Sunday, April 29, 2018

The Journey of Faith - Practising the Presence of God

Text for the Week: Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. Hebrews 11:1

Welcome to our services today and a special welcome to old friends and new! Do join us for coffee and biscuits at the back of the church after the service. Today is our Gift Day. All we do as a church is funded by us and by no one else. Our planned giving scheme is a way of giving that enables us to give regularly. Do take one of our Giving for Growth leaflets and find out more about that scheme. Twice a year we have a special focus on giving and today is one of those days. For today’s Gift day we have a special focus on giving to support our mission project working with children and families. We hope you will be able to give a special gift today for that work. Please use one of the yellow envelopes and mark it for Gift Day. If you are able to Gift Aid please fill in your details on the envelope. In a couple of weeks we are going to begin Christian Aid Week with the Big Brekkie and invite everyone to start Sunday with a breakfast and make a special gift towards Christian Aid. We collect from the streets around the church. If you are able to join in collecting please have a word with Laura or with Louise. We need more volunteers. Where it be giving for the growth of our church or giving for the work of Christian Aid, it’s all about the faith we share that finds its focus in Jesus Christ. He asks us to share in love for one another and in love for all. And that takes faith!

Welcome and Call to Worship
200 Christ is made the sure foundation
Prayer and the Lord’s Prayer
Stephen’s Story
Reading: Acts 8:1-4
A Hy-Spirit Song
Activities for all over 3

A way of Being Church

If you want to know how to do church Acts is a good place to start.

It’s all about the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. Acts 2:42

It’s all about bringing healing to hurting people (2:43), it’s about sharing with each other in the fellowship of the church (2:44).

It’s about witnessing to Jesus Christ Acts 2,3,4 – even, or maybe better, particularly, in the face of opposition from the powers that be Acts 4.

It’s about working collectively to move forward together.

Acts 6:1-7 is one of those passages where we find our roots in our Congregational way of doing church.

Acts 6:1-7

Now during those days, when the disciples were increasing in number, the Hellenists complained against the Hebrews because their widows were being neglected in the daily distribution of food.

There are always tensions in church life. There always have been. There always will be. If you want a church where there are no tensions and disagreements then you will look in vain. We are all people – and we all have our blemishes. As our old lower school head said in his Yorkshire accent, There’s nowt so queer as folks.

And we are all people with our failings.

There were tensions among the Jewish people in Jerusalem. There were the Hellenists who were quite happy to incorporate into their Jewish way of life Hellenistic, Greek, cultural ways, not least the language. And then there were Hebrews who were keen to stand out over against the contemporary culture and it was in their language that difference was most notably apparent.
The first church was made up of people who were Jewish and those tensions spilled over into the life of the church too.

So, at this point, the twelve apostles, those who had been sent by Jesus out into the world following the Resurrection – saw that there was a problem.

They did not resolve it themselves.

And the twelve called together the whole community of the disciples and said, ‘It is not right that we should neglect the word of God in order to wait at tables. Therefore, friends, select from among yourselves seven men of good standing, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we may appoint to this task, while we, for our part, will devote ourselves to prayer and to serving the word.’ What they said pleased the whole community,

This is a way of working that gets the whole community of disciples, the whole group in the Church to recognize the problem, own it and do something about it.

and they chose Stephen, a man full of faith and the Holy Spirit, together with Philip, Prochorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas, and Nicolaus, a proselyte of Antioch. They had these men stand before the apostles, who prayed and laid their hands on them.

This is one of those places where we trace our roots in our Congregational way of being the church.

Those who are leaders recognize something needs to be done – they don’t just go ahead and do it. They call together the whole community of the disciples in this place – that’s the whole church – that’s our Church meeting. They set out a course of action to follow – but it is important that all agrere that course of action.
So our Church Meeting it is recognizes those who sense they are called to various parts of ministry in the life of the church – pastoral care, mission and outreach, developing us as disciples, putting our worship together, involving children and families and young people.

There are practical things we are responsible for – safeguarding, health and safety, managing the property, seeing that the finances are properly managed – that’s all the responsibility of our Deacons who act as our managing trustees.

We all of us then have a responsibility that we share – and on this Gift Day we recognize that in particular.

 The word of God continued to spread; the number of the disciples increased greatly in Jerusalem, and a great many of the priests became obedient to the faith.

Of those seven who were set aside to carry out this specific, much needed task, it was said that they were “of good standing, full of the Spirit and of Wisdom.

As we reflect on what it takes to do church and all that lies ahead of the church family let’s make this our prayer …

619 and 620 Spirit of the living God

Sharing the Presence

Church is all about seeking and sensing the Presence of God with us, the Presence of the God who is love … and then it is about sharing that Presence of God with all around us. And that goes to the very heart of the Bible – which you can think of, not only as the Guidebook for the journey of faith, but as the Manual for the life of the Church.

The trouble is that the Bible can be a very difficult book to read, not least in the pages of what we call the Old Testament, which of course for the people of this very earliest church was the extent of the Bible.

On the day of resurrection Jesus had spent hours with the two on the road to Emmaus and with his other disciples in the upper room opening up that part of the Bible, giving them a way of reading the Law, the Prophets and the Writings that make up the Hebrew Scriptures, our Old Testament, with Christ at the centre. For the first time those followers of Jesus got it. Luke tells the story of the beginnings of the church in such a way as to give us a glimpse of Jesus’ way into reading the Old Testament.

It’s the way for us to follow in reading that book too.

Of those seven, Stephen is the one who is known for the power of his preaching and for the wonderful way he brought healing into the lives of hurting people. And in Jerusalem he came up against the very powers that be who had put Jesus to death.

They had a way of reading what we call the Old Testament that focused on the Presence of God. It’s the presence of God with us that makes all the difference. And the presence of God is focused on a particular place, the House of God, built on the very rock in Jerusalem where Abraham had been willing to sacrifice Isaac his son. The Temple. Modelled on the earlier Tabernacle the people had taken with them through their wandering in the wilderness, it had a sequence of courtyards. Anyone could go into the outer court, then only men, then only priests, then the Holiesst of Holy places could only be entered on the Day of Atonement by the High Priest.

This was where the Presence of God was made most real.

So when it was destroyed by the Babylonians in 586 BC that was catastrophic for the Jewish people and as soon as they returned to Jerusalem their first priority was to rebuild the temple. It had had its ups and downs. When it was violated 165 years before Christ it led to the Maccabean revolt and then the Roman General Pompey violated and damaged it 63 years BC … and then when Herod the Great came to power he completely rebuilt it as what he hoped would be seen as one of the wonders of the world – lavishly clad in gold leaf and seen from miles around.

And Jesus took offence. When he saw it, he wept over it, would that you had known the things that make for peace but you did not.

And when he entered the temple he was outraged, My Father’s house should be a house of prayer and you have made it a den of thieves.

According to John he went so far as to say that it would be destroyed and raised again in three days. Which as John points out was a reference to his own resurrection.

His followers sensed that there was something of the presence of God in Jesus himself.

As the Sermon on the mount came to an end he challenged his followers to listen to his words and act on them.

Everyone then who hears these words of mine and acts on them will be like a wise man who built his house on rock. The rain fell, the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on rock.

The wise man in the Old Testament who had built a house on the rock had been Solomon.

It was as if Jesus was saying that the presence of God was let loose in the world through him, and that all who followed him and acted on his words would let loose that presence of God into the world as well.

Paul took this thinking to heart and said that we are each part of the body of Christ and each one of us individually is a temple for the Holy Spirit.

This  is a powerful strain of thought – and it comes from Jesus’ reading of the Old Testament – the insights he gave, Luke suggests, on that Day of resurrection which you then see played out in the speeches of Acts.

And it is this train of thought that emerges here in Acts 6.

For Stephen is taken to task – and false witnesses are raised up just as they had been at the trial of Jesus and they accuse him quite specifically.

Acts 6:12-15

2They stirred up the people as well as the elders and the scribes; then they suddenly confronted him, seized him, and brought him before the council. 13They set up false witnesses who said, ‘This man never stops saying things against this holy place and the law; 14for we have heard him say that this Jesus of Nazareth will destroy this place and will change the customs that Moses handed on to us.’ 15And all who sat in the council looked intently at him, and they saw that his face was like the face of an angel.

What follows is one of two places in the New Testament where you get a potted account of the story of the Old Testament told to highlight the key theme of the Old Testament.

It’s a bit like those summaries you get in the paper of a whole book reduced to one page.

He tetlls the story of Abraham, Isaac verses 1-8 and Jacob and Joseph and the captivity in Egypt 9-22 and Moses – and liberation at the Exodus 23-43 and then it focuses on the Tabernacle – the Tent of God’s Presence with them in the desert (GNB) verse 44 and David and Solomon focusing on the house of God 45-48.

And now we reach the climax – because this is about the temple – and Stephen notices something. There’s one strand in the Old Testament that focuses on the Temple as the place of the presence of God – but the Old Testament has other views as well.

Let’s take up the reading

Acts 6:46-50

44 ‘Our ancestors had the tent of testimony in the wilderness, as God directed when he spoke to Moses, ordering him to make it according to the pattern he had seen. 45Our ancestors in turn brought it in with Joshua when they dispossessed the nations that God drove out before our ancestors. And it was there until the time of David, 46who found favour with God and asked that he might find a dwelling-place for the house of Jacob. 47But it was Solomon who built a house for him. 48Yet the Most High does not dwell in houses made by human hands; as the prophet says,
49 “Heaven is my throne,
   and the earth is my footstool.
What kind of house will you build for me, says the Lord,
   or what is the place of my rest?
50 Did not my hand make all these things?”

You can almost hear the murmurs of disapproval from the council members listening to Stephen rising in a crescendo as Stephen raises his voice – as he condemns these powers that be in Jerusalem for resisting the Holy Spirit, persecuting Jesus as a prophet just as the prophets of old had been persecuted.

This is the point for Stephen – that God’s presence cannot be confined to a place, to a location, but is let loose in the world.

Yet the Most High does not dwell in houses made by human hands;

And finds its focus in Jesus.

The temple was of course destroyed again by the Romans in AD 70 – for 60 years it lay in ruins. Then the Jewish people took up arms against the Romans again and Hadrian put down the second revolt and built a Temple to Jupiter on the site of the Jewish temple making Jerusalem into a classic Roman City.

When Constantine became a Christian that Temple to Jupiter was demolished and the plaza where once the temple stood empty for another 250 years until Mohammad had his vision and was as Islam maintains given the words of the Quran there on that spot. And the shrine built to mark that place that is still there as the Dome of the Rock.

Mohammed had respect for all peoples of the Book and decreed that places marked by Jews and places marked by Christians should be preserved. He was able to build the Dome of the Rock on that location because for 300 years it had been an empty piece of waste land.

So do we as Christians support those Jewish people who want to demolish the Dome of the Rock and replace it with a Temple. That’s one way many Chjristians have of reading the Bible.

Or do we read the Bible in a different way?

I believe this reading of the Bible, Luke sees as the inspiration of Jesus and his conversations on that Day of Resurection.

It points us in a different direction.

And encourages us to seek and to sense the Presence of God anywhere and everywhere but in particular as we Gather together with others – for this is what Church is.

It is about seeking and sensing the Presence of God.

And then it is about sharing that presence of God with others around us – through taking seriously acts of love.

Helen was telling me of the speaker at the Hillsong conference she had attended who spoke of the need we have to do ‘acts of love’ wherever we are.

As we do that what we are doing is making this presence of God real in the lives of those we meet and those we seek to serve.

Here as we gather together, indeed, even as 2 or 3 gather together in the name of Christ his presence is real and that presence is a presence we are to share around us too.

374 From heaven you came

Prayers of Concern

533 Will you come and follow me

Words of Blessing

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