Waiting and Hoping

They say that Christmas is a time for children – the Christmas lights are up around town, the TV adverts have been going on about toys and games for months, and the excitement is building up for the big day.

My children were actually very good at waiting patiently for Christmas to arrive.  They wrote their lists, and then waited expectantly for all the presents and food and parties to arrive, confident that Santa, or their parents, were going to deliver just what they wanted and waited for. 

I think adults have a lot to learn from children at this time of year, after all, Jesus did call us to have a childlike faith.  I know how easy it is to be worn down with the busy-ness and work of Christmas, to lose sight of the real meaning, wonder and awe of this time of year. 

That’s why I think the season of Advent is so important.  It is a time of waiting and preparing ourselves for what is to come – and I do believe that we cannot really appreciate the wonder of Christmas unless we have held ourselves in the in-between time of Advent. 

Week by week we will be reminded of how God spoke through the prophets of the arrival of the promised King, and God’s great plan of salvation.  This child will be no ordinary human – he will be God with us, Emmanuel.  And while we wait, we make ourselves ready for the coming King, in repentance and perhaps by spending more time with our Bibles and in prayer.

Finally – after all our waiting, Christmas arrives; and just like our children we can be confident that we haven’t been forgotten.  There is a present ready for us – a gift of God for us and the whole world – Jesus the King.

I hope we can make an effort to enter into the season of Advent, to be as a child, waiting open hearted and expectant for the real present, Jesus, to arrive.  We know that where meek souls will receive Him, still, the dear Christ enters in.

Have a happy Advent, Christmas and New Year.

Christ the King - incognito

Readings:      Matthew 25.31-46
Almost all of us in this room have had the experience at one time or another of going incognito. That is, we have pretended that we are someone else. Do you remember those old days when you dressed up in fancy dress parties as a princess, a pirate, or cowboys and indians? We may have simply pulled an old sheet over your heads and gone to the neighbour’s house to scare them. The neighbour then played the game and responded, “Who are you?” Do you remember those days? Those were some of the first times that we went incognito.
It is with this theme of going incognito and wearing a mask; it is with this theme that you would treat me differently if you knew my true identity; that we approach the gospel lesson for today.
The parable today is about the sheep and the goats. Now, this is one of the most famous parables of Jesus, but is not one of the all time favourites. That is, we love the parable of the Good Samaritan and we enjoy the parable of the Prodigal Son, but this parable about the sheep and the goats is more challenging, painful and stinging. This parable makes us feel more uncomfortable.
The setting of this parable was this: the disciples had asked Jesus, “What is it going to be like at the end of the world?” Jesus replied, “I will tell you a story. It will be like this. There will be a king up in heaven and all the people of the earth will gather around him, and this king will divide the people into the sheep and the goats.” Now, if you were a disciple in those days, you understood this metaphor immediately.
Jesus continued, “The sheep will be on my right, and the king will say to them, ‘Come into my party. I was hungry and you gave me food. I was thirsty and you gave me drink. I was a stranger and you welcomed me. I was naked and you clothed me. I was in prison and you visited me.”
They said, ‘When did we ever do these things for you?’ The king replied, ‘Whenever you did these things for the littlest people, you did it for me?’ Then the king addressed the goats on the left. ‘Depart from me. I was starving and you gave me no food. I was thirsty and you gave me no drink. I was a stranger and you did not welcome me. I was lacking clothing and you did not cloth me. I was in prison and you did not visit me.’
They said, ‘Lord, if we only would have known it was you, we would have treated you differently. If we only had known your true identity, it would have made all the difference. If we had only known it was your face behind the face of the refugees; if we had only known it was your body in the hospital; if we had only known it was your body suffering from Ebola in Africa; if we had only known it was you, it would have made all the difference.’ The Lord said, Depart from me to the punishment of the age to come.”
It was Mark Twain who said it first. “It is not those parts of the Bible that I do NOT understand that bother me. It is the parts of the Bible that I DO understand that bother me the most.”
When Jesus finished that parable, they liked the story of The Prodigal Son and they loved the story of the Good Samaritan, but they weren’t so sure that they liked this story of the sheep and the goats.
One of the first lessons that grows out of this parable is the awareness that our God, the true God, the one God, who created the universe, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the God who raised Jesus of Nazareth from the dead; that our true God is a God who hides himself. God goes incognito. God wears a mask.
Our God hides himself most completely in the faces and places of suffering. The awareness that our God is a hidden God who hides himself in suffering is a stark contrast to other religions of the world. In all the other religions of the world, they talk about their god who reveals himself in the beauty of the sunset, the birth of babies, and in the bounty of nature.
But our God is the only God in the whole wide world who hides himself under the faces and places of suffering.
When our children were young, we used to play hide and seek and the children would go and hide. One would hide underneath the kitchen table. Another would hide behind the door in the bedroom – places like that. And then the time was up and I’d shout “Coming, ready or not” Then I would look behind the sofa, under the dining room table, behind the curtains, and all around, and they would often make noise, and I would find them and shout, “Boo”. The point is: the children would hide in obvious places. 
Unfortunately our modern houses aren't very easy to hide in – but in one old house we had, down in the cellar – where it's dark, damp and full of spiders – that would be a serious place to hide.  I could look and look and I couldn’t find them there.
By analogy, in all the religions of the world, their gods hide themselves in the obvious places. Underneath the kitchen table. Underneath the bed. Behind the back door. These gods hide themselves in the beauty of the sunsets, the birth of babies, and the beauty of temples.
But our God, the true God, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, our God does down into the cellar. Our God goes down into the cellar and hides himself in a place where people don’t know he is hiding. God hides himself in the midst of suffering.
The place that our God hides is in the bread and wine of the sacraments, but the primary place is in the cross. No other God allows himself to be crucified. When our God is crucified, our God is the most hidden. When our God is being crucified today, he is the most hidden. So, this Bible passage tells us that our God is a hidden God.
But the real point is not that our God is a hidden God. The real lesson of this parable today is an invitation for you and me to SEEK GOD.
To seek God not in the beauty of the sunsets or the birth of babies or the bounty of nature and conclude that there is a God. The real lesson of this parable is to seek God where God is truly to be found.  This parable tells us that God is to be found hiding behind the faces and places of suffering people.
What does this mean for us? What does it mean to embrace a suffering world?
First, it means to have the love of Jesus Christ inside of you. You cannot be this kind of loving person unless the love of Christ is living in you. It is not you. It is not me. It is the love of God living inside of us. You can’t embrace hurting people unless the love of God lives in you.
When Jesus addressed the sheep about going to heaven, the sheep didn’t even realize that they had been generous. They were not even aware. That is the way it is with love, the true love of God. You forget yourself in loving and caring for another person.
This quality of love then spreads from your home. To the neighbour down the street and the man had a stroke. To a person who had a bad accident and is disabled, and for some reason, you become involved in their life.
This love spreads. You begin to realize that your brothers and sisters in Africa or Asia are sick and hungry. This quality of love cannot help but reach out to them.
I love the examples of doctors and nurses going to West Africa to care for Ebola victims.  We also have the opportunity to care for homeless men in the night shelter in January.  In them we may see Jesus Christ, and minister to him.

You see, the truth about the gospel is that our King – Jesus Christ is a hidden King. And more than that, we are invited to seek him where he is to be found – where we least expect to see him. Amen.

Letter from Sargodha - part 2

Dear Friends,
Thanks again for words of encouragement and prayerful support during these days in Pakistan. This will probably be my last email because by this time next week we expect to be almost home.

Last Saturday’s visit to Lahore had some of the characteristics of a scene out of Alice in Wonderland and we are still somewhat bemused …… ask us about it if you want the tale!!
We were back in Sargodha for Sunday Service in the house church which uses our sewing school classroom. A congregation of about seventy sang a welcome to us and garlanded us with roses. The service usually consists of about 40 minutes of worship songs, 40 minutes of scripture and preaching and then another couple of songs before and after an open prayer session. I think I failed the test for 40 minutes of preaching but it was lovely to work with my daughter and grand-daughter as interpreters when my Urdu ran out. A number of people requested prayers for healing and three childless young couples came after the service for prayer for a baby. There was no hiding from the raw pain of their situation – and the Pastor explained that one prayer session each week is set aside especially for childless couples.

The week proceeded with energetic preparations in sewing school for the Caritas Conference. We were invited to various lunches and teas which reminded us of the huge range of circumstances in which our Rehmat Park Project members live. Monday evening saw us with torches in hand walking along bricked gullies, avoiding the open sewers to reach our hosts house. The regular power cuts meant that but for our torches we would have been sat in the dark. However, along with several other visitors, we shared various dishes not all of which we could identify – and I think we were in competition with the ants!

The following day we visited the home of our former Project Gynaecologist, Dr Shameem, - a home with torches and a battery back-up system for when the lights go out. Dr Shameem now runs her own clinic at home but yearns for a return to the days we all spent together.

During the second half of the week, the local Roman Catholic Technical Institute has hosted the Caritas Women Farmers Conference. Having been allocated seats at the front, we had little choice but to listen to several hours of repetitive speeches – mostly about the hardships and inequality women suffer, and what might be done about it, including education, skills training and a range of micro-economic agricultural and business projects. When we escaped the hall, we were able to spend some time looking at the colourful displays of work being undertaken by women’s projects across Pakistan. Our own students were involved in dance and drama productions and received many accolades for the display of sewing and craftwork.

At the end of the first day we heard news of the death of the 28 year old son of local people we know – a young man who had been an outstanding student at school and college but who had then got caught up in the drug scene. So many of our local young men are at risk and already there are a number of widows with young children to raise because husbands have died from drug abuse. Many of the elders ask “What future for our Christian youngsters in this environment …… in this country?”

Now we have a couple of quiet days with our friends in Lahore. Dr Gill is on his travels selling medical machinery, Martyn is teaching his nephew English and driving and I am learning about Farzana’s hobby – going to beauty parlours!! (with interesting results according to Martyn)

Looking forward to “normality” with you all!!


Jane and Martyn

Rev Jane's Letter from Sargodha, Pakistan - part 1

Dear Friends,

A long journey it may have been and with some anxiety about whether or not we would be allowed into the country, but we arrived to a bright, sunny Lahore morning and the welcome of our friend and colleague, Dr Gill and two of his team members. After a restful few hours at their home we were taken to see our friend and inspiration, Sister Catherine, formerly of the school at village 36, to offer a slightly belated 90th Birthday greeting. She is staying in a convent/hostel assisting with a group of sisters look after some physically disabled children. She's never heard of retirement!

The two and a half hour drive to Sargodha was largely uneventful although having heard about the 40 miles of wonderful new dual carriageway I was somewhat surprised to see a number of donkeys grazing the central reservation, not to mention one or two carts and rickshaws travelling against the traffic flow!

Since arriving in Sargodha we have received welcomes from a stream of old friends - it is hard to believe we have been away for almost seven years except when we see some of the now not so young children. Many have said that our return to Sargodha is an answer to prayer so we hope we may offer  some encouragement in these weeks.

For the churches in Sargodha, this is 'Convention Season'. The Roman Catholic Church began a three day festival for the Blessed Virgin Mary on Friday. On Saturday morning outside the church under awnings, there was a four hour programme which included worship and presentations by the various schools followed by enjoyment at a cross between a church fete and a funfair. I only attended for a short while - in a throng of about 3 thousand people. They tell me there were yet more people at the evening healing service! It was lovely that the news of Milala Yousafzai's Nobel Peace Prize came when it did. There was a huge poster of her next to the stage and many people were praising her both for what she has done for girls' education and for bringing honour to Pakistan.

On Sunday morning we will go a little further down the main road to the Church of Pakistan (it's the only church with pews rather than sitting on the floor), where preparations are afoot for their own convention in a few days time.

Since we don't have our planned transport available for two or three days, Ashi's brother turned up with a car from his workshop to loan us. It's a small, very old and battered vehicle with almost non-existent brakes, no shock absorbers and certainly no power steering. However, the roads in the colony have so many speed breakers ... planned and unplanned, not to mention missing manhole covers, that it is difficult to go fast enough to warrant even second gear. Despite this, I have overtaken one or two donkey carts!!

It is hard to imagine what the days ahead might hold but there is little doubt they will be full to the brim!

Please pray for the safety of the Christian community especially during this time when so many gather together.

Every blessing,


Jane and Martyn

Faith and Belief - Going against the tide

Readings:  Matthew 16.21-28

Introduction

I once read that inlaid into the marble of the floor in the Vatican is inscribed those famous words from St. Matthew’s gospel, that we heard last week:
“Thou art Peter, and upon this Rock will I build my church”
Of course with the Pope claiming to be the true and lawful successor to St. Peter you can imagine why they chose that particular scripture reference.
It sounds very impressive.  It speaks of the church as a divinely inspired establishment, solid as a rock, on firm foundations.
One critic suggested that the inscription should have been continued with Jesus’ very next words to Peter in chapter 16 of St. Matthew:
“Get thee behind me, Satan: thou art an offence unto me: for thou savourest not the things that be of God, but those that be of men”
Hmm. Not exactly a ringing endorsement - and I can see why the Vatican didn’t take up the suggestion.

Counter Cultural Message

We heard last week of what the Christ, Messiah, the anointed King, the Son of God was expected to be.  We talked about the popular expectations of that title – of a priestly king to bring victory to the people.
Having made such a declaration it would be natural to sit down and plan the campaign of conquest.  Instead Jesus starts talking about death and suffering, gloom and doom.  No wonder the disciples were confused. 
No wonder that they react like you or I would do if a friend starts being a little down or morbid – they try and talk him out of it.
To Jesus this sounds scarily like Satan’s voice in the wilderness, when he tried to tempt Jesus out of his mission to save humanity by the sacrifice of the cross.  “Get behind me Satan”, says Jesus.
The truth is that the Christian message is deeply country-cultural, and always has been.
Let me explain.  We like to be popular today.  We like things to be easy to understand, and easy to do.  This goes for everything – including politics and for religion too.
So it’s tempting to portray Christianity as all about harmless things like love, joy and peace, and being nice to animals...  that being a Christian means smiling at people and being nice to everyone – especially those who are nasty.
Perhaps that’s why most people think that Church is for the nice and respectable – the great and the good – for those who have got it all worked out and have no problems in life.
Instead of a nice religious social club Jesus speaks of Christianity being Following his way – the way that leads to real life – eternal life.  But we need to remember that the way Jesus takes is through self-emptying, self-giving, and self-sacrifice – all the way to death, even death on a cross.
It is through this sacrifice, that we find life – it is through self-giving that we receive – all those things that Jesus spoke about in the sermon on the mount back in chapter 5 of Matthew’s gospel – they are all deeply counter cultural – they are upside down and go against the way our self-obsessed, instant society thinks.
For this reason perhaps the church will always be something out of kilter with the people around it, always a bit ill at ease with the way of the world – perhaps it has always been that way?

Not an edifice as much a way of life

There is also a common misconception that being a Christian means you have to believe certain things - give the nod to a pile of religious ideas and theories. This is simply not so. Beliefs are important; I have lots of them. But I don't think any of my beliefs are going to get me into heaven — or keep me out!
I can't see St Peter standing at the Pearly Gates with a clipboard checking up on people's beliefs. Jesus himself made no requirement that people subscribe to particular doctrines before becoming his followers.
But he did call on people to change their ways: to stop being greedy, to become peacemakers, to love their enemies and so on.
Jesus never wrote a book, never created a creed, never started a church and never intended to begin a new religion. He simply demonstrated the way of love — the golden rule in any religious tradition — and invited people to join him in that.
Jesus certainly didn't invent the term 'Christian', which actually appears only three times in the entire Bible. It was probably originally devised by critics of Christ's followers, at least a decade after his death, as a term of derision. But it stuck — for better or worse.
Before they took the name 'Christian', early followers of Christ were simply known as 'people of the way' — people who identified with the way of life Jesus taught and demonstrated.
I like that, 'people of the way'. It suggests being part of a journey, rather than part of an organisation. And I know lots of people who never turn up at church, who struggle with creeds and doctrines, who shrink from the thought of being religious, yet who are very much in the way of Christ.
Let’s get it clear: Christianity is about faith, not belief.  There’s a difference. Faith is about having trust, whereas belief is more like having opinions.  It’s possible to hold beliefs passionately and to argue about them until the cows come home, without them making a scrap of difference to us.
But trust is not about beliefs, creeds, opinions, arguments; it’s more instinctive, more fundamental. It doesn’t need words; it’s in your belly.
In our first reading we see something of this trust and dependence in Jeremiah’s prayer as he struggles with life and his calling.  He had given up everything to follow God and to speak his words – and it led him to suffering.  Yet even here he knows that God is with him, supporting him and helping him go on – and he trusts God to stay with him to the end.

Conclusion

This is what Jesus came to create – a way for you and I to follow, a way that calls us to trust God for ourselves, and for those we love. A way that calls us to stand out against the crowd, to be a little different from society; a call for sacrifice and giving, which puts others first.

That calls us to take up our cross and follow – living always in the presence of a loving God – knowing that you are never alone and that God’s love for you will never run out.

Who Do You Say I Am?

Readings:      Matthew 16:13-20

Introduction

The Tibetan Buddhists believe in the transmigration of souls. When someone dies, they suppose that the soul of that person goes immediately into a different body, the body of a child born at the same instant.
This belief becomes vitally important when their spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, dies. A search is made for a boy born at the moment when the great leader died; and that boy is taken away and brought up as the new leader. Everybody, including the person himself, knows from the very beginning that he is the new Dalai Lama. It sounds very strange to modern Western ears. We highly prize the right of every person to freedom of choice about their future. Even Kings and Queens can abdicate. But the Dalai Lama has no choice; and there is no question about who he is.
In Judaism it was very different. Many Jews of Jesus' day believed (and many still do) that God would send an anointed king who would be the spearhead of the movement that would free Israel from oppression and bring justice and peace to the world at last.
Nobody knew when or where this anointed king would be born, though many believed he would be a true descendant of King David. God had made wonderful promises about his future family. Some would have pointed to the prophecy of Micah 5.1-3 (which Matthew quotes in chapter 2) as indicating that the coming king should be born in Bethlehem. And the word for 'anointed king' in the Jewish languages, Hebrew and Aramaic, was the word we normally pronounce as 'Messiah’.
What would the Messiah be like? How would people tell he had arrived? Nobody knew exactly, but there were many theories. Many saw him as a warrior king who would defeat the pagan hordes and establish Israel's freedom. Many saw him as one who would purge the Temple and establish true worship.
Everybody who believed in such a coming king knew that he would fulfil Israel's scriptures, and bring God's kingdom into being at last, on earth as it was in heaven. But nobody had a very clear idea of what all this would look like on the ground. In the first century there were several would-be Messiahs who came and went, attracting followers who were quickly dispersed when their leader was caught by the authorities. One thing was certain. To be known as a would-be Messiah was to attract hostility from the authorities.
So when Jesus wanted to put the question to his followers he took them well away from their normal sphere of activity. Caesarea Philippi is in the far north of the land of Israel, well outside the territory of Herod Antipas, a good two days' walk from the sea of Galilee. Even the form of his question, here in Matthew's gospel at least, is oblique: 'Who do people say the son of man is?', that is, 'Who do people say that I am?' Jesus must have known the answer he would get, but he wanted the disciples to say it out loud.

How do we answer the question?

Peter gives the right answer but how do we answer that question today? There are so many different opinions on who Jesus is.  If you are an atheist than you probably see Jesus as an historical figure whose followers made wild claims. He was a good teacher, had good morals, but that is it.
If you are Jewish you would say that Jesus was not the Messiah. He is not the Messiah because the time was not right for the Messiah to come according to the Hebrew Bible.  If you are a Muslim then you see Jesus as one of the Major Prophets God sent to the world but not God. You would believe that Jesus was not killed or crucified and, by the way, that he didn’t drink wine.
C.S. Lewis in his book, Mere Christianity, says, "A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic - on the level with a man who says he is a poached egg - or he would be the devil of hell. You must take your choice. Either this was, and is, the Son of God, or else a madman or something worse. You can shut Him up for a fool or you can fall at His feet and call Him Lord and God. But let us not come with any patronizing nonsense about His being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us."
If Jesus stood in front of you today and asked you, “Who do you say I am,” how would you answer that question?
Would you call Jesus a liar? If so you would join the many ranks of people that think so. Jesus was really just a person who was saying things to become famous. He wanted and needed a following and so he came up with these claims but really made it all up.
If he wasn’t a liar, would you call him a lunatic? Maybe he was deranged or mentally ill. He was psychotic enough to think he could walk on water and he pulled 12 other deranged people into his web of hysteria. Is that true?
But if he is not a lunatic or a liar then that leaves only one other option, he is Lord.
This is basically what Peter tells Jesus when he is asked, “Who do you say I am? His answer is You are the Messiah - Jesus the Christ, the Lord.  That claim – Jesus Christ is Lord, soon became the watchword of a Christian. But what does this mean to claim Jesus Christ is Lord?

Jesus is Lord?

The phrase Jesus Christ demonstrates who we believe him to be. Jesus is his human name. It points out that he is 100% human. Christ is his divine name, the Christ, as Peter puts it, naming that he is 100% God.
That is what makes us different than any other religion in the world, Judaism, Islam, Hindu, Buddhists, and all the others. What makes us different is that we look at Jesus and we see God incarnate, the person who is both at the same time, 100% God and 100% human. This is best represented by the title Jesus Christ.
The term Christ also speaks to his purpose on this earth. He was the high priest, a King, and a prophet.  He was high priest by offering himself up on the cross. Jesus Christ was also king, bringing in the Kingdom of God, the reign of God in our hearts. He gave us glimpses of this kingdom through his words and actions. He was a prophet because he spoke the very words of God, indeed is The Word of God.

Conclusion

Peter in one moment of pure inspiration sees something of this and declares that Jesus is the Messiah, the Christ.
For the moment this must remain a deadly secret. If it were to leak out it could be deadly indeed.
But to those who agree with Peter that Jesus of Nazareth really is God's Messiah, this promise is made: that they will become the people through whom the living God will put the world to rights, bringing heaven and earth into their new state of justice and peace.
Peter, with this declaration of faith, will be the starting point of this new community. Peter has much to learn, and many failures to overcome - including one that we will see next week.

But even this is part of the process – because Jesus' new community, the Church of God, consists simply of forgiven sinners - you and me.

Life of St. Paul and the Holy Spirit – The End of the Journey?

Reading:      Acts 28.23-31

Introduction

And so we get to the end of our series on the work of the Holy Spirit through the life of St. Paul.  Lets just remember what we have done.

The Journey so far

We started just on Pentecost Sunday looking at who the Holy Spirit is – that this is God working in our world today by his Spirit living in each one of us. 
After that we reflected on how we each respond to the Holy Spirit.  We reflected on how sometimes we respond with fear and ignorance – not understanding the Holy Spirit.  That’s certainly how St. Paul reacted to the early Christian movement – by persecuting them. 
We wondered how much we also react against the work of the Holy Spirit in our lives, fearful of what God might want us to become.
Next we looked at Paul on the Damascus Road and his dramatic encounter with the Holy Spirit.  Paul was one stubborn, zealous man, and it took something really blinding for God to get his attention. 
We reflected on how sometimes we are so set on our own ways, that we completely miss what God is trying to tell us.  But the good news is that the Holy Spirit is always working within us, helping us to listen to his voice, and urging us to turn around and go in the right direction.
That was just the beginning for Paul and the Holy Spirit.  We looked at the way both Jesus and Paul needed to take time out with God.  They both went out into the wilderness as part of their spiritual journeys.  The Holy Spirit was telling them both that they needed time for God to work in them, time for formation, to get their head’s thinking in God’s way – and so God gave them time out in the desert with the Holy Spirit.
We reflected on the fact that if Jesus and Paul needed time out with God the Holy Spirit so do we.  Do we take time regularly to allow the Holy Spirit to help us think right – to think as God thinks?
Its interesting to see the way the Holy Spirit urged Paul and his friends to talk about their faith.  They just naturally talked about Jesus and what he meant to them all.  They didn’t have to have a manual on how to talk – they just shared what they knew about Jesus – that’s what the Holy Spirit does, point to Jesus.
Filled with this desire to talk about Jesus Paul and his friends went on their Missionary journeys.  They met lots of different people and talked about Jesus.  They learned new things as they went too – learning to trust God and listen to the Holy Spirit prompting them where and when to move.
That’s something we need to remember too – that we too are on a journey with the Holy Spirit.  I believe the Holy Spirit is talking to us, prompting us to meet people and encouraging us to share our faith.  The big question is whether we’re listening and whether we’ll do what God is asking us to do.
We heard about Paul in Athens – meeting new people and having to think things through – and we reflected on how the Holy Spirit transforms our minds and thinking so that we can be heard in a noisy world filled with so many competing voices and opinions.
Finally we heard about Paul’s arrest and his shipwreck – and how they all got through alive.  We learned that being a Christian and following the way of the Holy Spirit through life doesn’t necessarily mean it'll all be plane sailing, that everything will go swimmingly.

The end of the journey?

So now we get to the end of the journey. 
The book of Acts leaves us with Paul under arrest in Rome and still trying to share his faith with the people there.  His journeys have never been easy – he had tough times all the way through, and it is the same again now.
We looked at the book of Philippians a while ago and heard some challenging thoughts from Paul.
When thinking about his own death he told his readers that to live is Christ and to die is gain!  That life is all about Jesus – and that death will bring him even closer to Jesus. 
What a challenging thing to say to his readers – and how inspiring.
We know that Paul in prison had lost almost everything – he was unable to move around freely, he was separated from all his old friends, and he was facing the greatest loss of all – his own life.
But this does not worry him.  He knows that despite all our efforts to cling on to things, the truth is that everything we have in life is only temporary.  Ultimately we lose everything – our friends and family, our health and independence.  We gain all these things, but in the end we will lose them. 
Paul has learned that there is only one thing in this world that is permanent – and that is the love of God we have in Christ Jesus.
This truth has given him a wonderful freedom from the attachments of this world, and helped him to enjoy the simple things of life.  He tells his readers to rejoice in all things – especially in their relationship with Jesus.
He thinks of himself as a long distance runner – keeping going and pressing on towards the finishing line.  He doesn’t want to give up, but to win the prize.
Sometimes I think that as I get to the end of the journey I’ll just want to look forward to a quiet life – to put my feet up and relax.  But I hope that the Holy Spirit will encourage me to keep on being open to all that God wants for me, and the example of St. Paul will inspire me.

Conclusion

And remember, this is not the end of the journey – for two reasons:  Number one we know we have the promise of eternal life – so for St. Paul, and for us we know that St. Paul lives on with God and one day we will get to meet him – won't that be exciting?
The other reason the journey goes on is that the Holy Spirit is alive and active here and now just as he was 2000 years ago.
I think for me the key message of these last seven weeks is the way the Holy Spirit transformed this person Paul.
He started off being a narrow, bigoted zealout, proud of his Jewish pedigree and his pure heritage. He was ready to use violence to further his aims without mercy. 
But we have seen how the Holy Spirit has worked in his life over the years.  He turned away from violence. He embraced love and grace, and long suffering patience.  He became passionate about knowing Jesus and what he really wanted about all was for other people to know him too.
What a huge transformation – he has become more and more like Jesus.  And that is what the Holy Spirit does – it transforms you and me - in our thinking and in our heart, so we become more and more like Jesus – and that has got to be a good thing hasn’t it?
I’ll end with a prayer that St. Paul had for the Church at Ephesus:

I pray that Christ will make his home in your hearts through faith. I pray that you may have your roots and foundation in love, so that you, together with all God's people, may have the power to understand how broad and long, how high and deep, is Christ's love -- and so be completely filled with the very nature of God. Amen.