East Lothian Foodbank – Christmas Appeal

Jingle Bag Shopping List

Tinned Goods:

Chicken/Turkey
Potatoes
Carrot
Sweetcorn
Peas
Custard

Packet Goods:

Potatoes
Gravy
Bread Sauce
Stuffing
Custard

Christmas Treats:

Christmas Pudding
Mince Pies
Biscuits
Chocolates
Selection Packs

Please feel free to bring along one or two items each week and we will collect them all together before taking them to the Foodbank. Heavier parcels or larger items can be collected from your home.

Sunday 17th October 2021

Reading: Acts 16:16-34

Reflection

A lot has happened since last week’s reading and the Council at Jerusalem. The apostles and elders have written to the new churches in Antioch, Syria and Cilicia. The letter was hand delivered by Judas and Silas so that these new Christians would know how seriously the Jerusalem church was taking these matters.

The letter tells them they should not be overly burdened but asks they avoid the things that were mentioned last week. On receipt of the messengers and the reading of the letter they were glad and it was received as a letter of encouragement. The messengers spoke further words of encouragement and strengthened the new Christians before leaving to head home again they too were offered the blessing of peace. Paul and Barnabas remained in Antioch, continuing to teach and preach the word of the Lord.

The plans they had differed and they had a parting of the ways here. Barnabas set sail for Cyprus along with Mark. Paul set off with Silas continuing to teach through Syria and Cilicia before setting sail once more, arriving at the port of Neapolis before travelling to the city of Philippi. This is where we re-join their journey. As was his way Paul always looked for a major centre, trading routes or busy ports with people from every corner of their world passing through. It was a real clever strategy as his message of Jesus could spread with great haste from these bustling places, much quicker than if he himself tried to visit all the places represented at these major amalgams of the Roman and Greek worlds.

I mentioned last week how by this time there may have been more Gentile believers than Jewish. We notice here even that is surpassed in Philippi. We know Paul would always head for the synagogue and preached there first before moving out. He cannot do that here as there is not one in the city. The significance of this cannot be lost. According to Jewish law there had to be at least ten Jewish men living in a place before a Synagogue could be established there. So much is happening here it is hard to focus on the right things. People are still worshipping the one true God but not in a building, they are doing so down by the riverside. The first European who is named is a female by the name of Lydia. The second person is also a female but this time a demon possessed young girl. Not only are we moving away from a predominantly Jewish base to a Gentile one for the new church. Not only are we moving away from the word being heard within a building called a Synagogue but now it is heard down on the river bank. Not only are we hearing of men who are joining the swelling ranks and leading the new church forward but now the first two encounters within Europe are with females.

Paul & Silas in Prison recap

The word spreads ever further as it reaches Europe. They enter through the port of Neapolis before journeying to the city of Philippi. Our first European Christian and her household are baptised. Paul and Silas are thrown into a dark dungeon. They are not downtrodden but in the night they worship God in song and prayer. Suddenly their chains fall off and they are free. The prison guard is terrified by the light and then when darkness falls again he fears his prisoners are off. Knowing this will be the end of him he intends to take his own life. Paul reassures him that is not the case and the guard expresses his desire to know their God and to be saved. He and his household are baptised. The story does not quite end where our reading finished. Upon their release it became known that Paul and Silas were Roman citizens and therefore illegal according to Roman Law for one of their citizens to be beaten. If this news gets out to their superiors it will be the beaters who will be beaten themselves. Last week it was all about the rules and if you know them or not. Here is a reminder. Even when you do know the rules you also have to be sure you are administering them properly. The jailing of Paul and Silas was a very public affair showing how the magistrates were in control. Once the truth is out and the tables are turned Paul demands an equally public apology on their release from prison. Paul and Silas return to the house of Lydia were believers have gathered to see them on their way. We know from his letter to the Philippians that this small church continued to grow as many more came to faith in Christ.

Sunday 10th October 2021

Reading: Acts 15:1-21

Reflection

Everybody knows you need to have rules. If you are playing a board game you need rules. (remember them before computers) I’m sure we know somebody who the first thing they do when a board game comes out the box is grab the rules. Then an entire conversation enfolds as each person suggests their interpretations of the rules. Which ones really need to be followed and which ones can be bent a wee bit to allow a faster more fun-filled game. But oh no, Mr or Mrs ‘that’s no in the rules, ye cannae dae that’ just will not relax. If you are playing a sport you need rules. I have often been at a football match when someone close by seems to know all the rules better than the officials do. Notice I said seems to know because what is often nearer the truth is they haven’t got a clue and they just want everything to go their way. While Mr or Mrs ‘it’s ma baw, its ma rules and you’re not playing’ just will not relax. If you are a member of any organisation you need rules. There will always be somebody who wants to push things to the very limit, sometimes that’s good because it brings change sometimes it just causes the other members to snap. And then of course in all of these situations and more you will always find the barrack room lawyer who loves to impress with their endless wealth of who really cares knowledge. Mr or Mrs ‘law 67 section15, subsection 22g states……’ Whatever you are doing in life you need rules. We can all do different things with them. We can let them shape who we are or who we are can shape what the rules are going to be. We can stick absolutely rigidly to them so that others out with our group don’t know them and therefore they cannot become one of us or we can fashion them in such a way that allows others to get to know our ways and take them on board as their own. Having said all of that of course does not advocate a free for all but allows room for grace to filter in. We see this happening in our readings this morning. Men are sent from the Jewish Christian church in Jerusalem. They have come to Christianity but they also believe they must hold fast to their Jewish code of Law. They felt that the gentiles would make this new way impure and to a certain extend they were right as the gentile’s outward behaviour suggested this was the case. Their purpose was to convince these gentile Christians they must follow the Jewish Law. By the time they arrived at Antioch they had gone even further teaching the people the customs of Moses. Stating that they would have to live by the Jewish Law completely or they would not be saved. Those who were teaching these things came mostly from the Pharisees, the strictest party among the Jewish people, and of course Paul himself was a Pharisee. Peter reminds them of his experience with Cornelius and his family who were non-Jewish. Peter learned then that God was not making distinctions between Jew and Gentile.

He told them not to place a heavy yoke around the new believer’s neck, a yoke indeed which their own people had difficulty carrying over the generations. The Laws were one thing but it was all the add on little rules that had been introduced that Jewish people had to obey, these were the things that made for a heavy yoke and apart from the Pharisees most people agreed it was too heavy for them to carry. Jesus himself, in Matthew’s Gospel, made reference to all of this when he said, ‘They tie up heavy loads and put them on men’s shoulders.’ Peter found the yoke of Jesus to be light and not heavy. Why then enforce all these rules upon people when as Peter says even the Jews cannot be saved simply by obeying their rules. It is grace through faith that saves. Through the grace of Jesus Christ Jew and Gentile alike will be saved. Now it was Paul and Barnabas who took the floor and gave examples of times when the power of the Holy Spirit was at work showing that God was accepting of all who came to faith in Christ. The final speaker is James. His judgement is that it is not necessary for Gentile Christians to obey the entire Jewish Law. There is no other requirement for salvation he says. The one requirement is faith in Jesus Christ. Let no man add any other. James asks three things of the Gentiles. This he seen as a way forward in which they could remain in fellowship with one another. The things he refers to are the most offensive to Jewish believers and by abstaining from them the Gentiles would be avoiding unnecessary offence. He wishes them to abstain freely and there not to be any compulsion into doing so. They would abstain from these things not as a way of winning salvation for themselves but to show love for their Jewish brothers and sisters in Christ. The Jewish brothers and sisters could show that same love in return by not being over demanding of theses Gentiles Christians. His closing remarks are a reminder that the law would not be forgotten. Gentile Christians could go and hear it and respect it. But the law was not necessary for obtaining salvation, for either Jew or Gentile. A fascinating glimpse into the politics of the early church. Ten years had passed since his first experience around this issue. By the time we get to the council of Jerusalem there may well have been more gentile believers than Jewish ones. The compromise is an attempt at removing barriers. It is a gentle reminder to all of us. God will move beyond the obstacles we put in the way of people coming to faith and knowing him.

Sunday 3rd October 2021

1st Reading: Acts 14:8-20


Reflection


Remember in Matthew’s Gospel when Jesus is sending out the twelve disciples part of his instruction was, ‘If anyone will not welcome you or listen to your words, shake the dust off your feet when you leave that home or town.’ Toward the end of last week’s reading it said ‘so they shook the dust from their feet in protest against them and went to Iconium.’ When Paul and Barnabas left Pisidian Antioch they arrive next at Iconium. We are not going to visit Iconium this morning but make reference to it only in passing. As I said last week it is important to mention these different places as the picture builds up of the early church and the work that was done. The ill will is growing, not only between Jew and Gentile against the apostles but there were others who sided with the Apostles. Paul and Barnabas continued in their work despite the minds of those coming to faith being poisoned and the people in the city becoming divided.

Those who opposed Paul and Barnabas included Jew and Gentile among their number and this group plotted to stone them. As we see in this morning’s reading those who support them want to proclaim them as gods. The cities mentioned during this journey are in a province of the Roman Empire called Galatia situated in what we now know as the central part of turkey. We have the letter written by Paul to the Galatians and it is these new churches in these cities we are hearing of now who were the recipients of that letter. New churches established by Barnabas and Paul on their first missionary journey.

2nd Reading Acts 14:21-28


Reflection


Do you remember the sitcom ‘Allo, Allo’ set in WWII France? One of the catchphrases that has remained with us since the programme ended allows us to practise our poor French accent, ‘listen carefully, I will say this only once.’ It was usually said to make sure the hearer is paying particular attention. I don’t know about you but when Ingrid and I go out for a run in the car and we have no particular destination in mind we often make a deliberate choice to alter the return route so that we are not going the same roads and may see something different on that part of the journey.

Our second reading reminds us as Barnabas and Paul make their way back to Antioch that the journey of discipleship is continuous. As we embark on this journey it may not always be so straightforward that we only need to visit a place or a situation only once. We may need to be paying particular attention as things in life have a habit of passing us by only once. We may need to be paying particular attention to certain places or situations that we have found ourselves in that they need to be revisited either for our own reassurance or to build up the people we made that part of our journey of discipleship with. It is on this return leg of the journey Barnabas and Paul revisit the places they stopped at on the outward journey. They have made disciples in every city they have visited en-route. Here they take that opportunity, not always afforded us in life, of revisiting or retracing, if you like, the steps they had taken earlier.

The places they return to were not always welcoming places as the two men had been expelled from Pisidian Antioch, Iconium and Lystra. But their determination to fulfil the mission is strong enough that they go back with the intention of building up the people they had placed as elders on their journey through. Once we establish people in the service of the kingdom it is good and proper that we don’t simply leave them to get on with things but let them know they are supported in their work. Remember these elders were themselves new to the faith. There were no old heads with years of experience everybody was in the same boat. It is here that we discover how all of this can come about. Not only in those first fledgling churches but right up to and including the church of today. We rely on the guiding of the Holy Spirit and the power of that Spirit to build us up that we become secure in the faith. Paul and Barnabas had been sent by the church in Antioch. Their mission journey had taken one year. Now on their return to their home church they give an account, a report, of all that has happened during that time and in those places. We do well to notice how this reporting is recorded. It was the work of God through them that achieved all these things. It was God who opened up the door to the Gentiles. We do well to notice this also, the Christians in Antioch had been praying for Paul and Barnabas. The missional work these men went on was also the work of all the Christians. A reminder that we do not all need to be doing the same thing but collectively by sticking to our strengths, gifts or talents and allowing our brothers and sisters in Christ to do likewise much more fruitful work can be achieved.

We do well never to underestimate the power of the Holy Spirit through prayerful Christian men and women. This first missionary journey was well served through the prayers of the church and the answering of these prayers by God.

Sunday 26th September 2021

Reading: Acts 13:42-42

Reflection


I’m afraid this morning’s reflection may resemble a very badly constructed quiz show. I am going to offer up quite a few questions and make some comments around them but I am not going to offer any answers.


That is going to be your job. Only you can arrive at the answers that speak into your life’s experience.
Hopefully as they say in some of those quiz shows. It will all become clear as we go along. Before we get to that let me fill in some of the blanks that have happened since our reading last week. The persecution has continued in Antioch James the brother of John, both disciples of Jesus, who we met a few times journeying through the Gospel of Mark at the beginning of this year. James has been put to death by the sword.

King Herod who was the grandson of the king Herod who reigned at the time of Jesus seen that his actions pleased the people so he intended the same fate for Peter but Passover was underway. Peter’s execution had to be delayed but he was imprisoned. If you want to get more detail surrounding this can I invite you to read the previous chapter, chapter twelve, and there you can read of Peter’s miraculous escape from prison.

The mission journey continues as Barnabas and Saul are landed in Cyprus and from there they set sail again finally landing at today’s destination, Pisidian Antioch. Antioch from where they set off is in Syria this new place is in southern Turkey. Before they set off and during their time in Cyprus the connection, Saul known as Paul, was always made. Notice the subtle difference from here on Saul is simply referred to as Paul. As was the case elsewhere they preached in the synagogue.

We join them today as they are leaving but even before they have left the invitation is extended for them to return and speak more about Jesus and this new faith. It is at this next Sabbath we join the story. Their message is a very powerful one and the subject matter has long been a hot topic for theologians over the generations. The whole matter of salvation and what it means. No matter what those who held power in the synagogue thought or did Barnabas and Paul were determined to preach to the gentiles the good news of salvation in Christ and they quote from the great prophet Isaiah in support of their work. The word spread as people told their neighbours the good news of salvation. This new found faith could not be hidden away.

This leads me into the quiz or more accurately the question show. What does salvation mean? Who decides all of this? Who is salvation for? There are many other words that fit within the inclusive word salvation. Saved, justified, redeemed, sanctified, righteous, glorified. We see that salvation is in itself a journey. It relates to the past tense when we have been saved, justified, redeemed we have in essence been given a new nature. It relates to the present tense as we are being saved. We are being made holy as the Holy Spirit sanctifies. It relates to the future tense when will be saved and our bodies will be glorified. What does salvation mean? It means so much more than even the most eloquent words we have can explain.

Who decides all of this? This is a question that is answered very differently by people. There are those who would say it is God alone who chooses who will be saved. Humanity does not have a say because we are trapped in our sinful nature. God calls his chosen people and when called they cannot refuse. In this understanding according to God’s will not everyone will receive salvation. Others would say we do have a part in the process if and when we believe and repent. This understanding has God calling us first but we still can resist that calling and by doing so resisting salvation itself. In this understanding God calls us from our sinful ways and frees us that we would have free choice to choose God or not.

The final thought would be that God chooses us for salvation. If we do not resist, then we are saved if we do resist we are not. God will not force us either way but such is the depth of our sinful nature we would never choose God. This understanding leads us to we cannot choose salvation but after God has called us we are free to reject his call thus choosing damnation. Who decides all of this, three possible outcomes. We have no choice in salvation or damnation. We have a choice in both. We cannot choose salvation ourselves but we can choose damnation if we resist God’s call. I have deliberately left the last question until now. Who is salvation for? The conclusions of what has gone before us this morning may well be needed before this question can even begin to be unpicked therefore, I leave it with you and your own thoughts to go about working it out between God and yourself. I hope this has not been a badly constructed quiz show but rather a meaningful place for each of us to journey forward with Christ that may lead us to a deeper level in our relationship with our Saviour, the one who offers Salvation. These questions are not easy for some people, and some might say not straightforward. Others might feel as though, for them, they have it all sorted out in their head. Wherever each of us are on that journey we need that grace of God to allow others the space and the time to consider these meaningful things concerning our faith. May God lead us in all our discernment of his will.

Sunday 19th September 2021

Reading Acts 11:19-30

Reflection

This morning we arrive at the city of Antioch. The third largest city in the Western World at that time behind Rome and Alexandria in Egypt. This is the place, you may remember, I mentioned a couple of weeks ago that the followers of this new church first became known as Christians. They stopped calling themselves Jews or Greeks or Gentiles as they took on the name of Christ but as we will discover this morning they still had a wee journey to go on before that would happen. In his letter to the church in Galatia Paul mentions Antioch as the place where he opposed Peter and they entered into some confrontation that was centred around this whole Jewish Gentile question.

It really was quite deep rooted and had the capacity to tear the church apart. We read more about all of this in Acts at chapter fifteen, the council at Jerusalem. Last week I was speaking about how there are times when things we thought we had dealt with from the past can come the fore of our minds and we are challenged on how we respond to them.

Peter still had issues surrounding the laws with which he had grown up and how this new faith could release him from being tied to them. We met two characters; Peter the conservative minded Jew Saul/Paul the persecutor turned missionary. Here we arrive in Antioch and we read of several things that are happening. On the positive side the message is continuing to be spread across the land but on the negative side some are preaching only to the Jews and others only to the Gentiles. We have not moved on. It would appear that changing the mind set has always been a bit of a timely journey.

The church has this one message for all people but we cannot find the way in which all can receive together at the same time and all of this comes about because of adherence to the old ways, the old laws, the things that keep us apart and mark us out as being different. But even in all of this, I suppose you could even say despite our best efforts, we are told that great numbers come to the Lord. As news reaches Jerusalem where the Apostles watched over the affairs of these new fledgling churches another well respected man called Barnabas was sent out to find out about these Gentiles who are coming to the faith. Quite a turn around when only a couple of weeks ago we were reading about a man called Saul who also set out from Jerusalem but his charge was somewhat different as he was intent on persecution.

Then the dramatic events lead Barnabas to send for this Saul in Tarsus, how ironic this man, the great persecutor, is the one now chosen to go to Antioch and help to put their church in order. Another gift Saul appears to have blessed with is the ability to be quite a phenomenal fund raiser. People are giving their gifts according to their ability. This is something Paul would introduce in other churches such as in Corinth. What an amazing turnabout in affairs.

After working in the city for a year Saul the persecutor and Barnabas the Jewish Church envoy are united as one to get the gifts to the church in Jerusalem to help them in fight against the impending famine. There are some great life lessons in all of this. Over the summer we have watched the Euro Championships, the Olympics and the Paralympics. So many different people from so many different countries and cultures across our world. The one common bond is the love of sport and in particular whatever sport they are involved in. All of them will have arrived having gone through different training regimes, different philosophies on how things ought to be done that they could achieve the maximum impact on their chosen field and in the end come away with the best possible results. In some of the venues there were no crowds, no audience to witness first hand all their efforts.

At the Olympics only those directly involved were allowed to be present. At the football it was a bit different. But some of venues were filled with all neutral supporters who only wanted a good match regardless of the outcome. Some of the venues were partisan atmospheres with only one side having any supporters and then there were times when the crowd was divided between the two teams. There we have it. There is evidence in sport. There is evidence within the church. There is evidence across the whole of life’s experience. If we decide that we are going to create and maintain barriers then nothing good will ever come out of that. If we decide on the other hand to recognise and celebrate our differences and lay aside those difference which separate us then was can work together for the good of the whole body knowing that with God all things are possible.

Sunday 12th September 2021

Reading Acts 10:9-23

Reflection

This morning’s reading is set in Caesarea a large Mediterranean coastal city. This is the city that Philip travelled to in chapter eight. Living in the city was a Roman centurion called Cornelius. Although he was not a Jewish man he did believe in the one God of Israel. Along with his family they worshiped and prayed to God. Here we meet the first Gentile or non-Jewish Christian. Further evidence that the teaching and preaching of the word was travelling across the land and being received by Jew and Gentile alike. We pick up the story as Cornelius, having had a vision from God, has sent men to find Peter in Joppa, further up the coast. This morning Peter is the focus of our attention. Coming from a rather conservative Jewish stance, Peter is given an understanding from God about the mission he wishes him to carry out to the Gentiles. I find this morning’s interactions fascinating. Last week we had the experience of Saul on the Damascus Road and that almost instantaneous change for him.

This morning we meet up again with Peter who we know travelled everywhere with Jesus and knew his ministry well. This is the man who in Matthew’s gospel Jesus said would be the rock. ‘And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it.’ This is the man who in John’s gospel denied Jesus three times on the night of his arrest but was later reinstated when Jesus asked him three times, ‘Peter, do you truly love me?’ And each time Peter replied yes Jesus said, ‘feed my lambs’ ‘take care of my sheep’ ‘feed my sheep’. If those who met with Saul following his conversion to Paul where sceptical about things then how much more certain people were of Peter as he had been with Jesus throughout and was known as one of his followers. This is where I find the passage we read this morning quite revealing. Peter is on a mission to change people’s understanding of Jesus of Nazareth and to preach to them that he is indeed the Messiah for whom they had been waiting. He was and is the Son of God.

Cornelius, a man who had been changed, wants to learn more even though his behaviour may well bring about the wrath of the authorities. Peter, a man who had been changed, wants to teach people more. A simple enough coming together you would think. But Jews and Gentiles were not allowed to mix together.

Now we discover something that we may all be able to relate to. Even if we happy to discuss and consider change there just might be something way back in our minds that will become a stumbling block when it is brought to the fore and we discover that we may not have been changed as fully as we thought when we were going about our business unchallenged. All of us have and are experiencing change. My Crossingpoint piece in the Courier last week spoke about what used to be normal and now this new normal is coming into our lives. We can all say, ‘yes we’ll need to learn to live differently’ But who is calling the shots? Who is making the decisions that determine this new normal under which we will all be asked to live our lives? In our churches there is much talk about change and how all of this is going to take shape. Peter reveals to us that change never comes easily. During his time on the rooftop he holds fast to his traditions and laws regarding food. Some animals are unclean, they are impure. Then the voice that tells him there is nothing made clean by God that is impure. He holds on to the laws about Jew and Gentile meeting, all-in-all he remains firmly within the laws with which he was brought up. When the men sent by Cornelius arrive Peter now finds himself in a position to go with them the next morning but only after that reassurance from the holy Spirit. But when we follow Peter on to his arrival in Caesarea we find his opening statement is a reminder to those in the house how it is illegal in his laws for Jews and gentiles to meet together. And isn’t that true with most of us? What we have always accepted as normal, remains exactly that, until the day when it is challenged and we have to think our way through something that might well result in us having to change.

During Peter’s visit the Holy Spirit fell on all who heard his message. Those who had journeyed with Peter were amazed that God’s Holy Spirit could come to rest on gentiles. All of this leads Peter to ask can anyone keep these people from being baptised with water? They have received the Spirit just as we have. He ordered that they be baptised in the name of Jesus. The conversion of Cornelius and those who were him that day came about not through any Hellenistic conversation and explanation. It was not brought about by any instruction given through laws to obey. This coming to faith was brought about by the Holy Spirit working through Peter and his teaching of Jesus. I find great comfort in all of this in as much as Peter, even having journeyed so extensively and physically with Jesus, having witnessed first-hand with his own eyes the work of Jesus and having been told directly that he will be the rock upon which the church will be built still needs from time to time that visit from the Holy Spirit, that reassurance when something comes to the fore of his mind that would keep him in his old ways, telling him it is okay to let go and for the journey to continue there will be something in all of us, I’m sure, that may be lying dormant somewhere in the depths of our faith journey that will require God to give us that nudge, that voice, that revelation that comforts us enough to trust in Him and to let go for the sake of moving on.  

Sunday 5th September 2021

Reading Acts 9:1-22

Reflection

As we turn the pages of the Book of the Acts of the Apostles we see something that I believe is truly remarkable. It appears to me the greater the persecution became the greater the determination of those who wished to spread the good news, which may be expected, but the remarkable thing I am reading is this growing persecution in many ways is adding to the numbers who are believing and coming to this new faith in their thousands. In the previous chapter to our reading this morning Philip is spreading the word in Samaria. This morning we move onto the counter action of the spreading of the teaching that is the spreading of the persecution. Ingrid and I have stood at the Damascus Gate on the walls of the city of Jerusalem. By the end of his journey on the road where Ingrid and I were standing, Saul will become Paul.

It is quite an experience to get your head around that from that very spot Saul set out to bring about the downfall of this new church movement. In the early days it was given a few names. This morning we hear them described in verse 2 as members of the way. Elsewhere they are called ‘brothers’ or ‘all the believers’ or even ‘the Nazarene sect’. It is in the city of Antioch they are first called Christians. Roman writers often using this in a derisive manner, once again underscoring the hostility with which these first believers were greeted and a very early example of institutionalised bigotry. Paul’s mission is to silence these people who were, according to him, making the word of God impure. Along the way he became utterly convinced that Jesus was the Messiah spoken of in those scriptures to which he held dear. Of course not everybody accepted this new Paul and his understanding of Jesus from that moment without question. In fact, for a while, Paul will find himself in some sort of no-man’s land as both sides question him knowing the reputation he once had as an aggressive persecutor of the church. As his multiple imprisonments, involvement in riots and many beatings suffered will testify to.

Our encounter with him this morning, although very much life changing, is quite fleeting. We will not meet with him again until a few chapters further on. I wonder if during this early period in the history of the church it is beginning to experience something that was many years later, in many other walks of life, coined the well-used saying. ‘Attack is the best form of defence.’ We could debate that old saying and the merits of it for the rest of today and beyond. No doubt we would be split in our conclusions. And in some scenarios there is fantastic irony as the saying itself can bring about an attack on those who disagree with it. Just as the spreading of the word and the teaching of Jesus spread out from Jerusalem through his Apostles and Disciples so too did the persecution of the church as we discover this morning when we interrupt a rather ordinary journey from Jerusalem to Damascus that took on an extraordinary twist which resulted in a major life change for one man and a huge change of mind-set to the early church and those from out with who witnessed its growth and the conviction of those who chose to believe and follow the ways of Christ. Paul did not confine himself to preaching only to gentiles. Whatever city he found himself in he firstly visited the synagogue and preached there before going out to preach to the others. Once again this morning we read about the laying on of hands this time by Ananias a devout observer of the Jewish law and highly respected by all who lived there. He had converted to Christianity and had this vision of God telling him to go and visit Saul. By the close of this visit and the laying on of hands not only was Saul’s sight restored to him but his entire life had been given a new start and a fresh way of being through the Holy Spirit.

I used a modern day saying earlier that may or may not fit the bill of the early history of the church and I am going to close in similar fashion. ‘That’s one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind.’ The reality is this. All of that came into focus nearly two thousand years after the original steps of Saul now Paul began to alter the path of history forever. There is another Neil Armstrong quote that would sit well with Paul in his new way of understanding things. And I wonder would it sit well with us too this morning. ‘Mystery creates wonder and wonder is the basis of man’s desire to understand.’ This brings us to the closing verse of our reading. Saul grew more and more powerful proving that Jesus is the Christ. He quoted from their own scriptures and as a Jew himself he declared ‘I have seen the risen Christ with my own eyes.’ The mystery that is God, revealed through the son who is God and empowered by the Holy Spirit who is God. Wherever our Damascus Road experienced happened, however long that journey took for each of us as individuals, we thank God for the revelation of his love to us and to the world.

Sunday 29th August 2021

Reading Acts 6:1-15

Reflection

As we continue through the Acts of the Apostles we reach a massive point in the journey of those who chose to live and die for Christ. All followers are now called disciples and the original twelve have become apostles, the word coming from Greek with a general meaning of messenger. Could this be the first disagreement in the church? As people from different cultures begin the hear the good news and come to faith some felt they were not being treated the same as the rest. The widows from their community were not receiving the same food share that was handed out to the needy in the church by the apostles on a daily basis. Prior to this many had sold their possessions and given the money to the apostles to help care for those in need which included the widows. The apostles are engaged in the ministry of Jesus and cannot be overseeing every aspect of life for the people so new leaders are required to assist with the wider mission work. Even though the numbers coming to faith are growing each day it is a reflection on how we can allow temptation to slip that wedge in between believers. There is a good lesson here for us today. It is okay to admit you cannot do everything. It is okay to focus on your skillset and allow others to put theirs to work for the kingdom. The seven men chosen were all Greek speaking Jews. One of the men chosen was called Stephen and the men of one of the synagogues in Jerusalem started to oppose him. Unable to challenge his wisdom or his speaking through the spirit they went behind his back accusing him falsely of things. They got others to bear false witness saying Stephen had blasphemed against Moses. Akin to saying he had blasphemed against the law and therefore in turn against God. Very similar to the false charges brought against Jesus. Much of the following chapter is Stephen’s speech in reply to these false charges. We will pick the story up towards the end of the chapter but for the moment I want to close with the words from J B Philips who spent fourteen years translating the New testament, he reflected ‘the sick are not merely prayed about, they are healed. Human nature is changed. The fresh air of heaven blows gustily through these pages. The early church lived dangerously. The lasting excitement which follows the reading of the book is this: The thing works.’

Reading Acts ch7vs54 –ch8vs3

Reflection

Stephen has delivered his speech before the Sanhedrin and the earlier part would have pleased those who heard him as he gave an overview of history from a Jewish perspective, naming many of their forefathers in his delivery. That was off course until he turns the tables on them and begins his attack. He compares their treatment of Jesus with earlier generation’s treatment and rejection of messengers sent from God. He questions their temple worship. He tells them the most-high does not live in houses made by men as he quotes the prophet, ‘heaven is my throne; the earth is my footstool. What kind of house will you build for me? Says the Lord.’ By the end of the speech Stephen is calling them murderers and traitors. We re-join the scene at this point. Yet again the Sanhedrin act in an illegal manner. Without gaining permission from the Roman rulers they proceed to killing Stephen. As before with Christ, nothing deserving of death had been spoken, but he was taken to the place where criminals were stoned and their execution began. Remember the incident when Jesus came across a potential stoning and he said the one without sin should cast the first stone. It was those who testified against a criminal who cast such a stone but it was the Sanhedrin in its entirety who bore witness against Stephen so they were all allowed to cast the first stone. And we meet this young man Saul whom we met last week. Stephen becomes the first Christian to be killed for the sake of Christ. Then just as we know ourselves. If you have never done something before you can be a bit hesitant but once that threshold has been broken the next, then the next, and the subsequent numbers thereafter become easier and easier to do. So it was from this point onwards the persecution had moved to a new level and future killings will become easier and easier for the leaders to commit. From this point onwards the believers began to scatter and the gospel and the teaching of it went with them, spreading just as Jesus had told them it would. Saul recognised the potential power that this new church could generate and decided that it had to be stamped out once and for all. He was now very much opposed to his old teacher Gamaliel whom we met last week. Saul had men and women arrested and throwing them into prison he set about his work of destroying the church with great enthusiasm and conviction. Something which makes what happens to him later so much more remarkable.

Sunday 22nd August 2021

Reading: Acts 5:25-42

Reflection

And so we continue upon our journey. The early church continues to grow in number and in strength. Word is spreading across Jerusalem and as we have already discovered the Jewish leaders are finding themselves in a very difficult situation. Luke records the incredible growth of the church no less than a dozen times in his writings. All of this at a time when there was no formal organisation. The people who came to faith did so by sharing the good news of Christ and the prompting of the Holy Spirit. There was no Institutional Church but there was growth. There were no buildings to be called a church but the word was being shared and heard. People were proclaiming Christ and claiming him as their Saviour. The setting this week is very similar to that of last week. The apostles have been healing many more people. People were bringing their sick out onto the streets, placing them on beds and mats, in the hope of a healing for them.

The word is now spreading beyond Jerusalem as we are told that crowds from other towns were bringing their sick and forming part of the crowds. As a result of this the powers that be became jealous and we read another account of Apostles being arrested and thrown in jail. An angel came to the men in the night and released them from captivity telling them to go to those temple courts and tell the people the full message of this new life. Meanwhile the Sanhedrin is convened and the prisoners are sent for only for the report to come back to them that even though the prison was fully locked, with the guards there on duty, the prisoners were not inside. That is where we pick up the story this morning as the report is made that the arrested men are free and are in the temple courts teaching the people. The Sanhedrin postpone any further, harsher treatment of them realising that for now they cannot make martyrs out of these men. But persecution of the early church is very much front and centre of things as they stand. The time will come when people will die because of their faith in Christ. In the whole discussion that takes place accusations and counteraccusations are fired by both sides. You have continued the teaching in the name of Jesus after being directly told to stop doing so. You are making us the guilty ones in front of all the people for putting him to death. And the response comes back. We have no option but to put the work of God above the instruction of man. It was you who nailed him to the tree and it was God who raised Jesus from the dead.

The apostles repeat as they did in an earlier chapter that they were eye witnesses to all of this. Just as it was with Jesus the Jewish leaders thoughts were now turning to how do we get rid of this situation for good? Their answer just as it was with Jesus was simple they must be put to death. But remember even within the Sanhedrin there were opposite parties who thought different things. And it on this I want to focus. It would appear that surrounding the time of Jesus life there were several uprisings and revolutions against the Roman Empire led by armed men. There were lives lost and the people simply drifted back to whatever they did with their lives. The man who speaks out almost in defence of the apostles is Gamaliel. A highly respected man in all Jewish quarters. He was a leader of the Pharisees. One of his students was a man very well known to us, his name was Saul before his conversion on the road to Damascus. He was a man very much part of the Pharisees movement and very much opposed to this new teaching. A man who will be renamed Paul and become one of the great disciples of Christ. Gamaliel’s reasoning hits home. If, as it was in the past, all of this new teaching is coming from false prophets and from man alone then it will die away of its own accord. If it comes from God nothing and nobody will ever stop it and just as the apostles did last week he issues a very stark warning to the Sanhedrin. If you continue with your intention to argue with them and even kill them it will be God that you are fighting with. To save face a lesser punishment of flogging is dished out as a way of letting the people know the Sanhedrin has dealt with these revolutionaries. But notice one small detail that comes in on the tail end. Once again we see that hidden agenda as the Apostles are warned by the Sanhedrin again not to do these things in the name of Jesus. To those on the outside the matter has been dealt with but to those on the inside moves are still underway to bring these men and their teaching to a permanent stop. The leaders knew fine well it was all too late. These Apostles were not going to listen to them, they were going to continue preaching and healing and serving in the name of Jesus because they had arrived at that point in their journey of faith and discipleship that they could do no other thing. Even though they would most definitely have been reflecting on much of Jesus teaching when he was with them. Teaching such as, ‘you will be handed over and flogged’ ‘if they persecute me, they will persecute you’ They will, I am sure, have also reflected on the promises that Jesus left with them. Promises such as, ‘blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven.’ From this point on the good news will begin to spread further from Jerusalem into Samaria. From this point on the persecution will be cranked up a notch and taken to a new level. The Sanhedrin will no longer postpone the harsher treatment of those who follow Christ. The persecution of the early church is very much front and centre. From next week onwards people will die because of their faith.