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.

Life of St. Paul and the Holy Spirit – Being heard in a noisy world

Reading:      Acts 17.22-31

Introduction

Does it ever feel to you that you’re speaking a different language to everyone else around you?  And I don’t mean Polish – although we can hear some of that on our streets don’t we.
Sometimes when you’re out on the streets, going shopping or just in a queue – and we can wonder how different things have become in the last 20 years.
I wonder how that makes you feel?  You can see a reaction to all that in politics today across Europe and in this country, with alarmist voices calling for an end to immigration and to reassert our Christian heritage. 
And it isn’t just about foreign people in the country – it seems that young people are speaking another language too.  Almost everyone is on a mobile phone, chatting away for ages – or sending texts, or sending a tweet.  I was listening to a group of young people as I drove them back from sailing, and after chatting on the minibus they couldn’t wait to get back home and onto social media sites, sharing ideas, gossip, videos and music.
It's as if we are in a huge market place, where there is so much being exchanged – not just fruit and vegetables, but ideas, thoughts and words.  I don’t know if there ever was an age when everyone in this country thought and believed the same thing – but if it ever existed, it’s long gone. 
Even the church is changing – with modern songs and new liturgies – and now we’re going to be getting women bishops!  What is the world coming to? 
How does that make you feel?  We can feel bemused and retreat from the world into a comfortable nostalgia - and remember the good old days and wonderful vicars from the past who knew how to be a proper priest.  Or we can try and engage with things as they are now, with all its changes.

Sent to all the world

In our gospel reading Jesus spoke to his disciples and gives them the great commission to go to all nations and tell them the good news.  And he promises to be with them always – through the presence of the Holy Spirit – helping them to remember Jesus’ words to them, and to going out to tell others.
And that’s what happened.  The first Christians, ordinary men and women, with no theological training or presentation skills, went out, led by the Holy Spirit, and spoke to all kinds of people, telling them about Jesus Christ and how he had changed their lives.
These men and women were mostly Jews who believed in Jesus the Messiah.  To begin with they kept in the synagogues, meeting on a Sabbath, and they told their brothers and sisters about The Messiah.  Some believed, but others would not.
You can see the story unfolding in the Acts of the Apostles.  First with St. Peter and then with St. Paul, they found opposition and rejection with Jewish people, but an openness and acceptance among non-Jews.
Despite centuries of prejudice, believing that God was only for the Jews, they now found God blessing non-Jews as well – and filling them with his Holy Spirit – just like them.
And as we heard last week The Holy Spirit prompted Paul to go on three missionary journeys far across the Roman Empire to spread the word to Jews and non-Jews alike – and in our reading today we find him on European soil in Athens.

Adapting the message

He found a city full of ideas of science, philosophy and debate. He found a people who were open to all sorts of ideas and religions – and loved to argue about it with one another.  They were open to all things, they believed in everything – which meant, of course, that they truly believed in nothing.
Paul was used to speaking in small towns, going first to synagogues, and then perhaps to anyone else who would listen.  If people responded he would set up a little church fellowship – appoint a few elders and leave them to it – writing some letters to them for guidance and visiting them when he could.
But now he's in a big cosmopolitan city!  How do you begin to tell the Christian message to a people who think they know everything, who have heard it all before, who have such a variety of beliefs and superstitions on offer all around them?
I think it's fascinating to see what Paul does, and how he adapts his message for the situation.  For Jewish listeners he would preach from the Old Testament, the Hebrew Scriptures, and tells them about the promised Messiah who has come, Jesus Christ.
Now, in Athens, Paul has to think again.  He takes his time - he studies the environment – gets to see how the people think and what God is doing among them. He looks at the religious beliefs, looks around their temples, reads up their poets and authors – and he uses this as a way to start a conversation.
As we heard - he praises them for what they have. “Men and Women of Athens – I see that you are really religious – you worship all kinds of Gods – even one called an unknown God.  Well - he is the God I serve – let me tell you more about him”.
And from there he starts to show them how the unknown God has come to make himself known to all people, through Jesus Christ.
Brilliant.  He understood the barriers those Greek people had to his message, and made an effort to bridge the gap.  Some made fun of him, but others wanted to know more.

Application

We are in a very similar position now.  In previous generations people may have known the Christian story, its symbols, and its language.  Church buildings were more familiar, and held in more respect.  But in the last 50 years that’s been lost.
Today Britain is a market place of religious beliefs, superstition and points of view – where everything is equal.  People are open to everything, and so tend to believe in nothing.
The Christian message is being drowned out in the noise and clamour of the market. And when it is heard, it sounds so dated and irrelevant that it isn’t being accepted.
Like St. Paul we too have to change our message, and the way we do things.  We too need the Holy Spirit to show us the ways to change so that we can be heard in our society today.
The people around us still have the same needs.  They still need to know that God loves them, that they were created for a purpose, and that God wants them to have a close relationship with him and enjoy his presence for all eternity.
They still need the Holy Spirit to be their comforter in times of trouble. They will still be hit by tragedy and loss and need to know that God offers them eternal life now and beyond the grave.
It won't be easy for us to engage with this society.  Many of the arguments within the church are rooted in this issue of how to adapt and change.  But we do need to change to overcome the barriers between us and society – to become more welcoming, to help people to belong to God and to each other, to believe the Christian message, and to behave as God wants us to.

As we have seen, Saint Paul and the early Church had to adapt and change, and so do we.  May the Holy Spirit bring us wisdom, guidance and courage to change and to grow.  Amen.

Life of St. Paul and the Holy Spirit – In the Desert

Readings:      Galatians 1.11–20; Mark 1.9–13

Introduction

We continue our exploration of the life of St. Paul and the work of the Holy Spirit in his life.
Last time Saul the violent religious extremist met Jesus in a transforming experience on the Damascus Road.
Today we’re thinking about what happened after that event.  Paul describes it like this:
“God in his grace chose me even before I was born, and called me to serve him. And when he decided to reveal his Son to me, so that I might preach the Good News about him to the Gentiles, I did not go to anyone for advice, nor did I go to Jerusalem to see those who were apostles before me.  Instead, I went at once to Arabia, and then I returned to Damascus.”
Why Arabia? Some think it was a time of solitary meditation, in preparation for the Gentile mission; others, that it was Paul’s first attempt at Gentile evangelism.  Where was “Arabia,” anyway, at that time?
Most agree that the main point Paul is making in the passage is that he did not go to Jerusalem. But the question of Arabia is still a puzzle.  Today we’re going to look at what he was doing there.

Paul the Zealous Man

Paul indicates in 1:14 that he belonged, before his conversion, to the tradition of “zeal for the law.” – that he was something of a zealot. This zeal led him not just into zealous study and prayer but into violent action.
Zeal of this sort was part of a long tradition within Judaism – you just need to think of Phinehas in the book of Numbers, the great prophet Elijah in 1 Kings and Mattathias the rebel leader just before Jesus was born.
I guess Elijah is best known to us all.  Elijah, too, was clearly a man of “zeal.” “I have been very zealous for the Lord” (1 Kgs 19:14). His zeal, of course, had consisted precisely in slaying the prophets of Baal, as recounted in the previous chapter.
But he had been stopped in his tracks, confronted by Ahab and Jezebel with a threat to his life (19:1-2); and he had run away “to Mount Sinai, the Holy mountain” (19:8), apparently to give up – to resign from being a prophet.
There, in the famous story, he was met by earthquake, wind, and fire, but the Lord was in none of them. Finally he heard “a still small voice,” inquiring why he was there. His explanation, as we just saw: great zeal, and now great disappointment. “I alone am left, and they seek my life,” he complains miserably.
God listens to his complaints, then he gives Elijah a new mission, he sends him back to Damascus to start again.
For Elijah going up that mountain was a chance to cry out to God – but God used it as a time to change his mind.
It’s interesting to see that Paul follows in the footsteps of Elijah – faced with a crisis in his faith, and struggling with his calling – he goes to Arabia – to Mount Sinai, and cries out to God.
Maybe he was complaining that he is not up to the work he had been assigned. Maybe he heard a still small voice of God telling him about what God was doing through Jesus in the world.
His zeal was now redirected. God then sends him back to Damascus with a new mission – as Apostle to Non-Jews - the herald of the new king.

Paul needed to change

I think that must have been a real struggle for Paul.  He was having to realise that his former life of violence was wrong.  He was realising that God accepts not just Jewish people, but all people. He came to see that evil isn’t defeated by killing other people, but by the death of Jesus Christ.  Realising that the battle had already been won – by Jesus.
Paul was in “Arabia” and then Damascus for three years – it can't have been easy listening to God, wrestling with these issues and thinking things through – but through it all Paul’s faith grew stronger and he emerged a transformed man.  Later in his letter to the Roman Christians he said:
Do not conform yourselves to the standards of this world, but let God transform you inwardly by a complete change of your mind. Then you will be able to know the will of God---what is good and is pleasing to him and is perfect.
The Holy Spirit had transformed his mind – his thinking – and he was now ready to go out and work for God in a new way.

Conclusion

It isn’t easy to stop and think our faith through – to allow the Holy Spirit to transform our minds.  It isn’t easy to think about the issues facing us today in our technological world, with fanaticism on one side and atheism on the other, while we use and abuse our fragile environment without a care for tomorrow.
We tend to like instant solutions rather than work through things with the Holy Spirit.  We may be tempted to think that being a Christian is just about being baptised when we were little.  That we just need to stop thinking and learning and growing, and just keep coming to Church.
Well I'm impressed by the example of St. Paul.  He didn’t rush on with life, thinking that was all God had for him. 
Paul showed the mark of a true disciple – he stopped, he took time to think, time to listen to God, and time to let the Holy Spirit wrestle within him – working out his salvation – and what it means to be a Christian.
It’s a process he continued throughout his life – and it’s a pattern we should all follow too.
The truth is we’re never finished learning and growing in our faith – as Paul said ‘I do not claim that I have already succeeded or have already become perfect. I keep striving to win the prize for which Christ Jesus has already won me to himself.’

I hope and pray that we will do the same throughout our lives too. Amen.

Life of St. Paul and the Holy Spirit – The Beginning

Reading:      Acts 7.54 – 8.1a
This is the start of a short series on the Holy Spirit – looking especially through the eyes of St. Paul.  As we journey through Paul’s life we will see how the Holy Spirit worked in him, helping him to work for God and to transform him to become all that he could be.  And we know that God wants us all to do the same for each one of us.
Sadly the Church has often misunderstood the Holy Spirit.  The Bible tells us that the Holy Spirit is the very presence of God himself in all the world, that we all need his presence within us. 
Many people are fearful of the ‘Holy Ghost’, thinking it is all much too ‘spiritual’ and strange – not at all Anglican.  I remember some time ago talking about the work of the Holy Spirit, and how he is God within us, and I asked people what they thought of the idea.  Quite a few people said it sounded frightening! 
Maybe you’re sitting there thinking the same thing.  For many of us, growing up in the established church, going about our daily lives to school or to work, being in control of our time and money, there isn’t much need or room in our lives for the Holy Spirit. 
We like to be in control of our lives, and the thought of allowing God to be in your life through his Holy Spirit, to help you, guide and direct you may be a disturbing idea. 
But remember, this is the same God who loves you and gave up everything for you – and he wants the very best for you – so you can trust that even the difficult experiences we go through can be used in God's overall plan for good. And nothing can separate us from the love of God.
We first hear about Paul, or rather Saul, in the story of Stephen in the book of Acts.

The Story of Stephen

We know that for those first believers before the Holy Spirit came along that life was flat, dull and monotonous.  Jesus had ascended to heaven and they were waiting - without Jesus there is no fire to light up their lives; No love burning in their hearts; No imagination and inspiration in their minds.
They hid away in small rooms waiting, praying and fearful of what was going to happen to them.  Afraid of being dragged before the crowds outside the door, and before the Jewish authorities, who had executed Jesus.
Stephen was one of them.  An ordinary man who became a follower of Jesus.  And then the Holy Spirit came at Pentecost, and everything was different.  The followers of Jesus were now filled with new life, new power and new confidence.
If life seemed flat, dull and monotonous before – now there was the excitement of new life, new power and new vision for the disciples.  If Jesus’ teaching seemed impossible to do before – now they had the Holy Spirit – God given help and encouragement that was always with them.
Without Jesus there was no fire to light up their lives – now it was as if tongues of fire lit up their lives, touching them with the holiness of God.  His love burning in their hearts, setting them on fire for the Lord, filling their minds with imagination and inspiration.
They went out with confidence and courage to share the good news with others around them.  Thousands were added to their numbers, they shared their money and possessions for the benefit of the Church and the community.  They organised themselves to care for the poor and elderly. And Stephen was one of them.
We are told in Acts chapter 6 that Stephen was full of the Holy Spirit and was brave and wise – but in the arguments between those first Christians and the Jews Stephen was seized. 
They accused him of speaking against the Temple and the Law of Moses.  Stephen might have kept quiet and got let off – but instead he is filled with courage and tells them: "How stubborn you are!" Stephen went on to say: "How heathen your hearts, how deaf you are to God's message! You are just like your ancestors: you too have always resisted the Holy Spirit!”
They are so angry with him that they rush out and stone him to death – the first Christian Martyr.  And a young man called Saul was there approving of his murder.  I wonder what impact this had on him – I think he was impressed by the boldness of these Christians and he goes on to help hunt them down.  We will hear more of what Saul does next and how he became Paul the Apostle next week.

Application

Now you may be thinking that the story of Stephen is not a great advert for being a Christian and being empowered by the Holy Spirit!  And you’re right of course, I'm not encouraging you to go out and become martyrs for the Christian faith.
But I am impressed by the difference that God brought about in these first Christians through the Holy Spirit.  They were transformed and inspired because of God’s spirit within them.
My friends, this is what Christianity is all about – not struggling on our own to live up to a set of rules and trying to be nice to people.  We are called to day by day relationship with the living God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit – and we can only do this by living in harmony with the Holy Spirit.
Jesus said it was better that he goes away, so the Holy Spirit can come to live with us.  According to Saint Seraphim of Sarov, the whole aim of the incarnation is the sending of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost.  What higher aim can there be than to have God the Holy Spirit surround you and be part of your life?
Too often we ignore the Holy Spirit – perhaps afraid of all this talk of spirits, fire, wind, and different kinds of tongues!  So, we hide away from the Holy Spirit, keeping God at arms distance, where he can't do anything for us.
That’s really sad, because the Holy Spirit is a gift from God for everyone who wants to be real with God. 
We know that God loves us, don’t we?  So is his Holy Spirit going to be good for us or bad for us?  The Spirit of God only wants our very best – to comfort us in despair, to help us in trouble, to power us to achieve our best, to fill us with love for those around us.

Conclusion

If we look again at our worship services, our hymns, and our sacraments – these are all shot-through with the Holy Spirit – just have a look.  But the question today is this - How about our own lives – are we shot through with the Holy Spirit?
Perhaps this series on the life of St. Paul is a good opportunity to think some more about the Holy Spirit, to open our hearts, our lives, to welcome God to come in and amaze us.
There is nothing to fear – God loves us and respects our freedom – but he longs that we be more open to God and his Holy Spirit - to invite him to have more of our lives and to make us more like Jesus.
Let us pray:
Father God we confess that we often ignore your Holy Spirit, and we prefer to be tightly in control of our lives rather than be moved by your spirit. 

Help us Lord - take away our fear, fill us with your Holy Spirit to bring us courage, strength and confidence in you.  Amen.

EASTER - A Life changing encounter

Readings:      Matthew 28.1-10

Introduction

After the long Sabbath, the rest in the cold tomb - and now, still in the darkness, the first day of the week. The new week. The new creation. The eighth day.
Eyes red from weeping and sleepless Sabbath nights. Women at the tomb; perhaps to bring more spices, perhaps just to weep, perhaps just to be there, because there was nowhere else to be, nothing else to do, nothing else that mattered, that would ever matter.
The men are nowhere to be seen at this hour, it is the faithful women who have the devotion and the courage to be out this early.  Mary Magdalene, with the other Marys; who stood at the foot of the cross, forcing herself to witness everything.  Now these women become the first witnesses to the Resurrection. Now they will be the first apostles, the apostles to the apostles: the first to bring the news that the tomb was empty and the first to see, to meet, to speak with the risen master himself.

Who can move the stone?

As they arrive they would have expected to see the soldiers guarding the tomb and have to persuade them to move the stone for them so they can pay their respects to the body of Jesus.  It won't be an easy or pleasant task.
But then something totally unexpected. “Suddenly there was a violent earthquake; an angel of the Lord came down from heaven, rolled the stone away, and sat on it. His appearance was like lightning, and his clothes were white as snow.  The guards were so afraid that they trembled and became like dead men.”
Somehow they manage to stop themselves running away – this sight is enough to floor even strapping well-trained soldiers.  The Angel speaks tenderly to them: "You must not be afraid," he said. "I know you are looking for Jesus, who was crucified. He is not here; he has been raised, just as he said. Come here and see the place where he was lying.”
They peer inside and see that tomb is empty. From the other Gospel accounts we know that they will have seen the linen cloths lying there. Someone has not only taken the body away; they have first gone to the trouble of unwrapping it.
Matthew tells us that they don’t stop to think about such details – instead they do what the Angel has told them: “Go quickly now, and tell his disciples, 'He has been raised from death, and now he is going to Galilee ahead of you; there you will see him!' Remember what I have told you."
So they left the tomb in a hurry, afraid and yet filled with joy, and ran to tell his disciples.  I’m so impressed by Mary’s courage and dedication – with such emotions running through them: afraid and yet joyful.  Joyful.  Perhaps filled with a wild delight at God's creative power; perhaps it felt a bit like sunrise after a long dark night; maybe a bit like the sound of rain at the end of a long drought.  Afraid and yet Joyful, they tumble away from the tomb eager to tell the others.
And that’s when they run straight into Jesus.  Matthew tells us: “Suddenly Jesus met them and said, "Peace be with you." They came up to him, took hold of his feet, and worshiped him.  "Do not be afraid," Jesus said to them. "Go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee, and there they will see me."
That must have been even more shocking – seeing their beloved Jesus standing right there in front of them in the flesh.  This is no mere ghost – nothing ghost like about him here – they hold on to him in love and worship. 
He’s not the same battered and bloody body they last saw – here is Jesus filled with new life, glowing with health, but recognisably the same Jesus they have known and loved all these years. 
And he is pointing them to a new future – go and tell the others that he is alive and everything is now different.  Bless them; they go as he asks them.

New Purpose and Hope in Life

Over the next few weeks we will be seeing the difference this encounter makes for all the disciples.  They are changed from being fearful, uncertain, broken and confused men and women into men and women with a new quality of life.
They had witnessed Jesus’ agony of the cross, seeing him bearing the sin of the whole world – taking on himself their sins and guilt – and your sins and my sins too.  The message of that Good Friday is that because of Jesus we have been saved FROM separation from God, saved FROM our sinful nature and FROM the judgement that brings.
And now those disciples meet the risen Jesus and know that they have been saved FOR a future with God, FOR a new purpose, FOR a life lived in harmony with God.  And we can know that too.
Jesus’ resurrection is OUR present strength and our future hope, it's the guarantee of our own resurrection, a future that isn’t just for when we die – but starts right now, if we accept Jesus Christ as our own personal Lord and Saviour.
This new quality of life begins when we let Jesus come into our lives, renewing our minds, filling us with his Holy Spirit, and re-creating us from the inside out.  This is what Jesus calls abundant life – and it's what he promised to all who believe and trust in him.

Conclusion

It started with some loving and dedicated women, who braved the darkness and the Roman soldiers to visit the tomb.  They found the risen Christ – that he was there for them, banishing sadness, betrayal and fear.  The risen Jesus changed their whole lives.
This is the moment of new creation. This is the first day of God's new week. The darkness has gone, and the sun is shining. 
This is the whole point of the resurrection: that we can meet Jesus today – through the Spirit and by faith.  And the encounter can be no less life changing.
Triumphant over death, he is alive for ever.  He still comes to transform broken, sorrowing and fearful lives with the sheer uninhibited gladness of discovering him, alive and with us.
So, on this holy day, let us celebrate.

Amen....