Writing the next chapter

This is the sermon I preached this morning at Putney Methodist Church. It was the day of our Annual Church Meeting, where we considered the past and future of our congregation. The text was Acts 6:1-7

probably_valentin_de_boulogne_-_saint_paul_writing_his_epistles_-_google_art_projectThe Acts of the Apostles is one of those books of the Bible that we often over-look, sadly. We all know the stories from Luke’s gospel very well and many of them are the most popular in our scriptures: the shepherds and the angels at Christ’s birth, the parable of the Prodigal Son, the Supper at Emmaus, to name but a few. When we come to the second half of Luke’s gospel, though – and we should always remember that that is precisely what the book of Acts is – our knowledge tends to peter out a little.

We almost certainly know the story of Christ’s Ascension and the descent of the Spirit at Pentecost from its opening chapters. We also know, I am sure, at least some of the details of the conversion of St Paul and some of St Peter’s experiences. There is so much more to the book, though. So many more of the first disciples’ fascinating adventures – and there is no other way of describing them – as they begin to tell all sorts of people the good news of Jesus Christ.

Perhaps most importantly, in these 28 chapters of scripture we see more clearly than anywhere else the beginnings of what will become Christ’s Church on earth. As so often in life, they do not start with a clear blueprint of what they are seeking to create; they did not begin by saying, “We want something that looks a bit like that Putney Methodist Church”! They knew what they wanted to do – tell people the story of Jesus, and especially his death and resurrection – but how to do that remained the key question. In the book of Acts, we see them proceeding by that ancient method of trial and error. We read of people like Paul and Barnabas, going from place to place, sometimes being heard and accepted and sometimes being driven out of town. We read about early congregations being established across the eastern Mediterranean, and facing challenges both from within, and without, as they established a pattern of worship, prayer and evangelism that worked for them. We hear of councils and controversies, as they sought to discern what it truly meant to follow Christ, often taking incredibly hard and brave decisions. It is an incredible story of people faithfully building God’s Church up from nothing, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit.

Apostles church RomeWhy I have chosen this particular passage today, and why I am speaking about this subject at all, is, of course, because today is our Annual Church Meeting. This is the occasion when we, as a congregation, have the opportunity to look back at all that God has done for us in the past, and to renew our trust in him for the year that is to come. It is also traditionally an opportunity for us to undertake some necessary business and to engage in that traditional pre-occupation of church navel-gazing!

From long experience, I know that many of us cannot stand such meetings and will make a bolt for the door as soon as the notes of the last hymn die away! If you possibly can stay, though, I would strongly urge you so to do. Why? Because just as Luke’s Acts of the Apostles is a continuation of the story he began in his gospel, so is our Annual Church Meeting merely another chapter in that glorious story. It may not feel like it is, and it is certainly not as adventurous as Paul’s shipwreck off Malta (Acts 27), say, but it is unquestionably part of the same narrative. It is the same story of God’s people trying to serve him in this time and place. The same story of people from all sorts of backgrounds and nationalities coming together to glorify Christ’s name. Working out, through the same method of trial and error, how we can best worship him, serve him and his people, and share the good news of Jesus Christ with all who will hear it. The same story of God’s Holy Spirit at work amongst his people, if we but look for it.

seven-deaconsCrucially, the passage that we just heard read – like so many others in Acts – reminds us that that story belongs to us all. The church of Acts was struggling to cope with its mission both to preach the Word of God and to serve those in need, in this particular case the widows of the two communities. The apostles were learning that vital lesson, which all pastors have to learn, that no one can do everything that needs to be done. That while individuals like Paul and Peter might, rightly, hog the limelight, their work is ultimately in vain, if it is not taken up and championed by the entire community. It reminds us of so many other passages in the New Testament, perhaps particularly 1 Corinthians (12:12-31), where churches realised the Spirit moved among them all, and that all had vital gifts and graces with which to bless the community and one another. That God called, and calls, all kinds of people to bring about his Kingdom on earth.

Today is not just about ‘keeping the show on the road’ or the usual call for people to ‘fill the jobs’. This is about us recognising our part in God’s story of salvation. Then as now, this is a counter-cultural message that we often struggle to hear. Today we live in what is often described as a consumerist society, where we have a huge variety of goods and services at our disposal. When we go to a shop, we expect it to have what we want immediately, in the colour, size and at the price we desire. If it does not, then we will go elsewhere. Often, we feel very little loyalty to those providing the goods or services, and will now happily shop around online until we find the best deal for us. To some extent, this was just as true of the marketplaces of ancient Jerusalem and Antioch as it is of Westfield today. The difference is that many people today have come to apply the same philosophy to nearly all their dealings, even seemingly to the field of friendship. On Facebook, and other social media, we can simply delete someone from our lives, if we no longer believe we are getting good ‘value for money’ from our friendship. Relationships are in real danger of becoming solely consumerist transactions: “What do I get out of this? What’s in it for me?”.

A macro detail of the book of Acts in the Christian New TestamentSadly, many people are applying the same philosophy to churches. We encounter that attitude occasionally here, with people shopping around, trying to find the ‘perfect church’. The one that does things exactly the way they like; that provides the services they need; and the one that makes no demands on them, apart from occasional attendance on Sunday mornings. If it fails so to do, then they will simply go elsewhere. In many respects, I fully understand that attitude. All of lead busy lives today, with enormous pressures on our time and resources – people simply do not have the leisure time to devote to church life that once they had. I also feel that some pressure of this kind is useful to churches: it makes us reflect on whether we are simply pleasing ourselves with the way we worship and function, or are actually meeting the genuine need for people to encounter God in the most appropriate way for them.

There is a real barrier to cross here, though. Because the church – our little church here and all congregations everywhere – simply cannot operate in that manner. We cannot be ‘all things to all people’ without a responding commitment from those who attend. On one of my first Sundays here at Putney, I encountered a couple with a young family, who were clearly disappointed by what they had found here. They had come from a large, thriving church in the USA, with a flourishing choir, children’s work, etc. Typically, they had come on a Sunday when there were very few people here – as periodically happens – and at the door the woman effectively told me off because the church had not met her expectations. As always, I humbly accepted the criticism and I had a lot of sympathy for her critique. But part of me also wanted to say, “Well, why not join us and be the change? You can see the need and the potential here. Why not make a commitment to help us become the church you want us to be?”

Now, I know the reasons why that was an impracticable suggestion: they were both busy parents, with demanding careers and many calls on their time. It is the same for so many of us here today. But as we read the book of Acts, we see time and time again how one person can make a huge difference to the life of God’s church. We know that from the life of this church. How one person – someone “of good standing, full of the Spirit and of wisdom” (Acts 6:3) – choosing to make a commitment, to do one thing well, can have such a huge effect on the lives of so many others. The book of Acts tells me that I cannot fill this church with the Holy Spirit by myself, no minister can. That requires the ministry of the whole people of God, working together, bringing their different gifts and graces to serve us all, and enrich the life of our community. As Christians, we are not called to be solely consumers of church: picking the bits we like and which serve our needs, and rejecting the rest. We are called to be integral parts of the one body of the church.

So, I make my appeal today, brothers and sisters. The same appeal that Peter and the apostles made to the church two thousand years ago. Can you be part of the 2,000 year story of God’s church? Can you help shape its next chapter? Is God calling you today to be part of that glorious story and that fascinating future? We have so much work to do here, and I see so many promising signs of hope and growth. Truly, the harvest is great but the workers are few (Matt. 9:37). Can you spare just a few hours each month to serve your church – by committing to prayer, to helping with worship, by working with our young people? Is God calling you today, in the same way that he called the seven in the time of Peter? If so, I believe fervently that our future, by God’s grace, can be as bright as its past. That the word of God can continue to spread and the number of the disciples increase greatly. Together, let us write the next chapter of Christ’s story in this place. Amen.

Peter anointing seven deacons

Section of a fresco in the Niccoline Chapel by Fra Angelico, depicting Saint Peter consecrating the Seven Deacons. Saint Stephen is shown kneeling. Source: Wikimdeia.

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