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.’