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Sunday message 30 April 2017 – building up the body of Christ

Ephesians 4:11-16; Acts 6:1-8

WHAT ON EARTH ARE YOU DOING?

A story to begin: We took family to a favourite little restaurant out on the wine route out of Auckland. It’s a great little place just before you turn off on the way to Muriwai – to the gannet colony. We often take friends there too who are on holiday. A lovely young girl served us and when the water was finished (no the wine didn’t run out) we asked for another bottle. She came back with one and apologized that it was not cold. They had run out of cold water in the fridge. The only problem was that English was her second or third language, and she had picked up some kiwi expressions. So, she says to us –“this is all we have, so just suck it up.” We decided using glasses was ok. And we couldn’t help laughing – who could blame her? English is challenging.

Which reminds me of the story of the Norwegian au pere – a kind of a nanny or child minder – who heard these kiwi kids up in their bedroom wrecking the place – so she rushed up stairs and burst into the room and asked them quite loudly: “What are you doing on earth?”

That’s very different from “What on earth are you doing???”

“What are you doing on earth?” is a great question though. It applies to our lives as a whole. There are many people who are desperate these days because they no longer have a clear purpose. Life seems pointless. It’s a different generation from those ANZACS for example who stepped up because they believed in a cause greater than themselves. If we had an option to volunteer for war today, I doubt the young people would be convinced that anything would be worth fighting for and sacrificing their lives.

So when it comes to the church the question applies too.

“What are you doing on earth?”

Paul in Ephesians paints a picture of the point of it all. He uses the word “calling”:

Eph 4:1  As a prisoner for the Lord, then, I urge you to live a life worthy of the calling you have received. 

Usually in his letters we can distinguish between theology (Romans 1-11) and practical advice (Romans 12-16). Galatians is the same: chapters 1-4 doctrine and 5-6 practical.

Ephesians is different. You expect chapter 4 to be about living the right life in response to what he has taught in the first three chapters.

But here there is doctrine in chapter 4 too: Eph 4:5 one Lord, one faith, one baptism; – is a clear statement of belief and teaching.

As are the verses on ministry. He talks about grace been apportioned to each of us by Jesus (verse 7). Grace means gift. There are other lists of spiritual gifts in 1 Corinthians 12 and Romans 12. Ephesians 4 is the one that informs what ministry is more than any other.

The risen ascended Jesus – says Paul – is the gift giver: Eph 4:11  It was he who gave some to be apostles, some to be prophets, some to be evangelists, and some to be pastors and teachers. 

Our ministers fit into the pastor/teacher category. It’s a strong Presbyterian tradition to call the minister a “teaching elder”. There’s a lot of emphasis on training these people and equipping them for pastoral ministry. “Nationally ordained” ministers are vetted and trained for the minister of the “word and sacraments”. They are inducted into a “pastoral charge” which means that their function is to be a pastor.

“Pastor” is a shepherding model or picture – this person feeds and cares for the sheep. And elders also have a pastoral role too.

THE GOOD NEWS

Jesus gives people to be gifts to the church.

  • We don’t have official apostles – but the whole church is apostolic. It is founded on the teaching of the apostles, and like them we are SENT into our world to make disciples. Some people are church planters today and have apostolic gifts in that sense.
  • We don’t have “prophets” in an official capacity (with an office with a sign like “Prophet Jim” on the door.) But in preaching we have a prophetic role to speak on behalf or God into people’s lives and sometimes the community or the nation. And there is prophetic gifting (1 Cor 14:1 and especially 3).
  • We do have evangelists who are gifted to preach to people who are not open to the gospel – they are often gifted apologists too. They give answers to peoples’ questions.
  • We do  have pastor/teachers in our ministry.

These people gifts from Jesus are given: Eph 4:12  to prepare God’s people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up… 

And a more literal translation is good news because we are all implicated in this:  (NRSV)  to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ,

How? In what way will we be built up? Maturity, stability, knowledge, functionality. The building up of each other is done in love.

Eph 4:13  until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ. Eph 4:14  Then we will no longer be infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of men in their deceitful scheming. Eph 4:15  Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will in all things grow up into him who is the Head, that is, Christ. Eph 4:16  From him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work.

And that makes a change in a world where people break each other down, tear each other apart, threaten to blow each other up, and actually do that.

And we – as we exercise our ministries or works of service – will grow up into the Head, who is Christ. That means we will be like him – and connected to him – and we won’t only reflect on his goodness, but we will in fact reflect his goodness! His grace, love and mercy. When you have a healthy vibrant church like that where people are equipped, fulfilled, and have a meaningful role, led by a caring pastor/teacher – well it grows! It grows up and it grows outward! Spiritual growth and numerical growth both happen. This is what we are doing on earth!

For the early church, however, there were other ministry forms to come.  What else were they to do back then? How does this speak to us? ACTS 6 is the key. 

In our second reading you see the next level of ministry people appointed by the apostles back in the early church – to solve the problem of feeding people. The 7 deacons appointed are also gifts from God – also to be filled with the Holy Spirit. Many churches have deacons in ministry today,  and this is where it started.

But just to keep us on our toes, as it were, we see that God uses the first deacon Stephen in more than just these practical gifts (as He does today with anyone willing and open). We read:

Act 6:8 Now Stephen, a man full of God’s grace and power, did great wonders and miraculous signs among the people.

Stephen was never really to go back to waiting on tables. If you read the rest of Acts 6, his sermon in Acts 7 (most of the chapter) in a human sense it ends badly.

Act 7:55 But Stephen, full of the Holy Spirit, looked up to heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God.
Act 7:56 “Look,” he said, “I see heaven open and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.”
Act 7:57 At this they covered their ears and, yelling at the top of their voices, they all rushed at him,
Act 7:58 dragged him out of the city and began to stone him. Meanwhile, the witnesses laid their clothes at the feet of a young man named Saul.
Act 7:59 While they were stoning him, Stephen prayed, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.”
Act 7:60 Then he fell on his knees and cried out, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” When he had said this, he fell asleep.

The persecution that follows means that the believers are scattered, and as they go the gospel is proclaimed  through Judea and Samaria – which was Jesus’ intention. And the believers knew EXACTLY what they were doing on earth!

The word of God spreads and the church grows. And if this is strange and very far from our comfortable lives here in New Zealand, consider today what the martyrdom of the Coptic Christians is doing in Egypt now – what a witness as their families model forgiveness. So too the Christian Church in Syria. They know their calling too.

May the body of Christ be built up all over the world to His Glory.

In Jesus’ name.

Amen.

 

 

 

 

 

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Sunday Sermon 11 October 2015 — Sons and daughters of encouragement

Readings

Heb 10:19- 36; Acts 11: 19- 30  Matthew 13: 18-23

Message

Stephen – the first Christian martyr – is killed (Acts 7:54-60) .Stoned to death. And the young man called Saul (not yet called Paul) is there approving of his murder. (v 60).

And persecution follows on a wider scale (Acts 8:1-3) We pick this up in Luke’s account in Acts 11:

  • Act 11:19  Now those who had been scattered by the persecution in connection with Stephen travelled as far as Phoenicia, Cyprus and Antioch, telling the message only to Jews.
  • Act 11:20  Some of them, however, men from Cyprus and Cyrene, went to Antioch and began to speak to Greeks also, telling them the good news about the Lord Jesus.

Antioch is the place where the disciples are first called Christians (Acts 11:26) It’s where the good news is shared with Greeks.

And the news is really great. People come to faith – non-Jews. Listen again:

  • Act 11:21  The Lord’s hand was with them, and a great number of people believed and turned to the Lord.
  • Act 11:22  News of this reached the ears of the church at Jerusalem, and they sent Barnabas to Antioch.
  • Act 11:23  When he arrived and saw the evidence of the grace of God, he was glad and encouraged them all to remain true to the Lord with all their hearts.
  • Act 11:24  He was a good man, full of the Holy Spirit and faith, and a great number of people were brought to the Lord

Who do they send? Barnabus – the son of encouragement. What a good person to have doing a Presbytery visit. We find out more about Barnabus – key things that are a lesson for us.

Remember a couple of weeks ago when we talked about Barnabus selling his field and bringing the money to the apostles to help those in need in the church? The reference was Acts 4:36-37, and I quoted a preacher and commentator Lloyd Ogilvie who said this:

In two brief verses we are introduced to one of the most admirable personalities of the New Testament. If all we had to enable us to know this man’s character were these two verses, we’d still have enough to stand in admiration and then desire to be like him.

Well I promised more about Barnabus – today’s the day:-)

Barnabus is thrilled with what he sees in Antioch. What does he do? He fetches Saul (whom we know as Paul) from Tarsus.

What you may know is that this son of encouragement had encountered Saul earlier.

After Saul’s conversion on the road to Damascus, he shows up in the Christian community. (Acts 9)

You can imagine their suspicions of him – Saul persecuted them and is now a Christian preacher. Here’s the story from Acts 9:20 when Paul arrives in Damascus and after Ananias prays for him and the scales fall off his eyes (he was temporarily blinded on the road) and he is baptised:

  • Act 9:20  At once he began to preach in the synagogues that Jesus is the Son of God.
  • Act 9:21  All those who heard him were astonished and asked, “Isn’t he the man who raised havoc in Jerusalem among those who call on this name? And hasn’t he come here to take them as prisoners to the chief priests?”
  • Act 9:22  Yet Saul grew more and more powerful and baffled the Jews living in Damascus by proving that Jesus is the Christ.

The story is hectic. Some Jews plot to kill him. But he is smuggled out of the city in a basket through an opening in the wall (Acts 9:25). You can see the early Ian Fleming novels beginning here (the author of James Bond!).

He goes to Jerusalem. There too the Christians are less than thrilled to have him around. (Trust issues don’t you think? You get this in all organisations and in families.)

Guess who shows up and rescues his reputation – saving the day for the Kingdom of God and the Kingdom principles of truth and grace? Barnabus of course. We read in Acts 9:27 and 28:

  • Act 9:27  But Barnabas took him and brought him to the apostles. He told them how Saul on his journey had seen the Lord and that the Lord had spoken to him, and how in Damascus he had preached fearlessly in the name of Jesus.
  • Act 9:28  So Saul stayed with them and moved about freely in Jerusalem, speaking boldly in the name of the Lord.

Barnabus the encourager – filled with the spirit of truth – stands for truth – advocating for Saul (or Paul as he becomes known).

It doesn’t last long though. We read in Acts 9:29 – He talked and debated with the Grecian Jews, but they tried to kill him. So they get him out of there and off to Tarsus his home town.

So here it is – in overview. Barnabus, the son of encouragement:

  • Barnabus the one who listens to the Holy Spirit and liquidates an asset to help the church – so that there are no needy people among them.
  • Barnabus who advocates for Paul the converted persecutor.
  • Barnabus who is sent to Antioch to check out this new multicultural church – and who fetches Saul from Tarsus to come and teach the new church – because he knows Saul has more to offer as a teacher.

What an encouraging man!

So when there is a famine as we read in the last part of our reading from Acts 11 – who do they get to help?

Listen again:

  • Act 11:27  During this time some prophets came down from Jerusalem to Antioch.
  • Act 11:28  One of them, named Agabus, stood up and through the Spirit predicted that a severe famine would spread over the entire Roman world. (This happened during the reign of Claudius.)
  • Act 11:29  The disciples, each according to his ability, decided to provide help for the brothers living in Judea.
  • Act 11:30  This they did, sending their gift to the elders by Barnabas and Saul.

Here’s the key verse: Act 11:29  The disciples, each according to his ability, decided to provide help for the brothers living in Judea.

And Barnabus and Saul take the gifts to the elders of the church in Judea.

The modern Barnabus Fund encourages the church throughout the world, especially those who are persecuted. If figures that when the church is persecuted physical needs are part of the equation. Our gifts – according to our abilities – with our prayers – will help our brothers wherever the need is.

Persecution is not an exception or a modern scourge alone. It’s been there since the beginning. Did you pick up the links in the readings?

The Gospel reading speaks volumes. We’re all at risk of falling away.

  • Mat 13:18  “Listen then to what the parable of the sower means:
  • Mat 13:19  When anyone hears the message about the kingdom and does not understand it, the evil one comes and snatches away what was sown in his heart. This is the seed sown along the path.
  • Mat 13:20  The one who received the seed that fell on rocky places is the man who hears the word and at once receives it with joy.
  • Mat 13:21  But since he has no root, he lasts only a short time. When trouble or persecution comes because of the word, he quickly falls away.
  • Mat 13:22  The one who received the seed that fell among the thorns is the man who hears the word, but the worries of this life and the deceitfulness of wealth choke it, making it unfruitful.
  • Mat 13:23  But the one who received the seed that fell on good soil is the man who hears the word and understands it. He produces a crop, yielding a hundred, sixty or thirty times what was sown.”

Are you a field – or ground or soil that is rocky, or beset with thorns? It’s about the word (v 21).

If the word of God is not planted and rooted well in you and me, we too could fall away when we face trouble or persecution, says Jesus. (Verse 21).

And of course the worries of this life and the deceitfulness of wealth choke it, making it unfruitful. (Verse 22).

Choke what? The life of the word of God which is planted in our lives.

The parable of the sower is actually the parable of the soils. It’s about us!

How much more should we not pray for those whose lives are threatened because they are Christians and help them according to our ability!

We need to be encouragers!

  • Generous here at BBP so that no one in our midst is in need.
  • Truthful – sticking up for others who are maligned because of their reputation like Saul of Tarsus.
  • Willing to see the good in every new situation like Barnabus visiting the church in Antioch.
  • Honest – when we need help and invite others to support us in our work because of their gifts that are stronger than ours – like Barnabus who fetched Saul to help the church.
  • And willing to go the extra mile – like Barnabus and Saul – to take our gifts to those in need like the Christians who were suffering because of the famine.
  • And of course to give according to our ability as they all did for Christians in need. Paul of course emphasises this in his letter to the Galatians in chapter 6: Gal 6:9 Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up. Gal 6:10  Therefore, as we have opportunity, let us do good to all people, especially to those who belong to the family of believers.

Our other reading today from Hebrews 10 is one of the most powerful and inspiring passages of Scripture. And when it comes to encouraging one another there’s not much that beats Hebrews 10:23-26:

  • Exhortations: Heb 10:23  Let us hold unswervingly to the hope we profess, for he who promised is faithful.
  • Heb 10:24  And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds.
  • Heb 10:25  Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but let us encourage one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching.

These are the great ‘Let us…” and “Let us not…” lines – about holding on to the hope we profess – about spurring one other on towards love and good deeds – and especially the one trap that we fall into when things are hard – we stop meeting together.

Story – 19th century Baptist — Spurgeon once visited a man who had stopped coming to worship. He tried to explain the need to hang in there to the man, but words didn’t work. So he said: “it’s like this”. He took a red-hot coal from the fire and placed it on the side of the hearth. It grew cold and black. Then he took the tongs and placed the piece of coal back in the fire – and it grew hot and glowed red again.

We need to encourage each other in all these things!

And let’s face it – our reasons for giving up are often not really as bad as having a gun at our heads with our lives threatened if we are Christ’s followers. Or being buried up to our heads and then stoned to death like a Pastor’s daughter Monica we read about in the Barnabus Fund magazine.

Listen again to the last lines of the reading from Hebrews 10:

  • Heb 10:32  Remember those earlier days after you had received the light, when you stood your ground in a great contest in the face of suffering.
  • Heb 10:33  Sometimes you were publicly exposed to insult and persecution; at other times you stood side by side with those who were so treated.
  • Heb 10:34  You sympathized with those in prison and joyfully accepted the confiscation of your property, because you knew that you yourselves had better and lasting possessions.
  • Heb 10:35  So do not throw away your confidence; it will be richly rewarded.
  • Heb 10:36  You need to persevere so that when you have done the will of God, you will receive what he has promised.

Let’s help the persecuted Church persevere. And let’s not give up on our journey either.

Amen.

Sunday sermon 14th June – Paul to the Galatians (2)

Readings: Acts 22:1-22; Galatians 1: 11-24

INTRODUCTION

Persecution in the early church was particularly bad during the time of the Roman Emperor Diocletian towards the end of the 3rd Century AD. Not all Christians were courageous enough to face torture or death. There were those who renounced their faith and made offerings to Roman state gods or the Roman Emperor, and often burned their Christian texts.

Those who refused to submit to the Roman Empire and were found with Christian texts were often killed. This meant that the clergy were very vulnerable because they were most likely to have the Bible in some form or another. Many of those who renounced their faith and burned their books were clergy, although there were also lay people.

Later on when the church was restored (in the early 4th C) and persecution died down – it created an issue. Diocletian’s successor Constantine declared tolerance of Christianity in 313 AD (The Edict of Milan).

So what do you think happened? Those who had denounced their Christian faith carried on as priests. One of them was nominated as a bishop. People were less than thrilled about that, and a split, a schism, took place. The church was divided for a long time – hundreds of years – on this issue, and eventually other issues too.

The movement to exclude Christians who had denied their faith, particularly in North Africa, was led by the Donatists. They were one of the earlier charismatic groups – one of the interesting things they did was in confession – the Catholics heard confessions privately. The Donatists heard confession publically in front of the whole congregations. Sundays must have been interesting! (You can read about the Donatist controversy if you are interested in this period of church history.)

HOW WOULD YOU RESPOND?

How people respond to persecution or other threats such as invading conquering armies is always a challenge. What happens afterwards is the key issue. It’s no different from post-war conflicts in Europe – those who collaborated with the Nazis were not regarded as traitors.

Who knows what you and I would if our lives were on the line. Would you own Christ with a gun pointing at you?

So think about Paul then.

This time it’s not about accepting someone back into the fold who was persecuted and renounced their faith. Paul was the primary persecutor of Christians. He was the one hunting Christians down!

You can imagine how tough that was for Christians to swallow. This very committed Jewish, Pharisaical, scholarly and ruthless man, this zealous oppressor who travelled around looking for Christians to lock up, starts showing up at church, so to speak. Walking into Christian meetings. Actually on his mission trips he went around preaching in Synagogues, or in homes or at river sides – wherever he could.

It has been suggested that his role model could well have been the prophet Elijah – Saul the Pharisee would have been determined to keep Israel from idolatry. Like Elijah and the prophets of Baal!

Tom Wright says this about him: He saw himself, it seems, as a latter-day Elijah, cleansing Israel of the horrible nonsense about Jesus of Nazareth, who couldn’t have been the Messiah because he was crucified, and who certainly couldn’t be worshipped because in any case the Messiah wouldn’t be divine.

GRACE – BRILLIANT GRACE

If there is ever an example of grace, it is the conversion of Saul who becomes the Apostle Paul.

And so  the text: In his defense of the Gospel, he writes this to the Galatian churches in chapter one, verse thirteen: Gal 1:13  For you have heard of my former life in Judaism, how I persecuted the church of God violently and tried to destroy it. Gal 1:14  And I was advancing in Judaism beyond many of my own age among my people, so extremely zealous was I for the traditions of my fathers. Gal 1:15  But when he who had set me apart before I was born, and who called me by his grace, Gal 1:16  was pleased to reveal his Son to me, in order that I might preach him among the Gentiles, I did not immediately consult with anyone; Gal 1:17  nor did I go up to Jerusalem to those who were apostles before me, but I went away into Arabia, and returned again to Damascus.

What a remarkable change in this man.

His testimony is very much like that of some of the prophets. Especially verse 15: But when he who had set me apart before I was born, and who called me by his grace…

Listen to Isaiah on this sense of being chosen by God: Isa 49:1  Listen to me, you islands; hear this, you distant nations: Before I was born the LORD called me; from my birth he has made mention of my name. Isa 49:2  He made my mouth like a sharpened sword, in the shadow of his hand he hid me; he made me into a polished arrow and concealed me in his quiver.

And also Jeremiah: Jer 1:4  The word of the LORD came to me, saying, Jer 1:5  “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, before you were born I set you apart; I appointed you as a prophet to the nations.”

And so back to Galatians 1 – we read from verse 15 again: Gal 1:15  But when he who had set me apart before I was born, and who called me by his grace, Gal 1:16  was pleased to reveal his Son to me, in order that I might preach him among the Gentiles, I did not immediately consult with anyone; Gal 1:17  nor did I go up to Jerusalem to those who were apostles before me, but I went away into Arabia, and returned again to Damascus. 

God revealed his Son to Paul – and everything changed. It’s the trip to Arabia that intrigues me. These are the hidden years in Paul’s life.

And there is this angle – Mnt Sinai (also know as Mnt Horeb) was in Arabia. Moses encountered God there. Elijah encountered God there – especially when he was fleeing from Jezebel. There’s that brilliant passage there which has made its way into hymns and songs:

1Ki 19:11  The LORD said, “Go out and stand on the mountain in the presence of the LORD, for the LORD is about to pass by.” Then a great and powerful wind tore the mountains apart and shattered the rocks before the LORD, but the LORD was not in the wind. After the wind there was an earthquake, but the LORD was not in the earthquake. 1Ki 19:12  After the earthquake came a fire, but the LORD was not in the fire. And after the fire came a gentle whisper. 1Ki 19:13  When Elijah heard it, he pulled his cloak over his face and went out and stood at the mouth of the cave. Then a voice said to him, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” 1Ki 19:14  He replied, “I have been very zealous for the LORD God Almighty. The Israelites have rejected your covenant, broken down your altars, and put your prophets to death with the sword. I am the only one left, and now they are trying to kill me too.” 1Ki 19:15  The LORD said to him, “Go back the way you came, and go to the Desert of Damascus. When you get there, anoint Hazael king over Aram.

There’s this fascinating parallel between Elijah and Paul – going to the mountain of God – and being sent off to Damascus.

They each had their own issues.

Can you imagine what was going on in Paul’s head? Tom Wright also says this:

But then – and here he slips into talking about himself as an Old Testament prophet – Paul was stopped in his tracks, just as Elijah had been. Elijah, dejected and depressed, went off to Mount Sinai to meet his God afresh, to learn about the still small voice as well as the earthquake, wind and fire. Saul of Tarsus went off, probably to Sinai (he says ‘Arabia’, which is where Sinai was), most likely for a similar private wrestling with the God whom he worshipped. This God, to Saul’s horror and amazement, had now revealed his son, and had done so in order that he, Saul, an ultra-orthodox Jew, might tell the pagan nations that Israel’s God loved them just as much as he loved Israel. (Wright, Tom (2002-03-22). Paul for Everyone: Galatians and Thessalonians (New Testament for Everyone) (p. 9). SPCK. Kindle Edition.)

GRACE – ABUNDANT GRACE, UNLIMITED PATIENCE

We were praying this week about prisoners. How ironic that we so often want people locked up for the longest time possible. You hear it on TV so often – when people are sentenced for their crimes.

Yet we have this murderer who writes so much of our New Testament.

It is Paul who says this of himself: 1Ti 1:15 Here is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners—of whom I am the worst. 1Ti 1:16  But for that very reason I was shown mercy so that in me, the worst of sinners, Christ Jesus might display his unlimited patience as an example for those who would believe on him and receive eternal life.

I reckon that Paul wrestled about this grace in those three years in Arabia.

Tom Wright again says this: But it is a central strand of most Christian living that everybody needs, from time to time, to wrestle privately with God and his will. It is necessary, too, that Christian leaders should be seen to be telling their own story truly.

…everybody needs, from time to time, to wrestle privately with God and his will.

We all do. We need time with God – especially alone – where we seriously reflect on his grace in our lives too. And what he may be saying to us.

In Paul’s case it seems that the Gospel was revealed to Paul directly from Jesus – as we saw last week.

Who knows what He will say to us if we take the time to wrestle with his will. Or just to be in His presence. It’s part of the shift that we talked about last week as we looked at Galatians 1:3-4 – Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, who gave himself for our sins to rescue us from the present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father.

Paul understood the shift he had to make. His zeal was shifted to his new task to share the gospel with non-Jews – with gentiles like us. Galatians 1:23-4 again: They only heard the report: “The man who formerly persecuted us is now preaching the faith he once tried to destroy.”  And they praised God because of me.

As do we!

Amen.

AMAZING GRACE

Closer to our time Amazing Grace worked in the writer of the hymn – the slave trader, John Newton. Let’s see an extract about him and his conversion. In the movie William Wilberforce visits his old preacher Newton more than once.

(Video “Amazing Grace” – the wrestling of John Newton.)

Note: I am indebted to Tom Wright again.

References:

Wright, Tom (2002-03-22). Paul for Everyone: Galatians and Thessalonians (New Testament for Everyone) (pp. 8-9). SPCK. Kindle Edition.

https://www.udemy.com/courses/ Here I have been influenced by Wright’s lectures “Paul and his letter to the Galatians”. This is from the course  NTWRIGHT ON LINE through the Wisconsin Centre for Christian studies.

Sunday sermon 22 June – We are worth more than many sparrows!

Readings: Matthew 10:24-39

Sermon

“A student is not above his teacher, nor a servant above his master. It is enough for the student to be like his teacher, and the servant like his master. If the head of the house has been called Beelzebub, how much more the members of his household!” (Matthew 10:24-25)

I’ve had all kinds of people get fed up with me over the years. Including one man who said I was a Satan worshipper. It turns out that he believed this to be true because I led worship with a guitar. Mind you I’m in good company. They called Jesus Beelzebub – Lord of the flies – one of Satan’s titles.

There are aspects of Jesus’ calling in the gospel reading today that are radical and disconcerting. Especially if you’re in it for a comfortable ride.

So what is the context of these interesting sayings?

Matthew chapter 10 at the beginning is all about the twelve being sent out on a Mission – remember how Jesus saw the crowds – had compassion on them – because they were harassed and helpless like sheep without a shepherd? Do you remember Jesus (as recorded in Matthew 9:37-38) – how Jesus said “the harvest is plentiful and the workers are few. Ask the Lord of the harvest to send out workers into his harvest field?” You remember this?

Well this is the extension of the story of that Mission. They had gone out and preached the good news that the Kingdom of heaven was near (10:7). They were to heal the sick and raise the dead, cleanse lepers and drive out demons (10:8). And of course shake the dust of their feet when people did not welcome them or listen to their message (10:14). This is the time when he said to them “I am sending you out like sheep before wolves. Therefore be as shrewd as snakes and innocent as doves” (10:16).They would be arrested and flogged (10:17) and brought before Governors and Kings as witnesses to them (10:18).

It was here that that famous and encouraging word was spoken by Jesus – we referred to it at Pentecost: Mat 10:19  But when they arrest you, do not worry about what to say or how to say it. At that time you will be given what to say, Mat 10:20  for it will not be you speaking, but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you.And so families would be in conflict – they would be hated – they would be persecuted and have to flee (10:23).

In the same passage there are references to the future church as well – those who were to go on a similar Mission after his resurrection and ascension. The same dangers applied – and certainly they were to face persecution just as Christians today face persecution.

So it’s in the context of this Mission that we pick up our reading today: Mat 10:24  “A student is not above his teacher, nor a servant above his master. Mat 10:25  It is enough for the student to be like his teacher, and the servant like his master. If the head of the house has been called Beelzebub, how much more the members of his household!

Mat 10:26  “So do not be afraid of them. There is nothing concealed that will not be disclosed, or hidden that will not be made known. Mat 10:27  What I tell you in the dark, speak in the daylight; what is whispered in your ear, proclaim from the roofs. Mat 10:28  Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell. Mat 10:29  Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from the will of your Father. Mat 10:30  And even the very hairs of your head are all numbered. Mat 10:31  So don’t be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows.

So what do we take from this? The “them” inverse 26 is the category of all those who oppose and persecute Christians. This was never going to be an easy ride.

WHAT HELPS US THEN

I think what is helpful is to focus is this basic principal – whatever you go through – don’t be afraid.

For those early followers of Jesus – when people are against you – DON’T BE AFRAID.

Mat 10:26  “So do not be afraid of them. There is nothing concealed that will not be disclosed, or hidden that will not be made known.

This seems to indicate that the truth will come out eventually. Paul supports this in 1 Corinthians 4:5 – Therefore judge nothing before the appointed time; wait till the Lord comes. He will bring to light what is hidden in darkness and will expose the motives of men’s hearts. At that time each will receive his praise from God.

David Brown in a commentary on Matthew puts it this way: There is no use, and no need, of concealing anything; right and wrong, truth and error, are about to come into open and deadly collision; and the day is coming when all hidden things shall be disclosed, everything seen as it is, and every one have his due.

Jesus continues: Mat 10:28  Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell. Mat 10:31  So don’t be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows.

One commentator on this passage puts it like this: Jesus’ mission discourse is a “get-out-the-volunteers” campaign like no other. On the one hand, the disciples are granted remarkable powers to heal, exorcise demons, cleanse lepers, even to raise the dead. But he also denies them money, pay, extra clothes, a staff for protection, even sandals. They are to undertake their mission in complete vulnerability and dependence on God (10:8-11), even knowing that they go as “sheep in the midst of wolves,” face arrests and beatings, opposition even from family members, and hatred and persecution (10:16-23).

So what are we afraid of?

Jesus seemed okay in his training to paint the worse-case scenarios. Maybe that was a good training technique.

I love the pictures that he used to illustrate this. I’ve quipped about the one picture before. I think for me God’s task is getting easier each year when it comes to me: Mat 10:30  And even the very hairs of your head are all numbered.

It’s the sparrows that I like. Listen again: Mat 10:29  Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from the will of your Father. Mat 10:31  So don’t be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows.

A story to illustrate (hopefully).

I was sitting with a friend at the local French Café this week – we share a common kind of ministry and support each other along the way. While we were there – sitting outside in true café style with rain and wind coming and going (I had my training for this in Wellington!) a sparrow came and joined us – sitting on top of one of the chairs at our table.

I told my friend that there had been some controversy at that café because, so they say, the owner had got fed-up with the sparrow and had poisoned them. Not very nice when you consider Matthew 10:29:  Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from the will of your Father.

A worse story is this one. 

It’s a story about a sparrow that somehow got into the rafters of St. Helen’s Parish Church in the English town of Brant Broughton. At the time of the intrusion, they were recording a guitar recital for later broadcast on the radio. The chirping bird didn’t exactly chirp with the beat. So the pastor, Rev. Robin Clark (ironically) asked the congregation to leave and then asked a friend to bring his pellet gun over to the church to shoot the intruding sparrow. The killing of the sparrow became front page news in Great Britain. The London Daily Telegraph ran a clever headline that said, “Rev. Robin Orders Death of Sparrow.”

 Editorials and letters to the editor flowed, chastising the cruel and unusual punishment for this lowly bird. People who  hadn’t darkened the door of a church in decades suddenly remembered Psalm 84 in which it is declared that even sparrows are welcome in the house of the Lord (84:3). By the way – here is Psalm 84:3:  Even the sparrow has found a home, and the swallow a nest for herself, where she may have her young— a place near your altar, O LORD Almighty, my King and my God.

Poor Rev Robin. Poor little sparrow. We can easily sentimentalise things.

The comparison of course means we are more valuable than sparrows. And nothing happens to us either that he does not allow or care about – that’s the implication. What it doesn’t say is that the sparrow will be spared – or that we will be spared.

Persecution is at the heart of this. The cost for some people is jail and execution – more in this generation than ever before. And it is a price to pay. And many are not spared. Martyrdom is rife today in many parts of the world.

And yet he still cares.

After the sparrow story comes these lines – the ones that probably get us – have us pinned against the wall: Mat 10:32  “Whoever acknowledges me before men, I will also acknowledge him before my Father in heaven. Mat 10:33  But whoever disowns me before men, I will disown him before my Father in heaven.

We’ve institutionalised this in our churches – in public profession of faith with baptism that formalises our membership of the church. And if people were baptised and made a public profession of faith in another congregation our Session can resolve to admit them to membership of this one.

The context of Matthew 10 is different though. It’s an acknowledgement in the face of risk. Is a pubic admission that we follow Jesus – in society.

It has to mean that we identify ourselves out there in our daily lives.

And then the rest of the Gospel reading today is in itself is quite challenging: Mat 10:34  “Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword. Mat 10:35  For I have come to turn “‘a man against his father, a daughter against her mother, a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law— Mat 10:36  a man’s enemies will be the members of his own household.’ Mat 10:37  “Anyone who loves his father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; anyone who loves his son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; Mat 10:38  and anyone who does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Mat 10:39  Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.

It’s almost as if we are quite disconnected from this early discipleship. It is radical – and requires huge commitment. And Jesus comes first before everyone else. And you have to take up your cross and follow – otherwise you’re not worthy of Jesus. It’s risky – if it’s about you, then you lose. If you surrender your life for Jesus’ sake – you win!

How about us?

  • Do we acknowledge Christ in the rest of our lives (outside of Church life)?
  • Or are we living a double life? Secret Christians?
  • Do we love Him more than all those listed?
  • Are we radical enough?
  • Do we take our crosses and follow Christ? (Admittedly some of us have crosses thrust upon us that we would not choose).
  • Are we worthy of Jesus?

Great questions these! It’s up to us really!

AMEN