Sunday, May 26, 2019

Sermon: Acts 1: 1-11 Worldwide Witnesses

If you’ve been binge-watching a series on Netflix or NowTV, or tuning in week by week on terrestial television, then you might be familiar with how each new episode begins. It’ll have something like: ‘Previously on ...’ It reminds you of what has already happened, and maybe highlighting the particular details you’ll need to grasp this new episode. Although, if you’ve been binge-watching several episodes in a row, then you don’t really need the reminder!

This morning we are beginning a new series in Acts. Over the next couple of months we’re going to see how the early church started and developed and grew. But very quickly we realise that this isn’t a standalone book; this isn’t an entirely new series. Rather, Acts is like season 2 of an ongoing story. And, just like the TV series, our author begins with a ‘Previously on...’ reminder.

‘In my former book, Theophilus, I wrote about all that Jesus began to do and to teach until the day he was taken up to heaven, after giving instructions through the Holy Spirit to the apostles he had chosen.’ (1-2)

Previously, in the story of Jesus... Now, maybe you already know who wrote Acts, but if not, then it was Dr Luke. Back on page 1025 (keep a finger in Acts 1!), we read the introduction to Luke, where he also mentions Theophilus, and sets out to write an orderly account of the things that have been fulfilled among us - by interviewing the eye-witnesses and servants of the word. So Acts isn’t a new story, rather, it’s the continuation of the story of Luke’s gospel.

And it’s that continuation that Luke emphasises in verse 1. ‘In my former book, I wrote about all that Jesus began to do and to teach...’ What is he saying with that phrase? He’s not saying that book 1 was all about what Jesus did, and book 2 is about what someone else then did. Rather, if Luke’s gospel was all that Jesus began to do and to teach, then Acts is all about what Jesus continued to do and to teach!

The heading in our Bible just says ‘Acts.’ In some versions it will say ‘The Acts of the Apostles.’ Some people try to say that it should be ‘The Acts of the Holy Spirit.’ But I think Luke is helping us to see that it is really ‘The Acts of the Lord Jesus.’ But that raises a question.

You see, we’ve already read verses 1-2, and already we’ve heard that Jesus was taken up to heaven on a certain day. That’s what we find in the last part of the reading from verse 9 onwards. ‘He was taken up before their very eyes, and a cloud hid him from their sight.’ Over the forty days between Easter and the Ascension, Jesus had been with his disciples. We have some of the details of some of those meetings in the last chapters of Matthew, Luke and John, as well as the time when over 500 people saw Jesus (mentioned by Paul in 1 Cor 15:6). But this event in Acts 1 is the final meeting, the conclusion to these physical encounters with Jesus, as he ascends to the right hand of the Father.

So what’s the question that raises? Well, if Acts is all about what Jesus continues to do and to teach, how does that work if Jesus isn’t on the earth any more? And the answer also comes in verse 2. Jesus gave ‘instructions through the Holy Spirit to the apostles he had chosen.’

The work of Jesus, the continuation of all he began to do and to teach is to be carried out through the Holy Spirit by the apostles Jesus had chosen. When you think about that, you might be thinking, you’re doing what, Jesus? These are the guys who just over a month ago all ran away when you were in danger. One of them denied that he even knew you. And you’re going to leave them to get on with the work?

But remember that he has instructed them through the Holy Spirit. Earlier we mentioned the ‘previously on...’ feature of TV programmes. Often in movies you get the kind of highlight reel showing how a character undergoes a training regime (like Rocky). Verses 3-5 are that kind of montage.

‘After his suffering, he showed himself to these men and gave many convincing proofs that he was alive. He appeared to them over a period of forty days and spoke about the kingdom of God. On one occasion, while he was eating with them, he gave them this command: “Do not leave Jerusalem, but wait for the gift my Father promised. For John baptised with water, but in a few days you will be baptised with the Holy Spirit.”’ (3-5)

So how did Jesus get them ready for the task ahead of them? He showed, he spoke, and he promised the Spirit. He showed them that he was alive, with many convincing proofs. He’s making sure that they are sure that he really is alive. Next, he spoke about the kingdom of God. He’s teaching them about his kingdom, and how people need to acknowledge him as king. And finally, he promised the Holy Spirit. John had baptised with water, but Jesus would baptise them with the Holy Spirit.

The apostles have been prepared by Jesus; the forty days are now up. Their training has been completed. It’s the day that Jesus is about the ascend to heaven, to take his place at the Father’s right hand. And yet, the disciples still don’t seem quite ready! They still don’t really seem to get it! Do you see what they ask in verse 6:

‘So when they met together, they asked him, “Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?”’

What are they asking? Are you going to restore the kingdom to Israel right now? Are you going to become king right here right now in Jerusalem? They’re looking back to the glory days of King David and King Solomon. But those days were lost through exile to Babylon, and now Roman occupation. They know that Jesus is the Son of David, the King, and so they expect Jesus to kick out the Romans and become king in Jerusalem. Is that going to happen now, now that you’ve done all the stuff about dying on the cross and rising to new life? Are you going to be king, and us your government ministers, your advisors, your cabinet?

But their focus is too narrow. Their vision is too small. Jesus had spoken about the kingdom of God, and all they can think about is the kingdom in Israel. One day the king will reign in Jerusalem, but it wasn’t going to be that day. They needed to work to the Father’s timetable, not their own; to the Father’s plans and not their own:

‘It is not for you to know the times or dates the Father has set by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.’ (7-8)

Their focus was just on Jerusalem, but Jesus’ focus is much wider. Do you see his focus? Jerusalem, yes, but also Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth. It’s like a stone being dropped in a pond. The ripples reach farther and farther. And that is Jesus’ plan, the ongoing work of Jesus, for the apostles to go out, not just where they are in Jerusalem; not just next door in Judea and Samaria, but to the ends of the earth.

That is the ongoing work of Jesus. And that is the list of contents for this book of Acts. In this chunk, we’ll only really focus on Jerusalem, but we’ll come back in due course to see how the apostles fulfil the whole of Jesus’ plan through the book of Acts.

And what will they do when they go to all those places? ‘You will be my witnesses.’ A witness speaks of what they have seen and heard. And that’s what the apostles are sent to do. They are to share what they have seen and heard of the Lord Jesus. (That’s why there’s the emphasis on his showing that he is alive, and speaking about the kingdom).

Now, just for a moment, put yourself in the sandals of these apostles. How do you feel about what you’ve heard? You’re going to be witnesses to the ends of the earth. There aren’t any jet planes or mobile phones. There isn’t even any coffee to give you your get up and go. How would you feel? Daunted? Overwhelmed?

Remember that Jesus showed that he was alive, and spoke about the kingdom. But what was the third thing he focused on in the training montage? (v5) The promise of the Holy Spirit. ‘You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses...’ They wouldn’t be able to do it by themselves. That’s why, when Jesus is ascended, they don’t start checking out Expedia or their local friendly travel agent to get a move on. They wait for the promise; they wait for the power that only comes by the Holy Spirit.

With those last words, Jesus is taken up. The work of Jesus is continuing, by the apostles he has chosen, who are waiting for the power of the Holy Spirit. Acts will show us how they fulfilled that mission. And here we are, in what, to them, would have been the ends of the earth. And the gospel has come to us. We are called to join in with their mission, of making Jesus known, and calling people to bow before king Jesus, but we don’t do it by ourselves - we need the power of the Holy Spirit. Who is it we need to tell, in Richhill, and Ulster and Ireland, and the ends of the earth?

The work of Jesus is continuing as he reigns in heaven. But one day he will return, bodily, to receive the honour we heard last week - every knee bowing and every tongue confessing he is Lord. Are you in? Are you ready to join in the Acts of the Lord Jesus, to be worldwide witnesses?

This sermon was preached in St Matthew's Church, Richhill on Sunday morning 26th May 2019.

Sunday, May 12, 2019

Sermon: 3 John Walking in the Truth

There comes a time in a parent’s life which brings a whole mix of emotions. It’s the moment when their child has grown up, and they’re moving out, setting out on their own adventure. It might happen when they move away to university; maybe they’ve got married, or they have finally decided they want their own space.

Perhaps you’ve been through this, either as the parent or the child. Or maybe you know this day is coming closer, and you’re wondering how you’ll cope. How do you feel in that moment, as the door closes, and they’re gone? There’s a pick n mix range of feelings - joy, that they’ve finally moved out? Sadness, that they’re no longer your little baby? Worry about how they’ll manage?

The first time I was away from home was when I went on our P7 school trip to York. For weeks beforehand, I was nervous about being away from home, and anxious about travel sickness. I had mum and dad very worried. But when I was away, I was having so much fun that I forgot to ring home during the week!

Mums and dads naturally have these kinds of concerns for their children. And those who are in leadership in the church have the same concerns for their spiritual children. Will they keep on going in the way they have learned? Will they continue to walk with Jesus even if we don’t see them?

That concern is driving the letter that we’re looking at today. As you can see, it’s a short letter, it fits on about half a page. And at the top of the page, verse 1, we see who the letter is from and who it’s to. ‘The elder, to my dear friend Gaius, whom I love in the truth.’

The elder is John, the author of the gospels, and the other two letters of John, and also Revelation. That word elder can mean a church elder - the Greek word is presbyter. But it also means an older person.

And John is writing to Gaius, someone he knows, and loves, and cares for. Gaius is one of his spiritual children, someone John has told the gospel, and nurtured in the faith, and discipled. Do you see how he puts it? ‘To my dear friend Gaius, whom I love in the truth.’ Gaius is his dear friend, he cares for him. We’ll see that that same phrase, ‘dear friend’ provides the structure for the whole book - as it’s repeated at key points in the book.

John also loves him in the truth - he’s a friend in the gospel; they have been brought together because they both belong to Jesus.

This is a personal letter, but not a private letter. It’s a letter for us to hear, and to read over Gaius’ shoulder, because it teaches us about what it looks like to live as a Christian. And the phrase that John uses to describe the Christian life is to be ‘walking in the truth.’

In verses 2-4, we see why John is writing this letter. And he begins with a prayer for his dear friend: ‘Dear friend, I pray that you may enjoy good health and that all may go well with you, even as your soul is getting along well.’ John knows that Gaius’ soul is getting along well - it is well with his soul, and he prays that the rest of him will be just as well - that he will enjoy physical health, just as he is enjoying spiritual health.

But that raises the question - how does John know that it is well with Gaius’ soul? That’s what we see in the next verse, and it’s why John writes his letter. ‘It gave me great joy to have some brothers come and tell about your faithfulness to the truth and how you continue to walk in the truth.’ (3)

John has heard about Gaius from some of the brothers - other Christians. They have told him about how Gaius is faithful to the truth - to the good news that John taught him in the gospel - and how Gaius continues to walk in the truth. John is delighted to hear the news - it gave him great joy.

You see, in those days, you couldn’t just ring up someone for a chat. You couldn’t log in to Facebook to see what they’ve been up to. You couldn’t skype them. So since John and Gaius have been separated, John hasn’t heard about how Gaius is getting on. It took these brothers to come to tell him, to give him the joy of hearing that Gaius is still walking in the truth.

So when I was in York, having a great time, and my parents were at home worried - it turns out they weren’t that worried, because they were hearing news and updates from other parents, and they knew everything was ok.

John is the spiritual elder of Gaius, his spiritual father, and so John is concerned for Gaius - how will he get on with the faith he was taught. And all of us can be spiritual parents of others, concerned for them, praying for them, helping them. The sign that I’m getting old is that my first spiritual children were the young people I taught in Sunday School and Youth Fellowship - and now I hear of them getting married, and some going on with the Lord.

John is delighted to hear of how Gaius is getting on - ‘I have no greater joy than to hear that my children are walking in the truth.’ (4)

So who will rejoice when they hear that you are walking in the truth - who are your spiritual parents, the people who care for you? And who will you rejoice over when you hear that they are walking in the truth - who are your spiritual children, the people you care for?

At the start of verse 5 we see another ‘Dear friend’ - and in this section, we see what exactly it was that Gaius was doing that showed he was walking in the truth. Gaius was showing love and hospitality to the brothers, to fellow Christians.

‘Dear friend, you are faithful in what you are doing for the brothers, even though they are strangers to you. They have told the church about your love. You will do well to send them on their way in a manner worthy of God.’ (5-6)

These brothers are gospel workers, Christians who are travelling around, sharing the good news of Jesus. Even though Gaius doesn’t know them, he welcomes them in, and loves them in practical ways. He has put them up, fed them, and cared for them.

These men have went out, for the sake of the Name - in order to preach the name of Jesus, to give him honour. And because they are Christian missionaries, the pagans aren’t going to help them or support them, so it’s up to Christians to support Christian ministry and mission. And John shows that when he do that, when we support missionaries in practical ways, we are sharing in their work: ‘We ought therefore to show hospitality to such men so that we may work together for the truth.’ (8)

To walk in the truth is to be seen in our love and hospitality, so that we work together for the truth. We may not be able to go on mission, but we can give to mission. So what are the signs that it is well with your soul, that you are walking in the truth, and working for the truth?

The last ‘Dear friend’ comes a bit further down in verse 11. It sits in between the descriptions of two men known to Gaius; it marks the divide between them, and highlights the differences in the two men. ‘Dear friend, do not imitate what is evil but what is good. Anyone who does what is good is from God. Anyone who does what is evil has not seen God.’ (11)

As Gaius continues to walk in the truth, he is given two possible alternatives, two possible role models. But he’s not to imitate the evil, he should only imitate the good.

Diotrephes, he’s the negative example. Don’t be like Diotrephes. Why? He loves to be first, to assert himself, to be seen, to be considered most important. He has rejected John’s authority, and rejected John’s letter to the church. He wants nothing to do with John. But John is going to come along some day, and he’ll deal with the problems. He’ll call attention to the way D gossips maliciously - how he’s not walking in the truth; and the way that D refuses to welcome the brothers (what Gaius had been doing), and even stops the people who do want to welcome them, and even puts them out of the church. Do you see how he’s the opposite of walking in the truth, and showing the hospitality and love of the gospel?

So don’t be like Diotrephes. But do be like Demetrius. ‘He is well spoken of by everyone - and even by the truth itself. We also speak well of him, and you know that our testimony is true.’ (12) John is concerned for his dear friend - the danger is that he will stop walking in the truth; that he will follow the wrong role model.

John wants Gaius to continue walking in the truth - by showing love and hospitality, by sharing in working for the truth, and by imitating what is good. That’s what we are called to as well. But we don’t have to do it on our own - we have one another, for help and support and encouragement, as we keep going together, and walk in the truth together.

This sermon was preached in St Matthew's Church, Richhill on Sunday morning 12th May 2019.