ever present, ever loyal,
we gather today as one family –
each with our different experiences of faith,
but with one longing to serve you;
each with our own questions and doubts,
but with one heart to learn from you;
each with our own burdens and joys,
but as one in our desire to worship you
in Jesus’ name.
© Copyright 2002-2021, ROOTS for Churches Ltd. All rights reserved. Print ISSN: 2040-4832 and 2635-280X; Online ISSN: 2635-2818.
I’ve got a bit of that “after the Lord Mayor’s show” this week. The week after Easter always feels for me a bit like going back to work in January. The holiday is over, the celebration is done and its time to start again – to get back to normal business after the excitement of Christmas or In this case, the rollercoaster that is Holy Week. We had the build up of Lent then the ups and downs of walking with Jesus through the last week of his life, from the triumphal entry into Jerusalem, Jesus’s betrayal, conviction, crucifixion, burial and finally resurrection. I know we still have Ascension coming up but really the celebration is done and its time to get back to normal – and what better way to get back to normal in the Church of England than with our Annual Meeting – voting, reports, elections and so on. The business of running the church.
I’m focussing on that passage from Acts we heard this morning and I want to retell a story I came across whilst I was researching.. its about a little girl called Alice.
Alice lived in a house where her family kept a few chickens. One day she discovered a box of matches – just like the ones she had seen her parents use to light their fire. So she went out and hid in their chicken coop to see if she could work out how to light one. Eventually she worked it out and everything was fine until the match burnt down nearly to her fingers when she had to drop it.
Instead of going out the match landed on a loose piece of straw, which promptly caught fire. Since Alice was desperate to make sure she wasn’t found out she grabbed a handful of straw and put it over the small flame – for a short while that seemed to do the trick but then it began to smoulder. So she scooped up an armful of nearby straw to hide the evidence once and for all and ran out into the yard to play. Shortly afterwards of course the chicken coop completely burned down.
Time and again in the bible the religious leader of the time behaved like Alice when trying to extinguish the first signs of Christianity – they were almost child like in their belief that they could nip this little movement in the bud. The high priest didn’t like the way Jesus marched in to Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, didn’t like the adulation of the crowd so decided it would be best to bury Jesus – the assumption being that burying Jesus would make the whole thing go away. But,as it turns out he had simply added fuel to the fire. There were a few days of calm then all of a sudden rumours started flying about that Jesus had been raised from the dead, the smoke threatened to burst into a full blown fire again
In Acts 4 we read that around Pentecost – about 50 days after Jesus’ death. The disciples are preaching for all they are worth and are fanning the flames – healing the sick and teaching about the resurrection. The word is being spread.
And the High Priest in his nervousness arrests Peter and John and orders them not to speak or teach in the name of Jesus – he tries to stifle the fire in the form of a direct order from the religious boss – which of course only stokes the fire –
Acts 4: 19-20 But Peter and John answered them, “Whether it is right in the sight of God to listen to you rather than to God, you must judge, for we cannot but speak of what we have seen and heard.”
The disciples throw the issue back in the Jewish leaders’ court. They are saying “If you were in our shoes what choice would you make? Would you listen to you or God? You choose, but we can’t doing anything else other than talk about what we have seen and heard”
At this point though the High Priest still feels that an order from him should shut Peter and John up so lets them go. But, soon the flames are back – as Peter and John had said, they had no choice but to talk about what they had seen, to spread the good news – they were not going to shut up. Peter and John know they are doing the right thing and so preach harder and in the next chapter – Acts 5 we find all the apostles teaching in the temple.
The high priest has them all thrown in jail however not even iron bars could keep them in and an angel releases them and they return once more to teaching in the temple. When we get to the bit from todays passage the flames are burning ever brighter and the high priest drags the apostles back in for more questioning, after working out that they were not in jail where they were supposed to be – rather stupidly he says “We gave you strict orders not to do this” Not surprisingly, the apostles answer in the same way as last time, ‘We must obey God rather than men’” (Acts 5:29).
Obeying God was a non-negotiable to Peter and the apostles. It was everything to them – they would rather die than disobey. You can’t stop a church like that. They are dead-set on speaking, and they didn’t fear punishment or death because they knew that Jesus had already defeated it.
If we skip on a bit to look at how Acts 5 ends. The Jewish leaders are ready to respond the same way they responded to Jesus. They want to condemn the disciples to death, but a Pharisee among them (Gamaliel) offers a wise warning. He proposes a cause-and-effect test. He makes the point that if God is truly behind what is happening, it can’t be stopped, but if the disciples’ teaching is the work of man, it will come to nothing. He is the only one that recognises that continued persecution is just adding fuel to the fire. He says
So in the present case I tell you, keep away from these men and let them alone, for if this plan or this undertaking is of man, it will fail; but if it is of God, you will not be able to overthrow them. You might even be found opposing God!”
Despite what Gamaliel said the rest of the chief priests couldn’t resist giving the disciples a beating before ramming home their message that the disciples should stop preaching and then letting them go but the disciples simply rejoiced that they were counted worthy to experience dishonour for the name of Jesus.
In other words going back to the story of Alice –the chief priest only succeeded in adding fuel to the flames they were trying to extinguish – they didn’t know how to snuff out this new take on religion – the Word of God in all its truth – all they could do was try and hide it by piling more hatred on it which just served to show how bad the old ways were and this made the disciples all the more eager and determined to share the good news. In their eagerness to hide the truth the pharisees simply increased the speed at which the fire grew.
It is of course true that in the years since Christ many have tried to stifle the message of Jesus. There are some countries where even today it is illegal to simply profess a belief in Jesus – where owning a bible can bring arrest. And yet the truth is there smouldering away such that people in those countries still become Christian and the message still is spread. Mere men and mens laws can not extinguish Gods word.
The question for us today is how we make the fire of the message burn bright in Totley? We don’t have that persecution that fans the flames for us – we don’t have the frightened chief priests trying to put the fire out for us and we don’t have to rejoice in suffering like the disciples did, like people in countries do where Christianity is banned. We have it easy so we have to add fuel to the fire ourselves.
All we have to do is tell people about Jesus – that is all the disciples did and the more agro they got for it the louder they got. Each time they were arrested they just went back to the temple and started preaching again – they didn’t give up, they just got a bit louder each time.
Acts 5 ends with these words
Day after day, in the temple courts and from house to house, they never stopped teaching and proclaiming the good news that Jesus is the Messiah.
That is all we have to do. I started this by saying that I felt a little flat after Holy week and that it was back to normal. But I shouldn’t look at it like that – I may have even implied that our AGM might be a little tedious, and its not hard to get frustrated with some of the more procedural aspects of our church sometimes… but that is not the way to look at it. Perhaps the best way to describe today is that its not back to normal, its back to work – back to building the church here in Totley, back to creating the spark that hopefully turns into a great burning fire for Jesus in this place.
The Lord’s Prayer
As our Saviour taught us, so we pray
Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name, your kingdom come, your will be done,
on earth as in heaven.
Give us today our daily bread.
Forgive us our sins
as we forgive those who sin against us. Lead us not into temptation
but deliver us from evil.
For the kingdom, the power,
and the glory are yours
now and for ever.
A Sending Out Prayer
God beyond our understanding, yet always with us, we offer to you:
our minds to think of your words and your promises;
our hearts to show your love for the world;
our imagination to dream big for your kingdom;
our hands to work for abetter world,
and all of our lives to love and serve you always.
May the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ,
the love of God;
and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all forever more. Amen.
The community of S17 has drawn together during these unusual times in a very special way. This is reflected in the great work of the S17 COVID-19 Community Support group.
The group aims to support those in the community who may be in need and to provide a support network to the S17 community at this time.
“If there are needy people in our community let’s ensure we help them out with things like bringing shopping to their door.”