Sunday, 23 August 2015

A gift for life

Acts 14:1-3;8-11;19-23
Paul and Barnabas in Iconium
​The same thing occurred in Iconium, where Paul and Barnabas went into the Jewish synagogue and spoke in such a way that a great number of both Jews and Greeks became believers. But the unbelieving Jews stirred up the Gentiles and poisoned their minds against the brothers. So they remained for a long time, speaking boldly for the Lord, who testified to the word of his grace by granting signs and wonders to be done through them. 
Paul and Barnabas in Lystra and Derbe
In Lystra there was a man sitting who could not use his feet and had never walked, for he had been crippled from birth. He listened to Paul as he was speaking. And Paul, looking at him intently and seeing that he had faith to be healed, said in a loud voice, “Stand upright on your feet.” And the man sprang up and began to walk. When the crowds saw what Paul had done, they shouted in the Lycaonian language, “The gods have come down to us in human form!” 
But Jews came there from Antioch and Iconium and won over the crowds. Then they stoned Paul and dragged him out of the city, supposing that he was dead. But when the disciples surrounded him, he got up and went into the city. The next day he went on with Barnabas to Derbe.
The Return to Antioch in Syria
After they had proclaimed the good news to that city and had made many disciples, they returned to Lystra, then on to Iconium and Antioch. There they strengthened the souls of the disciples and encouraged them to continue in the faith, saying, “It is through many persecutions that we must enter the kingdom of God.” And after they had appointed elders for them in each church, with prayer and fasting they entrusted them to the Lord in whom they had come to believe.

There they strengthened the souls of the disciples and encouraged them to continue in the faith

As we continue to journey with Paul, we encounter a recurring theme - of people responding to the love and grace of God, only to be discouraged by those around them, those who, even when they see the goodness of God at work, refuse to accept and, more than that, persecute those who bring the good news.
Paul and his companions respond to this persecution by strengthening those who believed by prayer and by encouragement.
And by appointing those whose sole task would be to pray for others and to encourage.
Elders appointed to the ministry of encouragement. 
Encouragement is a ministry that we overlook today.
And the notion that elders should be involved in such a ministry has been lost somewhere along the way, buried under duty and responsibility and keeping good order.
There they strengthened the souls of the disciples and encouraged them to continue in the faith

Last weekend, as you may know, I was involved in the National Youth Assembly of the Church of Scotland and spent 4 days with 80 18-25 year olds.
We had a full programme of debates and workshops, of worship and late night cafes.
On the agenda were topics such as child trafficking, global education, climate change and the creeds of the Church.
To see so many young adults interested in and engaging with issues that are topical and relevant for them was a huge encouragement.
And, even greater encouragement was the knowledge that these young adults came from churches all over Scotland - from Shetland to the borders, from Castlemilk to Colinton.
Young adults taking time off work or study to get together and encourage one another.
And many of them, isolated in their own communities, perhaps the only young person in their church, leave the National Youth Assembly encouraged in their faith, assured that they matter, strengthened and resolved to continue the journey.
There they strengthened the souls of the disciples and encouraged them to continue in the faith
As I read those words this week, fresh from NYA, they struck me as being pertinent to just some of the work that goes on at the National Youth Assembly.
Young adults, many of whom were baptised as infants are being strengthened in their faith and encouraged to live out the promises taken on their behalf on their baptism.
It's hard to look way into the future, maybe even scary to imagine the time when Olivia will be 18. What will her life look like then?
Who will be her friends?
Will she still be a part of the Church?
The assurance that each of us is given, in baptism, is that the love and grace of God that we celebrate here today in the sacrament accompanies us all through life.
We will always be a part of the Church.
As we affirmed in the promises"there will always be a place here for her."
God's love and grace accompanies us all through life.
Baptism sets us on a path,a path that even if we step off for a time, will always be there, waiting for us when we are ready to continue our journey.
Each of those enthusiastic faith filled young adults at Youth Assembly last weekend had been given the gift of faith, of the love and grace of God when they were babies as small as Olivia. 
And each of them had either remained on that path or found their way back so that they could respond to the love of God freely given to them in baptism.
Baptism is a gift that can never be taken away but can only be strengthened and renewed every day.
Most gifts we receive, especially as children, are laid down and picked up as the mood takes us. 
There are always other gifts, other distractions.
But the gift of baptism and the promises made in that gift never expire, never diminish.
They accompany us all through life.
So each time we bemoan the fact that our Youth Church isn't growing.
Each time we wonder where all the children we baptise have disappeared, let's remember that what we do here today sets a course, stakes a claim, invokes a promise of the love and grace of God that lasts for all of life.
Last Sunday morning, over 100 of us trooped into Gartmore Parish Church to join the congregation there in worship, filling every available space in the Church and being welcomed warmly.
It struck me then, what a gift that must have been to that congregation, to know that, even though their number in worship Sunday by Sunday was usually much less, yet they were part of the body of Christ,a body that embraces, equips and encourages young people, beginning in the faith expressed in baptism.
There they strengthened the souls of the disciples and encouraged them to continue in the faith
And after they had appointed elders for them in each church, with prayer and fasting they entrusted them to the Lord in whom they had come to believe.
May it be so here today.
For the glory of God.

Sunday, 2 August 2015

The bystanders

Acts 7:54 - 8:3
The Stoning of Stephen
When they heard these things, they became enraged and ground their teeth at Stephen. But filled with the Holy Spirit, he gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. “Look,” he said, “I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God!” But they covered their ears, and with a loud shout all rushed together against him. Then they dragged him out of the city and began to stone him; and the witnesses laid their coats at the feet of a young man named Saul. While they were stoning Stephen, he prayed, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” Then he knelt down and cried out in a loud voice, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” When he had said this, he died.
​And Saul approved of their killing him.
Saul Persecutes the Church
That day a severe persecution began against the church in Jerusalem, and all except the apostles were scattered throughout the countryside of Judea and Samaria. Devout men buried Stephen and made loud lamentation over him. But Saul was ravaging the church by entering house after house; dragging off both men and women, he committed them to prison.

The witnesses laid their coats at the feet of a young man named Saul.
As we begin our series on Paul that will, over the next few weeks, take us into some of Paul's missionary journeys, his relationships with Christian communities along the way and stories of all that God was able to accomplish through Paul, we take a step back today to consider who Paul was before God made a claim on his life.
And we discover Saul, on the edge of the crowd, holding the coats of those who stoned Stephen.
Stephen had been appointed as a leader in the early church.
And his preaching the gospel upset the authorities.
In fact, so incensed were they by his preaching that they accused him of blasphemy and incited the crowd to stone him.
The authorities, the religious authorities of the day, put their spin on the good news that Stephen preached and convinced those who heard him that he threatened their whole way of life.
Instead of hearing the good news of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the crowd was encouraged to hear the shaking of the foundations.
They were encouraged to put a stop to Stephen's preaching.
And they did.
The crowd listened to the authorities of the day, to the spin doctors of the time.
And Stephen became the first known Christian martyr.
That day, as Stephen was killed, there was a young man on the edge of the crowd, looking on, a man named Saul.
To all intents and purposes a bystander - Until we read those chilling words:
And Saul approved of their killing him.
Perhaps he didn't actually pick up a stone that day.
Perhaps he didn't actively participate in ensuring Stephen's death.
But, from the edge of the crowd, Saul stood and watched, held the coats and approved of Stephens killing.
No innocent bystander.
This week, we've watched, as crowds of migrants have gathered in Calais, desperate to find a way across the Channel to seek refuge in the UK.
And, while we have been successfully distracted by the plight of those refugees and the protests of those on both sides of the Channel, whether supporting or opposing asylum, there are other groups of migrants also making treacherous journeys, seeking freedom from oppressive regimes.
Many of them are being drowned in the Med while our government refuses to make their passage safer or consider the oppressive conditions from which they need to flee.
And, being able to focus on the situation in Calais, being able to use incendiary language, speaking of "swarms of migrants", building up fear and hatred in the UK, allows our government to take our attention away from all the other terrible things that are happening.
And, in all this, we are the bystanders.
Perhaps not casting stones.
Not even holding the coats.
But, by our silence, signaling approval.
We, who should know from history that failure of good people to act simply allows evil to triumph.
We won't all agree on how this crisis should be resolved.
We won't all agree on how our government should act.
But we do all have the capacity to see those who have found their way to Calais, or those desperate enough to take to the seas in overcrowded and poorly equipped boats in the hope of securing a better way of life for themselves and their families as children of God, our brothers and sisters in Christ.
There is no easy solution to the kind of scenes we've witnessed this week, or, indeed, to the migrant crisis that has been escalating for some time now.
But what is important is that we do not stand idly by.
That we do not allow governments to put their spin on the clear evidence of a crisis, distracting us from a much bigger picture.
It is important that we see the humanity in each of these crowds, that we hear stories of individuals desperate enough to take the chances they have taken.
And that, somehow, we apply the principles of our faith to how we view our brothers and sisters in Christ.
As we have celebrated this morning the grace of God in baptism, Good's love given to us unconditionally, may we extend that love and grace to all whom we meet on the road.
Over the next few weeks, as we journey with Paul, we will encounter a man freed from his hatred by an encounter with God.
Completely turned around - from persecuting Christians, to preaching and living out the gospel.
Turned from a bystander into a follower of Christ.
Moved from hatred to love.
But, as we go into this week, let's ask ourselves.
In our faith and in our living, are we content to be the bystanders, not casting stones but not offering help either?
Or are we prepared to speak and act out of the love and the zeal that God gives?
Are we prepared to see, in the crowds we encounter daily, on our TV screens or on the High Street, brothers and sisters in Christ?
How does the God that we encounter here and in our everyday life affect how we love one another?
May we answer that with a commitment to act in love.
For the glory of God.  Amen