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Saturday, 29 April 2017

droppin' them in the aisles?

 (from this day in liturgy, six years ago ...)                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                     SERMON PREACHED AT CHRIST CHURCH, WHANGAREI
SUNDAY, MAY 8th 2011

Acts 2.14a, 36-41
Ps 116.1-4, 12-19
1 Peter 1.17-23
Luke 24.13-35

Some of you will know that for much of my own ministry I have not been the greatest fan of Luke’s ‘second volume’, the Acts of the Apostles. Like many of the movies that, over the years, spawned second rate sequels, I have often, albeit slightly in jest, expressed the wish that the ‘dear physician’ had got out when he was ahead, at the closure of the magnificent resurrection stories, with the vindication of Jesus life and teachings. Had Luke followed John’s example we would have no need for a fifty day period of preparation for the coming of the Pentecostal Spirit, for John tells us of the risen Jesus breathing the life of the New Creation into the being of the once timid, once doubting disciples during the first hours and days of the new order, following the first Easter morn. For John there is there and then a new Creation; Luke needs must make us wait fifty days until the Jewish feast of Pentecost.

Once again neither evangelist is writing a train timetable. We cannot know or understand the sequence of events that led those timid few women and men to be transformed into history altering proclaimers of God’s new dealing with humanity. In modern terms Luke is not a historian – though perhaps in post-modern terms he is more of a historian than many who have attempt to wear that title. He tells, dare I say it, a jaundiced tale, designed, using the story telling techniques of his own time, to demonstrate the remarkable and indeed miraculous tale of the work of the Spirit of God, the birth of the Church, and the witness of that body in and throughout the then known world. Do not let my pretended skepticism put you off: the proclamation of the gospel to the ends of the earth has indeed been miraculous, reaching out through space and time even to our own place and time.

I am, though, cautious because some who read Luke’s Acts believe it to be a manifesto of how we as Church should act, and how we should expect history to unfold, in our own day. As Luke tells the tale he tells of speech after speech – almost one third of the words in the book are public speeches – that by and large initiate the conversion of hundreds. We hear of prison walls as it were crumbling in the night, of snake bites miraculous overcome (don’t try this at home or when you visit us in Darwin!), and we hear no real detail of the sometimes rancorous debate that was from time to time a hallmark of early Christianity. This is because Luke is not writing a history in the twentieth or twenty-first century of the concept, but is writing a theological document that demonstrated the miraculous emanation of the gospel from Jerusalem out through the Empire to the ends of the known world. He is writing a document designed to convince his audience – he refers to ‘Theophilus’ at the beginning of both Luke and Acts – that God has been at work in the remarkable growth of the Jesus movement. There is little doubt that the movement was indeed miraculous in its remarkable trek through space and history, though perhaps not as exhaustively triumphant as Luke may have wished.  

When we read the speeches of Peter, as today, or Paul, in Acts we probably have Luke’s quite accurate renditions of the preaching of these two great – and sometimes incompatible – giants of the gospel message. In this scene that formed our first reading we have a part of a sermon that is a commentary on the Hebrew Scriptures: at the heart of Peter’s proclamation was a challenge to his audience to hear, to repent, and to be baptised. These responses, these actions were the centre of the earliest Christian message. Luke goes on to emphasize the impact the preaching had, as thousands were baptised.

Do we in turn, then simply have to stand, inflamed by God’s Spirit, proclaiming these same words from the street corners of our towns and cities? There are of course still some who engage in this form of preaching, and some lives are touched by their message. But the past is a different country: in a vitriolically skeptical western society we probably need to be aware that our actions will speak far louder than our words. We as a Christian community are being watched, if only to be laughed at if we stumble. In a post-modern world it is our task to make sure that our actions, our standards of love and compassion and justice and above all personal integrity radiate the Christ who we must daily allow to penetrate our lives with divine light.

If and as we pray that our lives may be lived with that kind of integrity it can just be that we, like the stranger on the road to Emmaus, may be bearers of a truth that penetrates distracted minds on roads to Emmaus. The onus is, though, as always, to ensure our lives are saturated in Christ. To do that we always need to know our own need for the forgiving, transforming love that embraced us in our encounter with Christ. We symbolised that encounter in our baptismal cleansing, and re-enacted it in our recent journey through Lent and into the glorious light of Easter joy. May we be agents of that message in our community.

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