Sunday, 7 May 2017

Can't make it to church - 7 May 2017

We've reached the fourth Sunday of Easter and I've decided to be a bit contentious as we start our journey with a visit to the book of Acts and what is probably one of the most preached, quoted and desired Church experience there is in the New Testament. It's also possibly the simplest of all church growth strategies - or the most ridiculously idealistic way of doing Church - but it is something that should make us stop and think!

How much more simple can it be than this:

1. Get together and share the teaching, break bread and prayers (possibly formal rather than spontaneous).
    [Yep - I can do that!]

2. Get the guys and gals to do some of the 'signs and wonders' stuff
    [Been there - got the tee-shirt. Let's get those arms in the air and get those tongues going people]

3. Hold everything in common, if someone has a need: Deal with it!
    [Yeah, as long as the 'deserve it, after all - that's my stuff we're talking about]

4. Let's do it EVERY day: Everything - the meeting, praying, breaking bread, selling and sharing.
    [Whoa, hold the bus - Sunday's cool but Monday, well that's my night for . . .  [whatever you do]!]

And so, having stopped at step 4. could this be the reason that we don't see the final part of the process before us:

5. Growth! Three thousand people bounding in to swell our numbers!

As much as I'm happy to 'break bread' with people on the grounds that it's what we do on a Sunday in the Communion, eating every day with people, for some that's a bridge too far - after all, it's not like they're family is it?

What's that Sooty, they are family - Get up off the floor Sweep - it's about being Church, it's not that important, is it?

And of course it is and they are family and the fact that the church mentioned in Acts did also see the people live in their own homes - it wasn't a commune (and Jesus was not the first Communist!) - and what they did was sell stuff and club together to meet the needs of those who had them. Well suddenly we've gone from a church growth model to a distinct feeling of unease!

I have been in church settings where someone turned up with a need, so the people clubbed together and bailed them out. Then they came back again with a need and the people bailed them out. And then the same person came back with a need and the people said, "Oi get lost. What do you think we are, stupid?"

It's easy to meet a need once, twice, or even thrice - but where do we draw line? After all, when asking about forgiveness, Peter offers the number seven times. (Matthew 18).

Jesus, who is so often the party-pooper, offers a new number: Seventy times seven! Now He wasn't setting the bar but nodding at the attitude before Him and saying in effect, "Until you lose count of the number of times!"

So here we are at the end of the first reading - I wonder how many will be left in the congregation (and whether there's anyone out there still reading this stuff?) - after all, not saying well done and few of us will be heading for tea and medals at this rate, will we?

Well actually it's not the end because I have the words of so many teachers who tell me that the Acts behaviour was abortive and that, "No one else did the 'money' thing!" What we have here is one overtly zealous, over the top bunch, who did it a bit too enthusiastically. Everywhere else the Christians live like we do now with our own homes, incomes, possessions and lockable front doors. They lived as we do with our own private and personal faith and cared for their own rather than all this showy giving and living together stuff . . . and that's what makes Church what it is today.

Moving on (quickly) we come to 1 Peter 2 and read that we need to do that which is right, even if it causes us pain and suffering!

Talk about a downward slope, seems to me that the readings are just set on 'bringing it down' (as a local friendly clown keeps reminding me). Here we are trying to walk in Jesus' footsteps and we keep being dragged into counting the cost and being sacrificial; not fighting against the struggles but recognising that seeking to do good is not always its own reward.

So I'll stop here and rush off to tell the newspaper photographer to stay where he is as we don't want a, "Successful church does good deeds photograph on the front page after all!"

We do good and we keep on doing good, blessing where there is curse and continuing onwards where there are beatings - the second of two uncomfortable readings thus far. But let's head to John, after all he's always good for a bit of a 'thumbs up' (well as long as you believe in Jesus and all that sort of thing. Surely this can't go wrong, can it?

Ah, a nice pastoral scene where the sheep all stroll in through the gate and that gate, being Jesus, well that's great because after all He is the way, the truth and the life; this is looking good indeed because it's all about Him and us and our relationship with Him. He opens the gate and we, hearing His voice, enter - we follow Him because we know and trust Him. He leads and we follow, sticking to the same path and planting our feet where His have been.

The shepherd leads his sheep and feeds them and engages with dangerous situations to keep them safe (this is more like it, nothing to worry about with this reading). When we are under threat, we all bleat out, "Stranger danger," and the shepherd comes a running to save us. We trust Him and go where He calls us to be in the company of others (Oh no, not that Acts things again!) and keeping to the Shepherd's path (does anyone else thing that sound a bit controlling?) we find abundant life.

All we need to do is to follow Jesus, live together in a public, open and simple way, trusting in Him for our needs and everything else is hunky dory.

You know what, I don't think this story is about sheep or Shepherds at all. In fact I'm beginning to think that this Gospel account has more about the Acts reading that something I might hear on BBC Radio's 'Farming Today'.

What about you?

Father God, the way to life, we are told, is to follow Jesus, who is the way, the truth and the life and He will lead us into You presence and into the plentiful life that You give us. You tend and care for us, You call us to be one flock, following in the footsteps of Him who endured death upon the cross for us. Help us to be obedient, constant, compassionate and (The Collect) pray, Risen Christ, faithful shepherd of your Father’s sheep: teach us to hear your voice and to follow your command, that all your people may be gathered into one flock, to the glory of God the Father. Amen.

Acts 2.42-47
They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. Everyone was filled with awe at the many wonders and signs performed by the apostles. All the believers were together and had everything in common. They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need.

Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts.

They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favour of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.

1 Peter 2.19-25
For it is commendable if someone bears up under the pain of unjust suffering because they are conscious of God. But how is it to your credit if you receive a beating for doing wrong and endure it?

But if you suffer for doing good and you endure it, this is commendable before God. To this you were called, because Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in his steps.
‘He committed no sin, and no deceit was found in his mouth.’

When they hurled their insults at him, he did not retaliate; when he suffered, he made no threats. Instead, he entrusted himself to him who judges justly.
‘He himself bore our sins’ in his body on the cross, so that we might die to sins and live for righteousness; 'by his wounds you have been healed.’ For ‘you were like sheep going astray,’ but now you have returned to the Shepherd and Overseer of your souls.

John 10.1-10
‘Very truly I tell you Pharisees, anyone who does not enter the sheepfold by the gate, but climbs in by some other way, is a thief and a robber. The one who enters by the gate is the shepherd of the sheep.

The gatekeeper opens the gate for him, and the sheep listen to his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he has brought out all his own, he goes on ahead of them, and his sheep follow him because they know his voice. But they will never follow a stranger; in fact, they will run away from him because they do not recognise a stranger’s voice.’ Jesus used this figure of speech, but the Pharisees did not understand what he was telling them.

Therefore Jesus said again, ‘Very truly I tell you, I am the gate for the sheep. All who have come before me are thieves and robbers, but the sheep have not listened to them. I am the gate; whoever enters through me will be saved. They will come in and go out, and find pasture. The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.'

Post Communion
Merciful Father, you gave your Son Jesus Christ to be the good shepherd, and in his love for us to lay down his life and rise again: keep us always under his protection, and give us grace to follow in his steps; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.


Rev J said...

I have preached on this for longer than I care to think and yet have never asked the people to do what you do.

Doing it today though - thank you for the spur

Vic Van Den Bergh said...

You are more than a bit welcome. Thought I'd been contentious but perhaps not. It was well received (I think - well, the didn't chase me out) this morning :-)