SERMON: Three Slaps of Reality (Acts 1:6-14)
For many people, life can be a bit of a struggle. Reality at times can be too difficult to face. Yes, there are some who seem to breeze through life, apparently facing no difficulties at all. But there are others who seem to cop one thing after another—whether it’s ill health, a souring relationship, or just bill after bill—and there can seem to be no way out of the situation at all.
Because, whilst some find the difficulties of life easier to cope with, others can take them too much to heart. And, as a way of coping, some like to dream of a better life, and find themselves speculating of the possibilities of the future. Others tend to daydream, and plod along in their own time and at their own pace, somehow immersed in a whole new world of their own. And, others still don’t cope very well at all. They fill in their time speculating about why everything that could happen happens to them, what they have done to deserve it all, and what hope (or lack of it) they have for the future.
Now, sometimes we all need a bit of escapism, there are times when we all need to dream. And self-examination is important too. But to dwell on the extremes of escapism or self-analysis is not a healthy thing. It can be very helpful in those situations, then, to be faced with a good healthy dose of reality.
B. THE DISCIPLES
Now, one such group of people who’d been through a hard time, and got themselves so caught up with dreaming and speculating about the future we can read about today. They are the disciples of Jesus.
1. The Rough Patch
Now the rough patch they’d been through was the result of a number of factors. Firstly, they’d left their homes, jobs and families, to be with Jesus. They had spent two to three years following him from town to town, only to be hit with the bombshell that he was leaving. Secondly, they hadn’t done much to be proud of. Because even after Jesus had told them he was going, and why—and had made promises about sending “another counsellor” to be with them—within less than twenty-four hours they had betrayed him, denied him, or run away. And thirdly, we mustn’t forget their political and spiritual background. Politically they were Jews—a conquered people living in a land occupied by another nation. And even though spiritually they were waiting for the Messiah—someone who would establish Israel as a nation to which all other nations and peoples would be subservient—that expectation had been going for hundreds of years. And their expectation, as far as they were concerned, had still not been met.
2. The Speculation (1:6)
So, you can imagine the combination of feelings they would have felt when Jesus told them he was leaving. Because, whilst there may have been relief following the resurrection of Jesus, they would probably have been filled with confusion too. After all, he may have appeared before them several times in the previous forty days, but there was nothing very permanent about his appearances. They may have had continuing sorrow about their betrayal, denial and desertion of Jesus at his moment of greatest need—and they would have had some time to consider their mistakes—but certainly not enough time to have made them forget them. And regarding the hopes of Israel? Well, Jesus had visited them many times in the last forty days, but there were still many questions that they wanted to be answered, like: “Did his appearances mean that he had come to stay?” And, “Was he the political Messiah they were looking for?”
So, not backward in coming forward, the disciples when faced with Jesus just one more time asked the most natural question in the context of their situation: “How soon was it before the end was going to come? How soon would it be, until his kingdom would be established on earth?”
3. The Slap of Reality
And like us when we’re struggling, and when we dream, and we speculate that two and two make five—and we need that bucket of cold water thrown over us to bring us back to reality—that is exactly what happened to the disciples. Only they didn’t just get one bucket of cold water, they got three.
a) Jesus (1:7-8)
Because the first dose of reality was provided by Jesus himself. He told the disciples, in no uncertain terms, that when the kingdom would be established was God’s secret, and God’s secret only. In other words, there was no room for human speculation in that regard. On the contrary, he suggested, that instead of spending time indulging in wishful thinking or apocalyptic speculation, what they needed to do was to prepare themselves for the task ahead.
They were to be witnesses to him, telling the world what he had said and done. That is what they should have their minds on, not on dreaming of the future and speculating about what might be. Rather they needed to prepare to share their faith with the world, as they awaited the gift of the Holy Spirit who would help them in the task.
b) The Ascension (1:9)
The second dose of reality was the Ascension itself. Because the next thing that happened was that Jesus was lifted up and taken away in a cloud. Now this may have indicated the pattern for his ultimate return to earth, but for the disciples, this was a message that his continual visits had come to an end. Indeed, it indicated that there was going to be a gap between his Ascension and his Second Coming. A gap which needed to be filled with something. And that something was what Jesus had told them, a period of witness and mission by his disciples.
c) The Angels (1:10-11)
And the third dose of reality? Well as the disciples continued to stare into the sky after Jesus, longing for his reappearance or some other such spectacular event, two angels appeared and gave immediate commentary on what they had seen. And they reproached the disciples for dawdling there and for their longing for Jesus. And they told them that the time of dreaming and speculation was over, and it was now time to get on with the task that they had been given.
4. The Response of the Disciples (1:12-14)
It was quite a slap in the face that the disciples received. A wake-up call for reality. And bearing in mind what they’d been privileged to witness with Jesus—the teaching, the training, the example that Jesus had been to them, the miracles that they had witnessed, the compassion of Jesus that they had seen—in a sense, the necessity for such a slap is quite surprising.
But the disciples did get the message. And of course, the disciples went and did as they had been told. They returned to an upstairs room in a house in Jerusalem where they had established themselves, and they used the time between the Ascension and Pentecost to prepare and pray for their work of witness in the world.
5. The Result
And the disciples, broken of their unhealthy speculation of the future and being encouraged to put the past behind them, with their minds focussed very much on the job that God had given them, some ten days later, beginning at Pentecost, went out, and did what Jesus told them to do. And they were used by God to do some amazing things.
Now, it’s a fascinating story. A story of a group of people who’d been through a very rough time. But as part of their way of coping, remained stuck in their dreaming and in their speculation of the future. But they got through that, thanks to a healthy slap of reality from Jesus himself. And as a consequence, there are a number of lessons for us in this story of New Testament life.
And the first is, that when we’re feeling down and low, and when we’re going through rough times, we need to remember that we are not alone. Indeed, lots of people could equally say “Been there, done that”—the disciples included.
So, when we’re dreaming or speculating about the future, when we’ve made mistakes, or we’re punishing ourselves for the things that have happened, we can be assured that the disciples went through the same things in the period following the arrest of Jesus. Their behaviour at the time was not something to which they would have been particularly proud. They didn’t handle the situation well. And that is something we can probably all relate to.
Secondly, we need to accept that in life there will always be an element of mystery, an element of the unknown. And that’s not going to change no matter how much we want it to.
In Jesus’s words to his disciples, there was a reminder that not everything that happens—or will happen—will be explained or revealed by God during this present life. And not everything that the disciples wanted to happen was either going to happen or happen in the way they wanted either.
As a consequence, like the disciples, we might be keen to know the future. We might want to map out where we are heading and what’s in store for us in detail. We might have hopes and dreams of the way we want things to go. But the reality is, that in this life, we may never know, or experience things, the way that we want to experience them. And we can waste valuable time and energy speculating about what might be.
Yes, it may be good to have an enquiring mind. But to be consumed in trying to work out all the mysteries of life can be a pointless exercise.
So instead, thirdly, rather than live in our own world, we need to ground ourselves in reality. And in particular in the task that Jesus has given us to do.
Now Jesus, during his earthly ministry, had told the disciples many times what he expected them to do. He pulled them aside on many occasions and focussed on the preparation they needed for the time he would no longer be around. He even sent them out into the towns to help him in his ministry, but as a kind of a practice run for the future too.
So, when it comes to the matter of faith, we need to ground ourselves in the task that Jesus has given us to do too. Now Jesus’s command to his disciples was to go out and make disciples, to let people know the good news, and to teach them what it means to be a disciple of Jesus. It was a task the early disciples began but is still not finished. It’s a job that still has a long way to go and needs our part too—not only overseas, but in our own backyard as well.
And, fourthly, we need to accept that from time to time that we will need wake-up calls too.
Now the disciples needed more than one wake-up call to get them back on track. And my guess is that each time they received a wake-up call they modified their position—and probably then considered that they were back on track. However, nothing could have been further from the truth. Indeed, in this one story alone, they needed three such wake-up calls before they were ready to go and prepare for what Jesus had planned. And these weren’t the first wake-up calls they would have received, and they probably weren’t the last. As a consequence, we shouldn’t be surprised if we need wake-up calls from time to time too.
But then isn’t that the way that many of us have experienced how God works? A wake-up call as he deals with us, one issue at a time. And as each time an issue is dealt with—or is at least well in hand—we get another wake-up call raising another issue which we may not even have known needed dealing with.
As a result of their triple reprimand, the disciples locked themselves away and prepared for the future. When given their focus, they went up to the privacy of their upper room and spent time in preparation and prayer. However, ten days later, filled with the Holy Spirit they were out and about, and telling all and sundry about Jesus.
And in this is another warning. Because so easily can an unhealthy focus on speculation or dreaming or over analysing be replaced by an unhealthily period of preparation—where the preparation never ends, and the evangelism never begins. But the disciples had ten days and ten days only, and then they were out and about sharing their faith. And that’s the kind of timetable that we need to work to too.
When life becomes a bit of a struggle, then, and we seem to have lost the plot, we have story, a true story, that should give us great hope.
It’s a story of how God took the eleven remaining disciples—disciples who were down, who had gone through a very rough patch and were beginning to get so tangled in their hopes for the future that they’d lost track of reality—and got them to face reality and get on with the job that he had given them to do.
Jesus restored the disciples to be the kind of people they were meant to be—living in this world and telling others about him. And that is exactly our task to do today. The mistakes that the disciples made, we’re probably not something of which they were proud. But to combat the dreaming and speculation of better times, they needed that slap of reality.
Now, we all make mistakes, and bad things happen to all of us from time to time—and we all have our own way of coping in such situations. But sometimes we need a slap of reality too. And for a Christian part of that slap may well be a reminder to stop dreaming, to stop speculating, and to get on with sharing the faith.
That’s certainly the lesson that the disciples learnt. But is it a lesson that we have learnt too?
Posted: 28th July 2018
© 2018, Brian A Curtis
SERMON: Choosing Leaders (Acts 1:15-17, 21-26)
From time to time we all get involved in the selection of leaders. Not only for the different organizations to which we belong, but in respect to the people we want to represent us at the local council, in parliament, etc., etc.
And to choose a particular person to represent us, there are a variety of criteria we use. We choose someone we think has the right skills for the job. We choose someone who is popular or someone who we think we could get on with the best. We choose someone who is young, because the position requires youth, or we choose someone who is older, because maturity and experience are required. We choose someone who has a charismatic personality, and . . . Well, you get the idea.
Now some of these things may be important, and we can use them to weigh up the pros and cons—to get the right person for the job. But in the end, sometimes the person we have chosen gets through, and other times . . . Well, you just can’t win them all.
And just as that is true regarding the selection of leaders as a whole, so is it true of the church.
But in regard to the church, the selection criteria that we use elsewhere, may need to take a backward step. Because there are some very basic and essential criteria, which are far more important. And the passage from the Acts of the Apostles illustrates why.
B. CHOOSING A REPLACEMENT FOR JUDAS
Now the story is set between the Ascension of Christ—forty days after his resurrection, when he returned to his Father—and the Festival of Pentecost—the day that God empowered his people, by giving them the gift of the Holy Spirit. And in this transition period, what was on the Apostle Peter’s mind, was the need to choose a successor for Judas, who had committed suicide after having betrayed Jesus.
As far as Peter (and probably others) was concerned, the twelve disciples were to have a special function in the life of the early church. And there was a realisation that their work was only just about to begin. As a consequence, the twelve needed to be restored to their full number. And so a replacement for Judas had to be found.
2. The Need for A Replacement (15-17)
And the story begins with Peter on his soapbox once again, taking the initiative in front of a crowd of about one hundred and twenty followers.
Now the number of followers is significant. Because it was the minimum number required in Jewish society to make decisions about the setting up of inner groups or deciding about leadership.
And so we find Peter explaining, firstly, by reference to the Old Testament, that what Judas had done had been foretold. It had been prophesied that the betrayer would be part of the inner circle of twelve, and that it would be necessary to replace him (20). And, secondly (and the real reason for needing a replacement), was that the task was still before them. They still had to share the gospel with all nations, beginning in Jerusalem (Luke 24:47). And that would require the full number of witnesses be restored.
3. The Selection Criteria (21-22)
As a consequence, Peter went on to outline the selection criteria, he thought was important, in order to find a replacement.
Now we might find it odd to note, that with the role of being one of the twelve apostles—and with the specific task of sharing the good news—that none of the criteria that Peter outlined, concerned being a good speaker, or having a loud voice, or anything else of that nature. No! Peter restricted his criteria to three ground rules, and three ground rules only.
The first was that the person had to have been associated with Jesus from the time of his baptism by John. The second was that he had to have seen the resurrected Lord. And the third was that the person had to have received a personal commission from Jesus to be one of his eyewitnesses to the world.
Now of course the people may well have considered the other attributes required—the ones that would help them more easily carry out the task. But they were not part of the essential selection criteria. There were only the three requirements.
4. The Selection Process (23-25)
And as a consequence, those in attendance nominated two candidates: Joseph Barsabbas, of whom we know nothing, except for a legend later in life where he was forced to drink poison and suffered no ill effects at all. And Matthias, about whom we also know nothing at all.
Then having selected two possible candidates, they then didn’t vote for them as it would be more normal today. Instead, they prayed to God that from these two, the person of his choosing would be made known.
And bearing in mind, at this point, they had not yet received the Holy Spirit—Pentecost was still to come—they then used the time-honoured Old Testament practice of casting lots. To which the result was that the lot fell to Matthias. And he took over from Judas as one of the twelve.
Now there’s are two very important points which shouldn’t be lost in this story. And both relate to the fact that apostleship was not a humanly ordained office.
And the first is, that even though the church were able to put forward candidates, only God could select Judas’s replacement. Those assembled could only pray that God would exercise his choice—for he knew what was in men’s hearts. In other words, the real choice regarding leadership was left to God.
And the second thing is, that the criteria for nomination for the position placed far more importance on the person’s spiritual relationship with God, than what we might consider to be the talents needed for the role.
C. FURTHER EXAMPLES
And lest we be tempted to think that Peter’s criteria were specifically targeted to a “special” event, which called for different guidelines to those we would consider normal, we have other examples recorded in the New Testament to which we can refer.
1. The Teaching of Paul
Because according to the Apostle Paul the qualifications for other apostles, such as himself, were that they should have seen (the resurrected) Lord. And that they should have received a commission in person to be his witness (1 Cor 9:1f; 15:8-10; Gal 1:16f). And again Paul provided no guidelines in regard to the talents and abilities such a person might need.
Furthermore, the instructions that Paul gave Timothy (1 Timothy 3) regarding church leaders were . . .
Regarding the appointment of an overseer (or bishop) . . . They had to be a convert (but not a recent one), and that they needed to be a person beyond reproach (6). And regarding a person called to serve in any other capacity . . . They needed to keep hold of the deep truths of the faith (9) and that they were to be tested to see whether their claims were true (10).
In both cases, Paul said nothing about the skills and abilities required to carry out the task. The only issue was the level of faith to be considered for such positions, and the need for their lives to be beyond reproach.
2. The Practice of the Church (Acts 6:1-7)
But even leaving Paul out of the equation, we have the example of the selection of seven men to help in the welfare programme of the church (Acts 6:1-7).
For in a growing church, it was believed that a group of widows were being overlooked in regard to the daily distribution of food. But the twelve apostles, including the newly appointed Matthias, realised their dilemma: They just couldn’t continue to do all the things they had been doing, without some assistance.
So they called the other members of the church to put forward seven men to help in the care of the poor. And they didn’t specifically ask for people with the skills to do the job; they didn’t ask for a group of men who were good with the poor. What they did was to ask for men of faith, men who were full of the Spirit and wisdom.
And seven men were presented to the Apostles. And, after prayer, the apostles acknowledged that the men had been accepted by God for the task in hand. They then laid their hands on them, setting them apart for their role in the life of the church.
As far as the early church was concerned, the church was not a democracy, where people had the right to choose their own leaders. And leaders were not chosen based on their ability to do the job. Rather the church was a “theocracy,” where God chose the leaders. And leadership was based principally on a person’s relationship with God, not on any perceived ability.
And that, of course, brings us into sharp contrast with the practices of the church today. Particularly as church welfare and other agencies appoint board members and employees based on their abilities, not on their relationship with God. A practice that should be condemned.
But then in a world in which we are called upon to nominate and elect people for all sorts of roles, we have got used to using a range of criteria to assess the eligibility and the appropriateness of person to fulfill a particular role. But a range of criteria that is in sharp contrast to the criteria required by the church in New Testament times.
Now, of course, a person’s abilities and strengths may have been in the backs of people’s minds, even in New Testament times. But they formed no basis for the basic selection criteria. And by implication they should not be part of the basic selection criteria, in the church, even today.
Yes, we could say that times have changed. Because even in his time, the Apostle Paul recognised that times had changed (because of growth in the church, and because of the distance of time). Because it was no longer possible to choose leaders based on them having been with Jesus at his baptism. And the advent of the Holy Spirit had meant that visits from the risen Christ were no longer the norm for people who believed.
And yet regardless of that, the principals behind the decision-making process of the early church remained the same. And therefore are just as relevant today as they were back then.
So, when it comes to the decision-making processes of today—and in particular to all officer of the church (whether regarding the appointment of a Rector, the officers of the Parish Council, or whatever) the biblical principles remain sound.
1. Basic Criteria
And so the questions that should be asked of any person to be nominated for any position, should be: Firstly, does the person know Jesus? Have they committed their lives to their Lord and Saviour? Do they have the Holy Spirit living in their heart? Because if that is not true, then that person has no place in a leadership role in the church, regardless of their talents.
And, secondly, is the person committed to be a witness of Jesus? Are they devoted to telling others about what they have received for themselves? Have they a concern for others needing to hear what Jesus did in order that they might receive salvation? Because if they aren’t, then there is no place for them in a leadership role either.
If anyone fails one or both of those simple questions—the basic criteria essential for any leader in the church—then they are not fit to take on a leadership role within the church, regardless of any abilities they may have.
2. God’s Choice Not Ours
And having nominated people for a particular role—people who fit both criteria—it isn’t a matter of voting for the person and seeing who the majority choose. Rather, it’s a matter of putting forward that person or those person’s names, for the consideration of God. For his guidance, and for his choosing.
You see the church is different. It’s not like any other organization or institution. It is God’s church, not ours. And as a consequence, the people chosen to be leaders must be people of God. They must be of his choosing not ours.
Because, whatever a person’s talents and abilities, even if we think they would do a terrific job, that is not the basic criteria for a leadership position in the church. And if we don’t get that right, then the whole church structure is likely to fall flat on its face. Because it won’t be God’s church, it will our church. And, as a consequence, we won’t have God’s blessing upon our endeavours.
So today, yes, we are involved in choosing leaders from time to time—and it could be in club to which we belong, or for our local council or parliament. And, yes, we use different criteria to select our leaders. And in our church, we may be involved in the selection of our leaders too.
But in church, even if some people have good voices, good listening skills, or whatever—and we may like to take all of those things into account—none of those things should be part of our basic criteria.
In the church there are three basic and essential criteria when it comes to choosing a leader. And these are: That the person must be a person of God; that they must be committed to the mission of the church; and they must receive the approval of God to exercise their particular office. Because without those three things, whatever their skills, we have a recipe for disaster.
Posted: 18th January 2020
© 2020, Brian A Curtis
SERMON: The Three Major Festivals (Acts 2:1-13)
I’d like to take you on a journey. I want you to imagine that it’s 30 AD and you are living somewhere in Asia Minor. You’re a Jew—a devout one—and as a consequence you take seriously the commands, that God gave the Israelites on Mount Sinai, about keeping the Sabbath and attending the three major festivals every year.
B. JERUSALEM EXPERIENCES
And as a consequence, you went to the first festival earlier this year. You went to Passover because it’s very important to you. It’s a reminder that your ancestors were once slaves in Egypt. It’s a reminder of the ill-treatment your ancestors received from the Egyptians. It’s a reminder that your ancestors needed to be rescued from Egypt and needed to be taken to the land that God had promised them. It’s a reminder that God came to their rescue; that he called a man named Moses and used him and his brother to make the Egyptians let them go.
It’s a reminder of the final plague that God inflicted on the Egyptians, so that Pharaoh would release the people that he loved. It’s a reminder of the blood that the Israelites put around their doorframes, and the death of the first born of the Egyptians. And, as a precursor to the Feast of Unleavened Bread, which immediately follows, it’s a reminder of the haste with which your ancestors left Egypt.
In other words, for you, Passover is an opportunity to thank God for coming to the rescue of your ancestors. And, as a people who had entered the Promised Land, it is an opportunity to show God how thankful you are for his provision for his people.
Having said that, remember your surprise when you got there. Because when you arrived, there was a lot more going on than just the preparations for a major religious festival. Indeed, there was all this talk about a Messiah—someone claiming to be from God, someone who had come to rescue his people.
And confronted with that, you perhaps couldn’t help think how appropriate it was that at festival intended to celebrate God’s rescue of his people there was something else going on. Indeed, some were claiming that God’s messiah had come to rescue his people again.
Of course, you’d heard about Messiah’s before—they’d been many of them—but never had there been someone with such wisdom, such learning—and there had been all the miracles too.
And while you were there for the feast of Passover, this man—this Messiah who had come to rescue you—had been executed. What’s more his body went missing, and there were the rumours that this Jesus had been risen from the dead.
Nevertheless, life had to go on. Jerusalem with a population of about eighty thousand, had swelled with another one hundred and eighty thousand who had gathered for the festival. But even with all the fuss, the time came for everyone to go home.
The first major festival of the year was over. And as you returned home, you couldn’t help think of all that had occurred. And even more so, over the following weeks, as more and more stories began to spread.
b). Feast of Weeks
And now seven weeks later, fifty days after Passover, you’ve come back to Jerusalem again. And the reason . . . Well it’s the second of the major festivals on the Jewish calendar.
The Feast of Weeks is an important festival for you too. And it is called the Feast of Weeks because it is seven weeks after Passover. Indeed, you’ve been taught to count the weeks off from Passover. And because people are speaking Greek these days, it has also become known as Pentecost (literally ‘Fifty Days’).
But for you it’s a festival to give thanks, to mark the end of the Grain Harvest. It’s also a time to remember the new start that your ancestors had been given when they arrived in the Promised Land. They had a new beginning. And, in more recent times, it had become an opportunity to give thanks to God for the giving of his laws at Mt Sinai too.
So as you arrive in Jerusalem, there’s a lot of hubbub as the excitement builds, as people arrive from around the world to join in the festival. But then just as at Passover, another event seems to take over.
There’s the sound of rushing wind. And at the same time there are these disciples that you’d heard about—but didn’t see too much of at Passover—appearing on the streets.
Now, of course, people are naturally curious, and a crowd begins to gather. And you want to know what’s going on too. So you join the crowd, and when you do you witness something extraordinary.
Because it’s not just that there are some apparently uneducated men speaking with authority, it’s that whatever they are saying is heard in different languages by the people around you. And what is being proclaimed is about this Jesus, this Messiah who had risen from the dead. Indeed, the one you had heard about last time you were in Jerusalem. But side by side with that, as you listen to this talk about taking a new start, you hear about the need for God’s Holy Spirit.
And at this point something begins to click. At Passover—with its emphasis on God rescuing his people—you experienced something of what was claimed by some as God’s ultimate rescue. And now at the Feast of Weeks (or Pentecost) with its emphasis on having a new start, you’re hearing about God’s Holy Spirit being able to help you do that very thing. And you can’t help but wonder, “Is this just a co-incidence, or is God really trying to tell me something?”
Now, of course, the people around you react in different ways. Some just want to dismiss the whole thing. But as you pack up to go home it’s not that simple. Something has happened. In fact two things have happened. And both events have historical and religious links with the festivals that you’ve attended.
It’s like God is speaking—but not everyone is listening. And it’s got you thinking. And maybe it’s got you speculating too. Because if the first two festivals this year had been dramatic—and had these so-called God events—then what about the third, the Feast of Tabernacles? Now that festival was a reminder of the time your ancestors lived in tents—the temporary accommodation they lived in the wilderness as they travelled from Egypt to the Promised Land. And so if Passover and Pentecost have been very different this year, what was in store for the Feast of Tabernacles too?
C. BACK IN THE 21ST CENTURY
And on that note, I want to bring you back from your journey to 30AD, and I want you to return to the twenty-first century. Because we can read the stories, we can fill in the background, we can even walk through and speculate what others would have experienced and done. But, in the end, we need to face up to the events in these stories too.
Because the reality is, that most of the people who been at those two festivals in 30AD would have gone home and the events they had experienced would have made very little difference to their lives. Yes, there may have been some gossip, but they the reality probably wouldn’t have sunk much at all. And, sadly, today, the response to those two stories is very much the same.
So, is that all they are, just stories? Or are these historical and religious events ones that should make a real difference to our lives?
Because if both Passover and Easter are all about God rescuing his people, is God’s rescue something we have considered for ourselves? Put it another way, how have we responded to a God who is holy, who by his very nature has to deal with anything that isn’t, but who is keen to come to our rescue?
Because none of us are perfect. None of us are fit to be in God’s presence. None of us can undo our own mistakes let alone the mistakes of others. As a consequence, have we accepted that we even need to be rescued by God? And have we accepted our need to have the consequences of our sins removed from us, so that we can be treated by God as though we are perfect?
The mathematics works well: Sin + Blot out sin = Perfect life. So for me, accepting God’s rescue is a no-brainer. But yet, sadly, there are so many people today who still don’t get it. The majority still live with the consequences of sitting on the fence, rejecting God, or reinventing God in their own image.
The importance of the message of God, in coming to the rescue of his people, is paramount in both Passover and Easter. And it is a message we would do well to remember.
Similarly with the Feast of Weeks and Pentecost. Because the need to have a new start should be part of our vocabulary too. So if we have accepted the need for God’s rescue, do we still fight against and resist the changes that we need to make in our lives?
Are we happy to live our old sinful ways—the worldly ways with all its expectations and pressures—which then spill out into our attitudes towards God’s church? Or have we responded to the need to live a new life? Indeed, have we turned our lives around and embraced God’s Holy Spirit who promises to guide and encourage us on a God centred journey instead?
And yet I know, for some, the implications of the events at the Feast of Weeks (or Pentecost) in 30AD is very scary. The supernatural gifts of the Holy Spirit are hard for many to accept. But that’s why we need to put the events of 30AD in perspective.
Because both the festival, and the events at that festival in 30AD, bring together the ideas of the need for a new start, for a new life, and for the need to head in a different direction. And that’s just not possible without God’s help. Indeed God’s gift of his Holy Spirit is given not to take us over but to teach, nudge and guide us. Indeed, to give us the gifts and abilities that we need so we can exercise them for the good of all.
That’s why for me, Pentecost is another mathematical no-brainer. Old life + God’s Holy Spirit = New Life.
d). Personal Reflection
Now for me, the Old Testament suffers today, because it is little read and poorly understood. However, you can’t have the ‘New’ without the ‘Old.’ You can’t have a ‘caring’ God without a ‘creator.’ And you can’t have a ‘holy’ God without him needing to deal with ‘sin.’
As a consequence, you can’t have someone coming to fulfil the scriptures, unless there are scriptures to be fulfilled. And you certainly can’t have a sacrifice without a sacrificial system. Take away the ‘Old’ and there simply is no ‘New.’ So for me the Old Testament plays a very significant part in my faith.
And for me the first two major festivals, for which attendance was supposed to be compulsory for all male believers, have a significant role in my understanding of the events of Easter and Pentecost. There’s a consistency that shouldn’t be ignored. Indeed, Passover and Easter are both stories of God coming to his people’s rescue. And the Feast of Weeks and Pentecost are both stories emphasising the need for God’s people to have a new start.
And if the first two major festivals have special meaning for us in the church today, then what about the third? What about the Feast of Tabernacles?
Well as far as we know the Feast of Tabernacles came and went in 30AD in the same way it had done in the many years before. There were no extraordinary events recorded. However, Tabernacles is a festival emphasising the temporary nature of things. It’s a festival that looks forward to a time when God will provide a more permanent home. And to me, as someone who has accepted God’s rescue, and as someone who has adopted the new life that God provides, that idea—of living in the temporary now and looking forward to a permanent home with God—is both significant and meaningful. And because of that I think it’s a real shame that the church has not adopted the festival to go with that very theme.
The people in Jerusalem at both Passover and the Feast of Weeks in 30AD witnessed two great historical events. But they were events that were steeped in the festivals in which they took place. In other words, God used those two festivals which celebrated God’s rescue and God’s provision of new life, and he raised them up to a whole new level.
What is sad, though, is despite the events of 30AD, people did not generally respond as perhaps they should. Indeed, at the end of each festival, many if not most, would have simply packed up and gone home.
But then, when we are faced with the same two festivals today, is our response any different?
Indeed, do we, today, see the need to be rescued? And if so, are we willing to accept the Lord Jesus Christ as our saviour? And do we, today, see the need for a new start? Because that is what the Holy Spirit offers.
And do we recognise the temporary nature of our life on earth, with its vision of a new Promised Land? And are we actively engaged on this temporary journey as we travel to a more permanent home with God?
Posted: 1st February 2021
© 2021, Brian A Curtis
SERMON: The Gift of the Holy Spirit (Acts 2:1-21)
1. Visiting the Past
There are certain periods or events in history that for some reason appeal to me. Events like the Crusades, the signing of the Magna Carta, the Reformation, etc. And if it were possible, I would like to go back in time and witness the events first hand to discover what really happened.
Of course, if it were possible to go back in history, it would be possible to meet people like Henry VIII, William Shakespeare, and a number of other people, and find out what they were really like. Because the problem with recorded history is that it invariably doesn’t tell you the whole story. The writers of history only tend to pick out the edited highlights—and from the perspective of what interested them. So, in a real sense, it would be good to be able to go back in history and be able to witness events first hand.
2. Visiting Pentecost
And one of the biblical events that I would like to go back to is not a war, or a tragedy, but the Jewish festival of Pentecost—or the “Feast of Weeks” or “Feast of Harvest” as it was more popularly known. But not just any of the annual celebrations, but to one celebration in particular. The one that followed immediately after the death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus.
1. Background to the Jewish Festival
Because imagine the scene. The festival was the second most important festival on the Jewish calendar. The city of Jerusalem would have been thronging with people who had come to celebrate not only the thanksgiving for the wheat harvest, but to acknowledge that they were, indeed, the chosen people of God—with all the ramifications that that entailed.
The city would have been abuzz with excitement. Because at the time, the Jewish people were living in all parts of the known world, and many would have come on a pilgrimage to be there for the feast. Indeed, it has been estimated that there would probably have been around one hundred thousand Jewish pilgrims in the city, who would have come especially for the feast. And they would have come from all over the known world—from Rome in the west to Iran in the east, from North Africa in the south to Turkey in the north. As a consequence, the hubbub and the excitement, as they gathered waiting for the festival to begin, would have been something to have seen.
2. Background to the Disciples
And yet, despite that, there would also have been a small group of followers of a man named Jesus who had gathered together on their own. They had seen the resurrected Jesus ascend to heaven just ten days earlier. And they were obediently staying in the city, devoting themselves to prayer, and waiting, expectantly, for the promised Holy Spirit—which Jesus told them would be given within days.
3. The Events of Pentecost
Now I don’t know, of the two groups, who would have been the most excited. The large and growing crowd coming to celebrate their, sort of, harvest festival, or the much smaller, but expectant, group of disciples, who even then, didn’t really know what it was all about.
However, the day of the festival finally arrived and the waiting for both groups was over. And for the disciples who were gathered together, somewhere in Jerusalem, they heard a sound like the mighty rush of a wind which filled the house where they were sitting. And they saw tongues of fire appear and resting on each one present. Signs they would have recognised from their religious background as signs of the presence of God (Ex 19:18, etc), and signs of God’s cleansing and judgement (Lk 3:16).
And as each one present sat there, they were filled with the Holy Spirit. And they began to speak in languages they would not otherwise have known.
4. The Reaction of the Crowd
Now, after that, and perhaps as the followers moved out of the house, they were met by at least some of the crowd that had gathered for the festival. They too had heard the sound—like the mighty rushing of wind—and had come running to see what was going on.
It must have been quite a scene. The crowd were at least initially bewildered and astonished by what they saw and heard. Particularly when they saw uneducated men speaking their own languages—languages of countries many miles away. And while many were amazed or puzzled, others would have been soaking in what was going on. As a consequence, it didn’t take long for some to seek a more rational explanation to the events they were witnessing.
To which the Apostle Peter, with a new found confidence he had not before portrayed, responded. No, they weren’t drunk, and no, the crowd couldn’t so easily explain away the events of that day. What they had seen had been prophesied, not only by Jesus and John the Baptist, but by the Old Testament prophets as well.
And in response to the primary reaction of the crowd—of incomprehension—the significance of the events in terms of Old Testament prophecies (Isaiah 32:15 & Joel 2:28-32) were then explained. And, as the implications sank in, the indication that a new age had dawned and that the kingdom of God had come—and come in power—would have been very real.
Now, after all that, perhaps you can see why if it were possible to go back in history and witness events, why the celebration of Pentecost—and in particular the one that followed immediately after the Ascension of Jesus—would have to be my first choice.
To me, this is one of the most exciting events in history. To have been there with the crowd, not only to experience the excitement of the crowd—gathering to celebrate the second most important festival on the Jewish calendar—but to see the promises of God being fulfilled, promises which from the prophet Joel alone had been around for at least six hundred years—would have been a sight to see.
C. THE MEANING OF PENTECOST
But, of course, like all stories, the press or the particular emphasis or bias that a story gets is not necessarily one that reflects the total picture. And the story of Pentecost has often got bad press, particularly in regard to those who emphasise the fact that the followers all spoke in different tongues. For that was a big, divisive issue in the Corinthian church in New Testament times, as it remains a big divisive issue today too.
But that is not where the emphasis in the story should really be. Because the story of this particular Pentecost, is primarily about God equipping and empowering his people to be men and women of faith. And to enable them for the task of witness and mission in the world. A task, which the early church, proceeded to straight away.
Having said that, however, the supernatural (the wind, the tongues of fire, and the speaking in tongues) is not an insignificant part of the story. Because, firstly, they were a necessary part, in terms of demonstrating to the disciples and the others around that the Old Testament prophecies and what Jesus had promised had come true. That, indeed, that the promised Kingdom of God had come and had come in power. But secondly, they gave an indication of the power of God, and the power that was available for God’s people to use with the gifts that the Spirit brought. Gifts that would be given to all who believe for the benefit of the church.
The story of Pentecost, then, an event in history that we could easily say, “I wish I’d been there. I wish I’d seen it and experienced it for myself.”
Now, of course, for us, we only have the basic facts recorded by Luke, and we’re left to fill the gaps. Despite that, there are many things about what he has told us that we can apply to our own lives. And taking the gift of the Holy Spirit alone, there are at least four things of which we can take particular note:
1. The Gift for All Believers
And the first is that the gift of the Holy Spirit was given by God for all believers.
On that day of Pentecost, the Holy Spirit didn’t just rest on one or two people—maybe on the main leaders, and no one else. No! The Spirit rested on all the faithful who were present. And that is consistent with Jesus’s teaching. Because Jesus had said to Nicodemus: “Truly, truly, I tell you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter God’s kingdom.” (John 3:5). According to Jesus, then, to be a Christian one must have received the Holy Spirit. There simply is no other way.
Being born naturally in this world, and having made a decision of faith, which is then sealed by the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, are the two things that make one a Christian. So to be a person of faith, one has to have the Holy Spirit living inside them—a gift from none other than God the Father himself.
2. The Gift of Empowerment
The second is that the gift of the Holy Spirit has been given by God to empower his people.
And that is demonstrated by the fact that the disciples were very dependent upon Jesus when he was around in his ministry years. They got things wrong, but they always had Jesus to fall back on. Then, after his arrest, they fell to pieces and ran away. Furthermore, after his crucifixion, they huddled together in a room not knowing what was going on and in fear of their lives. And even after Jesus had made several resurrection appearances, they still were not confident about what was going on.
But ten days on from Jesus’s Ascension, and having received the Holy Spirit, the story is very different. We suddenly see a group of people who are confident in what they believe. And a group who were actively telling others all they had experienced and learnt.
The Holy Spirit, then, enables his people to be confident in their faith, to know what they are expected to do. It empowers them to go out and share their faith. Something that should be part of our experience too.
3. The Gift of Discovering New Talents
The third is that the gift of the Holy Spirit has been given by God to show his people talents they didn’t know they had.
Now the group of disciples who stood up at Pentecost to tell others about Jesus were generally not educated men. And the Apostle Peter—one of the inner circle of three—was the kind of person who opened his mouth only to put both feet in. He often got things wrong, he often got the wrong end of the stick. And yet here in this story, having been filled by the Holy Spirit, he is confident, he knows what he is talking about, and he is able to quote scripture to prove his point.
And this is a side of Peter, that had never been seen before. He’s a completely different person to the Peter who was seen following Jesus around. He had always been a leader. But a man who knew what’s what, and could confidently stand up in front of a crowd and open his mouth without putting both feet in? Well, this is a completely different man all together.
So when God calls us and we say to him “I can’t do this… I can’t do that…” then maybe, we should sit up and take note. We need to remember Pentecost, and the day that many people found talents and abilities they never knew they had.
4. The Spiritual Gift
And the fourth is that the gift of the Holy Spirit was given by God to encourage his people to embrace his more spiritual gifts.
On the day of Pentecost, the one gift of the Holy Spirit that was evident was the ability to speak in other languages. However, the Apostle Paul, taught that this was only of the many gifts.
As the Apostle Paul said: “A manifestation of the Spirit is given to each person for the common good. A word of wisdom is given to one through the Spirit; a word of knowledge to another through the same Spirit. Faith is given to another through the same Spirit; gifts of healing to another by the same Spirit. Miraculous powers are given to another; prophecy to another. Discernment of spirits is given to another, various kinds of tongues to another, and interpretation of tongues to another. All these are the work of the one and same Spirit, and he distributes to each person as he wishes.” (1 Corinthians 12:7-11). And that was not intended to be an exclusive list.
With the gift of the Holy Spirit, then, embracing spiritual gifts should be part of our experience. However, we won’t all have the same gifts. And not everyone will have the ability to speak in foreign tongues.
The Feast of Pentecost, the first feast after the Ascension of Jesus, then, was a feast to remember. Apart from the natural hubbub of the crowd, it was the time that marked the birth of the church. It was the day that God sent his Holy Spirit upon his people. And that in turn enabled his people to go out and share their faith with the world.
It’s a particular event where, if we could, I believe it would be good to go back and experience it for ourselves. But on the other hand, we probably don’t need to. Because the gift that God gave his people then is exactly the same as the one he gives his people today too.
The Holy Spirit! God within us! The gift for all believers, and the one thing which ensures our place with God. The gift that empowers his people, helping us to learn and to be confident in our faith—and helping us to go out and to share the good news with those who do not know it. The gift that shows us talents and abilities we never knew we had. And the gift which encourages us all to embrace the spiritual gifts which are given for the benefit of all.
For the early church, that particular feast of Pentecost, was life changing. And while the prompting of the Holy Spirit can be resisted, the presence of the Holy Spirit in our lives should be life changing for us. Indeed, it should not just make a dramatic difference to us as individuals, but it should ensure that our churches are lively, growing, and life changing too.
Posted: 9th April 2021
© 2021, Brian A Curtis
SERMON: A Cameo of the Church (Acts 2:42-47)
Ask any group of people what they think the church is – or should be – and you will come up with a variety of responses. Indeed it can seem, at times, that everybody has a different idea about what the church is all about.
Some think that the church is the building. That its presence is important as a focal part of the community, or because it represents some connection with the past. Some think that the church is the people. But not necessarily just the people who go to church regularly. But it includes anyone who in anyway feels connected. And some think that the church is the people. But only those who have a full relationship with God. And by that definition, it does not include everyone who goes to church.
Now, depending upon what we think the church is, or what it should be all about, will reflect our attitude towards it.
For example those in the first group, who see the church as a building, as the focal point of the community, with some sort of connection with the past, will more than likely have a focus on preserving the structure, and have a strong emphasis on maintaining historical values.
Those in the second group, who have a very wide interpretation of who belongs to the church, will more than likely want to encourage a variety of expressions of beliefs. They will be keen to maintain the building’s presence, so it is there when people feel the need or for those special occasions.
And those in the third group, who believe the church is about people who have a full relationship with God, well this group will be represented by people who want to emphasise the church’s role in terms of the importance of worshipping God, and in terms of sharing and caring within the Christian community. Indeed they may not have any real attachment to a building at all.
Three different groups, then, with three different attitudes to what the church is, or should be all about (and of course there are all sorts of shades in between). But the question is, “Which one is right?” Or are they all right? Do they all encapsulate elements of the truth?
B. A CAMEO OF THE NEW TESTAMENT CHURCH
Well, to answer the question of what the church is, and should be all about, I’d like to refer to the book of Acts (Acts 2:42-47). Because Luke records for us a cameo of the early church. And in comparison with modern attitudes about the church, Luke makes some very interesting observations indeed.
1. Four Elements of Christian Gathering (42)
And the first feature is, the extent of the devotion of all those involved.
For example, we’re told that the believers were keen to hear the teaching of the Apostles, who were noted as the guardians of the faith. Indeed they were keen to meet and be taught as often as possible, and they hung on to every word that was said.
We’re told that the believers were devoted to having fellowship with one another (and in those days that meant “sharing” with one another in a common religious experience). They met together regularly to build each other up in the faith.
We’re told that the believers broke bread together. In other words they shared meals together, at which they remembered the Lord’s Supper.
And we’re told that the believers sought every opportunity to pray together. And prayer was a regular part of their meetings.
2. Public Reaction (43)
The second feature that Luke records about the church is, that the public, those outside the church, were filled with a sense of fear or awe.
As a result of their devotions, God was able to do some wonderful things. Indeed, many signs and wonders were done through the Apostles. Something that not only would have encouraged the believers, but at the same time created a certain apprehension amongst the non-Christian population, in whose midst these supernatural events took place.
3. Christian Community (44-45)
The third feature of the church that Luke describes is, the distinctive way in which the believers lived. They practiced some kind of joint ownership of possessions. Indeed, people sold their possessions so that the proceeds might be used to help the needy among them.
Of course our first impression may be of a community whose members lived together and had everything in common. However, what really happened, was that each person held his goods at the disposal of the others for whenever the need arose.
4. Meeting Together (46)
The fourth feature of Luke’s cameo is, that the religious devotion of the early church was a daily affair. They met together in the temple, and joined in the daily worship at the temple. That is in addition to meeting together in their own homes, for religious gatherings and for common meals.
5. Church Growth (47)
And the fifth feature of the early church is, that they put their beliefs into practice. They praised God and shared their faith with those who didn’t know Jesus. As a result the church grew. And it grew at a phenomenal rate.
C. CONTRASTING IMAGES
Now that is Luke’s cameo of the early church… the church in its infancy, as yet untainted by other influences.
So getting back to our modern day images of the church, and there were three of them, how do they compare?
Well, firstly, to the idea that the church is a building, the focal point of the community or that it has some sort of historical connection with the past, that whole idea is quite foreign to the image of the church as portrayed by Luke.
Indeed, Luke’s description of the church is of a living organic being made up of people, and people only. Yes, the early Christians may have gone to the Temple to meet (and they may have even worshipped there), but they then returned to their homes, where they had fellowship or other meetings. In other words the Temple was not the be all and end all of all their religious devotions.
Further, with their attitudes towards selling possessions, and for the priority of helping one another, one can easily conclude that the idea of a building being the church would have been quite alien to their beliefs and practices.
Secondly, to the idea that the church is about people who have a wide variety of beliefs, which include the idea that it is not necessary to worship on a regular basis, the church of the New Testament would have found that completely foreign too.
Because not only did they meet very regularly, some daily, but they knew nothing about an all-inclusive, all embracing church. Indeed, meeting together only occasionally for rites of passage, or for some other reason, was not part of their beliefs or practices. Rather the frequency and regularity of meeting together, and the purpose – to worship, to be taught, to share and to pray – were the essential features of the church’s life. Indeed they were keen on being taught, so they got it right. And they went out of their way to share their particular beliefs with others.
And, thirdly, to the idea that church is about people, not buildings, and about people who have a full relationship with God, and that caring and sharing is what it’s all about too, well, that would have to be the closest description of the three to the New Testament church that we can get to today.
Because that is exactly what the New Testament church was all about. It was all about taking the faith seriously. It was about maintaining the awe and wonder, the things that God wanted to do for his people. And it was about going out and sharing the faith with any who had not yet responded to the good news of Jesus, not keeping it to themselves.
2. What Makes The Church Tick?
Now obviously this cameo of the early church poses a real challenge to the modern church. Indeed it poses a completely different view of the church than most people believe in or practice today. So why the difference? Well, we can only speculate.
a). The Early Church
But for the early church the resurrection was a current reality. It was something that the people were excited about. Consequently their commitment to Jesus and to the life of the church was very real. And because it was real God was able to be very active in the church. Indeed the things that he did, and the way he blessed his people, was something to be seen. And because of the excitement, and enthusiasm, the faithful couldn’t help spread the word. And as a consequence the church grew at a phenomenal rate.
The reality of this cameo is that people not only believed in the resurrection, but they understood what it meant for their own lives. Yes, that meant a completely new life style, and sometimes great sacrifice, but they did so, knowing what it was that Jesus had done. And they were blessed because of it.
b). The Modern Church
In contrast however, if we look at the church today, the difficulties the church faces reflect the fact that the resurrection for most people is no longer a current reality. It’s no longer something that really grabs them. As a consequence, the commitment to Jesus, and the commitment to his people, is something that many people are no longer prepared to give. As a result God is not able to be very active in a church that is not being faithful. And, what’s more, the church finds it harder and harder to grow. Indeed, in the western world, the church for the most part is headed in the opposite direction.
D. THE SOLUTION
Of course the solution to the modern day problem is obvious. We need to return the church so that it’s like the early church described by Luke in the New Testament . The question for us today, though is, “How do we do it?” How do we get back to that ideal? How do we move the many obstacles in the way, not least of which are all the wrong ideas about what the church is all about?
Well, the simple answer is we need to learn to let go, and let God. We need to let go of our own ideas, and our own wants and desires. We need to let go of the things that we love, and hold dear. And we need to let God, through his Holy Spirit, guide us, and take us on a journey we probably don’t want to go. (And having this passage from Acts, we should have a fair idea of where that journey will take us.) Ironically the way we to reform God’s church, is to turn back the clock. We need to pick up the features of the early church, and we need to apply them for ourselves.
That means, firstly, we need to begin with the need for teaching. The church isn’t about what we want, it’s about what God wants. Consequently we need to know what God is like, what he wants, and how he thinks. Teaching, reading the bible, and study therefore are all important aspects, essential for Christian growth.
Secondly, we need to take seriously the need for fellowship. The need to meet together and to share common religious experiences. Indeed the need to meet together to encourage and build up one another in the faith should be an essential element in the life of every believer.
Thirdly, we need to break bread together (that is, share meals together). Because the more formal aspect of meeting together is one thing, but we mustn’t forget the social aspect of living as a community too. As Christians we are adopted into a new family, a family of believers, and we need to take our family responsibilities seriously.
Fourthly, we need to pray. Because the need to meet regularly to pray is an essential feature in the life of the church. Now prayer involves many things. It involves adoration, confession, thanksgiving, and petition. But most importantly it’s about having a dialogue with God. Because whilst we can learn much about God through other means, there is no substitute for talking to God directly about things of a community concern, as well as those which are of a personal concern.
Fifthly, we need to build up a sense of community. We need to care for one another, and look after one another’s needs. And I might add, using the early church as an example, we need to be prepared to do this no matter what the personal cost.
And, sixthly, we need to share our faith with those around us. And dare I say, if we got the first five features right, then this would not be the hard task that some find it is today. Indeed, it would come very easily, because it would be the natural result of getting all the other basics right.
And if we were committed to all those things, with God’s help, then God could bless us too, as he did to the early church.
Now, as I said at the beginning, ask any group of people what they think the church is, or should be, and we would end up with a variety of responses. However, as we’ve seen today, many of them are just not true. The idea that the church is a building is not true. And the idea that the church is a sort of all-embracing description for a wide variety of beliefs and practices, which includes the need for a building to be there for special events, is not true either
Indeed, the church is the people of God; it is the body of believers. It is the group of people who have trusted in the Lord Jesus Christ for their salvation.
The dilemma the church has today, then, is, how to turn the church, as it has become with all the corrupt views, into the kind of church described in the Acts of the Apostles. A church that shows God’s people in action. A church that illustrates God’s response to his faithful people. And a church that is growing at a phenomenal rate.
So yes, today as a church we have a problem, a big problem, and yet the solution is so simple:
Teaching, fellowship, breaking bread together, prayer, a sense of real community, a commitment to meeting regularly together, and the need to share the faith with others, were all aspects of the early church, a church uncorrupted by other influences. And they should all be aspects of the church today as well.
But is this a model we would like to see in our own churches? And just how far are we prepared to go to turn back the clock, so that our churches can be as God intended?
Posted: 2nd June 2015
© 2015, Brian A Curtis
DEVOTION: A Cameo of the Church (Acts 2:42-47)
Well, to answer the question, we should perhaps go back to the cameo of the church that is described for us in the book of the Acts of the Apostles. Because what we have described for us is a church bubbling with life. The people were totally involved in being taught about the faith. They cared for one another, they shared meals in each other’s homes, they prayed together, they worshipped regularly, and as the need arose they supported one other financially. So much so, that they were a beacon in their community. They didn’t have to go out and tell others about their faith. Their beliefs and actions said it all. And as a consequence people came flocking to them.
Now, is this a picture of the kind of church to which we belong? I don’t think so. Because it seems to me that there is a great gulf between the cameo that we have described for us and the reality of our churches in Tasmania today. What this cameo does, however, is to clearly demonstrate that the church is not the building, and it’s not necessarily everyone who comes to “church”. Rather it is the people who have committed their lives to God, and who are devoted to learning more about their faith, and who care and spend time with their fellow believers.
Now imagine belonging to a church like that.
So is this the kind of church to which we like to belong? And if so, what are we doing (if anything) to reach this lofty goal?
Posted: 17th February 2017
© 2017, Brian A Curtis
SERMON: Respecting Authority (Acts 5:27-32)
When I was a child, my parents taught me to respect authority and to do as I was told. And for the most part that has been sound advice and has kept me in good stead. But having said that, blindly following what other people say was never part of my education. And experience has taught me that not everyone in authority is worthy of being either respected or followed.
Respect needs to be earned, not automatically given. And, I guess, being a typical baby boomer, being brought up to question everything—and not simply accept people’s word for things but to examine everything carefully and decide for myself whether things are really true or not—that is one of the values that I have come to highly regard.
Of course, in one sense, you could say that those two things are not compatible. After all how can you respect authority and do as you’re told, while at the same time question everything and everyone? But then, maybe these aren’t completely opposite ideas. Maybe they are truths which are not mutually exclusive but are ones we need to keep in a sort of creative tension. And I’d like to illustrate what I mean from this story from Acts.
B. TELLING OTHERS ABOUT JESUS
1. Background (Acts 4:1-22)
Now the background to this story begins shortly after the resurrection. It’s a period where Peter and John were so excited about all that had happened that they just couldn’t keep it to themselves. So, instead they went out and told as many people in Jerusalem as they could: That Jesus had risen from the dead—and all that that meant and entailed.
Unfortunately the Jewish authorities heard what Peter and John were doing. And they were disturbed about what popular belief in a risen Jesus might mean. In particular what that would mean for their own positions and authority. Consequently, they had Peter and John arrested, put in jail, and brought before the Sanhedrin for trial. Indeed the same Sanhedrin that was responsible for condemning Jesus to death in the first place.
But at the time, Peter had just healed a crippled beggar (Acts 3:1-10). And the story had become so widespread—and the people, as a result, had such a regard for Peter and the disciples—that the Sanhedrin had to let them go. But not before they commanded the two of them to talk no further regarding Jesus. And they threatened them with punishment should they disobey.
2. The Apostles on Trial (27-28)
Now, of course, the idea of respecting authority was very important in those days. And doing what you were told was part and parcel of the culture even back then. But as today’s part of the story begins, what we have is the arrest of all twelve apostles, and they were all brought before the Sanhedrin for trial. And why? Well, it wasn’t just that Peter and John had continued to tell other people about Jesus—despite being told not to and despite being threatened should they continue—but the other ten apostles had been found doing exactly the same thing.
What’s more the twelve apostles had been so successful in their teaching that they were accused of filling the whole city with their teaching. And that was despite the expressed order about keeping quiet about Jesus—and the implications of what all the recent events meant.
3. The Apostles’ Defence (29)
Now it may well have been that the members of the Sanhedrin were concerned that recent events should not become widely known. Because if that happened then the blame for Jesus’s death would be laid at the Sanhedrin’s door—which although factually true, it was not something that the council wanted advertised.
The Sanhedrin functioned well, based on the people’s loyalty and acceptance of their authority. And if the twelve apostles wouldn’t obey them, imagine what it would be like if all the people realised what it was the Sanhedrin had done, and why they had done it.
The end result would be that the Sanhedrin’s power and authority would be broken. No one would take any notice of them, let alone be obedient to them. And what’s more, retribution rather than obedience could have been the end result.
But to the charge of being disobedient to the commands of the Sanhedrin, all the apostles pleaded guilty and spoke in their defence. And when Peter acted as their spokesman, he did not deny that they had disobeyed the Sanhedrin’s instructions. But he did admit that he had disobeyed them on the basis that there was a higher authority that they needed to respect and obey. And it was a priority that all Christians were bound to accept. And as a consequence, they had no alternative but to disobey the Sanhedrin when it came to matters requiring obedience to God.
4. Peter Evangelising the Sanhedrin (30-32)
And then, ironically, despite the fact that Peter and the others had been warned to speak no more about Jesus, Peter launched into the very thing they had been warned not to do elsewhere. He told the whole Sanhedrin all about Jesus, what had happened, and that it all meant.
Peter commented that to all the other great acts of God in the past, God had now added these things: He had finally given the people their promised Messiah; they had then killed him; and God had raised him from the dead to a place of dignity and power .
Now in doing this, Peter and the other apostles, weren’t trying to point the finger, or apportion blame. After all, their own behaviour at the crucifixion was nothing to be proud of. Rather they wanted the members of the Sanhedrin to accept Jesus too.
And as a consequence of all these things, Peter concluded that God had raised Jesus up as the leader and saviour of men. He had given people the opportunity to repent and to have their sins forgiven, even the members of the Sanhedrin.
Now, I can’t help be impressed by the story. Having been told not to tell people about Jesus—and being threatened with punishment should they continue—Peter and the other apostles were blatantly disobedient to the Jewish authorities. Furthermore, having been brought back before the Sanhedrin, they not only explained their need to be obedient to a higher authority—God himself—but they then used the opportunity to tell the Sanhedrin all the things they’d been warned not to speak of.
Which brings us back to my original point: The concepts of respecting authority and doing what we’re told, versus the need to question authority and the idea that respect must be earned.
Because both of these issues are here in the story.
Indeed, the issues that affected the apostles are the same issues we face today. And yet, in this story, the apostles, from a Christian perspective, come out with flying colours. Because as far as the apostles were concerned, the Sanhedrin wasn’t interested in what had gone on, they weren’t interested in the truth. All they were interested in was maintaining their own power and authority and covering up anything that was a threat to them.
In other words, the Sanhedrin didn’t deserve anyone’s loyalty or obedience. And, fortunately, the apostles had recognised there was a higher authority than the Sanhedrin anyway. And so they placed their allegiance in God, and in the truth which God had revealed to them.
And that has implications regarding our own allegiances, even today.
1. Obeying a Higher Authority
Because sometimes, today, we can find people who want to gag us from talking about our faith; there are people who just don’t want us to talk about religion; and there are those who get quite animated if we should even raise the issue.
To which our response could be to say little or nothing about our faith; to bite our tongue because we know it makes people feel uncomfortable. Or we can follow the command of Jesus and continue to share our faith.
So in this particular case the question is, “Does this person, or these people, or the pressures that we feel have the authority to keep us silent? Or should we, like the apostles, defer to a higher authority?
Peter and John were warned off, even threatened if they continued. But they continued anyway. They followed the higher authority of God, rather than listen to their fellow man. And it should be same for us today too.
2. Defending Ourselves
And as a consequence of what Peter and the other eleven apostles did, they were called on to defend themselves. To give reason for their disobedience to those who wished them to be silent. And that may well be our lot too.
Because like Peter and the other apostles, if we do as God demands, we may need to defend ourselves too. But God is faithful and has promised to be with us in such events. So we should be prepared at all times to stand up and claim that higher authority. We need to be prepared to defend ourselves in public or in private, with officials and with every day people too.
Of course, there is always the matter of sensitivity—being sensitive to situations and people’s needs. But we shouldn’t allow that to totally silence us when it comes to sharing the gospel.
Peter may have been the spokesman of the twelve. But in that court, all of the apostles stood up and defended their actions. And we should be prepared to defend our actions too.
3. Using Opportunities
And should such occurrences happen, even amongst those who have warned us and threatened us, like the twelve apostles, we should stand up and grab the opportunity to share what we know and believe, despite whatever repercussions that might come our way.
Christians are given opportunities to share what they believe from time to time, and it may not always be in the most hospitable of situations. But hospitable or not, we are still called on to obey the higher authority of God in all things. To use every opportunity he provides to share our faith.
And that’s certainly example that Peter and the other twelve apostles provide in our story.
In a sense the twelve apostles on trial—facing the Sanhedrin after the resurrection—is ironic. Because that should have been the scene prior to Jesus’s crucifixion. When Jesus was on trial for his life, he should have had his faithful followers on trial by his side—supporting him, standing up for what they believe. Instead they deserted him and Jesus faced the crucifixion on his own.
With this scene before us then, after the resurrection of Jesus, what the apostles demonstrated was the kind of loyalty and devotion that should have been there at the crucifixion. And, whilst it was too late to show solidarity to prevent the crucifixion taking place, they had at least now learnt exactly what it meant to stand up for Jesus. What it meant to pay the cost.
This time their own lives were on the line. But this time they weren’t running away, they were standing up for what they believed. They were doing precisely what God had asked them to do, no matter what demands were made on them by other people.
And that should be the same for us too. Because when it comes to the Christian faith—when it comes to standing up for what we believe, when it comes to sharing our faith with others—what the apostles finally displayed in their absolute obedience to the higher authority is exactly what is expected of us today too. The apostles finally put their lives on the line for their risen saviour—and so should we, regardless of the cost.
Respecting authority and doing as one is told, on the one hand, and questioning things and not being obedient blindly, on the other, then, is not just my upbringing. And it is not just the example that we see in those twelve apostles after the resurrection. Rather it is something that should be a feature of every Christian’s life.
Yes, there may be a matter of sensitivity in certain situations. But that is no excuse for not telling others about the gospel.
Peter, John and the other ten apostles finally realised what it meant to follow Jesus. And as a consequence, they shared their experiences with all Jerusalem, despite whatever risk to their own lives.
And that means that buckling in to pressures to keep our beliefs to ourselves, is not the Christian way. It never has been and it never will.
Rather what we should be doing, is to grab hold of every opportunity that comes our way, to share our faith and stand up and be counted with our saviour. A saviour who should have our full trust, total respect, and in whom we should do exactly what he asks.
Posted: 1st March 2021
© 2021, Brian A Curtis
DEVOTION: Reading Books Can Be Dangerous (Acts 8:26-40)
Well, obviously, in the past, people have got themselves into trouble because they’ve tried to read the wrong books—books that have been banned because they were considered “dangerous” for political, cultural or other reasons. But that is not the only reason that books can be dangerous. Because books can be a challenge to one’s lifestyle and one’s whole way of thinking too.
Take the story of an important official, traveling from Jerusalem to his home in Ethiopia—a distance of at least 2,500 kilometres. Now he was probably in a covered wagon drawn by oxen, and in need of something to pass away the time. So, what was he doing? He was reading a book. But not just any book, but one of the books of the Old Testament—the book of the prophet Isaiah. And although we don’t know how much of the book that he had read, we do know that he had read the part of the book that foretold the crucifixion of Jesus.
And what was the official’s response to what he read? Well he not only wanted someone to clarify what it meant—and Philip described Jesus sacrificing himself for the benefit of others—but he then insisted on being baptized. Talk about books being life changing.
Now the Christian faith teaches that only those who have lived perfect lives, who have not made one mistake, will inherit eternal life—which doesn’t sound too good for us. And, yet, the Christian faith also teaches that to get around this problem, God sent his Son to pay the price for our mistakes, so that those who believe in him can have their mistakes wiped clean.
And that is what the Ethiopian Eunuch finally understood as he read from the prophet Isaiah, as he talked to Philip, and as he stopped his wagon in order to be baptised. He understood that baptism was about acknowledging that we are totally dependent upon God for our eternal welfare, and that we need our record of mistakes washed clean.
Reading books, then, can not only be dangerous, but life changing. And there can be no more dangerous book to read than the bible—the handbook of the Christian faith. It certainly made a difference to the Ethiopian eunuch, and it should make a difference to us too.
Posted: 30th June 2018
© 2018, Brian A Curtis
SERMON: Hindsight (Acts 10:34-43)
Hindsight is a wonderful thing. And if we all had the opportunities to go back and correct the mistakes that we’ve made—to change our actions and decisions, knowing what we know now—what a wonderful thing it would be.
Because in life, we all get muddled, we all make mistakes, we all make errors of judgement. And sometimes we make decisions without having all the facts. So if we all had the opportunity to look at things anew—and re-live our choices and our actions with the benefit of that hindsight—what a wonderful thing that would be.
Unfortunately, as you know and I know, that sort of thing just isn’t possible. We cannot change what we’ve done. We cannot undo the mistakes that we’ve made. But that doesn’t mean we are totally helpless regarding our past. Because we can re-evaluate what we’ve done, and we can often take action to limit or change the consequences.
And the reason we know that is from our own personal experience and the effect that damage control has had on our lives. And we know that too, through the effect of seeing how re-evaluating the past has had on other people’s lives. And the Apostle Peter, is a great example of that.
Because Peter was noted for being one of the inner three—one of the closest of Jesus’s disciples. But he was impetuous by nature and full of contradictions.
On the one hand he gave the impression of someone who was confident in faith. Indeed, he left his family and livelihood behind to follow Jesus. He often acted as a spokesman for the twelve. He went on missions with Jesus—and was sent on missions by Jesus. And Peter was the one who made the most outstanding proclamation of who Jesus was. “You are the Christ.” (Mark 8:29b).
But on the other hand, Peter was also someone who really didn’t know what it was about at all. Because almost immediately after he had made his famous statement “You are the Christ”, when Jesus began talking about being killed and resurrected on the third day, it was Peter who rebuked Jesus, telling him that there must be another way (Mark 8:31-32). At the last supper when Jesus warned Peter about his imminent arrest, it was Peter who assured him that even if everyone else deserted him, he would remain faithful (Mark 14:27-31). And yet, after Jesus was arrested and was on trial, it was Peter who denied three times that he even knew him. And when Mary Magdalene told Peter that Jesus’s tomb had been raided and someone had stolen the body (John 20:1-9), the only thing on Peter’s mind was to find the dead body. He wasn’t expecting a resurrected Jesus at all.
When it comes to the issue of hindsight, then, there could, perhaps, be no better example of someone in need of it than Peter. Peter is a prime example of someone who needed a chance to re-evaluate his life and have an opportunity of fixing up past mistakes. Because, whilst he made some wonderful statements, he made some terrible blunders too.
But you know, Peter did just that. Because although he was unable to re-live history and prevent himself from making those mistakes, he was, in a sense, able to fix them up. And the one event that was pivotal in changing his life around—in him leaving the past behind and getting a new start—was the resurrection of Jesus from the dead.
B. PETER’S STATEMENT TO CORNELIUS
1. A New Understanding (34-35)
Because shortly after Jesus’s resurrection—when it had been proven that the body had not been stolen, but that Jesus had indeed been resurrected from the dead—Peter re-evaluated his life. And with all his experience, and filled with the Holy Spirit, he was able tell a gentile—Cornelius—all that had happened and all that he’d experienced.
And he did so from the benefit of hindsight—from knowing “now” what he should have known “then.” The jig-saw pieces had finally come together. He’d realised what faith in Jesus, and a relationship with God, was all about. He understood that God didn’t discriminate between people but would accept anyone who truly believed. Having said that, he also realised what would happen to those who were not genuine in their beliefs—those who would not afford God the proper place in their lives.
2. The Role of Jesus (36-38)
So Peter was able to reinterpret his time with Jesus. He was able to tell Cornelius about Jesus—the Messiah that God had sent, fulfilling the promises of the Old Testament. Yes, Jesus had spent his whole life in one small part of the world, but his message was for all mankind. Jesus’s message of peace and reconciliation with God had been started deliberately in Galilee, but with the view of spreading it to the entire world. And that all this was possible, because Jesus had been anointed by the Holy Spirit, who had given him the power and authority to proclaim his message to the world.
So after the resurrection of Jesus, Peter may still have been impetuous by nature. But he was no longer a person who was with Jesus one minute and not with him the next. Something had happened to change Peter; something had happened to make all things clear. And what that thing was—was the resurrection of Jesus from the dead.
3. The Role of the Disciples (39-41)
And so with his new understanding of Jesus, Peter was then able to continue to Cornelius, with his new insights, and with the role that he had to play.
Because he, Peter, had been one of the witnesses. He’d been there from the beginning of Jesus’s earthly ministry. He’d also been there at the end. He’d been one of the first disciples and seen more of Jesus than most. He’d been around when Jesus had been put to death. But more than that, he’d been a witness to the resurrection itself, being one of the select group to whom had Jesus. And as a consequence of all that, he now realised his special role in sharing what he had seen with everyone he could meet.
4. The Point of It All (42-43)
And one thing about this story, Peter knew above else, was that this wasn’t just a story to tell, so that it could be told and passed down from family to family. It wasn’t a fairy story. The point of the story, as far as Peter was concerned, was that Jesus had died for a purpose. He had died to reconcile people with God; to save people from the consequences of their sins. As a consequence, all who believed have an obligation to encourage each other and tell the story to others. There was a responsibility to retell the story and to pull out its meaning to all. But not just in matter of words but in actions too.
And, as a consequence of the resurrection, people needed to be warned that Jesus had been appointed by God to act as judge of all men, both living and dead. And those who accepted Jesus as their Saviour would have their sins forgiven and would be rewarded with eternal life with God. But those who don’t accept him—those who carry on as though God isn’t important . . . Well the only thing that would be theirs is eternal life without God—eternal damnation.
When we compare Peter’s life before the resurrection with what it was like afterwards, we can see a dramatic change in his life. Indeed, the difference couldn’t be more dramatic.
Before the resurrection, Peter sometimes got it right, but often he got it wrong. But after the resurrection, Peter was confident, he knew exactly where he’d been and where he was headed.
Now I’m not saying that after the resurrection Peter was perfect, nor that he was able to undo all of his mistakes. No! But after the resurrection, Peter faced up to his past, and was much more confident and less likely to make so many mistakes. For the first time he was sure about his faith and his life. He knew exactly where he was going. And all of that because of one pivotal event in his life—the resurrection of Jesus from the dead.
1. Putting the Jigsaw Together
Now, as I said, hindsight is a wonderful thing. It’s wonderful for us and it was wonderful for Peter. And no doubt Peter had much help from God—and guidance in the Holy Spirit—in putting all the jigsaw pieces together. The question for us today, though, is if Peter, faced with the resurrected Lord, was able to put all the pieces together, come to grips with his mistakes, and become much more confident regarding his faith, couldn’t an understanding or realisation of that same pivotal event do the same for us today too?
Indeed, if we could take a look at our past lives, particular regarding all the religious influences that we’ve had where we’ve had the opportunity to meet Jesus . . . influences like Sunday School, scripture classes, baptisms, weddings, funerals, church services, and religious discussions . . . and if we could bring all those things together and re-examine them in the light of the realisation of the resurrection of Jesus, what would that do for us?
If we could take a look at all our mistakes, all the decisions we’ve made that were wrong—decisions that we made either on impulse or without having all the facts—and if we then re-examined them in the light of the resurrection of Jesus, where would that take us too?
For Peter the opportunity came, and he took full advantage of it—going through all his mistakes and religious experiences—and he came out a new man. And all because of the resurrection of Jesus. Imagine, then, what that same practice could do for people like us today.
2. Putting the Church Together
Furthermore, when we consider the responsibilities that God has given his people—the church . . . to share the things that we know; to meet regularly; to worship, to build each other up; to encourage one another; to be involved in ministry of some description, like visiting the lonely, feeding the hungry and caring for the sick; and to speak out on issues of poverty, injustice, and making this world a better place . . . indeed, if we could re-examine our place within God’s church from the realisation of the resurrection, where would that take us too?
Imagine! A church where there was no need for fundraising; where even the biggest buildings would have to be pulled down and rebuilt because they were too small, and because they were totally inadequate for the ministry needs to the local community and beyond. And all because of the resurrection of Jesus.
The resurrection, then, the pivotal event in Peter’s life; the thing that changed him from a bumbling disciple to a confident man of faith that he became. And if the resurrection could do that for someone like Peter, imagine what a difference it could make for us too.
Hindsight is a wonderful thing. And sometimes we might wish that we could relive past events, so that we could change our decisions, based on what we know now. However, as we all know, that just isn’t possible. But we can take the past and look at it anew.
Peter with all his religious background—and with all his mistakes and failings—did exactly that. And all because of the resurrection of Jesus.
No! he couldn’t undo the mistakes of the past. But he certainly was able, with God’s help, to change his own future. He changed from a man who really didn’t know what was going on or where he was going, to a man who knew very much what life was all about. He became very clear about where he stood in his relationship with God, and what his obligation to God entailed.
And if that is the kind of result that we see when we look at someone like Peter, imagine what it could do for us today too.
Posted: 24th December 2020
© 2020, Brian A Curtis
SERMON: Christian Initiation (Acts 10:44-48)
1. Celebrating and Remembering: The World
We celebrate or remember events, these days, that are important to ourselves and to our community. Apart from the obvious, like births, deaths, and marriages, we set aside time for Australia Day, Anzac Day, the Queen’s Birthday, etc. We remember anniversaries of people and events. And we even have formalised celebrations to welcome new members to the various organizations to which we belong.
Of course not every ceremony is meant to be taken seriously. Indeed, as a new resident of a university college I was required to be “initiated” into the campus. I was given a silly task to perform. And having completed that, I was then required to be immersed in a bath full of kitchen scraps which had been allowed to ferment for a week.
University pranks aside, though, the celebration or remembrance of certain events—with the ceremonies that are attached—are a very important part of life.
2. Celebrating and Remembering: The Church
And just as that is true in our society as a whole, so is it true in the church today. Because in the church’s calendar we celebrate a number of festivals—festivals like Christmas, Easter, Pentecost, Lent, Advent, etc. etc. And we have formalised ceremonies regarding the Lord’s Supper and the initiation of new members.
3. Celebrating and Remembering: Variations and Limitations
So in both church and the community, we both have commemorations and we both have ceremonies. Furthermore, we both enjoy a degree of flexibility in the way we do things. But then our remembrances need to be relevant to the particular organisation or community to which we belong—we need to allow for variety. And yet, we still need to work within certain parameters, to avoid the possibility of losing the point of the celebration. We need to have frameworks in which we can work.
And that is particularly true of Christian initiation. Because even though the traditions of our churches require some flexibility in styles, yet we still have a need for some basic guidelines to keep our celebrations on track. And fortunately for us, the Apostle Peter, in this passage from the Acts of the Apostles, has provided us with that very thing. Indeed, he makes it very clear the parameters under which we should work.
B. CHRISTIAN INITIATION – A NEW TESTAMENT EXAMPLE
1. What Happened (44-46a)
Now the background to the passage places Peter on his soapbox. And what he was doing was telling a captive crowd of gentiles everything that had happened in regard to Jesus. Indeed, he told the crowd the story from Jesus’s baptism by John the Baptist to Jesus’s resurrection. And he talked about what that implied in regard to Jesus being the Saviour of the world. However, at this point, while Peter was talking, the Holy Spirit came upon those who were listening.
Now this may not appear to us to be very significant. After all this wasn’t an isolated event in New Testament terms. But in this case, this was one of the most significant events of the New Testament. This was a group of gentiles, not Jews, and they were receiving the gift of the Holy Spirit too.
Now the New Testament shows us that only those who repent and believe the gospel receive the Holy Spirit (11:17f)—the very thing that Peter was talking about when the Spirit came upon them (43). So what we have here, is the very first recorded example of gentiles responding to the message of the gospel with faith, and God accepting them on exactly the same grounds as any Jew, by sealing their faith with the gift of the Holy Spirit.
So it is perhaps not surprising that Peter’s companions were totally taken aback by the events. After all, it was one thing to preach to the gentiles. It was quite another thing to see the gentiles being treated by God as if they were Jews.
Yet whatever their prejudices, there was no mistake about what had happened. Just as the first Jewish believers had received the Spirit and praised God on the day of Pentecost, so now the gentiles were receiving the same gift. A demonstration, once and for all, that God wanted to treat everyone the same.
2. The Church’s Response (46b-48)
The problem was, however, if God were going to accept the gentiles, would the church do too? Because if baptism was the outward sign of reception into the people of God for the Jews, then it had to be exactly the same for the gentiles too.
So from this moment on, for all believers—Jews and gentiles—baptism was to be the sign of cleansing from sin, of forgiveness (2:38), and as an outward sign of an inward reality. And having already been baptised by the Holy Spirit, Peter put, the controversial question to the Jewish Christians who were with him: “Can anyone object to these people being baptised with water?” Then with no objections raised, Peter gave instructions for the gentile converts to be baptised.
Now it’s an interesting little cameo, and one that sees the transition from the church being mainly Jewish to the inclusion of gentiles too. But it’s also a statement about the nature of Christian initiation itself, and the elements required in order for that initiation to be complete.
Because in this example, there were three things required: A commitment of faith and repentance; the receiving of the Holy Spirit; and the baptism with water. Three distinct aspects of Christian initiation. And, as our reading in the Acts of the Apostles goes, in perfect logical order.
But hold on a minute, unfortunately, as you and I know, things don’t always work out in such good logical order. And whereas that’s true of life as a whole, so it is true regarding Christian initiation too.
Indeed, in later examples in the Acts of the Apostles itself we have examples of whole families being baptised—and in those days that would have included children and slaves, some of whom may not have been in any position to make any commitment for themselves. In regard to a certain jailer we’re told that he, and his whole household believed, and were baptised (Acts 16:33). And we’re told that a woman called Lydia believed—but with no mention of her family believing—and yet her whole household was baptised (Acts 16:15).
D. CHRISTIAN INITIATION TODAY – THREE ASPECTS
So, what does all this mean? And how do we apply the practice of Christian initiation in the New Testament sense, so that it is relevant to church today?
Well, firstly we need to take seriously the three aspects described in that passage from the Acts of the Apostles.
1. The Need for Faith and Repentance
Firstly, Christian initiation involves an act of faith. It involves committing oneself totally to our Lord Jesus Christ for our salvation. And it involves not only being sorry and regretting the things that we’ve done wrong—where we’ve placed our own wants and desires before those of others or even God himself. But, with God’s help, having a willingness to refocus our lives in a completely different direction, and to commit ourselves to walk on the path that God leads.
2. The Reception of the Holy Spirit
Secondly, Christian initiation involves receiving God’s gift, which is nothing short of himself: the Holy Spirit who lives in every believer. And the Holy Spirit’s role is to teach and guide, as well as to correct; to show us not only where we’re going wrong but to nudge us back on track; and to empower and enable his people to carry out the work of God.
3. Baptism with Water
And, thirdly, Christian initiation involves being baptised with water, with the symbolic washing away of sin and the public commitment to put our past lives behind us, for a new life dedicated to our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ.
And all three aspects are essential for Christian initiation to be complete.
But the order in which they occur . . . Well that’s where the controversy comes in. Because as I said earlier, things don’t always happen in an ideal order, and in an ideal way. And they didn’t always happen in in an idealised order in the early church either.
After all, the New Testament ideal order of faith and repentance, followed by the receiving of the Holy Spirit, followed by the response of baptism, may be the ideal order for adults, who have never been baptised. But what about children? Because even in the New Testament, children (as part of families) were baptised.
F. CHRISTIAN INITIATION TODAY – INFANT BAPTISM
And this is where the whole thing gets far more complicated. Because in New Testament times infant baptism wasn’t an issue. Indeed, there are no instances recorded of babies being baptised on their own. Rather they were baptised at the same time as other members of their family.
However, at some stage it must have become an issue for believing families, who had already been baptised, particularly when new babies were born. Because by at least the third century, infant baptism was regularly practiced and was considered to be perfectly normal.
Now it must be said here that the practice of baptising infants has always been seen as only part of the Christian initiation rite. It has always been expected that when children grow up, they would make a stand regarding their faith too. And consequently the three aspects of: faith and repentance, reception of the Holy Spirit, and baptism—which was then practised as infant baptism with confirmation—would have kept intact the New Testament initiation model.
Unfortunately what happened in reality, is that bit by bit confirmation fell away or was reduced to a mere formality. And by the reformation in the 1500’s—in an age where there was a renewed emphasis on the insistence of personal faith and a conversion experience—the practice of infant baptism came into disrepute.
Consequently, the subject of “believer’s baptism” or the return to the more “ideal” order of faith and repentance, followed by the receipt of the Holy Spirit, followed by baptism in water of adults, and adults only, became to be practiced by the new non-conformist churches.
As a consequence, baptism of infants can only be justified if baptism and confirmation are looked upon together, as making up the one act in a New Testament sense. (However, it must also be said, that to be strictly biblical, the act of confirmation does not require the presence of a bishop, or the laying on of hands).
The order in which the three aspects occur then is not strictly important. However, on its own, infant baptism is a good work that has begun but has not been completed. And on its own it does not meet the New Testament requirements for Christian initiation. Furthermore, confirmation for the sake of confirmation—without the act of faith and repentance, and without the reception of the Holy Spirit—does not meet all the requirements of Christian initiation either.
Because whether one has been baptised as an infant or an adult, those three things: faith and repentance, the receiving of the Holy Spirit, and being baptised with water, are the three essential ingredients, regardless of which order they come, for Christian initiation to be complete.
Now, we live in a society that celebrates and remembers many things. Certain rites of passage are also considered to be very important. And we may even belong to an organization which has an initiation ceremony to some degree. But just as that is true of our society, so is it true of the church as well. And there can be no more important ceremony than that of Christian initiation.
However, in order for Christian initiation to be complete it requires those three essential ingredients: faith and repentance, receiving the Holy Spirit, and being baptised with water. And whilst getting the order right isn’t so important, we do need to be careful that we don’t just take part of it and pretend the rest doesn’t matter.
Posted: 1st January 2021
© 2021, Brian A Curtis
DEVOTION: The Structure of the Church (Acts 15:1-23a)
Today’s models, however, are in stark contrast to the early church. Because, in the book of Acts, we have a description of a single unifying body (based in Jerusalem), but which allowed a diversity of structure to meet local need.
Now it seems to me that we have lost much in our modern approach. We have lost that unity. We have also lost that diversity to some extent—structures are imposed which do necessarily meet the local need. As a consequence, there are many things that we can learn and apply from the principles of the early church, no what the structure of our church or denomination today.
And the Council of Jerusalem is an example of how things should be done. Because when we read the story, we can realise at least four things:
Firstly, when the early church had an issue to debate, they created a forum to talk through the issues, to air their views, and to seek God’s mind on the subject.
Secondly, they created a situation where all views were considered. Yes, there were divergent views, but everyone had the chance to talk, before a decision was made.
Thirdly, the forum concerned itself primarily with the spiritual life of the church, not just then nuts and bolts issues.
And fourthly, the whole focus of the meeting was to grow the church, to remove all stumbling blocks—and not just to hold on to tradition.
Now does all that sound familiar? Because it should do. Because no matter what the structure of the church or the denomination that we belong to, those principles should remain the same.
Unfortunately, that has not been my experience. Indeed, my experience has been that people generally try to avoid spiritual debate. And when spiritual issues do arise, invariably one or two dominate the debate, not everyone has their say, and maintaining the status quo remains the priority.
The structure and example of the early church, then, creates a real challenge for the modern church. Not least of which is to realise that we need to go back to New Testament principles and apply them in our churches today. And we should do that, no matter what structure or denomination that we enjoy.
Posted: 24th February 2018
© 2018, Brian A Curtis
SERMON: Divine Guidance (Acts 16:9-15)
Most people, at some time or another, seek purpose and direction in life. As a consequence, they go off in different directions searching for meaning. Most have great difficulty in their search, and some look for alternatives to bring moments of joy into their lives. And only some, perhaps only a few, seem to continually receive that tap on the shoulder pointing them in the right direction.
Now, if you’re a believer, discovering the meaning to life should be a past event. Because it should come naturally through a relationship with God. But even then, that is not the end of the process. Because even those who are totally committed to God, and his cause, will continue to need direction and guidance to stay on track, and to grow in their relationship with God.
The problem is that divine guidance can be dangerous. Indeed, it comes with a warning. Because as many Christians can attest, following God—wherever he leads—comes at a price.
1. The Vision (9)
Take the Apostle Paul. He had had dedicated his life to Jesus. Indeed, he had found his purpose in life. And as a consequence, he went out on his first missionary journey; he travelled to the eastern half of what we would now call Turkey. And then he went out on his second missionary journey; he extended his mission to the western half of Turkey too. And he went to a port in Turkey about as far west as he could possibly go.
And then something happened. He had a vision of a man who lived in what we would now call Greece. And this man pleaded with him to get on a boat and sail the two hundred and fifty kilometres across the Aegean Sea to come to him.
2. The Response (10-12)
Now most people, if they’d received a vision like that, might have wanted to sit down and consider what they had seen—to think through all the implications. After all, was it really a vision from God? And, if it was, what about the need to stop and prepare for what lay ahead? And then there’s the issue of timing, getting across the sea, and all the other obligations they had in western Turkey, etc.
But not Paul. He immediately shared his vision with his fellow travellers, who agreed it was a vision from God. Indeed, they acknowledged that this was God’s leading; that it was a cry for help of a spiritual nature; and that there was an immediacy in the call. And without further prompting, they prepared themselves for the journey.
And that meant that they went down to the dock, got on a boat and, after a two-day journey, arrived on the others side of the Aegean Sea. After which, they (presumably) walked the sixteen kilometres to Philippi—a city of great commercial importance because of its location on the road between Asia and the west.
3. The Sabbath (13)
And then, having only had a few days at the most—to work out the lay of the land—on the very first Sabbath after their arrival they began their mission. They began by walking west of the city—because no religious buildings or burials of strange cults were permitted within two kilometres of the city. They sat down by the river, where a few people had gathered in the open air, at the regular Jewish meeting spot. And there they talked to the people who had gathered—which seems to have been limited to a few women—about Jesus and the Christian faith.
Now it must be said here, that for a group of men with the upbringing of Paul and his fellow travellers, talking to women about the Christian faith would not have been easy. Jews, traditionally, had little regard for the teaching of women. But Paul and his companions recognised that God had called them to go there and to teach. So who were they to argue with God? And that’s exactly what they did, regardless of any social discomfort that they might have felt.
4. The Conversion (14-15)
And of course, the end result was that at least one of the women was converted (though not necessarily at their first meeting). Lydia, probably a wealthy woman (being involved in the luxury trade of purple cloth) accepted Jesus as her Lord and Saviour. And she and all the people of her house (that is the whole establishment—home and business) were baptised. And as an expression of her faith, Lydia responded with good works. She even persuaded Paul and his fellow travellers to accept her hospitality for as long as they remained in the city.
And so the church at Philippi was born. The result of Paul (a man who had already accepted his purpose in life) accepting divine guidance. He had accepted God’s vision—his direction—to cross the water, to go to a place where the Gospel had not yet reached. And despite whatever cultural misgivings he and the others may have felt—regarding sitting by the river, teaching women—the end result was that Lydia opened her heart to the Lord. And, further, as tradition tells us, she then opened up her home to become the first “church” in Philippi. Indeed, the first church in the whole Macedonian region.
This part of Paul’s second missionary journey, then, is a very inspiring story. For it involved the creation of a new church—the direct result of a small group of people being open and responding to the guidance of God.
And what makes it even more interesting, is that if we were to read on, we would discover that apart from Lydia (a woman), there were two other people who became noted as forming the foundation of that church—a slave girl and a gentile jailer.
What we have in Philippi, then, is the story of three people who epitomised the kind of people that Jews normally held in contempt—a woman, a slave, and a gentile. And yet these three became noted as being the nucleus of that first Philippian church.
As a result of Paul’s obedience to God, not only had the gospel crossed the Aegean Sea, but it had bridged the far more difficult gap of sexual, social, and racial distinctions. And that is a very significant matter indeed.
As you can see, then, this is a very important story regarding divine guidance and direction, as well as being a significant story in the growth and expansion of the Christian church. As a consequence, if we are looking for purpose, if we are looking for God’s help, and if we are looking for a way to grow the church and the congregation to which we belong, then there are some very important points that this story has to make.
1. The Call
And the first of these is the need to be open to God’s calling.
Because when Paul was about as far west as he could go—in what we would now call Turkey—he could well have decided that this was as far as he was prepared to go. He could have said, “I’ve come a further five hundred kilometres west than I did last time. I’ve done my bit,” and he could have closed his mind to anything else that God said to him.
But he didn’t. He didn’t let his achievements up to that point get in the way. And he certainly wasn’t content to put his feet up for a while. On the contrary, he was open to God’s leading. He listened. And the seriousness of the way Paul took that vision, is reflected in the fact that he didn’t pretend that it hadn’t happened. Rather he immediately told his fellow travellers all that he had seen and heard.
Paul’s example should tell us, that even if God told us to do certain things in the past, we are not to rest on our laurels. Part and parcel of wanting direction and divine guidance is the need to be open and prepared to listen at all times.
Previous direction does not preclude the possibility of being called to do something new. And as a consequence, we need always to be open and prepared to listen to the voice of God.
2. The Confirmation
The second thing that the passage teaches us relates to the testing of God’s call.
Because in our story, one of the vital ingredients was the fact that having received the vision, Paul’s immediate response was to relay it to his fellow travellers.
Now whether the man in the vision was calling specifically to Paul—or to Paul and his fellow travellers—we don’t know. But Paul didn’t just charge off on his own. Rather, he told his vision to his fellow believers, so that they could confirm his understanding of his call. And as a consequence, his fellow travellers were in a position to offer their support.
And that is important. Because sometimes we can come across people in church who have a bee in their bonnet. And they charge off on their own on their particular quest. But that’s not a recipe for a healthy church. Indeed, when that happens, it often things end in disaster.
Paul’s case, then, sets a far better example, because a call needs to be tested to see if it is genuine. And what better way than to confide in one’s fellow believers, and to ask for their confirmation and their support.
3. The Process
The third thing that the passage teaches us relates to the immediacy of the need to put our call into action.
Because in Paul’s case, what we see is that both Paul and his fellow travellers immediately got ready to leave for Macedonia. Now Paul’s situation may have been unusual. After all, he was already on a missionary journey, and all he was being asked to do was to change physical direction and location. But regardless of that, there was no prolonging the preparation. There was no humming and hawing. There was no setting up a committee to go through all the various options—producing reports or anything like that. Paul and his fellow travellers simply got up, paid their passage, and went.
Now for us, yes, we may need some preparation time, particularly if we’re not in full mode. That is, if we are not already doing similar things that are requested of us. But referral to committees and reports? Well, they do have their place. But endless delaying tactics should not be part of the process at all.
All Paul did was to get up and go, believing that God had done the ground work. All he had to do was to get there and do his part. There was nothing very complicated at all. And to a great extent, that should be our response too.
4. The Focus
And the fourth thing that this passage teaches us is that, when it comes right down to it, we should be prepared to abandon our social upbringing, our cultural sensibilities, and whatever other barriers that we like to keep in place, for the priorities of God.
Now when Paul had his vision, he was faced with a man who was calling him. Paul may even have assumed that this man was of Jewish descent—and the situation might have seemed quite acceptable in terms of the Jewish customs of the day. However, when they arrived, who were the three people they not only met but became the founding members of the church? But a woman, a slave, and a gentile jailer—three kinds of people who were considered to be socially unacceptable to the Jews. Indeed, three people who were considered to be social undesirables.
But the thing is, do we see any sign of complaint that the first people that Paul and the others talked to were women? Do we see any objections to a slave girl and a gentile becoming part of the nucleus of the first church in Philippi? No! The only thing that was important was that each of them were open to what they had to say, and that each of them responded to the salvation message with a loud and hearty “yes!” And that is all that should be important to us too.
The Christian gospel is a great leveller, and if God guides us to minister to people to whom we would not normally mix, then that is something we need to learn to accept. After all, aren’t these the very people with whom Jesus spent most of his time? And as a consequence, we shouldn’t be surprised if these are the kind of people that we are called to be with too.
Looking for purpose and direction in life, then, is a very common pastime. And while people go in all sorts of directions searching for meaning in life, only Christianity does true purpose and meaning. But having said that, God also wants to guide us and show us direction in other ways too.
The question is, though, “Do we always we want to go?”
The Apostle Paul had a vision in what we would now call western Turkey, and at the time he may have been very unsure of what to expect. But he was open to God, and when his fellow travellers confirmed his call, they went off without delay. What’s more, they accepted the people God brought to them, regardless of their social and cultural upbringing.
So if we want meaning and we want purpose in life—and we want God to prompt us and show us the way—we’re not going to get it by putting up barriers on what we are willing to receive. On the contrary, we’ll only get it by being open to God and doing what he asks, and by following God’s standards, not ours, wherever he leads.
Posted: 8th February 2021
© 2021, Brian A Curtis
DEVOTION: The Need for Evangelism (Acts 17:15-18:1)
All well and good. Except that the number of people who actually attend Church on Sundays—or any other day—is only a small proportion of the number who indicate some sort of affiliation with the Christian church.
We can easily conclude, then, “Do people really understand what Christianity is about? Do they really know why the church exists?” Because if the answer to both of these questions is “No,”, then perhaps we should ask, “What are we going to do about it?”
Now these questions are similar to the ones that the Apostle Paul faced when he entered the great city of Athens—a city noted, at the time, for the time people sat around talking about and listening to the latest ideas, and for the superstitious nature of the people. Indeed, there were idols everywhere, including (just to cover themselves) one to an unknown god.
But Paul didn’t need a census to tell him what was going on—it was obvious. The people didn’t know who the real God was. As a consequence, Paul was determined to put them right.
So he went to the synagogue, he spoke in the market place, and he stood up at a meeting in the Areopagus where the serious debating took place. In other words, he used everyday places to share the message of God; he used every opportunity available to him to share what he believed about God and about Jesus.
So what has changed in the last two thousand years? Not a lot. Missionaries have been sent out to spread the good news, but even in our own country people still don’t understand about God and the church.
Paul then is a great example. Indeed he used every opportunity to tell others about Jesus, and therefore has given us a model that we can follow. Because we need to use every opportunity to share our faith with others too.
Posted: 6th March 2020
© 2020, Brian A Curtis
SERMON: Five Clues on Evangelism (Acts 17:22-31)
1. The Responsibility of Evangelism
One of the things that can make church people very uncomfortable is the need for evangelism—the need to go out and share one’s faith with others who do not believe. Which is odd really, because the one task that Jesus gave all of his disciples—and not just those of the first century—was the responsibility to do exactly that. In fact not one Christian is exempt from that responsibility.
The question of evangelism, therefore, should not be about “How do we avoid doing it?” and “How can we pretend that the responsibility doesn’t exist?” But rather it should be on “How do we do it?” and “What do we actually need to say?”
2. The Challenge of Evangelism
And for us, in Australia., the importance and urgency of the need for evangelism should be quite clear if we consider the state of the nation.
For example, from a humorous perspective, in Melbourne, Australian Rules football is considered to be a very important religion. And I would imagine that in Sydney, Rugby League would be considered much the same. And unfortunately for some, that is all that they live for.
But from a more serious perspective, we have a census every five years which specifically asks people about their religious affiliations. And although these days it has become an optional question, the majority still answer it. But in this is the crunch: the number of people who identify themselves as Christians is far greater—indeed, many times greater—than the number of people who actually attend Church. And that says something about people’s understanding of the Christian faith.
3. The Task of Evangelism
The situation that Christians face in Australia, then, is particularly clear. On the one hand, every Christian has been given the responsibility to be involved in evangelism—in sharing their faith with those who have not accepted Jesus as their saviour. But on the other hand, we live in a country where it is clear that many people may identify themselves as Christians, but most have no idea about what the Christian faith is really all about.
Consequently, as Christians, we have the responsibility of sharing our faith. But we also need to correct people’s misunderstandings of the faith. And with the level of people who have clearly not accepted Jesus as their Lord and saviour, there is an urgency in that task.
But those questions again, “How do we do it” and “What should we say?”
B. PAUL IN ATHENS
Well, to answer those questions I’d like to refer to the passage from Acts. Because in it we have the description of the Apostle Paul’s visit to Athens. And I believe Paul’s example can give us a number of pointers on how we should proceed.
1. Paul’s Approach
Now Paul’s normal approach—on his missionary journeys—was that when he arrived in a new town, he would begin his ministry at the local synagogue. In other words, he would begin by trying to persuade the local adherents to the Jewish faith that the Messiah had indeed come and that they should put their trust in Jesus.
However in Athens, Paul was so upset about the number of idols that were present in the city, he not only began to evangelise the Jews—to whom he shared a common Old Testament background—but side by side with that he began to engage with the local Greeks, who knew nothing about the Christian faith. And as the Greeks were used to debating new ideas and issues of philosophy, Paul used that to his advantage to spread his message. And so Paul stood up in the usual debating place in the Athens market.
2. Paul’s Speech
But what Paul did was not to immediately launch into an explanation of the gospel. Rather he engaged the people in something with which they were far more familiar. He had seen all the idols and he’d seen an altar “to an unknown God”, so he began his speech by referring to the things with which they were familiar. But more than that, he adopted the language and style of debating to which the people were familiar with too.
The people were used to debating new thinking and philosophical issues. And consequently Paul used terms which, on the one hand, were quite biblical. But on the other hand, were also familiar to the adherents of Epicurean and Stoic philosophies as well. He took the tomb to an unknown god—to which there was no real connection with the Christian God at all—and simply raised the basic question, “Who is God?” And from there, Paul used concepts influenced by Plato and Aristotle in describing the real God.
He described him as being the creator—that he wasn’t some sort of statue that was man-made or could be represented by things that were man-made. He then went on to describe God as not only being the creator but being the God of history. He then moved on to talk about God as being the source and goal of human aspirations—that he had made men that they might look for him and perhaps find him. And then he argued that yes, the Stoic belief that God is imminent in all things was true. But that belief didn’t go far enough.
Paul described God in terms of being a living and personal God too. And he used some Greek poetry which again would have been familiar to his audience. He then went on to describe humanity as being made in the image of God. But that God, being a deity, was so far beyond an artist’s imagination that any artists’ impression would be a gross injustice to God.
And then, because of all of these things, he challenged his audience to repent—to return from their evil ways of idolatry. Because God was not only their creator but he was also their judge. Their ignorance in the past may have been relatively excusable, but a new age had been inaugurated by Christ, and God had fixed the day when the whole world would be judged.
Now, of course, it is easy to look at Paul, and people like him, and excuse ourselves from the responsibility of sharing the faith. After all, Paul had been a Pharisee and teacher before he even became a Christian—he knew how to talk to people about religious matters.
Furthermore, we can look at his speech and say, “I couldn’t do that. I have no idea about Stoic and Epicurean philosophy, let alone the works of Aristotle or Plato.” We can also say, “That was OK for Paul, but the world has changed. It’s not like that any longer.” And some or all of that may be true. But none of those things excuse from the fact that God has given every Christian the responsibility to share their faith.
And that means among Christians today, some will be good public speakers, and some not. Some will have a good grasp of philosophy or whatever it is that is currently being debated, and some will not. But none will be excused from sharing their faith, no matter how scary that may be.
Consequently, the question remains: “How do we do it?” and “What should we say?”
And in the context of this passage there are a number of very clear clues that we can follow.
1. Seeking Opportunities
And the first is that we need to actively seek opportunities for evangelism.
Paul’s first preference (on his missionary journeys) was to go to the synagogue, to talk to people who had a common background. But after a very short time in Athens, not only had he seen lots and lots of idols, but he had identified the market place as a meeting place for the Greeks. Indeed, he had noted their custom of debating new ideas and philosophies, which was all part and parcel of Athenian life.
So if we are to follow Paul’s example, then, we need to be looking for opportunities to share the faith too. And not necessarily just ones that involve talking.
So the concept of observing the people and culture and identifying opportunities for evangelism has to be the very first part of the journey.
2. Finding a Starting Point
Secondly, we need to discover a starting point.
Paul’s preference on entering a new town was to engage the people who had a common background in the debate. But failing that he would discover something that was relevant to the people to spark their interest—something he could use to make his point.
So if we are to follow Paul’s example, then, we need to discover some sort of ground which is of interest to those with whom we wish to share. And the sort of ground to which we can build a case for the need to have faith in Jesus.
Paul took the Athenians on a journey from something they knew to something they didn’t know. But he had them hooked from the start because the topic of discussion was something in which they were interested. And that is precisely the kind of approach we need to take too, if our message is to mean anything at all.
3. Speaking the Same Language
Thirdly, we need to use terms which are familiar to the people.
Paul spoke the same language as the people. Yes, he discussed some deep theological issues but only in the language and style which were familiar to the people. He dropped all the jargon that he used in the synagogues and churches. Because as far as Paul was concerned the message was far too important to have people scratching their hands or even misunderstanding what he was saying. He used their language, their terms, and concepts—and he used them to make his point.
So if we are to follow Paul’s example, then, we need to be careful of how we speak too. We need to realise that much of our Christian jargon is incomprehensible or easily misunderstood by those who don’t know Jesus. (And quite frankly it is often misunderstood or misused in church as well). Instead, we need to take on board the need to speak only in terms that the people to whom we are speaking to can understand.
4. Being Familiar with the Culture
Fourthly, we need to be familiar with the culture of the people.
Paul used the culture of the people. He met the people where they were at, in their debating hall just off from the market. He used the, then, current place of philosophical debate. And he referred to their various philosophers and philosophies. Indeed, he was so familiar with the literature of the people that he was able to use a well-known poem to make his point.
So if we are to follow Paul’s example, we need to become familiar with our culture too. And not only with the culture but whatever sub-cultures that are relevant to the people concerned. We need to learn what makes people tick—what interests them. Because without an understanding of where people are coming from it will be very hard to relate to them at all.
5. Keeping it Simple
And the fifth thing is, we need to remember to keep it simple.
Paul’s example was that he didn’t make his message unnecessarily complicated. He simply talked about God the creator; he talked about God being a living personal God; and he talked about a man being appointed by God to be the judge. And as a consequence, he then called the Athenians to repent. Paul’s whole focus was on getting the people to turn away from their false gods and false beliefs, and to turn to a relationship with the only, one, true God.
So, if we are going to follow Paul’s example, then, we need to keep it simple too. And that may mean that we need to avoid talk of a number of things that are an unnecessary part of evangelism. Indeed, there may be no need to talk in terms of church involvement, prayer, bible study, giving, fellowship, and caring for one another—things that are more relevant to people who have faith. And all things which Paul omitted from his speech to the Athenian people.
Instead we should concentrate only on what is necessary to receive faith—things necessary to begin a relationship with God. Because anything else may confuse the issue and make the way to salvation a whole lot more complicated than it really is. It will also detract from the primary message of the need to having a saving faith in Jesus.
Now in many ways people may look at Paul, and his speech to the Athenian people, and say “I couldn’t possibly do that”. But break down what Paul did into its component parts and it really isn’t that complicated at all. Indeed it is something that all Christians can and should be doing.
Because today, as well as throughout history, every Christian faces the responsibility of the need to share their faith. And today, that’s particularly important living in a country where many people claim to be adherents to the faith, but most have little understanding of what the is all about.
The responsibility to share one’s faith is not an optional extra—it should be part and parcel of every Christian’s life. But to the question of “How do we do it?” and “What can we say?” . . . Well, Paul’s example has given us those five clues.
Firstly, we need to seek opportunities to share the faith. We need to keep our eyes and ears open for a chance to tell others about Jesus. Secondly, we need to find a starting point. We need to find something we can latch onto that is relevant to the person or persons concerned. Thirdly, we need to speak the same language. No gobbledegook, no jargon, just the language that people know. Fourthly, we need to be familiar with the culture. We need to know where people are coming from and what makes them tick. And fifthly, we need to keep it simple. Because if we complicate things then we’re in danger of losing the main message.
And with those five things in mind it should be easier to share the Christian faith. To share that God is the creator, that he cares, and that he has appointed Jesus to be the judge. As a consequence, it is in Jesus that people need to put their faith in, in order to be saved.
Paul may have had much experience in evangelism and we may have had very little, but we have the benefit of the clues that he left behind. So all we need to do is to put them into practice, and to pray that God will use us and bless us in our endeavours.
Posted: 10th October 2020
© 2020, Brian A Curtis
DEVOTION: Baptism for Today (Acts 19:1-6)
Different things mean different things to different people.
Indeed, we could all be watching the same game of football, and what would be a reportable offence to one person, would be a fair tackle to another. We could all go to the same historic site, and what would make some googly-eyed, could leave others ho-humming. And we could all go to a movie together, and some would come out with a deep and meaningful message, whilst others would have only been mildly amused.
Different things mean different things to different people. We all come at things from different perspectives. And whilst that is true for things in general, it’s also true when it comes to baptism. Because baptism means different things to different people too.
Indeed, some think a baby has to be “christened” in order for that child to receive a Christian name. Some think “christening” is important because of family tradition. Some think a person has to be baptised in order to guarantee their life after death with God. And others … Well there are some really odd ideas about what baptism is about.
However whilst, for many things in life, it can be a matter of interpretation and a matter of personal interest, with baptism it is not the different meanings that we put on it that counts, but the meaning that God puts on it.
Now in biblical times there were three types of baptism that people could choose. There was Jewish baptism—the initiation rite into the faith of the living God. It gave the Gentiles in particular an opportunity to stand up and commit themselves to the worshipping life of the community. There was John’s baptism—with the idea of repentance. The opportunity to admit one’s failings and commit to turning one’s life around, to commit oneself one hundred percent to a new life directed on a relationship with God. And then there was Christian baptism—which not only incorporated the ideas expressed in the first two baptisms, but went on to include acknowledging our total dependence upon God for our eternal welfare, acknowledging that Jesus paid the penalty that we deserve for our sins, and a public commitment to follow him.
As you can probably realise, then, there is a great gulf between what many people think baptism is about, and what God thinks it’s about. True Christian baptism contrasts considerably with the ideas that christening is a rite in which a child is given a name, or that it something that is done to uphold a family tradition, or that the rite itself will guarantee a person’s eternal welfare.
Because, in God’s eyes, baptism is about an opportunity to respond to him in a very real and meaningful way. It’s a sign of commitment, of taking one’s place in the life of his church. And that means for an adult, it should be an outward sign of a commitment already made. And for a child, it should be an expression of hope that after being brought up in the faith and in the life of the church, that that child will, at some stage, come to believe and express it for themselves.
Different things mean different things to different people. And whilst that is true of things in general, we need to be careful when it comes to baptism. Because it’s not what we think that it’s about that is important, it’s what God thinks it’s about. So we need to respond to God’s idea of baptism, not our own. For he is the one who has our eternal welfare in his hands.
Posted: 11th April 2020
© 2020, Brian A Curtis
SERMON: The Missing Link (Acts 19:1-7)
1. Knowing Only Part of the Story
Have you ever had that feeling, that someone you know had been given information, but it’s obvious to you they’ve only heard part of the story? Maybe your suspicion was aroused by the way they responded to something you said. Or maybe it was because of something else completely. But it’s like they are confident they have the whole story. And, consequently, they are responding accordingly, totally ignorant of the fact that there are bits of information missing. Information, that if they knew, should have resulted in a completely different reaction.
But then their behaviour may be the result of knowing that they haven’t got all the facts. But they’ve got most of them, and they’ve allowed their imagination to fill the gaps. It’s like doing a jigsaw puzzle, when there are a few pieces missing, and you’re confident that you know what the full picture looks like. Totally oblivious to the fact that when all the missing pieces are found the completed puzzle will look quite different to what you expect.
But regardless, you still have this feeling that the person doesn’t have the full picture and, as a consequence, is acting—or has acted—not knowing all the facts. It’s like they’ve added two and two together and made five.
2. A New Testament Example
Well something like that is what we have in this passage from the Acts of the Apostles. We have a group of people who are acting on the knowledge of only part of the story.
For there were twelve men—former followers of John the Baptist—but men who appeared to be of great faith. They were confident in their beliefs, and they were living their lives accordingly. And, yet, they didn’t have the whole picture. They were missing a vital ingredient. Only they didn’t know they were missing an ingredient at all. On the contrary they thought they knew it all. That is, until they came face to face with the apostle Paul.
B. PAUL IN EPHESUS
1. The Story (19:1-7)
Indeed, the story begins with the arrival of Paul in the town of Ephesus on his third missionary journey (1). And whilst there, he found the twelve men (7), who on the surface appeared to be disciples (1). But there was something about them, Paul identified, that was not quite right.
Now we’re not told what it was that triggered Paul’s questioning of their faith (2). Whether it was the things that they did, or something that they said. But in the early days of the church there were probably lots of people whose understanding was limited, who didn’t have the whole picture. And Paul had reason to suspect this of this group of twelve men too.
So being concerned that there was something missing in their faith, Paul asked them a series of questions. And being a no-nonsense sort of person, the very first question that Paul asked was a question based on the criteria that distinguishes a Christian from all other people. “When you believed, did you receive the Holy Spirit?”
Now, it was Paul’s belief, and it’s the church’s belief even today, that the Holy Spirit is received at a definite point in time—at the moment of initial belief. And without the Holy Spirit, people are not Christians at all, no matter what they call themselves. However, the twelve men knew nothing about the Holy Spirit.
Yes, they would have known much about Jesus. They would have known about his crucifixion. And they would have known from John the Baptist’s teaching at least, of the Old Testament promise of the Holy Spirit. But yet somehow Pentecost—the time of the birth of the church, the time when the Holy Spirit had been given to all believers—had passed them by totally unnoticed. So sadly, they were unaware of the one event—more than any other—that confirmed that the age of salvation had dawned.
As a consequence, they were no further forward in their beliefs than when John the Baptist had left his followers by being arrested and executed. And as subsequent questioning by Paul showed, John’s baptism was the only one they knew (3).
So, having established the missing piece of the puzzle, and having alerted the group to the fact that they had a fundamental piece missing, Paul helped them by filling in the missing gap (4).
Paul reminded them that John’s baptism had only been a means of preparing people for what was to come. John’s baptism was about people pledging themselves to a new way of life. It was about the need to have a change of heart and a corresponding change of way of life. And then he told them, that Jesus’s baptism was quite different. Because it involved the need for belief in Jesus—to put their total trust in him—and it involved the receiving of the Holy Spirit.
And as a result of the discussion with Paul, for the men, the final piece of the puzzle was fit into place. They believed, and they submitted themselves to Christian baptism (5). And, perhaps, as a consequence of their new found faith, Paul placed his hands on them to assure them they were now members of the true fold (6). And then the Holy Spirit came upon them and was witnessed by the outward signs of the outpouring of the gifts of tongues and prophesy.
Now, it’s an amazing story. The twelve men had regarded themselves as Christians. But as Paul had been able to show them, they hadn’t been Christians at all. As a consequence, it’s a story which shows dramatically the importance of having all the pieces of the puzzle in place.
1. Missing Pieces
Now of course, the former disciples of John the Baptist are not the only ones in history to have had only part of the story, while believing they had it all. Indeed, at times, we may be all guilty of doing the same thing. And that can relate to all sorts of things in life. But what this story tells us is that we need to constantly examine what we know and have been told, and make sure that we have all the pieces. And in particular we need to do that regarding our faith.
After all, in our own culture, there are many people who know the story of Jesus. They know that the coming of the Messiah was prophesied; they know the story of Jesus’s birth; they know the story of his death and resurrection; and they may even have knowledge of his ministry years. Furthermore, they may have even mixed in Christian circles, and heard of the need to have a personal relationship with Jesus; and the practice of baptism (with water) may run in the family. But for many, that’s as far as it goes—a piece of the puzzle is still missing. And if that is true, even of ourselves, then we too need to examine the place of the Holy Spirit in our lives. Because remember, the first question that Paul asked the disciples of John the Baptist was, “When you believed, did you receive the Holy Spirit?”
2. The Importance of the Holy Spirit
And why did he ask that? Because in the Old Testament, the Spirit was given to prophets and national leaders. Sometimes it was temporary and other times it was more permanent. But the Old Testament also looked forward to a time when the Spirit would be given to all believers, and on a permanent basis.
Come the New Testament, then, and Jesus talked about the Spirit as a person—God, active in his world. Someone whom his Father would send to the disciples after he had returned to the Father. Someone who would take up residence in the heart and life of each believer.
And, of course, in the New Testament pages, in the Acts of the Apostles, we have recorded the story of Pentecost—fifty days after the resurrection of Christ—the day the Holy Spirit was given, to every genuine believer, at the point of belief.
We can see, then, the importance that God places in the priority of the Holy Spirit in a believer’s life from the time of Pentecost onwards.
3. The Role of the Holy Spirit
And the reason for this is what the Holy Spirit actually does. And that can be described in four ways.
a). To Convict of Sin
Firstly, the Holy Spirit convicts people of their sins. (And is the only reason we can say yes to Jesus in the first place.) Consequently, when someone becomes a Christian, the Holy Spirit moves into a person’s life. And like a house-buyer, who moves into their house, he proceeds to turn that house into a home. The rubbish is thrown out, the decay and damage are put right, and he removes the accumulated junk of years—the old ideas and motives and old ambitions and standards.
In other words, the Holy Spirit works in a believer’s life, to break the stranglehold of habits and sins which we can’t deal with on our own.
b). To Give New Life
Secondly, using the analogy of the house-buyer again, he helps us bring in the new. He doesn’t leave a void where those habits and sins have been. On the contrary, he fills the void with new things.
It’s like new parts are added to the home, and new furniture is moved in. So that in the end, not even the former owners would know the place. The Holy Spirit brings new desires, new appetites . . . and a new will to live for him and to please him in everything we do.
Of course that’s what happens on the inside. What happens on the outside—what we do, and what we don’t do—then follows automatically.
Now some people might think that all this is a bit scary. That, somehow, we’re taken over and we disappear as individuals. But Jesus wants us to be ourselves. And we can never be more ourselves, than when we are living out the potential of Christian experience.
But the transformation—like from a caterpillar to a butterfly, or from a sinner into a saint—means that in the end we will have been involved in nothing less than the remaking of ourselves, to become as we were originally designed.
But the changes that the Holy Spirit brings take time—a lifetime in fact. The amount of unscrambling and remaking takes years and will only be completed when we finally see Jesus face to face.
c). To Teach About Jesus
The third thing about the Holy Spirit is that he teaches us about Jesus. He gives us insight into his story, into his reason for living: his birth, his life, his death and his resurrection. What it means, and the implications for our own lives.
And as a consequence, he helps us to think like Jesus; to share his concerns; to learn to love others, just like he did; to want to serve like him. And he gives us the desire to act in the same way that he acted.
d). To Empower
And the fourth thing about the Holy Spirit is that he empowers us to do the things we can’t naturally do ourselves.
In the bible there are many instances of the Spirit giving special abilities to those who did not possess them before. Shy blushing types were transformed into bold brave men and women of God. Tongue tied, stammering failures became powerful eloquent leaders who performed beyond their wildest dreams.
So, whatever our own inadequacies and failings may be. The Spirit has been given so that we can accomplish the tasks that God gives, to continue Jesus’s work in the world. And, in giving us the power, to live as the people of God.
As you can see, therefore, there is a great difference between knowing the facts and having the Holy Spirit living inside us. And if we only have bits of the story, but don’t have the Holy Spirit, then at the very best we can only go through the motions of belief. Indeed, even if we are familiar with all the stories, and have been baptised with water, but don’t have the Holy Spirit, then we will only be going through the motions.
Baptism with water is only part of the conversion process. Indeed it is only a good work begun. But it requires faith, and the sealing of that faith with the Holy Spirit, to be complete.
You can see, then, how important it was for Paul to fill that missing gap. How important it was for him to give those twelve men the opportunity to correct their mistaken beliefs—and for them to receive the Holy Spirit.
Before Paul spoke, they only had part of the story. They had added two and two together and made five. They were oblivious to the fact that they had a vital part of the puzzle missing. And that missing part was necessary to make them true believers.
And we need to make sure that we are not being prevented from being true believers too.
So, this morning, we are faced with a challenge. When we do things, do we first check that we have all the facts? Or do we add two and two together and make five, and then sail on in blissful ignorance thinking that we know it all?
Most importantly, are we confident in our faith? Do we not only know the story, but have we received the Holy Spirit too? Because that was the part of the puzzle that was missing in the in the lives of those twelve men. And we need to make sure that it is not missing in ours.
Posted: 8th March 2021
© 2021, Brian A Curtis
DEVOTION: Teaching the Gospel (Acts 20:7-12)
There are morning people and there are night people. Some work best first thing, and others work best at night. We’re all different, and our body clocks work in different ways.
Personally, I’m better in the morning (although not too early). But as a consequence, I don’t work too well at night. Which is why the story of Paul at Troas appeals to me. Because whilst I can understand his need to talk to the people—to use the limited time available—I can still sympathise with the man who fell asleep and fell out of the window.
The story comes in three parts.
Because, firstly, we’re told that it was a Sunday in Troas (7). Furthermore, the meeting was probably a fellowship meal in which the Lord’s Supper was celebrated. (Indeed this passage may be the first indication of a group of Christians who had changed their regular weekly day of worship from the Sabbath to a Sunday.) In addition, the meeting was in the evening, which was a convenient time for those who were not their own masters and who had worked during the day. But their meeting was not regulated by the clock. And the opportunity to listen to Paul was not one to be cut short.
Secondly, we’re told that there was an interruption to the meeting (8-10). The crowded upper room had grown heavy with the smoke of torches. And a young man named Eutychus, who was sitting in the window (where the air was freshest), had found it impossible to keep awake. Now he’d probably already put in a hard day’s work and, with the stuffy atmosphere, not even the words of an apostle could keep him from falling asleep. So the inevitable happened. He suddenly overbalanced, fell through the window (which was only a hole in the wall), and fell to the ground beneath (remembering the room was three floors up).
And Luke, the physician, tells us that they considered him “dead.” But whether he was dead or not Paul reassured the people that it was not the end and he ran down to embrace the young man’s apparently lifeless body (reminiscent of similar actions by Elijah and Elisha (1 Kings 17:21; 2 Kings 4:34-35) recorded in the Old Testament.)
Then thirdly, we’re told that Paul then resumed the meeting (11-12). He “broke the bread” and they shared their fellowship meal. He then continued to talk to them until daylight (the time when many of them would have needed to begin their next day’s work), by which time Eutychus had sufficiently recovered, to be taken home.
Now it’s a story which may be a familiar, and many may identify with the young man who fell out of the window. But I want to suggest that are at least three things that we can learn from this story.
And the first is that, like Paul, our job is to teach, encourage and equip people to grow in the faith. And whether that’s done at morning or night, our participation should not necessarily be restricted by the clock. Indeed, we need to make use of the limited time that is available.
The second is, if people doze off or have an accident or something else happens of an urgent nature, we need to be prepared to take time out to deal with issues that arise; we need to care for the people concerned. And I say that, because any words that we say are useless if we don’t have the actions to fit.
And the third is, that we need to be mindful not to be permanently side-tracked from our true purpose. Indeed, we need to realise that no matter what side-tracks we have to deal with, we need to quickly get back on track, and use the remaining opportunities that God has given us to get his message across.
In other words, we need to imitate the example of the apostle Paul.
So, can you identify with the young man, who’d probably had a busy day, and who fell out of the window? Well I can. As a consequence we need to pray for the stamina to stay alert, to carry out God’s task; we need to remember that it’s O. K. to stop, to deal with the pastoral issues that arise; but equally we then to need to quickly get back on track, and not remain diverted from our God-given task.
Posted: 24th January 2020
© 2020, Brian A Curtis