

Then after much debate – Peter puts his point of view.  Interesting he holds back and lets everyone have their say first.

What he says is riveting,  there’s a whole theology resting in these words but that vision and the insight he has had before are re-stated.

It’s powerful stuff.  That comes to an end in no uncertain terms.

Peter stood up and said to them, ‘My brothers, you know that in the early days God made a choice among you, that I should be the one through whom the Gentiles would hear the message of the good news and become believers. 8And God, who knows the human heart, testified to them by giving them the Holy Spirit, just as he did to us; 9and in cleansing their hearts by faith he has made no distinction between them and us. 10Now therefore why are you putting God to the test by placing on the neck of the disciples a yoke that neither our ancestors nor we have been able to bear? 11On the contrary, we believe that we will be saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, just as they will.’

That’s a powerful conclusion.

Then there’s a wonderful moment.

The whole assembly kept silence,

The value of pausing for a moment.  Moments to let the heat go out of the debate.

There was a school of thought in the nineteenth and early twentieth century that saw a massive split between Peter and Paul.  More recently that has been underplayed.  There is a consistency here … a sense of progression as Paul and Barnabas now speak.  Notice it’s not just Paul, but Paul and Barnabas.

and listened to Barnabas and Paul as they told of all the signs and wonders that God had done through them among the Gentiles. 1

What they said is not recorded – it concurs with what has been said.

Then comes a kind of summing up.  Notice it is not Peter.  It is James.  Not the James who was a son of Zebedee, a fisherman disciple.  Another James.  In all likelihood the James who was a brother of Jesus who in Jesus lifetime had not undertood the message of Jesus but in death and resurrection had come to see what it was all about.  This James now speaks and seems to sum up all that has been said …

13After they finished speaking, James replied, ‘My brothers, listen to me. 14Simeon has related how God first looked favourably on the Gentiles, to take from among them a people for his name. 15This agrees with the words of the prophets, as it is written,
16 “After this I will return,
and I will rebuild the dwelling of David, which has fallen;
   from its ruins I will rebuild it,
     and I will set it up,
17 so that all other peoples may seek the Lord—
Thus says the Lord, who has been making these things 18known from long ago.”

Again, in these few words there’s lots of really important theology here.  Not least a reading of the Scripture that sees that from Abraham right through to exile and beyond the Jewish people have been a people chosen by  God that through them God’s blessing should come to all the world. And this moment spoken of in the prophets, not least prophets of exile, Babylonian Isaiah and Jeremiah and Ezekiel has reached its fulfilment in Jesus.

Then it is as if for James to sum up his sense of what this discussion has led to – the consensus arrived at by the apostles and elders –

He comes up with a way forward that involves writing a round robin letter setting out the principle but accommodating those who have strong feelings … Gentiles will not have to be circumcised but at this moment and at this stage they are to be asked to be respectful of Jewish customs and practice.

19Therefore I have reached the decision that we should not trouble those Gentiles who are turning to God, 20but we should write to them to abstain only from things polluted by idols and from fornication and from whatever has been strangled and from blood. 21For in every city, for generations past, Moses has had those who proclaim him, for he has been read aloud every sabbath in the synagogues.’

This is the point at which I find our way of doing things has its roots in the New Testament and in the Bible.

You might have thought that the decision of the apostles and elders would count.  The decision of James as the one presiding would count.

But no, something further has to happen as well.

It is something we have seen in Acts 6 and we see it again now.

22 Then the apostles and the elders, with the consent of the whole church, decided to choose men from among their members and to send them to Antioch with Paul and Barnabas. They sent Judas called Barsabbas, and Silas, leaders among the brothers, 23with the following letter: ‘

They seek the consent of the whole church.

That’s the bit where we find our roots in the Bible for our Church Meeting.

We have had our equivalent of ‘apostles and elders’ working away in groups, hammering out all sorts of things.  But at each step of the way we have acted with the consent of the whole Church – as we have sought it in Church Meeting.

This is a wonderfully exciting way of being church to my mind.

This is where we find our roots in the Bible.

‘The brothers, both the apostles and the elders, to the believers of Gentile origin in Antioch and Syria and Cilicia, greetings. 24Since we have heard that certain persons who have gone out from us, though with no instructions from us, have said things to disturb you and have unsettled your minds, 25we have decided unanimously to choose representatives and send them to you, along with our beloved Barnabas and Paul, 26who have risked their lives for the sake of our Lord Jesus Christ. 27We have therefore sent Judas and Silas, who themselves will tell you the same things by word of mouth. 28For it has seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us to impose on you no further burden than these essentials: 29that you abstain from what has been sacrificed to idols and from blood and from what is strangled and from fornication. If you keep yourselves from these, you will do well. Farewell.’

This is not a decree of a council.

IT is a letter sharing insights from the church in Jerusalem – a church that through this process of dissension and debate had come to the point of making a decision ‘unanimously’

There’s a wonderful description of the decision – not just a matter of a vote but a sense of the guiding of the Spirit.

28For it has seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us to impose on you no further burden than these essentials: 29that you abstain from what has been sacrificed to idols and from blood and from what is strangled and from fornication. If you keep yourselves from these, you will do well. Farewell.’

We seek the mind of the Meeting, the mind of Christ in what we do.  That’s what’s important for us together.

A brief letter with guidance.

And what happens when these people go off to the church in Antioch with the letter

This is a glimpse of what happens with these letters.

30 So they were sent off and went down to Antioch. When they gathered the congregation together, they delivered the letter. 31When its members read it, they rejoiced at the exhortation. 32Judas and Silas, who were themselves prophets, said much to encourage and strengthen the believers. 33After they had been there for some time, they were sent off in peace by the believers to those who had sent them. 35But Paul and Barnabas remained in Antioch, and there, with many others, they taught and proclaimed the word of the Lord.

They gather the church at Antioch together for a reading of the letter.  And there is a sense of joy at what is shared.

Interesting that Judas and Silas are described as themselves ‘prophets’ people who declare God’s word – and they are in the spirit of Barnabas as they ‘encourage and strengthen’ the believers.

There is a sense of peace in the church now in Antioch as they send them off in peace after they haven there for a while.

And Paul and Barnabas remain, with many others, teaching and proclaiming the word of God.

That’s the last we hear of Peter.   And the focus now returns to Paul and Barnabas, though as we see the focus in Acts shifts from Paul and Barnabas simply to Paul for reasons that are really disturbing … but that we shall have to leave for another time.