We’ve now completed the set!
One year we had a church weekend away at the beginning of Advent and made it a celebration of Christmas.
Another year we had a weekend away leading up to Palm Sunday and we marked the beginning of Holy Week.
This year we had a weekend away leading up to Pentecost. And so we told the story of Pentecost.
While the children took a look at Pentecost and a little bit of the story of Peter, I told the story of Pentecost, and David Waters prompted us to think about what it takes to be a disciple of Christ.
That theme was carefully chosen because it ties in with a theme we have been looking at as part of an initiative launched by the Congregational Federation called Growing Disciples. That’s a resource that is aimed at helping churches to grow in purpose and confidence as a learning community, discovering Good News Together, a worshipping community experiencing Good News Together, a lisenting community embodying Good News together and a missionary community, practising Good News together.
Through our weekend David got us telling each other our stories, looking at our roots, the people who have helped us grow in our faith, and look at the fruit we bear as disciples.
I want that theme we shared to feed into our thinking over the next few Sundays through the summer. And so I want to start by asking those who were at Brunel Manor to think for a moment or two of what it is they have brought back with them to feed into the life of the church.
Then share those thoughts with a small group around you – so that we can share those who were at Brunel Manor and others too.
A time of sharing
Pat recalled the challenge our speaker, David Waters (one-time volunteer at Highbury, not working with the BBC on Songs of Praise) gave – before going to bed think of fifteen things to give thanks to God for. Quite a challenge. So many so that you cannot gloss over them!
Felicity recalled the Pentecost story with the children and noticing that at the end of his sermon on the Day of Pentecost the response of the crowds was to say, What must we DO? How important that we respond to what we hear in preaching by DOING!
Lyn recalled the way David invited us to think of those who had made a mark on us and how moved she had been to hear her daughter say how much she was indebted to her grandfather, Lyn’s father. How much there is to treasure from the roots we have!
David took a passage from the beginning of Colossians (1:3-14) and drawing on his experience at the BBC working with Songs of Praise he invited us to ask Who do you think you are? And suggested that it was good to tell each other our stories and discover where our roots are: how important as Christians that we have our roots in Christ.
In a second session entitled Gardener’s World he got us to think of the shoots that spring up in our Christian life and how again they need to be focused on Christ and. The third was Top Gear – David reflected on the way things sometimes need to change, and suggested that we need to bear fruit in the living of lives as well.
One quote I bring back with me is from the BBC’s director of drama who at a gaterhing David was at explored what it was about some of those popular TV shows that makes them what they are. It makes you feel I want to belong to that gang. I want to be in that place.
A gang to belong to … a place to be.
I found myself looking again at that passage from Colossians in a group I was part of and I noticed something special …
Paul starts with the roots those Christians have and he says this … We always thank God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ when we pray for you … Colossians 1:3
Then as he thinks of the way they grow in the faith, the shoots they have, he says this, “we have not stopped praying for you .” (1:9)
And then he goes on to say, “And we pray this in order that you may live a life worthy of the Lord.” 1:10
At each point prayer is important.
I felt that what we would do in the next few Sundays would be to look at Acts and look at the way the church and those very first disciples of Christ grew in the very first days of the history of the church.
It’s all very well telling the Pentecost story over last weekend and especially last Sunday … but what happens next is equally important for us to take on board.
What is fascinating is that in Acts the story is told of a number of people who became key followers of Christ … and as each of their stories is told we catch a glimpse of others whose story may not have been told in detail but nonetheless has something to tell us.
We start today with Peter’s story.
There’s one thing in that story I notice as I come to it afresh. And you encounter it first right at the very beginning.
The initial euporia of that Day of Pentecost past we next find Peter at a very specific time in a very specific place doing something very specific.
One day Peter and John were going up to the temple at the hour of prayer, at three o’clock in the afternoon.
It’s a wonderful story of the way they bringing healing to that man who was unable to walk and who needed so much. It’s a challenging story as that next day by the evening, their preaching and their healing ministry had drawn many more to hear the word and believe. From the 3000 on Pentecost day the numbers grew is it by or to 5000 the next day. (4:4).
But Peter and John are arrested and find themselves up against the authorities and the powers that be in jerusalem.
So what do they do next …. When they are released they went to their ‘friends’ and what do they do? The heading in the NRSV says it all … The believers pray with boldness. Their prayers draw to a close and there is a sense of the strength and the power of God with them by the Holy Spirit and there is a spirit of sharing that sweeps through them.
As Peter’s story unfolds there is about it a rhythm of prayer. We move forward to a story the children focused on last weekend in chapter 10 to a story that is told three times.
It’s a fascinating story that begins in Caesarea by the seaside the centre of Roman control from which the Romans ruled with a rod of iron over the subject peoples of Judea, Samaria and Galilee. It’s a surprising place to be. And the person the story is about is a surprising story – not just any old centurion but one from the Italian cohort … Cornelius. And it is perhaps no coincidence that the story begins as this man who has been touched by the faithfulness of the people he has been sent to subjugate has a vision.
It’s 3 o;clock. The very time we know from the start of Peter’s story that is the hour of prayer. Cornelius is in prayer and he hears that his prayer and the actions he takes to care for people have been received and answered by God. But he is to send to nearby Joppa, a little up the Mediterranean coast.
The next day at noon what should Peter be doing … again he is at prayer.
He’s hungy. It’s time to eat. And Peter has a remarkable vision that he is to eat all the foods that the books fo the law prohibit. Not possible – but that’s the vision..
He awakes and who should be at the gate but messengers from Cornelius getting Peter to go into the city of Caesarea, that place of hostility for all Jewish people – there to share the gospel with of all people this centrioun Cornelius.
For a variety of reasons the story is told three times – it is so significant – and it is marks a breakthrough for Peter to line Peter up with Paul and the realisation that the Good News is for everyone – Jew and Gentile. That all are on ein Christ.
Then comes the final tale. And it feels as if the timetable of Acts has moved on one year. And it is a year on.
Chapter 12 starts the final part of Peter’s story in Acts.
It is the feast of unleavened bread – that makes it exactly a year on from the week of Christ’s arrest and crucifixion. The very King Herod, of the Herodian dynsasty that in the days of King Herod the Great had been responsible for collaborating with the Roman powers and actually building Caesarea, this King Herod who had himself built another Roman strongold on the shores of Galilee, the city of Tiberias, lays violent hands upon some who belonged to the church. And he could be vioilent. He had already executed John the Baptist as Jesus’ ministry began, he had played a major part in the execution of Jeesus a year before, in the intervening year he had executed James, the brother of John, one of those fishermen sons of Zebedee with the sword. And when he saw that this pleased those Judeans who were willing to go along with the Herodians in collaborating with Rome he determined to arrest Peter also. He determined a year on to do exactly as he had done with Jesus – have Peter under guard during the festival and then bring him out to the people. He had four squads of soldiers guarding Peter.
Then comes that wonderful account of the way Peter escapes from the prison. He makes his way under cover of the dark to a house he knows well. It is the house that belongs to Mary, the Mary who is the mother of John Mark – someone whose story we will come back to later, who in all likelihood was to go on to write the earliest of the Gospel accounts of Jesus. That’s when a maid who is named Rhoda answers Peter’s knocking, is so taken aback to see him at the door that she leaves him there, reports back to the others and only then lets him in.
When Herod learns of peter’s escape he has the soldiers themselves executed – this is a measure of the brutality of his regime. He then departs from Jerusalem and goes to the Roman stronghold. This King Herod’s father had a temple built to Augustus, the Roman Emperor as ‘Son of God’ in Caesarea – this Herod now is greeted by the people of Tyre and Sidon as a god – grandiose claims to be up there with the Roman Emperor. And that is the point when Herod dies.
It’s the last we hear of Herod … and the last we hear of Peter.
But what was Mary, John Mark’s mother doing?
It was in her house that many had gathered and were praying.
Track through that story of Peter and what do we find?
The whole story is shot through with prayer.
Peter is at prayer time and again.
Cornelius is at prayer.
And Mary, John Mark’s mother … gets a whole crowd together in her prayer … and the only one of them to be named is Rhoda just a servant.
And they are at prayer.
When people pray things happen.
This it seems to me is the first thing we need to take from our Pentecost Weekend Away.
How vital prayer is.
Prayer on our own can have unexpected consequences.
It may be prayer for ourselves, it may be prayer for others.
The value of a pattern of prayer. The hour of prayer. Is it at the start of the day? Is it at noon? Is it at night. Re-discover the power of prayer.
Re-discover the power of getting together with others for prayer. That’s what we do as we come together in church Sunday by Sunday. We do have that opportunity before the service begins to meet in the Moreton Brown Room – our prayer parlour. It’s good just to be quiet and share in prayer. Maybe during the week. Think of sharing in prayer.
Michel Quoist, whose book Prayers of life were the inspiration of an earlier generation, wrote of Prayer as an Act of Faith in his book “The Christian Response” (gill and macmillan, 1963), 174-175 ….
“You would never think of saying: I don’t have to bother to show my love to my wife any more, she knows I love her. Then don’t say: I don’t have to talk to God, he knows that I love him.
“You would never think of saying: I haven’t time to spend with my [family] but what’s the difference, I’m working for them. Then don’t say: I haven’t time to pray, but that doesn’t make any difference, I offer my work up and that’s a prayer.
“Love demands that you stop for a while. If you love, you must find the time to love. To pray means to stop for a while; it means to give some of your time to God, each day, each week.
In the modern world we are too often “the laves of efficiency and utility” and it is too easy to think of prayer “in terms of profit and loss.
“Prayer can not be understood in such pragmatic terms, and scuh a view can never lead to an authentic prayer life.
“The modern world, none the less, has an urgent need for a life of prayer. Unless the members of a technological society are also [people of prayer], people of “adoration and praise” “technology will enslave and ultimately destroy them.”