Sunday, 28 May 2017

Easter 7 : Upheld by grace




“Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?”
The disciples are standing on a mountainside with Jesus, forty days after his resurrection. They seem to know that this is a significant moment, a moment when everything is going to change, but they don’t know how. The question they ask reveals just how much they haven’t understood, because they get it just about as wrong as they could possibly do.
In fact, there are four big misunderstandings in that one short question, and they are misunderstandings that I think we often share.

 “Is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?”
The first thing they get wrong is the pronoun. “Is this the time when YOU will restore…?” When Jesus ascends into heaven they’ll discover that this is, in fact, the moment when THEY will have to start doing the work.  “You will be my witnesses…” says Jesus to them.  “What are you doing looking up into heaven?” the angels ask them. There is work to do and they’re going to be the ones to do it. If they don’t do it, no one will.  

The second thing they get wrong is that word “restore”.  “Restore” means put back. They are hoping to reclaim some golden age of the past, but what God is calling them to is something utterly different. They’ll find themselves formed into new communities which cross all the boundaries they’re used to, communities where men and women, slave and free, Jew and gentile are equal in status and dignity. All the assumptions and patterns of life they’ve grown up with will be challenged .

Linked to that mistake about restoration is a similar misunderstanding about the word “kingdom”.  Of course, Jesus has talked a lot about the kingdom during his ministry, but it is a very different kingdom from the one they seem to have in mind. The fact that they use the word “restore” shows that.  The high point in Jewish history had been in the time of the kingdoms of David and Solomon. Their kingdoms had been won and sustained by military strength. David and Solomon had been wealthy and politically powerful, respected by other nations around them. But the kingdom Jesus had talked about was one which there would be no earthly glory. He’d sided with the weak and the outcast. He’d said that the least and last would be greatest and first in his kingdom. He’d lived and died as a servant, not a despot. A crown of thorns was the only crown he’d ever worn and a cross had been his only throne. His kingdom wouldn’t be like anything they’d seen or heard of before.

Their fourth and final mistake was the word “Israel”. The new kingdom that they were being called to build wasn’t going to be something just for their nation, for their people, but for the whole world. It would be good news for their enemies as well as  their friends. Even the Romans who’d oppressed them, who’d killed Jesus, would be welcome to be part of it. Just a few chapters later we find a Roman centurion, Cornelius, filled with the Spirit, becoming part of the early church with all his household.  It was a real challenge for these Jewish disciples to get their heads around this, to realise that God wasn’t the property of Israel, but a God who was at home in every nation, every heart.

So, four mistakes in one short question.  That’s quite an achievement! The disciples know that something is coming, that God is on the move, but they’ve misunderstood completely what that will mean. And the true picture will be one that is rather more challenging than the one they’d anticipated.

They knew that this moment mattered, that it was a moment of change, but they thought it would be a military or political change, led by their own Jewish superhero commander-in-chief, Jesus. They thought it would bring back the glory days of  David and Solomon, and that all the world would bow to Israel. What they are actually being called to is a difficult and sometimes dangerous task, which won’t bring them any kind of wealth or power for themselves at all. No wonder they stand staring up into heaven. They must think there’s been some mistake.

I expect we can sympathise with them. Wouldn’t we all like a hero to come along and do all the work for us, to sort out the troubles in the world and in our own lives as if by magic?  We look at the challenges we face , personally or politically - and this week they have been all too obvious – and we long for someone to swoop down from the sky and rescue us. But that’s not how it works. It wasn’t then, and it isn’t now. It is we who are called to action, we who must respond, but like those first disciples I expect most us don’t feel up to the task.

I’m reminded of a poem about the Ascension by Denise Levertov. I’ve put it on your pew leaflets. It’s called “Suspended” and it’s about that moment when Jesus ascends to heaven. Levertov imagines trying to hold onto “God’s garment”.

I had grasped God's garment in the void
but my hand slipped
on the rich silk of it.
The 'everlasting arms' my sister liked to remember
must have upheld my leaden weight
from falling, even so,
for though I claw at empty air and feel
nothing, no embrace,
I have not plummeted.
                                                  

Denise Levertov (1923–1997)

“I have not plummeted,” she says. Sometimes it feels as if we are doomed to failure, sure to fall, pulled down by things that are just too heavy for us to cope with, but, she says, somehow we realise that God’s grace is holding us up. He doesn’t do the work for us, but he gives us strength to face the challenge. All our instincts tell us to despair, but by God’s grace we manage to hope, not perfectly, not all the time, but enough for us to realise that something miraculous is happening, something beyond our ability to understand

That’s what I think Levertov means when she says “I have not plummeted.”  We might not always cope elegantly in times of trouble. It might not be comfortable. But I have seen, again and again, people finding the strength to stagger on until they arrive at the borders of the new world, the new kingdom, into which God’s calling us.

I look at the people of Manchester, coming together to sing and to pray and to reassert common values of love and inclusion, in the face of all that has happened to them, and I marvel. I look at the many people who endure unimaginable hardships in Syria and yet keep working for peace and justice there, or those who, in refugee camps, start schools which try, against all the odds, to give children a taste of normal life and I marvel. I look at those who struggle to treat the wounded on the front lines of the world without the drugs and equipment that modern medicine takes for granted, and I marvel.  I look at all those who hang onto hope, who resist evil, who work for a better world in the teeth of opposition and discouragement and I marvel. I look at those who face personal challenges of illness and sorrow that ought to break them and yet don’t, people I come across daily in my work, and I marvel at them too. Faith, hope and love somehow abide, even in the most terrible of circumstances.

At this point, you may, of course, be saying, “that’s all very well, but I’m right in the middle of a crisis now, and I’m not at all sure that there are any everlasting arms holding me up. How can I find that sense of assurance?”

It’s a reasonable question, and perhaps it is the last few verses of our first reading which help us to answer them. What do the disciples do when they realise they are going to have to do this work themselves, in charge of a mission for which they don’t feel at all equipped?

We’re told two things. First, they come together, all together. Not just the eleven named disciples, but the women who’ve followed Jesus and supported him, and Mary and his brothers, the whole motley assortment.  Faithful or doubting, with all their differing opinions, this rather random group of people gathered together. It’s tempting, in times of trouble, to withdraw, perhaps assuming that everyone else has it all sorted out, and it’s just us who is struggling, but it is rarely so. And each of us is God’s gift to all the rest of us. Those “everlasting arms” which uphold us are often known in the flesh and blood arms of our brothers and sisters in Christ.

The second thing the disciples do is to devote themselves to prayer, just as we are going to be doing next Friday and Saturday.  They don’t just sit around feeling daunted or worried. They pray. They tell it like it is to God. “We want to build your kingdom, God, but we don’t know what we’re doing. Show us how. Guide us. Give us strength.” And it’s not just a one-off prayer. They devote themselves to it. They keep going. They make it a habit to tell God that they can’t do what he is calling them to. And that means that ten days later, when he sends his Spirit on them, in that same upper room, they’re wide open to receive it. And the wind of the Spirit blows them out across the world. And the love of the Spirit draws them into that community that seemed so unlikely. And the power of the Spirit strengthens them to do what seemed impossible.

Prayer isn’t an optional extra for the super-spiritual. It is a survival strategy for all of us. It doesn’t matter whether our prayers are full of fancy words, or have no words at all. It doesn’t matter whether they are full of faith and hope, or full of doubt and anger. It is the act of opening ourselves up to God that matters. When we do that, we give up the idea that we have to sort ourselves out, and that means God can act in us and through us.

“I have not plummeted,” said Denise Levertov. May we, this week and every week, in prayer together, discover God’s miraculous grace, which holds us up and leads us on until we get to the place we need to be.

Amen 

Friday, 26 May 2017

Ascension Day: Battered and scarred


Happy Christmas!
You probably think I have had a bit of a brain fade, but there is a sense in which today is really the end of the season of Christmas, not of Easter.
At Christmas we celebrate God coming down to us, in the shape of a baby, vulnerable and helpless, as all babies are, pure and innocent, as all babies are. God comes to us as a clean slate, a new beginning , someone as yet untouched by the world into which he has been born, just as all babies are. But he is born into a maelstrom of hardship, sin and hatred, as all babies are too. His hands will grow calloused in the carpenter’s workshop. His feet will ache from walking the roads of Galilee. And in the end he will hang battered and bloody, on the cross. Even when he rises from death, his body will still bear the scars the world has inflicted on him.
And that is the body which, according to the stories we hear on Ascension Day, rises into heaven. Not the cherubic baby, with silky smooth skin and tiny, perfect, sea-shell ears, but the body marked by the hardships of life and death.
It was shocking – offensive even – to the people of Jesus’ time to imagine that God could be found in the form of a crucified man. Crucifixion was a disgrace, a sign of God’s rejection. Jewish law forbade those who were diseased or disabled entry into the Temple. Mangled bodies were unholy, a sign of God’s rejection, a sign of failure. Gentile Greek thought idealised physical beauty too – there was nothing unusual about this equation between physical and moral beauty. The Greeks even used the same word – kalos – to mean beautiful and morally good; think of all those ancient sculptures which celebrated the perfect body.  Morality and appearance were inextricably linked. That’s something we’ve never entirely shaken off, but at the time of Jesus it was almost unquestioned. How, then,  could Jesus possibly be God’s Messiah?
That’s why the early church set so much store by Ascension Day, why it mattered so much to them. It was the proof to them that you could be battered, mangled, suffering, a complete failure in the world’s eyes, and yet be loved and honoured by God. And that’s why it seems to me that this day is the completion of Christmas, the completion of  Christ’s work of incarnation. At Christmas, Christ came down to us, to be where we are. But on Ascension Day, he took us back with him into heaven, wounds, scars and all. He took into heaven the mess of the world, a world where young men grow up so twisted inside that they think it is a good idea to blow up children and young people enjoying a pop concert. He presented that world to his Father, the world which had torn him apart, whose scars he bore, and his Father didn’t turn away in disgust. Instead, in the beautiful words of Revelation 21, he turned towards it – towards us - and turns towards us still, wiping every tear from our eyes, and making all things new.
It doesn’t matter that today we know that heaven isn’t in the sky, that the “up” and “down” of this story doesn’t really work for us anymore. The message is the same. We are where God is, just as we are. God is where we are, just as God is. There’s no barrier, no wall, nothing that divides us. There’s nothing that we can do, or can have done to us, which keeps us apart from God. We don’t have to hide what is broken or ugly in us. We don’t have to reject what is broken or ugly in others. That means that we are set free to love and to forgive ourselves and others too. In the face of sin and evil such as we have seen this week, we are set free to cry “Lord, have mercy,” instead of “Lord, take vengeance”.
Just as he was, scarred and battered, Jesus was taken into the heart of his Father on Ascension Day. Just as we are, scarred and battered – scarring and battering -we are taken into his heart today too, so that he can make all things new in us.
Amen


Monday, 22 May 2017

Easter 6: God's children. Breathing Space Communion sermon



“I will not leave you orphaned” says Jesus in today’s Gospel reading. I wonder what images come to your mind when you hear the word “orphan”. Perhaps Little Orphan Annie, or a character from Charles Dickens – his stories are full of orphans like Oliver Twist or Pip from Great Expectations. Orphans are common in Victorian novels, partly because there were so many of them, in an age when parents died of many things they would now easily survive. I’ve looked back into my family tree, and found my great-great grandfather in a workhouse at the age of 5 with his older sister. His mother had died of cholera, and I've never been able to trace what happened to the father. At 13, he was working as a farm labourer, then became a navvy, and died in his 40’s of pneumonia after an all-too-short life of hardship which would seem unimaginable to most of us. What chance did he have?

Or perhaps when you hear the word “orphan” you think of the many orphans there are around the world now in places where life is still fragile and perilous. Sub-Saharan Africa has a huge population of orphans, many of whom have lost parents to AIDS. 11 million children under the age of 15 in Sub-Saharan Africa have lost one or both parents to the disease; some are being cared for by their wider family, others have no family to support them.

The word “orphan” is a powerful and somewhat terrifying one. It is every parent’s worst nightmare to think of their children having to navigate the world alone, and every small child’s worst nightmare to find themselves alone without a friendly adult to help them.

But of course Jesus isn't speaking to small children when he speaks those words we heard today. He’s speaking to his disciples on the night before he dies. They are grown adults, burly fishermen who've sailed boats through gales, tax-collectors who've had to deal with the Roman political and military machine, women who have lived on the margins of their societies, and had to develop quick wits and courage. Yet he recognises that when they lose him, first to crucifixion and then as he ascends to his Father in heaven, they will feel lost, bereft, uncertain. They will have to make their own decisions, take on the work he has called them to. And it won’t be easy. They will face persecution. They will feel orphaned.

The fact is that, however old we are, however much we’ve been through, we all come to points in our lives when we realise we can’t face life on our own, when we look around for someone who knows what they are doing or who at least looks as if they do. We may be grown up chronologically, but there’s a small child in each of us, looking for help and guidance.

“I will not leave you orphaned” says Jesus. What does he mean? The rest of the reading makes it clear. Through his Holy Spirit, he say, they will feel his presence in an even deeper way than the way they have until then. Up until now, they have had to physically be with him to see him, hear him and feel him. But the Spirit of God will be within them, like the sap that rises through the grapevine, like the blood that circulates through their veins, closer than their own heartbeat. And the Spirit will be known too in their community – the Spirit isn’t some personal possession, but will be in the love that draws them to each other.

In our first reading, from the book of Acts, St Paul stands on a well-known debating place in Athens, the centre of philosophical learning in the ancient world. Athens was home to people of every philosophy, every religion and none. He had walked there past a bewildering array of shrines to this god and that goddess, and had even found one to “the unknown god” – a way of hedging your bets just in case you’d forgotten one. The shrines were mute testaments to the human longing to reach out beyond ourselves, to find support and care in a vast and sometimes lonely universe. But Paul is confident as he talks to these people that he has found the source of the love that is really needed. “We are God’s offspring” he says, his own children, known, loved and held in his safe embrace, children of a God who loved us so much that he came among us himself, served us and died for us.

“I will not leave you orphaned”. Whatever we face, we do not face it alone, but surrounded by love that nothing can destroy.


Amen 

Sunday, 14 May 2017

In My Father's House...

Audio version here

John 14.1-14, Acts 7.55-60 & 1 Peter 2.2-10


‘In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places’ we heard Jesus say. My immediate thought was ‘well there’s certainly no shortage of people to fill these spaces. Every day we hear about housing problems, overcrowded households, and unaffordable properties, and even then there are still not enough of them.


Today’s gospel reading follows the foot washing of the disciples by Jesus and his parting speech to them at the Last Supper. The disciples are clearly confused by what he is saying and I’m sure many us of would have been too without the hindsight we now enjoy.


Jesus wasn’t speaking in the context of a housing crisis he was explaining that there will be a place with God for everyone and that the disciples need not fear their imminent separation from him as they would be together again in time to come. He didn’t go on to say of course some are en-suite, some have balconies or a sunny courtyard, and room service will only be for the few. No it’s an equal place with God regardless of whether you currently share a single room or live in a mansion here on earth.


It’s a beautiful demonstration of God’s wild generosity that he effectively flings the doors wide open despite the fact that there was no room at the inn for him when Mary and Joseph sought shelter for Christ’s birth.


Of course for some people the thought of a place with God which offers comfort, love, peace and security sounds so much better than what they have now that the temptation could be to miss out the earthly bit and go direct. It’s no joke when you think of people facing starvation, war, abuse or homelessness who have lost all hope of a better life.


In Acts we heard that Stephen is focussed on his heavenly vision of Jesus beside God as he is stoned to death with Paul, then Saul, watching the process approvingly.


Rabbi Lionel Blue who died late last year recorded his own obituary. (That is pre-recorded!) In it he said that he never really thought of this world as home, more like a departure lounge where you make a few friends and then you’re off. For that reason it was always the people that mattered most.


Peter’s letter is for a diverse group of people in the early stages of the church who are starting to realise that Jesus isn’t going to be taking them to dwell with God just yet. The impact of this is that they will need to find meaningful existence on this earth for longer than they may have planned for and this would include facing up to persecution because of their faith.


We all know that lack of a home and lack of shelter can arise for a multitude of reasons and will usually result in further difficulties including poor personal safety, health problems and unemployment to name but a few.


It’s all very well looking forward to a future with God after this life but in the words of Christian Aid who are collecting this week ‘we believe in life before death’, as well as after. Christian Aid week is highlighting the plight of refugees.


They cite the example of one family forced to flee their home in Afghanistan. After crossing to Greece in a dinghy they were told they would live in a tent for 10 days but are still there 6 months later. No fit dwelling place for a family with so many problems.


Some homeless people build temporary shelters from whatever materials they can collect, some refugees live in mass produced modular buildings which meet basic requirements but are not meant for long term residence, many have nothing. When you actually take time to think about it in the context of God’s time we all live in temporary shelters whether they are made of cardboard or crafted from brick and stone. We can only enjoy their shelter as long as we live and in the longer term no material lasts for ever. Even though we may find it hard to imagine now, one day the places we call home will crumble away or be demolished to make way for something else. Next time you’re at a gathering you could always try shifting the terminology a little when the house price bores start comparing notes, you’ll probably get a strange look if you say ‘Oh darling your temporary shelter must have gone up a lot in value over the past few years.’


Space for all is what God offers and if his kingdom is to come on earth there’s no doubt that he wants us to help those trying to find it. When we have baptism’s here Anne will usually say ‘meet your new family’ and I’m sure some will look at us all and think what a motley crew you lot are. Young and old, different nationalities, different backgrounds but all brought together as a family in God.


Last week I was between meetings in central London and needed a quiet half an hour to do some reading. I decided to sit in the area next to the crypt café under St Martin-in-the-Fields on the corner of Trafalgar Square. Partly due to the work of the church the surrounding area is always busy with people who have no home. When I’d finished reading I took the steps which lead directly into the church to pray for a short while. None of pews were occupied so I knelt in the middle and started praying. As I did so I heard loud snoring and saw movement all around the back of the church, people with no home found shelter here, bare feet poked out from under a blanket, I could work out that there were people from many nationalities around me. It was one of those moments, more focused than usual because of the setting, that I was reminded that these people are my family, my brothers and sisters, a real motley crew to be sure. Of course I’m not so naïve to think that it would be easy to live alongside these people day by day but I do hope to spend eternity with them and when you have such a moment of clarity indifference to their plight is not a possibility.


As we look around us at God’s people we may all appear a little different but we are united in our common humanity and God’s love for us. However dishevelled, no matter what our past failures may be when we start to see each other as family, family that we want to help and share with, God is delighted and through him we are collectively transformed into something majestic. This is what Peter is trying to convey to this rag tag bunch of Christians, their potential to come together as a temple of worship with Jesus as their cornerstone. We know that God loves the world and its people and he has shown us that there is no limit to this. So as long as we are on this earth the way we live our lives gives us an opportunity to respond to his love in the way we relate to each other regardless of our differences.


Jesus was challenging thinking about what his Father’s house really meant. You will be familiar with the time when he overturned the tables of the money changers in the temple telling them’ stop making my Father’s house a market place’. He wants them to cease thinking that the temple is the only place they can meet with God and expand their horizons to consider the possibilities of a new relationship that gives access to God’s house via Jesus.


If we want to be at home with God we may find our security in different ways. It’s a sense of home available to everyone, particularly those who have not been lucky enough to have a safe peaceful home in their lives. When Thomas asks ‘how can we know the way’, the way to God, Jesus replies with those famous words ‘I am the way, the truth and the life.’ Effectively he is telling Thomas that if you want to know what God is like, he is like me, and if you want a room in his mansion you will find it through me. If we want to be at home with God we need to be at home with Jesus and we don’t have to wait until we depart this world to move in.


Of course physical shelter is a necessity but thinking of home as a strong loving relationship can also be helpful. In the Old Testament book of Proverbs we find the words ‘by wisdom a house was built, through understanding it is established, through knowledge its rooms are filled with rare and beautiful treasures’. We can be at home in God. Home is where unconditional love lives, it’s the same place the prodigal son headed for when he came to his senses but for us there is no need to go anywhere because Jesus came to us with God’s message ‘welcome home.’


Kevin Bright
13th May 2017

Sunday, 7 May 2017

Easter 4: Called by God



Today is Vocations’ Sunday, the Sunday in the Church’s year when we are asked especially to pray for all those who feel called by God to ministry of one sort or another, to pray that they will answer that call. It feels very appropriate to me to be thinking about that, today because I will be away for most of next week serving on a Bishops’ Advisory Panel, helping with the process of selecting those who want to be ordained as priests and deacons. It’s an intensive process, for the candidates and advisers, so do hold us all in your prayers. 

But it’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking that vocation is only about those who get ordained, as Nicky will be in September, and I was 23 years ago, and those who are licensed Readers, like Kevin, those who get up in the pulpit and preach. Maybe we might we might expand it a bit to include Sunday School teachers like Babs, or those who lead home groups. Or perhaps we might go further than that and think of Servers and musicians and choir members and PCC members and Churchwardens and all those who enable the church to run smoothly – they may have a sense of calling to those roles too. Perhaps we might think outside the church, about people called to be missionaries, or those who work in the caring professions or in education – doctors and nurses and teachers. All of these things have been traditionally described as vocations, things people feel called to do, not just for the money, but because they have an intrinsic value.

But even if we included all those people, we would still be missing the point, because the Bible tells us that every one of us is called by God, called to spread the light we have found, called to use our unique gifts for the good of others. God made us as we are. He knows us as we are. He calls us as we are. Every one of us has a vocation.

At confirmation when the Bishop lays hands on the heads of those making their profession of faith, he says “God has called you by name and made you his own.” It’s a powerful statement.  “God has called you by name.”  The world may call us all sorts of names, good or bad. People might call us “Mum” or “Dad” or “Boss” or “Champion”, or they might call us “useless” or “unworthy” or “a waste of space”, but God knows who we really are. He calls us by our true names. He calls us “beloved” because he made us to be loved. He calls us “blessing” because he made us to bless the world.  He has called us, whoever we are, whatever our strengths and weaknesses, whatever our age and ability. And note that he has called us – not he will call us or he might call us if we are good enough. He has called us. It’s already happened. From the moment we are created, we are also called.

That’s what vocation is really about. It’s about hearing our true names, understanding our true identities and living them out.

The word vocation comes from the Latin “vocare” – to call. We get “vocal” and “voice” from it. And right from the beginning in the Bible we find God calling.  

It starts with God’s voice calling creation into being. God calls out into the darkness, “Let there be light” and there is light.
Just a few chapters later, he calls out to Adam and Eve, “where are you?” calling them to him, but finds, to his sadness, that they are hiding because they’ve learned fear from a lying snake. But God’s voice carries on calling out. He calls out to Abraham, an elderly man who thinks his life is over, “Go from your native land and become the father of a multitude” he tells him.
He calls out to Moses, from a burning bush, with the reassurance that he has heard and seen what his people are going through as slaves in Egypt, and that Moses will be the one to lead them to freedom.
He calls out to the prophets, with words of comfort and words of challenge for the times they live in.
He calls out to Mary, through an angel, telling her that she’s to bear a son.
He calls out to fishermen and tax collectors, through Jesus, and to women and children, lepers and outcasts -  to anyone who will hear him - with the words “come and follow me” “let your light shine” “love one another as I have loved you.”

God is a God who calls and keeps calling. He calls everyone – there is no one who is left out.

God calls, but hearing that call is another matter. We may struggle even to hear that true name God knows us by, but it can be even more difficult to hear what God wants us to do, which path he wants us to follow amidst the clamour of all the other voices we her.  In the Gospel reading Jesus didn’t just say “He calls his own sheep by name.” He went on, “and leads them out”. We are called to go places with God. But where, and when, and how? That’s the puzzle.

In that famous Psalm we heard today, Psalm 23, it all sounds quite easy. God leads the Psalmist beside the still waters, he guides him in the right pathways. When the road is tough, God walks beside him, right to the journey’s end, where the table is spread and the cup overflows. Well, that might have been the Psalmist’s experience, at least in hindsight, but mine, and I expect yours, is often rather different. We stumble along, vaguely hoping we’re going in the right direction, but find ourselves up blind alleys or going round and round in circles.

How can we help ourselves hear God’s call, to be aware of God’s guiding presence?

I was talking to someone the other day who reminded me of the Celtic Church’s belief in what are called “thin places”, places where we feel naturally close to God, where the barriers between earth and heaven are dissolved. These might be ancient holy sites like Lindisfarne or Iona, or places of great natural beauty. Churches can be “thin places” too, places where we naturally seek God. But it seems to me that the key to hearing God’s voice day to day, sensing that nudge that shifts us this way or that in the direction he wants us to go, is that we need to make our own “thin places”. The first reading we heard today might give us a clue how we can do that.

It’s from the book of Acts, and it’s probably a rather idealised picture, but it’s an attempt to describe what the author thought a healthy Christian community looked like, and he singled out some interesting features.

What do we find out if we look at it?

He tells us that the first Christians “devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers”. They came together, in other words - regularly, faithfully, expectantly. They valued each other’s gifts. They knew that they needed each other and could learn something of God from each other. You can be a Christian on your own, but often we hear God’s voice in the voices of our brothers and sisters, so if we don’t come together we miss that.

“They had all things in common” he goes on. “They would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need.”  That’s a tough one, and Christians through the ages have always struggled with it, but at the very least, it tells us that service of others, giving of ourselves, is important if we want to discover God at work among us. In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus says that we will meet him in those who are hungry and thirsty (Matthew 25). God speaks to us in those who ask for help. If we don’t listen to their voices, we won’t hear his.

“They spent much time together in the Temple,” he says. The Temple was the traditional place of worship, the place where the Jewish people believed they’d meet God. The early Christians didn’t reject their Jewish heritage. They treasured it, as Jesus had done. So they kept on showing up in the place where they knew God might speak to them, letting the words of their ancient scriptures sink into them. them. We do ourselves a favour if we let the words of the Bible, the prayers we say and the hymns we sing become familiar. God often speaks to us through them, and they are always there for us when we can’t come up with words of our own. Tradition matters if we want a healthy faith.

But we are also told that they “broke bread at home”. They took those ancient traditions and words into their everyday experience, made sense of them for themselves, found in them new resonances in the light of the death and resurrection of Jesus. And because of that, the traditions, and the people who kept them were transformed. They “ate their bread with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of the people. “

Through all these practices, by paying attention to the daily routines of prayer, service and being together, they became attuned to God’s voice, aware of his presence. They made “thin places” for themselves in their everyday lives, places where they knew they’d find God. Many of them had hard lives. Many of them were poor. Many of them were slaves. Many of them had to pay a high price for their faith, losing family and friends. Some of them endured squalid deaths, just as Jesus had done. But because they’d made these “thin places,” places worn thin by the holy habits they’d built up they were able to hear God’s voice, and answer his call, even in the midst of trouble.


God still speaks. I know I’ll be reminded of that this week as I listen to the stories of those who feel called to ordained ministry, as I have done when I’ve served on these panels before,  but the truth is that all of us are called. We’re called by the voice of the one who longs to transform and heal us, and send us out to others in loving service. So I pray that we will all make for ourselves  “thin places” in our lives so we can hear the voice that calls us loud and clear.  Amen 


If you are interested in finding out more about authorised ministry of one kind or another (lay or ordained) within the C of E, these links might help. Whatever you feel called to - inside or outside the church - I'm always happy to chat to you about it.