This teenager has just got his driving licence. He asks his father, who is a vicar, if they can discuss his use of the car. His father says to him, “I’ll make a deal with you. You do better at college, study your Bible a little, and get your hair cut, then we will talk about it.”
A month later the boy comes back and again asks his father if they can discuss his use of the car. His father replies, “Son, I’m really proud of you. You have done much better at college, you’ve studied your Bible diligently, but you didn’t get your hair cut!” The young man waits a moment and replies, “You know Dad, I’ve been thinking about that. You know Samson had long hair, Moses had long hair, Noah had long hair, and even Jesus had long hair.”
“yes” His father replies, “ and they walked everywhere they went!”
Teenagers! We were all teenagers once. Maybe you can remember the spots, the awkwardness and that feeling that you could do anything – if only your parents would let you. The teenage years are all about separation – kids asserting their right to think differently, dress differently and smell differently to the parents. Do religions have a teenage phase too?
This week, if you’ve been doing the CBE, we’ve been reading the Acts of the Apostles, and Paul’s letters to Thessalonica. How did you find it?
The story of Acts is really the story of how Christianity came to separate from Judaism, and it is virtually the story of one man: Saul of Tarsus. Of course, Peter, James, Philip and Barnabas play a part, but Paul is the focus. Part of that is because Luke, who wrote Acts and the Gospel, was one of Paul’s travelling companions, and partly because Paul is just such a giant, and his pioneering ministry to non-Jews created the church which later decided which books got into the New Testament.
What struck me as I read Acts is the sheer courage of Paul, but also the utter self assurance and relentlessness of the man. He is unstoppable: mostly in a good way, but I wouldn’t want to get on the wrong side of him.
But I’d like us to dig behind the human story of this gifted man, because the story of Acts is really the story of the Holy Spirit. Have you noticed just how many times Luke tells us that Peter, Paul and other apostles and preachers performed healing miracles? Some people think that Jesus performed healings because he was the son of God, but that Christians today shouldn’t expect them. But that is not the way it seems in the book of Acts. Lots of people are performing healings, and even people who are not Christians are using the name of Jesus to have a go at healing and deliverance. Think about that strange reading about the sons of Sceva in Acts. These men are Jewish, not even real believers in Jesus, yet they realise there is power in the name of Jesus, and they are able to use that power up to a point.
It makes you wonder, doesn’t it? What power are we missing out on? Why do the Pentecostal churches preach about and practice healing all the time, and we Anglicans are so wary and quiet about it?
Sometimes it is because we know that healing doesn’t always come. We don’t want to raise people’s hopes, in case they are hurt if they are not healed. But what I see in Acts, is that life is a lot more chaotic than that: Peter is set free from prison by an angel, but just days earlier James has been killed after being in the same prison; Paul is spared from death in a ship wreck, but he is stoned, lashed, beaten with rods and almost lynched so many times that he appears to have 9 lives; lots of people get healed, but Ananias and Sapphira drop dead in front of Peter, just for lying. Miracles happen throughout the pages of Acts, but still there is a lot of suffering. It’s not like the apostles have a charmed existence. They live quite close to death all the time.
We would perhaps like a much neater picture, but the Holy Spirit seems to weave a much more complex web. It is the Spirit who blocks Paul from mission in one part of Turkey, only to send him to Greece. It is a prophet who warns Paul that he will be imprisoned if he goes to Jerusalem, and yet Paul still goes ahead and goes there. There is this weaving of divine intervention and human will: God and us working in partnership, usually reasonably harmoniously, but certainly not always. We have to get good at hearing God.
So one question that occurs to me is: when did you last sense that God wanted you to do something other than what you had already decided to do? Surely this is the difference between a religion and a philosophy: philosophy is about living life by certain principles, like love, non-violence, honesty; religion has similar principles, but it is open to the sovereign voice of God. So when did God last speak to you, or prompt you to do something?
And how does God speak to us? We have in Acts examples of some different ways: visions, often accompanied by words (like Peter’s vision of a sheet full of animals); prophecies (like Agabus’ prophecy over Paul); the whole church in debate (like the Council in Jerusalem); and the whole church at prayer (like when the Church in Antioch sent out Paul and Barnabas); and then there are times when we are not told how the message came. And I guess that the underlying message here is that we should certainly expect God to speak to us, individually and together. Quite often God will speak as we still ourselves in prayer – do you dismiss those thoughts that come whilst you are praying, or might they be the voice of God? God may also speak through others, but we should expect to find a certain inner witness, when that happens.
And that leads me onto another thing: how do we know what is the voice and will of God, and what is not? This is an issue that will come back time and again in our next weeks of reading, as we look at the letters. You see, the letters are often written because a church has taken a wrong move: they have thought something or done something that is leading them away from Jesus.
But presumably those Christians thought that what they were doing was okay. So in Thessalonica, some Christians had given up work and were living off their brothers and sisters because they were convinced that the end of the world and the return of our Lord Jesus was coming soon. Other Christians were worried that Jesus had already come back and that this present, tough life was all that there was to expect.
Paul writes 1 and 2 Thessalonians into this mix. He asserts that Jesus has not come back yet, but we should live in preparation for that moment. There is a clear sense in which Paul and other early Christians expected Jesus to come back in glory within those middle years of the first century. And they were wrong. Jesus is yet to come back.
So in what sense should we trust what Paul, Peter, Luke and others write? There are no easy answers to that, but it comes back to Jesus. We follow a particular man, who was somehow more than a man; he was the Son of God. He was such a catalyst of God’s power, that even his name alone has power. His disciples heal people in his name. we too speak healing in his name.
The power of God flows through the teaching and lifestyle of Jesus. Loving enemies; giving away our money; sharing everything; living a life of prayer; practising holiness – these habits are like magnets to the power of God. God shows up where we practice these things: churches are made, ill people are healed, hungry people are fed and there is good news for those who want it.
But these things also attract negative energy too. People who are following the teaching of Jesus and seeking to love God as Jesus taught, find themselves being attacked by those who don’t agree. Giving away stuff challenges those who want to sell stuff; in Ephesus the merchants lead the riot. Sharing everything challenges those who want people to stay separate; Jews keep attacking Paul for relaxing the barriers around their religion. Practising holiness challenges those who want a hedonistic lifestyle; you’ve all experienced how threatened people get when you won’t join in with the highly sexualised, alcohol driven, anxiety fuelled lifestyle all around us. Persecution and opposition somehow go with the life of Jesus. So don’t be surprised when it happens to you.
Through it all, we keep coming back to Jesus. Paul is driven by this passion to make Jesus known amongst people who haven’t yet heard. 2000 years later, we live amongst a people who still have not heard much about Jesus. I’ve told you before about the survey that reported that 40% of adults did not know that Jesus was a real person. This same survey reported that 57% of adults didn’t believe in the resurrection.
That’s all a little depressing after nearly 2000 years, don’t you think? But there is good news too: 67% of people in this country know somebody who is a practising Christian, and when they are asked to describe the Christians they know, they usually think of them more highly than their non-Christian friends. Get that! People like you! The most commonly used words were: friendly, caring and good humoured.
So the question is: when did you last talk to somebody who isn’t a Christian about Jesus? 2% of Christians said that they had never done so. 33% said that they had done so within the last week. What about you?
The research also explored how non-Christians felt about Christians talking about Jesus: 20% said they wanted to know more; Nearly 60% said that they were still waiting for their Christian friend to talk to them about Jesus.