Peter & Paul – a sermon by Margaret Offerman

ImageToday we’re celebrating the lives of Peter and Paul, towering figures in  the life of the early Christian church.

Peter features in all four gospels and so we know far more about his personal life and circumstances than we do about Paul. He was known as Simon when he heard  Jesus calling him to be a disciple.  His father was called John or Jonas. Peter’s brother was Andrew;  they were both fishermen, sailing the boat owned by their father.   Peter was married but presumably when, as the gospel says, he left his nets to follow the call, he left his wife as well, though he was made aware of his mother in law’s illness and was there when Jesus restored her to health.  He had a Galilean accent and was probably uneducated – fishermen in ancient times were from the poorer sections of society.  But Jesus nicknamed him Peter, from the Latin word for stone or rock.  And he became a foundation stone of the Jesus movement.  

During Jesus’s lifetime, Peter’s reliability wasn’t always secure.  He could get a frim grasp of the wrong end of the stick and this sometimes led Jesus to be irritated with him.  As we’ve just heard, when Jesus questioned  his disciples about the way he was regarded,  Peter proclaimed that he was the Messiah, but was unwilling to accept that the Messiah must suffer and be put to death, Jesus rebuked him and said, Out of my sight, Satan.  You think as men think, not as God thinks.  He admonished Peter for his lack of faith when Peter was frightened because the boat they were all travelling in was caught in a head wind.  This seems to me to be seriously unfair.  It’s a very human reaction to be alarmed at the prospect of being drowned.  But Peter thinks simply as he did when he and James and John saw Jesus transformed, radiant in glory in the company of Moses and Elijah  on a mountain side.  Peter wanted to build a settlement of tabernacles so that they could stay with Jesus in this sublime state; he didn’t realise that this vision was a gift, but an intangible  gift.  

Peter’s denial of Jesus came at his darkest hour.   Cursing and swearing he fulfilled Jesus’s warning that he would disown him and then wept bitterly as he realised what he’d done.   

Paul was known as Saul, after the king of Israel  when he first appeared in the Acts of theApostles.  Paul comes from the Latin word for small and was also a nickname.   He was from a much higher social class than Peter.  Like Peter, Paul was a Jew but he was a Roman citizen,  spoke  Greek  and earned a living as a tent maker.  This was a skilled craft and would bring him into contact with wealthy merchants who commissioned tents to avoid staying in inns when they travelled.  Paul  plays no part in the gospel story.   He was a Pharisee, strongly opposed to the Jesus movement  and prepared to take personal responsibility for ensuring that its followers were exterminated.  When Stephen was being stoned to death by the officers of the Sanhedrin, the men carrying out the execution laid their garments at the feet of Saul.  

These two men couldn’t be more different, in background, education, status,  experience.  But they both had very significant, life changing visions, both on journeys and both leading to a seismic shift in the early church’s recognition of its mission.  

Paul’s vision came at the gate of Damascus where he had arrived to carry on with his persecution of Christians  in that city.  He was struck down and blinded but  he recovered his senses when he was blessed by Ananias who said to him, Saul, my brother, the lord Jesus who appeared to you on your way here has sent me to you so that you may recover your sight and be filled with the holy spirit.  Paul began preaching in the synagogue and the writer of Acts says that [he]went from strength to strength and confounded the Jews in Damascus with his cogent proofs that Jesus was the Messiah.   Paul became a great missionary pioneer and his mission was to the Gentiles.  This is explicit in his sermons and his letters.  God, who called me through his grace chose to reveal his son in and through me in order that I might proclaim him among the Gentiles.  I saw that  I  had been entrusted to take the gospel to the Gentiles.  There is no such thing as Jew and Greek, male and female, slave and freeman for you are all one in Christ Jesus.

Peter’s vision came to him as he was travelling from Joppa to Caesarea.  He was hungry, possibly hallucinating, when he saw a huge sailcloth being lowered from the sky.  It was full of animals waiting to be slaughtered but Peter had no way of telling if they were species which Jews were permitted to eat.  The law of Moses was very strict regarding meat and fish that Jews could eat – an  animal must have a split hoof and chew the cud. Fish must have fins and scales.  Birds must not feed on carrion.  Peter would’ve been brought up knowing these prohibitions.  When he heard a voice telling him to kill and eat he protested that he had never eaten anything profane or unclean.  The voice replied sternly that it was not for him to describe as unclean anything that God had designated clean.    

After his vision Peter received a message that a Roman centurion, Corneilius, wanted to know the Jesus story.  Peter entered his house and recognised the deep faith of the whole gathering.  His dialogue with them was interrupted when the holy spirit came over all who were listening to the message.  The believers who’d come with Peter were amazed that the gift of the spirit should have been poured out on Gentiles.   Peter said: Is anyone prepared to withhold the water of baptism from these persons who have received the spirit just as we did?  

This week the PCC approved a letter Trevor has drafted to our bishop on the subject of the Bishops’ Pastoral Guidance on Same Sex Marriage.  To use the word pastoral in this context causes me utter dismay.  I spent my working life trying to persuade adolescent girls to respect the meaning of words.  Here’s a section of the letter.  … The Church of England has always allowed and encouraged a broad spectrum of theology and practice and to deny gay and lesbian clergy [the right] to marry is out of step with contemporary morality and traditional Anglican broadness. ……..The church’s attitude to sexuality is a cause of scandal and a blemish on the body of Christ.     By coincidence the day of the PCC meeting was the day that it was announced that another Anglican priest is to be deprived of his licence for marrying his same sex partner, which the law of the land says he is perfectly entitled to do.   Remember Peter’s declaration:  I now understand how true it is that God has no favourites but in every nation those who are god-fearing are acceptable to him.  2,000  years ago, Peter and Paul recognised that the church was ungodly if it was exclusive. 

God chose Peter, Paul, Cornelius, Mary Magdalen, Mary and Martha, not perfect people, human people, a vast number of people with diverse gifts, assorted sets of emotional baggage, stable and unstable temperaments.  Just as he has chosen us with our shades of belief, our age or youth, our social status, our sexuality, our ethnic background,  our intellectual limitations  and strengths and he has said: I have no favourites;  you are all of equal value to me.  

The Story of Hagar Genesis 21.8-21

ImageOur first reading this morning is a challenging one; it reveals one of the skeletons in the cupboard of the Judaeo-Christian tradition; but to fully understand the challenge we need a little background information.

The story concerns Abraham, Sarah and Hagar.  I was tempted to try and make the story more accessible and arouse your interest by describing their relationship as a “love triangle” – but I think to describe the triangle as being about “love” would be to gloss over a tale of power and abuse.

I will briefly tell the story that leads up to this morning’s reading:

God promised Abraham that he would be the father of many nations.  A promise that did not seem possible.

Let’s pause to describe the central three characters:

Abraham is a patriarch – a respected nomad with a wife and entourage of slaves.  Sarah, his wife is wealthy and free, but also old and no longer fertile.  Hagar is a slave, she is property, not a free person, she is poor, she is an Egyptian, and, crucially, she is young and fertile.

Because Sarah is infertile (“barren” in the brutally picturesque language of Scripture) she can not see how God’s promise to Abraham could possible come true unless she takes some drastic action.  The drastic action comes in the form of persuading Abraham to sleep with Hagar, her slave.

Sarah’s disdain for her slave is shown in her disregard for Hagar’s wishes, and she doesn’t even refer to Hagar by name, she simply describes her as “my maid.”

Hagar is not seen as a person, she is simply an instrument to be used by Abraham and Sarah so they can achieve their goal of producing heirs…

There are a few phrases in this story that cause debate among scholars, and we see the first once Hagar is pregnant with Abraham’s child.  Sarah, who had come up with the idea, complains  to Abraham:

“I gave my maid to your embrace   but when she saw that she had conceived, then I was slight in her eyes.”

The debated phrase is what it means to be “sleight in the eyes” of someone.  It would seem that Hagar’s pregnancy threatened Sarah’s feeling of superiority.

Abraham does not intervene, but tells Sarah to do what seems “good in her eyes” to her maid.  And then we have the next debated phrase – Sarah “afflicted” her!  We don’t know what form of bullying or victimisation or abuse that Sarah visited on Hagar, but it was so severe that Hagar decided to run away.

Hagar runs out into the wilderness, and ends up near her home country of Egypt.  She almost makes the reverse journey of the Exodus that Moses will later accomplish when he frees the Israelite slaves from Egypt.

In the wilderness Hagar encounters God.

“Hagar, maid of Sarah,” says God, “where have you come from and where are you going?”

There are lots of things that are interesting about Hagar’s encounter with God:

Hagar doesn’t cry out to God – She doesn’t approach God, God approaches her.  We can understand why she might not want to appeal to the God of her oppressors, but God takes an interest and makes the first step.

God is the first person in this story to address Hagar by name – elsewhere she is just described as the maid or the slave.

And it is only in the presence of God that Hagar speaks.  Here she speaks for the first time in the whole story.

She calls God by name.  She is, in fact, the only person in the whole of the Bible who calls God by name.

You may remember that the name of God is a big deal.  In Jewish thought, a name is not just a label to tell one person from another; the name reveals the nature and essence of the thing named; it represents the history and reputation of the being named.

This isn’t as strange as it may seem at first – in English, we often refer to a person’s reputation as their “good name” or a company’s reputation may be their “good name.”  The Hebrew concept of a name is very similar to this.

The most famous example of this is read in Exodus 3.13-22: Moses asks God what His “name” is. Moses is not asking “what should I call you;” rather, he is asking “who are you; what are you like; what have you done.” God replies that He is eternal, that He is the God of Moses’ ancestors, that He has seen the Hebrews’ affliction and will redeem them from bondage.  And then he says he is “I am”

The name of God in the Hebrew Scriptures is designated as “Y-H-W-H” – written Biblical Hebrew has no vowels so the name used to be translated as Jehovah (not only are there no vowels but Y and J are interchangeable as are V and W!).  Today we more often translate this us Yahweh; but often in writing it is left as YHWH; or many Bibles translate this as “THE LORD” but but it in capital letters to show something special is going on here.

In the whole of the Bible only Hagar addresses God by name.

But this is not an Exodus – God does not set her free.  In fact God sends her back to her owners. 

But she goes back with a promise:

And the angel of the Lord said to her, “Now you have conceived and shall bear a son; you shall call him Ishmael, for the Lord has given heed to your affliction. He shall be a wild ass of a man, with his hand against everyone, and everyone’s hand against him; and he shall live at odds with all his kin.”

Fortified with God’s promise Hagar returns, and we seem to have a semi-happy ending:

Hagar bore Abram a son; and Abram named his son, whom Hagar bore, Ishmael. Abram was eighty-six years old when Hagar bore him Ishmael.

But then Abraham has three mysterious visitors, and Sarah is promised a child.  And when that promised child arrives Sarah’s hatred of Hagar bubbles to the surface again.  This time she persuades Abraham to banish Hagar and her child and he drives them both out into the desert.

Hagar has been enslaved, raped, forced to be a pawn in Sarah and Abraham’s schemes, and now they try to kill her by driving her out into the inhospitable wilderness.

Hagar walks on and on, her water runs out, and so she leaves her son under a bush and walks a short distance away – she cannot bear to watch her child die.

When all hope was gone and Hagar thought there was nothing for her son and her to do but die, God appears again.

God speaks again and reveals a well – Hagar and her son are saved!

And God heard the voice of the boy; and the angel of God called to Hagar from heaven, and said to her, “What troubles you, Hagar? Do not be afraid; for God has heard the voice of the boy where he is. Come, lift up the boy and hold him fast with your hand, for I will make a great nation of him.” Then God opened her eyes and she saw a well of water. She went, and filled the skin with water, and gave the boy a drink. God was with the boy, and he grew up; he lived in the wilderness, and became an expert with the bow. He lived in the wilderness of Paran; and his mother got a wife for him from the land of Egypt.

If the story of Hagar was written by a modern author the Daily Mail would criticise it as “political correctness gone mad” – Hagar is persecuted for her race, her nationality, her social status and her gender.  She is the faithful maid exploited, the surrogate mother rejected, the resident alien, the refugee, the asylum seeker, the single mother, the expelled wife, the homeless person…

Hagar is not the person that the story of the Hebrew Scriptures is about.  She sits outside the main plot – we follow Abraham and Sarah’s children, Isaac, Joseph, to Moses and Joshua all the way to Jesus.  The point of this story is that God does not only care for one group of people.

God cares for the Israelites; but God cares for Hagar and Ishmael and their descendants too.

The heritage of Ishmael is claimed by the Bedouin people, by Egyptians, by Arab nations and the prophet Mohammed is said to have descended from Ishmael.

The other message of this story is that what we do in life, and how we treat people echoes through all time.

By doubting God’s promise and abusing her slave Sarah creates a nation that will rival the nation of her descendants.  More instantly the way the Hebrew couple abuse their Egyptian slave will echo in how the Egyptians will end up abusing their Hebrew slaves.

But perhaps the most powerful message in this text is that no one is too poor or too low on the social ladder to be of interest to God, God cares for the least of humanity, so we should too:

As Jesus would put it many years later:

Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father. And even the hairs of your head are all counted. So do not be afraid; you are of more value than many sparrows.


The Mystery of the Holy Trinity fully explained

ImageA sermon for Trinity Sunday


The Trinity were planning a holiday. The Spirit, manifesting the creative part of the divine nature, was coming up with the ideas. “Let’s go to Los Angeles,” the Spirit suggested.
“No, no, no,” said the Father, “They’re all so liberated, they’ll spend the whole time calling me ‘Mother’ and they will just do my head in.”
So the Spirit sat back and thought. “I know, what about Jerusalem?  It’s beautiful and then there’s the history and everything.”
“No way!” the Son declared. “After what happened the last time, I’m never going there again!”
At this point, the Spirit got annoyed and went off in a huff. Sometime later he returned and found that the Father and Son had had a idea they both thought was excellent:
“Why don’t we go to Canterbury?” said the Son.
“Perfect!” cried the Holy Spirit. “I’ve never been there before!”

This idea of three persons, able to chat to each other and maybe even argue is just one way that we can interpret or misinterpret the doctrine of the Trinity.

The Trinity is one of the most challenging Christian theological concepts.  

The story is told of St Augustine of Hippo, a great philosopher and theologian who devoted years of his life to study to understanding the doctrine of the Trinity and to trying to explain it logically.  One day as he was walking along the sea shore and reflecting on this, he suddenly saw a little child all alone on the shore. The child made a hole in the sand, ran to the sea with a little cup, filled her cup, came and poured it into the hole she had made in the sand. Back and forth she went to the sea, filled her cup and came and poured it into the hole. Augustine went up to her and said, “Little child, what are doing?” and she replied, “I am trying to empty the sea into this hole.” “How do you think,” Augustine asked her, “that you can empty this immense sea into this tiny hole and with this tiny cup?” To which she replied, ” And you, how do you suppose that with this your small head you can comprehend the immensity of God?” With that the child disappeared.

John Wesley famously said, “Bring me a worm that can comprehend a man, and then I will show you a man that can comprehend the Triune God.”

If we try to see the Trinity as an explanation of God, then we are going to tie ourselves in knots.  It is much healthier to see the Trinity as the question, not the answer.

The question is how do we experience one God three different-yet-connected ways?  

We experience God as our Creator; we experience God in life of Jesus; and we experience God in other people and in ourselves.

Creator, Jesus, Spirit, one God three experiences.

We believe in God the Father, who created us.  We sometimes miss the importance of our Christian view of creation.  Perhaps we are anxious in case some Darwinian biologist comes and strikes us down with scientific insights.  But, of course, understanding evolution no more disproves the doctrine of creation, than understanding how a telephone works disproves the existence of British Telecom.  As Christians we believe in a God who creates.

The chief rival to creation during the time of the first Christians was the view of the Greek Philosophers.  They thought that matter was eternal, it had existed forever in the past, and would exist forever into the future.  Matter was shaped into its present form by a god (that is definitely a god with a small ‘G’) who Plato called the ‘Demiurge.’  This god, the ‘Demiurge’ was not very bright, and simply operated according to blueprints, called ‘Forms’; and it was these blueprints or Forms that were really sacred.  Matter was seen as something base and unimportant, it was shaped by a the most undivine of deities, into objects that were only interesting because of what they told us about ‘divine blueprints’ for life.

The Jewish and Christian God who created a world, and ‘saw that it was good’ was a radical departure.  Christianity sees creation as ‘good’ and we should rejoice in our createdness.  It is somewhere that we can encounter God.

We believe in God the Father, and we believe in God the Son.  God does not only create us, God is a part of that creation, and enters into a relationship with it.  God loves creation, and has shares in its joy and in its sorrow.  God walks along side us the path we walk, has knows our temptations, our loneliness, our pain and doubt.  And in the teaching of Jesus we experience comfort, inspiration, challenge.  If we are honest sometimes we can struggle to encounter Jesus when we read the Bible – it was written almost two thousand years ago, and the meaning can sometimes be a little opaque to us.  Although I do recommend sitting down and reading through Luke’s Gospel – it’s a much easier read than most of the Bible and very compelling.  But if you do find scripture opaque I recommend getting a commentary or book to help you through – it’s not just ‘a good read’ it’s a place where we can encounter God.

We believe in God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit.  The Holy Spirit does not get as much ‘Press’ as the other two.  She is altogether more ‘Ghostly’ than the Father and the Son.  We all know about Fathers, we all now about Sons, but ‘Spirits’ are outside of most of our experiences.

As I have said before the word for the Spirit in the Hebrew Scriptures is ‘ruach’ a feminine word – the Holy Spirit should be a ‘she’.)

The Holy Spirit is just as important for our Christian view of life as her consubstantial, coequal and coeternal colleagues in the Godhead.

We have been created by God, we have God before us.  God is revealed in the  human life and teaching of Jesus, we have God beside us.  God has come and made her home in us, we have God within us.

To have one human being, Jesus, in whom God dwelt, is profound.  To know that our species, with its many faults and failings, with its capacity for hatred, war, and genocide, to know that our species is capable of being the place where God touched the earth, is an awesome thought.  The species that produced Hitler, Stalin and Rupert Murdoch, has produced Jesus Christ, who we call the Son of God.

This is an awe-inspiring idea, but there is more…  To know that God, the Holy Spirit lives inside us all, must change the way we see ourselves and our neighbours even more.

And so we encounter God in three distinct-yet-united ways.  And The Church over centuries developed the idea of the Trinity to explore this fundamental experience of God.  And as the threeness and yet oneness of God developed theologians started to describe how at the very heart of God there is a relationship – the relationship between Father, Son and Holy Spirit.  The Christian God is not only loving, our God is love.

And we are made in God’s image, some say that image is our free will, or our ability to create, or our ability to reason.  But where I believe God’s image can be found more than anywhere; where God’s imprint is most vividly seen, is in between people, in relationships.  In the places where people meet, form bonds, interact.  In community.  In the love Christians should have for each other, and in our love for the world.

Like all theology, the idea of a Threeness to God is not scientific but artistic truth – a human construction, but it is one that speaks of the profoundest and deepest Christian truth.  We find this truth time and again in the teaching of Jesus, but it finds powerful expression in the idea of the Trinity:  God is all about relationships.  If we want to honour God we do that in our relationships.

Trinity is a perfect working model for Christian faith.  A faith that is, more than anything, an invitation to relationship, relationship with God and with all humanity.

Pentecost – a sermon not THAT good

Acts 2.14-21

ImageThe Vicar was saying goodbye to folks at the door after the service.  A woman said, “Vicar, that was a marvellous sermon.” The Vicar said, “Oh, I have to give the credit to the Holy Spirit.” “It wasn’t THAT good!” she replied.

Today we are thinking about the Holy Spirit, and as we do, “Happy Birthday to us!”  Pentecost is traditionally seen as the birthday of the Church.

If we conflate the stories in the Gospels and Acts we read how the disciples, who were the Church ‘in embryo’ had been traumatised by Jesus death, become ecstatic at Jesus resurrection, and were astounded by Jesus ascension.  They have been on an emotional roller-coaster for months, and now they gather, and are literally aflame with inspiration and passion for the Gospel.

Something remarkable happened after Jesus death – the disciples moved from despair to hope, their faith in Jesus, once shattered, changed into a courage and a faith for which they were prepared to die.  Jesus is transformed from a historical human being, to spiritual being, to God, Godself.

The early Church found it hard to put this experience of Jesus-after-the-crucifixion into words, so they started to put the experience into the language of resurrection, ascension, and Pentecost.  

Death was not the end of Jesus: so they talked of Resurrection

But we still have to say goodbye to Jesus: so there was an Ascension

We are changed by the experience of Jesus – the Spirit of Jesus now lives in us: so the story of Pentecost. 

Whatever we believe, it is certainly true that after the crucifixion of Christ the disciples had been cowering in secret, but now the doors are flung open and they enter the streets, they are so full of Joy and excitement, that bystanders accuse them of being drunk.

Though we can not know for sure, tradition has it that all of the disciples went forward from this day to face martyrdom.  The flames of Pentecost were not quenched by death and persecution.

All this, the book of Acts tells us, because of the Holy Spirit.

The ‘Concise Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church’ describes the ‘Holy Spirit’ as ‘…the Third Person of the Trinity, distinct from, but consubstantial, coequal and coeternal with the Father and the Son, and in the fullest sense God.’

This description of the Holy Spirit won the argument that had raged for the early centuries of the Christian Church.  It was formally accepted in terms similar to these at the Council  of Constantinople in 381.

The Bible does talk about the ‘Spirit of God,’ and the ‘Holy Spirit.’  And as Christians pondered the mystery of God as revealed in Christ, and in the workings of the Spirit, a theology developed that placed the Holy Spirit in the context of a Trinity.  

That is the theme of next Sunday, Trinity Sunday.  (When I will explain the Trinity and clear up any questions you may have about it!!)

Today, as we think about the Spirit I want us to consider that the Spirit of God in the Hebrew Scriptures, what we, in Christian New Testament terms describe as the Holy Spirit, is the Hebrew word ‘Ruach’, which is feminine in form.  God is beyond human gender and beyond human language, but in the same way that “God our Father” is a male metaphor for God, so “Holy Spirit” is a female metaphor – the Spirit’s gender is literally lost in translation.

Spirit is not the only female image for God in the Bible.  One of my favourites is Holy Wisdom:  For example in Proverbs chapter 1, we read:

“Wisdom cries aloud in the street; in the markets she raises her voice…  Give heed to my reproof; behold, I will pour out my thoughts to you; I will make my words known to you…  Those who listen to me will dwell secure and will be at ease, without dread of evil.”

Wisdom is a feminine image of God, just as Logos, God’s Word, is an image for God in the Gospel of John (traditionally read at the end of Carol Services “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God…”). 

Other female images for God in the Hebrew Scriptures include Mother (Hosea 11.3; Isaiah 66.13), and Mother Eagle (Deuteronomy 32.11-12; Psalm 57.1).  God is like a woman in travail (Isaiah 42.14), God is frequently ascribed a womb (Job 38.30; Isaiah 46.4 and 49.15) and God gives birth to her people (Deuteronomy 32.18; Numbers 11.12).  God is both the master and mistress of the house (Psalm 123.2).  God is a midwife  (Psalm 22.9-10).

In Genesis 1.27 God is described creating humankind with the words ‘in the image of God he created them, male and female, he created them.’  The image of God is as much in women as in men.  Women and men reflect God’s image equally.

And it is tho idea of God-in-us that leads us back to the Spirit.  The Spirit is the spark of the divine that lives in each one of us.

This is a magnificent Church.  But of infinitely more value and worth, is the Church that St. Paul calls ‘the Temple of the Holy Spirit’, and that is you, and me.

God the infinite Creator of the universe, the Saviour who came down to earth as the most inspiring figure in human history, this is the God who has chosen to make her home in us.

How else could a small group of mostly uneducated, poor, ragged disciples of a Lord executed in the most horrific manner, turn the world upside down?  

If you continue to read the book of Acts you will find them persecuted, on trial, in prison, flogged, stoned, despised by the authorities of the day, but always coming back for more.  They were unstoppable.  It is not long since Jesus was executed, their lives were still in danger, but they could not contain themselves.  The Holy Spirit was amongst them – they ran out into the street deliriously telling the world the Good News.

They devoted their lives totally to God.  They shared a common purse, giving to each according to their needs from a pooled fund.  They were inspirational characters, apostles, saints and martyrs.  We hold feasts in their honour, depict them in stained glass.

But I  strongly believe that the Holy Spirit was not in them more than she is in us, nor was the Holy Spirit stronger in them than She is in us.

On the day of Pentecost they became aware of truth, that is just as true today as it was back then.  The Holy Spirit is in you.  God is to be found in the human heart and mind.  We are temples of the Holy Spirit

Let us live like the people who know it.

Acts of the Apostles – a sermon by Margaret Offerman

ImageWe have a welcome exposure to the Acts of the Apostles in the weeks after Easter and then they disappear from the lectionary for another year, like an aged uncle invited for Christmas dinner and then given a lift back home.  But it deserves  to be more frequently read at main services.  It  contains the history of the early church, the Apostolic Age, and carries  telling messages for the church today.

Although Acts and Luke’s gospel are anonymous, ancient church tradition attributed them to the man who appears in the letter to Philemon as Paul’s ‘fellow worker’ and is called ‘the beloved physician’ in the letter to the Colossians.  I have problems with both these relationships – the Paul that Luke describes is a completely different character from the Paul who reveals himself in his letters  and it seems unlikely Luke could have known Paul at close quarters and then created such an inconsistent view of him.  And given the number of miraculous cures in both the gospel and the Acts, Luke appears to be the most diffident doctor in the history of medicine.  The only men and women who are ever cured achieve their recovery by divine intervention.  Even the most self-effacing doctor takes occasional credit for making someone better.

Whoever the author was, he had a sense of structure that is a unifying feature of the two books.   Luke begins the gospel with a global perspective, dating the birth of Jesus to the reign of the Roman emperor.  Jesus’s ministry moves from Galilee through Samaria and Judea to Jerusalem where he’s crucified.  Acts moves in the opposite direction,  from Jerusalem to Judea and Samaria then travelling through Asia Minor, coming to an end in Rome.  The author could tell a good story, balancing the emphasis between two very unlike characters, Peter and Paul, each in his own way full of the strong  leadership qualities that complement each other and establish the Jesus movement, appealing to  Gentile and Jew.  Acts is mainly the story of their success in achieving this.  Paul preached that the Jesus message was rooted in the Jewish heritage.  Peter, particularly after his vision of the huge blanket full of meat, was a missionary to the Gentiles.  He heard the voice of Jesus telling his followers to bear witness to him………….even in the farthest corners of the earth.  

Besides ths strong narrative  featuring the two towering, heroic figures of Peter and Paul, there are other, stylistic devices that show the writer to be a conscious chronicler of events rather than  an  eye witness jotting things down.  For example, at intervals  he makes summaries, or progress reports to indicate that before the action  moves to a new place  he’ll spell out what was achieved in the place Peter or Paul is leaving.  Chapter 6 – in Jerusalem:  The word of God spread more and more widely.  The number of believers in Jerusalem was increasing rapidly and very many of the priests adhered to the faith.  Or chapter 9: The church in Judea, Galilee and Samaria was left in peace to build up its strength and live in fear of the Lord .  Encouraged by the Holy Spirit it grew in numbers.   It ends in Rome:  Chapter 28.  Paul stayed for 2 full years at his own expense with a welcome for all who came to him.  He proclaimed the kingdom of God and taught the facts about the lord Jesus Christ openly and without hindrance.  These summaries are always upbeat.  The news is good. 

The picture of the early church we get from Acts is of groups of men  and  women committed to each other and to their mission.  [In each other’s houses,] they met constantly to hear the apostles teach, to share the common life, to break bread and to pray.  They formed communes:  they began to sell their property and their possessions and distribute to everyone according to his need.  They worshipped together regularly in the temple:  they praised God and enjoyed the favour of all the people.  Day by day the lord added new converts to their number.   They were outward-looking.  When they heard of a famine in Judea, they immediately collected money and sent it for distribution to the famine victims, people they didn’t know.

Several individuals are briefly mentionned and make an impression.  Some were influential members of their societies; others led sheltered but  spirit filled lives. Many were women.  There was Dorcas, a needlewoman who made clothes for the disciples.  Mary the mother of Mark kept open house where believers met for prayer.  Lydia was a trader in purple fabric, clearly a wealthy woman.  She was converted to the Jesus way by Paul with her household and she insisted that his whole group should stay in her home.  Sergius Paulus, the governor of Cyprus, a highly educated man,  sent for Paul and Barnabas and when he had heard them proclaim the gospel he was converted.  Aquila and Priscilla lived in Corinth and worked as tent makers.   They invited Paul to stay with them and share their workshop so that he could earn some money at his craft.

Not all the minor characters in the story were models of the kingdom values.  Ananias and his wife Sapphira sold land to contribute to the common fund but decided to hang on to some of the proceeds of the sale, obviously believing that charity begins at home.  Simon, known as Simon Magus because he was a magician, observed that those who had received the holy spirit through the laying on of hands were able to prophesy and speak in tongues.  He tried to buy the right to the gift of the spirit because he was captivated by the signs and miracles that were taking place.  

One or two of them were  liabilities.  Rhoda for example answered the door to Peter the night he escaped from prison  but was so excited by the sight of him that she left him on the doorstep and went upstairs to tell the disciples all about it.  Peter, who, remember, was in flight for his life, carried on knocking until he was admitted to the house where he told the gathering to keep the noise down, left the house and went elsewhere.  A little bit of Rhoda clearly went a long way.

One of the things I remember from my study of theology is that it’s important to think of the early church as an organism, not an organisation.  It was alive and growing.  Doctrine was being formalised.  If you read any of the speeches that punctuate the book, like the one we’ve just heard,  you’ll realise that these were sermons inserted into the narrative rather than spontaneous deliveries by men under pressure and in a state of excitement.  They’re too well constructed to be spur of the moment.  They contain logical arguments relating Christianity to Judaism or reassuring Roman converts that their new faith would not compromise their allegiance to their empire or directing believers to attend to their spiritual well being.  There was a hierarchy but it worked  by consensus.  There were serious disagreements, for example the terrible  rift between Paul and Barnabas on the subject of the reliability and loyalty of Mark.  

But this great book is a record of an inspired group of men and women full of  fire for the gospel of Jesus  Christ.  They gave themselves for the gospel, their time, their money, their talents, their energy, their health, their family life, sometimes their liberty and their lives.