How to pray in troubled times

May 30, 2017

St Michael’s 28th May 2017

Reading – Acts 4:1-3, 18-31

This week all of us have been shocked by the terrible events in Manchester. We have, of course, experienced many terrorist attacks over the years. But the choice of target and the age profile of the victims have been particularly hard to bear. If anyone doubted before the existence of evil in this world, surely the events of Monday evening have dispelled this myth.

Yet since the attack we have also seen the very best of human nature: the taxi drivers offering free lifts home, the dedication of doctors and nurses, the professionalism of our police and emergency services, and above all a community intent on showing that hate will not defeat love. And as people have come together, so the cry has gone out: “Pray for Manchester.”

But how exactly do we pray for Manchester? What words can we use? How do we relate to God at a time such as this? This morning let me say right at the outset I am not going to give easy answers. All I am going to do is offer some clues which may help us as we seek to pray for this beautiful but broken world, and the many young people whose lives have been changed forever this week.

Now at first glance our reading from Acts has very little connection with what happened in Manchester. There is no terrorist outrage; the victims are not young; the events happened many, many years ago. Yet scratch a little beneath the surface and it is possible to make connections.

Last week John preached on how Peter and John went up to the temple and healed a man crippled from birth. It was a wonderful miracle and proof of God’s love and power. The man was understandably ecstatic. The crowds flocked to hear Peter and John explain what was going on, and there could be no denying that here was good news that everyone wanted to hear…

well, almost everyone. The religious authorities, however, saw the name of Jesus only as a threat. They could not see the goodness in what Peter and John had been doing, but rather seized them and threw them into jail. Perhaps there are faint echoes here of the way ISIS can only see what is good and beautiful and true as something evil to be contained or destroyed.

So Peter and John are brought to trial. On this occasion they are released without punishment because the religious authorities are afraid of the people’s reaction. But Peter and John know that these threats are not simply empty words, and subsequent events only bear out their fears. In chapter 5 all twelve apostles are thrown in prison and the following day they are flogged. In chapters 6 to 8 we read of the arrest and trial of Stephen who is then stoned to death as the first martyr of the Christian faith. From this point on, the church faces persecution and opposition, as indeed it continues to do so right up to this very day.

How, then, do Peter and John respond to their threats? Well, the first thing to notice is that they immediately return to their fellow believers. Verse 23: On their release, Peter and John went back to their own people and reported all that the chief priests and elders had said to them. Now on one level this was a risky move as it would have exposed the whole church to potential danger. They easily could be accused of having troublemakers in their midst. Yet Peter and John knew that the response to any threat or danger was not to hide, but to find support and strength from their fellow believers.

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By grace alone

June 20, 2016

St Michael’s 19th June 2016

Readings – Acts 15:1-21: Matthew 12:1-14

Over the past few weeks we have been on an extraordinary journey with the apostle Paul. He has travelled across Cyprus and through modern day Turkey preaching the gospel and all kinds of things have happened on the way. People have come to faith, miraculous signs and wonders have been performed, and churches planted in places previously unreached with the gospel – and all this against a background of persecution, of stoning and general hardship.

Imagine for a moment you were there at the church in Antioch when Paul and Barnabas came back home and told of all that God had done through them and how he had opened the door of faith to the Gentiles (Acts 14:27). You’d been pretty excited, wouldn’t you? You would be rejoicing in the news of all that Lord had been doing, and eagerly looking forward to what He was going to do next.

But then, Acts 15:1: Some men came down from Judea to Antioch and were teaching the brothers: “Unless you are circumcised, according to the custom taught by Moses, you cannot be saved.” We don’t know exactly who these men were. Perhaps they were some of the believers from a Pharisee background mentioned in verse 5. But we do know what effect their message had. The joy of the believers in Antioch gave way to sharp discussions. Instead of talking about growth and outreach, the church started arguing about finer points of Jewish law. Abraham was circumcised, so was Moses, so was Jesus. Yes, it’s all very well hearing about Gentiles being converted, but rules are rules, and you need to obey the small print if you’re going to be a proper Christian. Read the rest of this entry »

One miracle, five responses …

June 13, 2016

St Michael’s, June 12th 2016

Readings – Acts 14:8-20; Matthew 11:25-30

  • A miracle
  • The crowd’s response
  • The apostles’ response
  • The opponents’ response
  • God’s response
  • Our response

One miracle … five different reactions or responses.

The miracle v8-10

Time and time again in the gospels, Jesus healed the lame. When Jesus died, rose and ascended into heaven, the healings didn’t simply stop … In John 14:12, Jesus told his disciples,

Very truly I tell you, whoever believes in me will do the works I have been doing, and they will do even greater things than these, because I am going to the Father.

And so, as Acts 5:12 tells us, The apostles performed many signs and wonders among the people.

So when we come to yet another healing, this time in Acts, we have the tendency to skim over the details, we’re too familiar with what was, at the time, something quite extraordinary. Paul and Barnabas, having been sent on this church planting journey by the Holy Spirit, are in Lystra. We don’t know if they followed their usual pattern of preaching first at the Synagogue, to Jews … our author, Luke, is in too much of a hurry to tell us what happened after this miracle to give us all the details. So the details we do have are significant. The man was lame and had never walked, and he listened carefully to what Paul had to say. I think we can safely assume that Paul has been preaching about Jesus, although Luke doesn’t tell us what he had been saying.

But the detail that particularly interests me about this healing is the little phrase in v9, (Paul) saw that he had faith to be healed. The man wasn’t begging, or crying out to be healed … he was simply listening to what Paul had to say, and (Paul) saw that he had faith to be healed.

Back in Acts 13 we read how the Holy Spirit told the church to Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul (as he was then known) for the work to which I have called them. We aren’t often told how the Spirit leads in this way, though we do get a brief insight in chapter 16, when Paul and Barnabas are prevented by the Spirit from going to Asia, but instead receive a vision of a man from Macedonia asking them to come … so, Luke says, Read the rest of this entry »

How to preach the good news

June 6, 2016

St Michael’s, 5th June 2016

Readings – Acts 13:13-52; Matthew 11:20-24

You never forget your first sermon. Mine was a brief affair at Jesus College, Cambridge, in the august surroundings of the historic chapel. The passage was from Mark’s gospel; the subject was the teacher of the law asking Jesus which was the greatest command. I waffled on about Christianity not being a denial but a submission of the intellect, and afterwards the dean seemed genuinely pleased with my efforts. Fortunately my handwritten notes were thrown away a long time ago. But it was a start, and somehow 26 years later I am still preaching, and hopefully still improving.

Now today we are coming to Paul’s first recorded sermon in the book of Acts, although what strikes me immediately is the difference between my first effort and his. Paul of course by this stage was no callow student. He had spent three years after his conversion privately meditating and reflecting on the Scriptures. He was then called by Barnabas to help build up the church in Antioch, and although we can’t be sure of the exact timescale, by the time he began his first missionary journey in Acts 13 he is already described in verse 1 as one of the prophets and teachers in that church.

So Paul sets out from the South-East corner of Turkey, sails to Cyprus and then makes his way inland into the Roman province into what we would now call Western Turkey, where confusingly he ends up in a different town also called Antioch, sometimes known as Pisidian Antioch to help make things a little bit clearer. There he and Barnabas, as men from a devout Jewish background, go to the synagogue on the Sabbath, and news of their arrival has clearly gone ahead of them, because after the readings from Scripture they are invited to speak.

first missionary journey

It is at this point that Paul stands up and delivers his first recorded sermon, and unlike mine, it has well stood the test of time. Let’s go through it in more detail, and see what particular points we can take away from it.

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The church in Acts

June 2, 2016

St Michael’s 29th May 2016

Readings – Acts 13:1-12; Matthew 10:32-42

It is very easy to have a romantic view of the early church. The book of Acts presents a wonderfully exciting picture of the first believers as they go out, sharing the good news of Jesus Christ. On almost every page there are stories of extraordinary miracles and dramatic conversions, of new places reached for the gospel and cities won for the Lord. And as I read it, I confess I find hard not to wish that the church today was rather more like the one Luke describes here. I would love this morning for there to be dramatic signs and wonders among us, and hundreds of people coming to faith.

But the reality we face is rather different. For a start, most of us are not called to work in pioneer regions. Our calling is to keep on with the good news in the same place we have always been. Our faith, for better or for worse, has been shaped by two thousand years of church history. We might be happy to ditch our denominations, but we have things like buildings to consider, and our creeds and our liturgy, which surely count for something. Plus of course our daily lives are very, very different and in so many ways better than those living in the Roman Empire, and you can’t simply wind back the clock and try to set up the same model of church as existed two thousand years ago.

So what is the relevance of the book of Acts to us as a church? The short answer is, that whatever our history, whatever our way of worshipping the Lord, this book gives us some key underlying principles which should form a basis for the life of any church in any place at any time. How those principles work out will vary from church to church, but what is more important is that we understand them and seek to apply them to our life here at St Michael’s and St Barnabas. Read the rest of this entry »

The Holy Spirit as fire …

May 15, 2016

St Michael’s, 15th May 2016 – Pentecost

Readings – Acts 2:1-21; John 14:15-27

It’s been a good week … I hope those who came to the prayer week were able to engage with the tables, and with God in prayer … and I hope those who weren’t able to come have seen the photographs on screen or online.


You may have noticed we have a dove hanging in the hall area. The Lord’s prayer on which the prayer week was based, says nothing directly about the Holy Spirit, yet he is there throughout. In the reading we’ve just heard from John’s gospel, Jesus said,

If you love me, keep my commands. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another advocate to help you and be with you for ever, the Spirit of truth.’ (John 14:15-17a)

That’s what it means to pray, ‘Your kingdom come, your will be done … ‘, if you love me, keep my commands …

Another example – John 14:26,

the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said to you.

It is only as the Holy Spirit works in us to teach and remind us about the character, nature and power of God made visible in Jesus Christ that we are able to truly worship him, ‘Hallowed be your name!’

So while the Holy Spirit isn’t named as part of this prayer, it is saturated with his presence.

So as part of the display for the prayer week, I asked Mary if she could make the dove … the Holy Spirit is often represented by a dove, because of Jesus’ baptism, when Matthew tells us, Read the rest of this entry »

Prayer under Pressure

May 8, 2016

St Michael’s, 8th May 2016

Readings – Acts 12:1-17; Matthew 10:17-30

If the book of Acts was a piece of music, it would have two themes. The first and dominant theme would be the spread of the gospel, from a few believers in Jerusalem to a worldwide movement across the Roman Empire. The book of Acts is a wonderful, thrilling story of how the risen Lord Jesus sends out His church in the power of the Holy Spirit to make disciples of all nations, and this theme would definitely be in a major key.

But there is also a second underlying theme that would very much be in a minor key, and that would be the suffering of the church. As believers go out and spread the good news of Jesus’ death and resurrection, not everyone welcomes their message. All too often they are persecuted, put on trial and killed. And anyone who thinks that becoming a Christian involves an easy ride has obviously not read this particular book of the Bible.

Listen to the opening verses of our reading from Acts this morning. Acts 12:1-4: Read the rest of this entry »