Sunday, June 30, 2019

Sermon: Acts 2: 42-47 Devoted

School’s out for summer, and for some people, school’s out for ever. For most pupils, the seemingly endless school holidays will soon come to an end, and come the end of August, they’ll be back to the same school for another year. Some will have left their old school behind, but have the prospect of a new school - at the end of Primary School or Junior High. But some will have finished with school all together - both pupils and teachers. One of the words normally used about teachers is that they were devoted - and we know what that means. They were committed to educating their pupils; going above and beyond in the task.

Or think of some of the other times you’ll hear the word devoted. Speaking of someone as a devoted husband or wife, or a devoted parent. They’re all in, living out that relationship completely. Or think of a devoted sports fan - they’ll make sure to never miss a game; they’ll go to support the team; they’re devoted.

The question I want to ask you today is this - what would it look like for us to be devoted followers of Jesus?

You see, you could be a teacher, but not really care about the children, not be devoted. Some husbands and wives and parents are far from devoted. And some sports fans can be fair weather fans, only turning up if the weather’s good or the results are going well - not really devoted. And we might follow Jesus, but not be devoted in our following. So what would it look like for us to be devoted followers of Jesus?

This morning as we work our way through Acts, we come to this short summary of what it looked like in the early church to be a devoted follower of Jesus. Already in chapter 2, we’ve heard about the events of the Day of Pentecost, when the poured out, promised Spirit gave power to proclaim the prophesied Saviour. And as Peter preached about Jesus, in the power of the Spirit, about three thousand people accepted his message, were baptised, and added to their number.

So what happened next? They started the day with a group of about 120 believers, and now they’ve an extra three thousand, so what did they do? How did they organise themselves? What were their priorities? And what might that say to us about being devoted followers of Jesus?

Before we dive into the passage, though, perhaps we need an extra question to help us navigate not just this passage, but also the rest of Acts (and indeed, when reading any of the historical books of the Bible). And the question is this: Is what I’m reading descriptive or prescriptive? Or in other words, is this a description of what happened at that time, or is it a prescription, something we’re also to do. Descriptive or prescriptive?

So let’s dive in to verse 42. And straight away we come across the word of the day - devoted. We’re told there that ‘they’, that is, these believers ‘devoted themselves’ to four things: ‘They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer.’ (42)

It seems to me that this is the summary of the summary - that in this verse we have a description that is also prescriptive, the essentials that we need to be devoted to; and that the rest of the verses provide the description of how they went about it in those days immediately after Pentecost. As we work our way through each of these elements they were devoted to, we’ll see what that looked like for the first believers and think about what it might be like for us here and now.

So the first mark of devoted followers is that they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching. These new believers wanted to find out more about Jesus, and how he had saved them, and how to follow him. And who could they turn to? Who could they listen to? They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching.

The apostles were the men chosen by Jesus, who had been taught by Jesus, and trained by Jesus, and who were witnesses of the risen Lord Jesus. We’ve already seen the apostles’ teaching in Acts 2, as Peter taught about Jesus.

And in verse 43, we see that the apostles’ teaching was being authenticated and verified by their actions: ‘Everyone was filled with awe, and many wonders and miraculous signs were done by the apostles.’ The signs are given to prove their message - to show that they are speaking the truth. But I think this is descriptive - after all, we don’t have any apostles now. But the prescriptive part is that we also devote ourselves to the apostles’ teaching.

And how do we do that? We have it in the New Testament. The teaching of the apostles has been written down and preserved for us in the gospels, and Acts, and the letters. And their teaching is based on the Old Testament Scriptures, pointing to Jesus. So, on the Day of Pentecost, Peter quotes from Joel and several Psalms in his sermon. The question is - are we devoted to the apostles' teaching? To reading, and understanding, and growing?

The second mark of devoted followers is that they devoted themselves to the fellowship. We’re used to hearing about youth fellowship, and we used to have ‘the fellowship’ on a Thursday night. And sometimes we reckon that if we have tea with a non-Christian then that’s friendship, but if we have tea with a Christian then it’s fellowship. but what is fellowship? And what is ‘the fellowship’?

Perhaps the best example of a fellowship is from Lord of the Rings. The three films are each over three hours long - the book is even longer. The first film is all about how a group of nine creatures (4 Hobbits, 2 men, 1 elf, 1 dwarf and 1 wizard) set out on a mission together to destroy the ring of power. They are ‘The Fellowship of the Ring.’ And so they are together, and help one another, and work together in this common purpose.

Do you see how that’s illustrated in verses 44-45? ‘All the believers were together and had everything in common. Selling their possessions and goods, they gave to anyone as he had need.’ They’re in it together, working in partnership to help each other in this common purpose. Their fellowship means that they care for one another, and especially for those in need.

This wasn’t an early form of communism - it wasn’t enforced, it was voluntary; and not everyone had sold their houses as they continue to meet in them; but it is fellowship being worked out practically. We may not immediately go to sell everything we have as if this is prescriptive; but how devoted are we to one another, serving one another’s needs? Are we devoted to the fellowship of the believers?

The third mark of devoted followers is that they devoted themselves to the breaking of bread. Now that might mean simply eating together - as we see in verse 46 - ‘They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts.’ But it’s also pointing to THE breaking of bread - sharing in the Lord’s Supper / Communion / Eucharist together. [And there’s no need to hold them separate - in 1 Cor 11, the breaking of bread comes in the context of a fellowship meal.] They are devoted to remembering and celebrating the sacrifice of Jesus together as they break bread as he commanded, ‘in remembrance of me.’

We may not do it in the context of a meal here, but we regularly celebrate Communion together. Twice a month, we gather round the Lord’s Table, as we break bread and drink wine together. But are we devoted to it? It seems to be the case everywhere I’ve ministered, but the Communion services are always the poorest attended. And I’m wondering - why? Is it because it’s a slightly longer service? Or we’d be embarrassed if we didn’t go up to receive? If you have any wisdom, do let me know. I’d love to talk about it with you. Are we devoted to the breaking of bread?

The fourth and final mark of devoted followers is that they devoted themselves to prayer. Some versions suggest that it’s not just prayer in general - but ‘the prayers’ - as in a gathered time of prayer with others. This may have been in the temple, as we see in verse 46: ‘Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts.’ There’s also the element of praising God in verse 47.

Are we committed, devoted even, to praying on our own, and as a church? Are there ways we could do it more, or better? As one small step, you’ll see on the notices sheet a prayer diary - one topic to pray for each day, that we can do together even if we’re not in the same place. Come the autumn we’ll have the Growth Groups and All Together starting up again - opportunities to meet together to grow and to pray.

What might it look like to be a devoted follower of Jesus? We’ll be devoted to the apostles’ teaching, to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread, to prayer. It might not look exactly like how the early church did it, but it must include these four devotions. Is there one that you need to work on? One that you’ll focus on over the summer?

These first followers of Jesus were devoted disciples - and people were taking notice of their devotion. They ‘enjoyed the favour of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.’ (47) May we be known as devoted disciples, and see the Lord adding to our number.

This sermon was preached in St Matthew's Church, Richhill on Sunday morning 30th June 2019.

Tuesday, June 25, 2019

Sermon: 1 Peter 2: 11-25 Aliens?

They come in various shapes and sizes and types of life form. They might be friendly, coming in peace; or they might be hostile and dangerous. And they are the feature of many’s a science fiction blockbuster movie. What are they? Aliens. Whether it’s the friendly sort like ET (The Extra-Terrestrial), or the threatening aliens in something like Independence Day, we’re used to the idea of aliens. They are, quite simply, beings who don’t belong, who aren’t from this earth.

I wonder, do you believe in aliens? Do you think that there is intelligent life on other planets? Fairly often, these kinds of surveys are organised, and in one recent one, almost two thirds of people in the UK say that they believe in aliens (of whatever sort they may exist in). Now, whether they’re right or not, I don’t know. But according to the Bible, there is such a thing as an alien, lots of aliens actually, and they are already here. You might be sitting beside one. In fact, you might even be one.

You see, that’s the word that Peter uses to describe the Christians who are reading his letter. Do you see it there in verse 11? ‘Dear friends, I urge you, as aliens and strangers in the world...’ Peter is saying that Christians are aliens and strangers in the world. We’re people who don’t quite fit in; different to everyone else; outsiders. We belong to another world, another kingdom, and so we’re seen as alien and strangers.

Now, maybe that seems strange to you, but this is the whole point of Peter’s letter. It’s the reason that he’s writing to Christians - as we see in 1:1. ‘Peter... to God’s elect, strangers in the world...’ Peter is saying that to be a Christian is to be an elect stranger; an elect exile; an elect alien.

Up to this point in the letter, he’s been showing how we are chosen (see 2:9) - how God has chosen us and made us his people and blessed us in so many ways; but from here on he focuses on what it will mean for us to be aliens and strangers in the world. How will we live out our chosenness of God? How will we live in a different and distinct way?

We get the summary statement in verses 11-12, which he then unpacks through the rest of the letter. Here’s what he says: ‘Dear friends, I urge you, as aliens and strangers in the world, to abstain from sinful desires, which war against your soul. Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us.’

Because we are aliens and strangers, we are to do two things - one negative, and one positive. The negative: ‘abstain from sinful desires.’ The positive: ‘Live such good lives among the pagans.’

Sometimes in sci-fi films, the aliens are coming to wage war on the earth. And we, as aliens, are in a war - but not against other people, rather our war is against our sinful desires. The particular sinful desires each of us face and fight will be different; but each of us is to fight against them, to abstain from them, to not participate in them. And how do you fight it? You remind yourself of who you are and whose you are - I am God’s chosen child, and have received mercy from him. I am no longer in darkness, but in his wonderful light.

That’s the negative - abstain from sinful desires. And the positive is to ‘Live such good lives among the pagans.’ We’re not to withdraw from society, or become a closed-up community. We’re to be engaged in society, to be out and about among our neighbours and colleagues - living good lives that are seen by them, noticeably different from them - like salt and light, as Jesus says in the Sermon on the Mount.

And even if people accuse us of doing wrong, and speak harshly about us, one day they will glorify God - either as they are won to Jesus as God visits them in grace, or as they testify on the day of judgement when God visits them in judgement.

But what will that look like? Peter gives us some case studies, some worked out examples, to show us how to live these good lives among the pagans. The first is in relation to the state.

‘Submit yourselves for the Lord’s sake to every authority instituted among men: whether to the king, as the supreme authority, or to governors, who are sent by him to punish those who do wrong and to commend those who do right.’ (13-14)

So whether there is a king, or parliamentary democracy, or a president, or however the country is organised and ruled, Peter says that we’re to submit ‘for the Lord’s sake.’ The government is there to punish wrongdoing and commend rightdoing, so there should be nothing to fear for the Christian. It is God’s will for us to obey the state, by doing what is right. In this way, we silence the ignorant talk of foolish people.

Our ultimate loyalty is to God, not to the state. And so, sometimes, there may be things that are legal that are not good; things that the law allows that God doesn’t, and so our loyalty is to God and what he says is good. Do you see that in verse 16? ‘Live as free men, but do not use your freedom as a cover-up for evil; live as servants of God.’

And what does God want for his people? For us to show proper respect to all: ‘Love the brotherhood of the believers, fear God, honour the king.’ (17)

From verse 18, Peter turns from our relationship to the state to our relationship to our boss. In the particular culture, the reference is to slaves and masters, but it translates into our working life. So what will it look like to live as an alien in your workplace? ‘Slaves, submit yourselves to your masters with all respect, not only to those who are good and considerate, but also to those who are harsh.’ (18)

At that time, there were obviously different standards in terms of behaviour; slaves were seen as property rather than people; and there weren’t the fair employment and working conditions that we’re used to today. But even now, maybe even in your workplace, there will be good managers and bosses as well as harsh ones. How will we react to them when they mistreat us, or overlook us, or seem to have it in for us?

Peter suggests the way of submission. ‘For it is commendable if a man bears up under the pain of unjust suffering because he is conscious of God. But how is it to your credit if you receive a beating for doing wrong and endure it? But if you suffer for doing good and you endure it, this is commendable before God.’ (19=20)

If you’re punished for wrongdoing, then you deserve it. But if you’re punished when you’re done nothing wrong, then how do you react? Rather than running to the papers or the Nolan Show, Peter suggests that you bear it, endure it, because you are conscious of God. God sees, and knows, and commends this type of suffering when it is borne for him, by his chosen aliens.

Now, perhaps you’re thinking to yourself, surely not! I know my rights, and I’m not going to be trodden down by anyone! I’ll not let anyone get the better of me. Quietly suffering? Surely not! You wouldn’t catch me being weak like that.

And in that attitude, we entirely miss the call of God, and the path of Christ. When our world is all about ‘me first’ and ‘my rights’ we’re to stand out and be different, because we belong to Christ Jesus. Do you see how Peter sets out the alternative in verse 21: ‘To this you were called, because Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in his steps.’

Whatever sufferings we may go through, and however unfair and unjust they seem, none are as unjust as the sufferings of Jesus. Had Jesus insisted on his rights, none of us would stand. But the way of Jesus is the way of the cross - suffering now, and glory later. It’s because Jesus both suffered for us and has given us an example that we hear God’s call to follow in this way, giving up our rights.

To bring out the example of Jesus, Peter quotes directly from Isaiah 53 (in verse 22), but then also paraphrases it in the rest of the chapter. So when Jesus was insulted, he didn’t retaliate; when he suffered, he made no threats. Instead, he entrusted himself to the just judge, the one who will bring vindication in the end, and right the wrongs we have suffered.

That’s the example we’re to follow, the path we’re to tread. And we’ll find the grace to follow precisely because Jesus suffered for us. For the second time in his letter (1:18-19 and now 2:24-25) Peter focuses in on the cross and reminds us of all that Jesus has done for us.

Paraphrasing Isaiah, he says that Jesus bore our sins in his body on the tree. And what was the purpose? ‘So that we might die to sins and live for righteousness.’ Doesn’t that sound very similar to the summary of verses 11-12 - abstaining from sin and living good lives among the pagans? At the cross we find not just the example of Jesus, but also the motivation of grace in his sacrifice for us. We had been going astray like sheep, but now we’ve returned to the Shepherd.

To see aliens, just look around you. We’re to stand out as we abstain from sinful desires and live good lives - the power comes from the cross of Christ, as we also seek to follow his example.

This sermon was preached in St Matthew's Church, Richhill on Sunday evening 23rd June 2019.

Sunday, June 23, 2019

Sermon: Acts 2: 1-41 The Poured-out, Promised Spirit gives Power to Proclaim the Prophecied Saviour

What do you think of the Holy Spirit? For many of us, the honest answer might be: ‘not very much.’ Of course, we’ll affirm that we believe in him in the Apostles’ Creed, but beyond that, we might not really think of the Holy Spirit very much. Perhaps it’s easier to relate to the Father, or to Jesus, but the Holy Spirit doesn’t really figure in our thinking or experience.

And that might especially be the case, when some other churches are quite big on the Spirit - the Pentecostal churches who maybe focus more on speaking in tongues and other experiences. And so we’ll affirm the creed and keep ignoring the Spirit we believe in. And each year Pentecost will roll round, and we’ll read Acts 2, and then get on with worship in the Church of Ireland way.

The experience of the early church, though, shows us that we have to get to grips with the Holy Spirit - or rather, that he has to get to grips with us. As we’ve seen in Acts 1, the apostles were given a mission by the risen Lord Jesus. They’re to be his witnesses to the ends of the earth. But they need the power of the Holy Spirit to do it. And so Acts 1 was all about waiting for the promise - waiting obediently, prayerfully and practically. In Acts 2, we see the waiting period is finished, as the Holy Spirit is given to the church.

In verses 1-13, we see that the Spirit is poured out on the believers. Can you imagine these events happening this morning? There’s the sound (2) ‘like the blowing of a violent wind’ - not outside, but inside the house. There’s the sight (3) of, like, tongues of fire resting on each of them. And there’s the speech (4) - as they are enabled to speak in other tongues or languages instantly.

Have you ever been somewhere on holiday where they don’t speak English? You might go about trying to be understood, and trying to understand what the locals are saying. And when you’re in that situation, and you suddenly hear someone speaking English, then you naturally tune in, you listen to what they’re saying, because you can understand it? Or, in a similar way, you’re in a big crowd of people, and no matter how many people there are, you’ll be able to pick out the Northern Irish people because of their accent?

That’s what’s happening here. The 120 are suddenly speaking in other languages, and people in Jerusalem are hearing and understanding and tuning in to what they’re saying. You see, Pentecost was one of the three Jewish festivals when everyone would pack up and go to Jerusalem. God-fearing Jews ‘from every nation under heaven’ (5) have gathered in, and the disciples are able to speak in their languages.

The poured out Spirit enables the disciples to ‘declare the wonders of God’ in all of their languages. [As an aside, this is the reversal of the curse of the Tower of Babel, where languages were confused and divided. Now, all peoples are hearing the good news in their own languages.] It is bewildering, and amazing and perplexing all at the same time for the crowd. No wonder they ask: ‘What does this mean?’ even as some make fun, thinking they’ve had too much wine. (12-13).

We see the power of the Holy Spirit as Peter stands up to address the crowd in verse 14. He quickly says that they aren’t drunk - it’s only nine in the morning. It’s not wine or spirits that have caused this scene, but rather it’s the poured out, promised Holy Spirit. He reminds them of what the prophet Joel says in his prophecy: ‘In the last days, God says, I will pour out my Spirit on all people...’ (17)

It’s not that the Holy Spirit only came about in Acts, or at the start of the New Testament. The Holy Spirit is the third person of the Trinity, fully divine with the Father and the Son. But in the Old Testament, the Holy Spirit was only given to certain people - prophets, priests and kings. But Joel speaks of a time, the last days, when God would pour out his Spirit on all his people, not just some.

And this is what has happened on the day of Pentecost. The whole band of disciples, all 120 or so of them, have received the Spirit who was promised. Whether they’re sons or daughters, young men or old men, men or women, all have received the Spirit.

Acts 2 shows that the promised Spirit has been poured out. So how would you expect Peter to continue with his speech (or sermon)? Given that it’s the day of Pentecost, and that it’s the Holy Spirit who has come, you would expect that he would continue speaking about the Spirit. But that’s not what he does. Instead, the poured out, promised Spirit gives power to proclaim the prophecied Saviour. Peter preaches on Pentecost about Jesus.

Look at verse 22: ‘Men of Israel, listen to this: Jesus of Nazareth was a man accredited by God to you by miracles, wonders and signs, which God did among you through him, as you yourselves know.’ He’s reminding them of what Jesus did - miracles, wonders and signs - and how God was at work in him and through him. And how did they respond to Jesus?

‘This man was handed over to you by God’s set purpose and foreknowledge; and you, with the help of wicked men, put him to death by nailing him to the cross.’ (23)They crucified Jesus! But before we think that they’re bad and that we’re better - had we been in their position, we would have done that too. They were there; they had crucified Jesus. That was the end of the story as far as they were concerned. But the story was far from over.

‘But God raised him from the dead, freeing him from the agony of death, because it was impossible for death to keep its hold on him.’ (24) They had killed Jesus, but God raised him from the dead. It wasn’t that things had turned out badly, unexpectedly, and then God had to step in to bring Jesus back to life as a plan B, try again, kind of strategy. No, this was God’s plan from the beginning.

Jesus had been handed over by God’s set purpose and foreknowledge. He is the Saviour who was prophecied in advance. In verses 25-28, Peter quotes from Psalm 16, a Psalm written by David. But David wasn’t speaking about himself - you see, David died, and was buried, and was in his tomb - which was part of the tourist trail in Jerusalem in the way that you can see the tombs of our kings and queens in Westminster Abbey.

David was speaking about one of his sons, the one who would reign forever, the Christ. The summary is in verse 31: ‘Seeing what was ahead, he spoke of the resurrection of the Christ, that he was not abandoned to the grave, nor did his body see decay.’ David’s tomb is full, but Jesus’ tomb is empty!

And in verses 32-33, we see how everything we’ve seen in Acts so far comes together: ‘God has raised this Jesus to life, and we are all witnesses of the fact. Exalted to the right hand of God, he has received from the Father the promised Holy Spirit and has poured out what you now see and hear.’

The poured out, promised Spirit gives power to proclaim the prophecied Saviour. Peter hasn’t preached a message about the Spirit; but rather the Spirit points to and gives power to proclaim the message of the Saviour, Jesus. Just think of the power that Peter would need to proclaim the truth of verse 36. The courage you would need to accuse the crowd of what they had done: ‘Therefore let all Israel be assured of this: God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Christ.’

Jesus is Lord - he is the one ruling over the universe, God in the flesh. Jesus is the Christ - the anointed son of David, king over all. And you crucified him! You put him to death! You cried out those words ‘crucify him!’

The crowd have been listening carefully ever since verse 12 when they asked, ‘What does this mean?’ Now they ask another question, because they are cut to the heart, they feel the weight of the conviction of what they have done, the wrong they have accomplished, and they ask: ‘Brothers, what shall we do?’ (37)

How should they respond to the proclamation of the prophecied Saviour, empowered by the poured out, promised Spirit? ‘Repent and be baptised, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. The promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off - for all whom the Lord our God will call.’ (38-39).

They are to turn around, to go the opposite direction (repent), and to be baptised. They will receive forgiveness of their sins, and the gift of the Holy Spirit. And on that one day, about three thousand accepted the message, were baptised and added to their number. That’s not bad going for one day. Starting with 120 and ending with 3120. An increase of 2500%

How did the disciples do it? They hadn’t dreamt up a new evangelism strategy; or tried a certain musical style; or used or ditched the prayer book. They received power from the Holy Spirit who had been promised and was poured out - to enable them to proclaim the prophecied Saviour. We have the same Holy Spirit, who still gives power to proclaim the Saviour - will we follow his leading, and speak his words, as we share the good news of Jesus?

Perhaps we need to pray that we will have more of the Spirit, that we will indeed follow his lead, and know his power and his poured-outness as we proclaim the Saviour.

And, just as we finish, let me proclaim the Saviour. Do you know Jesus? Have you received the forgiveness of your sins? Or are you still numbered among those who want rid of him, who have called out ‘crucify him!’ The Jesus you crucified is Lord and Christ. He longs to be your Saviour. Won’t you turn to him, by turning away from your sins, and receiving the gift of his Spirit. Perhaps today, the Lord is calling you to himself. Won’t you come? Won’t you draw near? He is Lord and Christ. Is he your Saviour?

This sermon was preached in St Matthew's Church, Richhill on Sunday morning 23rd June 2019.

Sunday, June 02, 2019

Sermon: Acts 1: 12-26 Waiting for the Promise

What are you like when it comes to waiting? What sort of person are you when you have to wait for something? Are you patient, happy to wait for as long as necessary, keeping cool, calm and collected? Or are you more impatient, always agitated, ready for action, wanting to get a move on? Or maybe you thrive on distraction, so waiting for one thing is an opportunity to do something else - like the people who sit at traffic lights doing their hair and make up, or eating a bowl of cereal, or checking their mobile phone. What are you like when it comes to waiting?

Perhaps it depends on what sort of waiting it is. You see, sometimes, you know exactly how long you’re going to have to wait. While the traffic lights seem to be taking an age to change from red to green, you know it’ll be a minute or two at most. And if you’re expectantly counting down the days to your birthday or to Christmas, then you know exactly how long you have to wait (206 days to Christmas, in case you’re wondering!). But waiting when you don’t know how long you’ll have to wait can be a different matter.

When you’re waiting in a queue on the phone, and you hear the same music play over and over and over again, and then the same recorded message saying, ‘your call is important to us, you are number 300 in the queue...’ Or when you’ve been told something will happen, and you wait to see when it finally happens.

In our reading today, the disciples are waiting. And they don’t know how long they will be waiting. All they know is that they are waiting for what Jesus has spoken about, and what God the Father has promised. They’re in the in-between period between when Jesus is taken up to heaven and when the Holy Spirit is sent down from heaven. And so they find themselves waiting.

Last week we saw how Jesus had prepared the disciples to continue his work (by showing them he was alive; and speaking about the kingdom of God; and promising the Spirit). It would involve the apostles being sent out to Jerusalem, Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth, to be his witnesses, but they needed the power of the Holy Spirit to do all this - they couldn’t do it by themselves. And so Jesus had told them to wait - 1:4 ‘Do not leave Jerusalem, but wait for the gift my Father promised...’

As our reading begins, then, it’s the aftermath of the ascension. Jesus has been taken up to heaven. So how will they wait? Impatiently or patiently? Passively or actively? Well, let’s see, as we dive into the passage.

We can see that their waiting is obedient - verses 12-13: ‘Then they returned to Jerusalem from the hill called the Mount of Olives, a Sabbath day’s walk from the city. When they arrived, they want upstairs to the room where they were staying.’

Jesus had told them to stay in Jerusalem, and that’s exactly what they do. Jesus had ascended from the Mount of Olives, about 3/4 miles from the city. So now they return into the city, and into the upstairs room where they were staying. This was probably the same upper room where Jesus had celebrated the Passover with his disciples just six weeks before; the same upper room where he had appeared to the disciples after he was raised on Easter Sunday. And it’s here that they wait.

We’re given the roll call of those who are present. There are the apostles themselves, and they’re all named for us in verse 13; but there are others present as well. We’re not told all their names, but we’re told who they are: ‘with the women, and Mary the mother of Jesus, and with his brothers.’ (14)

So what do you make of the roll call? We shouldn’t be surprised to find that women were part of the first followers of Jesus - all the way through Luke’s gospel he mentions the women who followed Jesus and supported his ministry (Luke 8:1-3; Mary and Martha in 10:38-41; 23:55-56, 24:1). And, as the recent Church of Ireland census results have shown, women make up a majority of those attending services on Sundays.

But you might be surprised to find who else is there - Mary the mother of Jesus, and his brothers. Back in the gospel, Jesus’ family had turned up to take him home because they thought he had gone mad. And Jesus had said that his mother and brothers and sisters are those who do God’s will (Mark 3:31-35, Luke 8:19-21).

Yet here they are, being numbered among Jesus’ disciples. Here’s a question for you - what would it take to convince you that your brother was God? Yet that’s what James and Jude (the authors of the New Testament letters) did. In 1 Corinthians 15, we’re told that Jesus appeared to James, his brother. He was then convinced that Jesus was indeed God, that he was alive, and that he would follow him.

It’s probably hardest to witness to your own family; to speak to them about Jesus - but here we find Jesus’ mum and brothers among his disciples. The roll has been called. We know who’s there. But what are they doing? How are they waiting?

The upper room is the waiting room, but it is also the prayer room. Verse 14: ‘They all joined together constantly in prayer...’ They committed themselves to praying, and they did it together. They were asking God to fulfil the promise he had made, to give the Holy Spirit, to equip them for the work he had called them to do.

You may have heard of the ‘Thy Kingdom Come’ initiative. It takes these days from Ascension Day (last Thursday) through until Pentecost (next Sunday), praying in a particular way for God’s kingdom to come on earth. There are online resources you can use to help as you pray in these days.

The disciples were waiting obediently and prayerfully. But they also waited practically as well. They knew that there was a job to do, and so they continued to get ready for what would come next, when the waiting period was up.

And as they wait together, they’re very aware that someone is missing. There are around 120 believers. They’re all there, but who isn’t? Look back at verse 13 - the apostles are named. How many? Not the twelve we would expect, but only eleven. There’s a vacancy among the apostles. That’s what Peter addresses in the rest of the passage.

He reminds the group of Judas, the betrayer. What he had done had been shocking, but Peter says that his actions were in fulfilment of the Scriptures spoken by the Holy Spirit through the mouth of David. (16) From Psalm 69, his place is deserted (as the bracketed explanation shows that his land was the Field of Blood), and from Psalm 109, ‘May another take his place of leadership.’

Already we’re seeing how the apostles have been trained by Jesus to understand the Scriptures and apply them to their life. And so, they decide to appoint another apostle. And do you see what the criteria are in verses 21-22? It has to be a man ‘who has been with us the whole time the Lord Jesus went in and out among us, beginning from John’s baptism to the time when Jesus was taken up from us.’ Someone who has seen and heard everything - and more particularly, a witness of his resurrection.

They have two candidates - one with three names, Joseph called Barsabbas (also known as Justus), and another with one name, Matthias. But notice that they don’t put it to a vote. There aren’t election papers or voting by card or hand. Rather, they pray, then they cast lots.

Their prayer might seem familiar - it’s the basis of our Collect for Purity: ‘Lord, you know everyone’s heart. Show us which of these two you have chosen to take over this apostolic ministry, which Judas left to to where he belongs.’ As we prayed earlier: ‘To you all hearts are open, all desires known...’

It is the Lord of the Church, the Lord Jesus, who chooses his apostle through the lot. Matthias becomes the twelfth apostle, a witness of the resurrection, a sharer in the apostolic ministry. And that’s the last we ever hear of him in the Scriptures. Early church histories refer to him being martyred either in Jerusalem or in modern-day Georgia, having witnessed to Jesus.

The apostles waited obediently, prayerfully, and practically. They were committed to the task that Jesus had given them, and were waiting for God’s promise to be fulfilled. With them, we find ourselves waiting for the final fulfilment of God’s promises - the return of Jesus and the consummation of the new heavens and the new earth, with new resurrection bodies.

As we wait, we’re called to wait obediently - getting on with what Jesus has called us to do; to wait prayerfully - as we seek God’s help, and presence, and power; and to wait practically - living out what the Scriptures say.

We’re waiting for God to fulfil his promises, but we are unlike the apostles. You see, we don’t have to wait for the gift of the Holy Spirit. When we trust in Jesus, we are given the Holy Spirit to dwell within us. So if you’re a Christian, then you already have the Holy Spirit. (But does the Holy Spirit have you, all of you?)

And if you’re not a Christian, then you can receive that gift today. You don’t need to wait any longer. You can come to Jesus today. He already knows your heart. He knows your sins. And he has provided the way to cancel them; to find forgiveness and joy and peace, as you trust him as your Saviour and your Lord. Commit to him, and he will give you the gift of the Holy Spirit today.

This sermon was preached in St Matthew's Church, Richhill on Sunday morning 2nd June 2019.