Sunday 17th April 2016
Readings: Acts 9:36-end, John 10:22-30
Heavenly Father, as we come to hear your written word this morning, draw us ever closer to your Living Word, Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
Well, this is my first sermon since returning from Spring Harvest and, on the whole, it was a marvellous, rejuvenating experience.
The kids had a great time going to their clubs and the adult worship and seminars were really good too. When you spend all your time leading services it is remarkably refreshing just to spend some time enjoying worship again without worrying about all the things that might go wrong. In a way I am still processing some of the stuff that went on there but there was something I wanted to share with you this morning, which is also pertinent to the Easter season of resurrection that we are still in.
One of the speakers gave a talk which struck me as being both simple and profound at the same time.
He said how Christians are so often the opposite of football supporters. People who support football teams, no matter how rubbish those teams are, are always full of optimism that this season will be the season that they will win the cup, get promoted to the next league and how things are going to go well for them this year, despite all the evidence to the contrary.
Christians on the other hand are always writing books with titles like “The Church is One generation from extinction”, they are generally so pessimistic about the church and talking it down to themselves and those around them. Some Christians seem to want to see the church fail because that would somehow prove them right.
But surely this is strange for so many reasons – not only has the church been here for 2000 years but God himself promised that he would always be with us until the end of time and that the church would never be overcome. It is also strange because Christians are supposed to be filled with the joy of the Holy Spirit. In a world which has more than enough misery to go around I tell you that Christian people full of joy would never need to evangelise again because people would flock to us like moths to a candle. But the pessimism of so many Christians is especially strange when you remember that so much of our faith is built on the transformation of the weak and the lost and the hopeless into that which is full of strength in the Lord, a relationship of love with him and a hope in the resurrection from the dead.
The good news of Jesus is that those things which seem of least value to the world can be redeemed, and transformed and raised up to the glory of God in an instant.
When Christians are exhibiting pessimism about the Church, then what they are actually saying is that they do not believe that God either will do or can do the things he promised. Christians who are pessimistic about the church seem to forget that our faith is not based on the successful earthly ministry of Jesus and on the wisdom of his disciples. In human terms Jesus’ ministry ended in failure and death and his disciples were a rag tag motley crew who got it wrong just as much as they got it right. The Church exists not because of earthly power and wisdom and spread sheets, the church exists because of the resurrection of Jesus from the dead and the power of the Holy Spirit falling on the church.
And, of course, in the gospels Jesus was not the only person to return from the dead. Jesus himself raised Lazurus to life and an unnamed little girl that we shall mention again in a moment, but today’s gospel reading makes it clear that the power to bring life out of death was not confined to Jesus alone.
So, todays reading from Acts concerns the apostle Peter being called to the town of Joppa because a disciple called Tabitha or Dorcas (which both mean Gazelle) had been taken ill and died and the church wanted Peter to use his healing power on her.
Now we know that Peter was a fallible human being just like you and I and we heard about his mistakes and his denials of Christ in the Easter story. But we also heard last week that following his resurrection Jesus restored and forgave Peter as the rock, or the Petros, on which the church would be built: “Feed my lambs”, “Tend my sheep”, “Feed my sheep”.
Following the Ascension of Jesus and the day of Pentecost it is clear that Peter has been transformed from fisherman to leader of the church. And he is not only a church leader but he also continues with the healing ministry with which Jesus had empowered him – in the third chapter of Acts Peter healed a crippled beggar by the temple, in the fifth chapter of Acts we are told that people were healed simply by Peter’s shadow falling on them as he walked around the portico and in the verses that immediately preceed the healing of Tabitha in Joppa we are told that Peter healed a man called Aeneas and in that healing Peter said:
“Aeneas, Jesus Christ heals you; get up and make your bed!” That healing not only brought about many conversions in the town of Lydda but it was what caused Peter to be summoned to Joppa to attend to Tabitha.
At the beginning of today’s reading we were told that Tabitha was already of disciple of Jesus and that she was devoted to good works and acts of charity. Nonetheless she fell ill and died – and this was no swoon – she was washed and laid out by the time Peter got there. What did Peter do? First he knelt and prayed and then he simply turned to the body and said:
“Tabitha, get up”
These words and the events of this healing may put you in mind of another healing of Jesus. In Mark 5:41 Jesus healed a little girl and called her with the words:
“Talitha cum” Which means “little girl get up”.
“Talitha cum” “Tabitha cum” “little girl get up” “gazelle get up.”
And so the healing carried out by Peter very much echoes the healing carried out by Jesus but that should neither surprise nor worry us – we have already seen that it was Jesus who anointed Peter to heal, that Peter healed not in his own name but in the name of Jesus and that the results of this healing was not only the well being of the person concerned but also the conversion of others – i.e. the greater glory of God and not of Peter.
So what does all this mean for us?
As fallible human beings we should take heart that Jesus can choose a simple working man like Peter and despite falling down again and again Jesus kept restoring him and forgiving him and not only that but gave him great power and built the church upon him. Although it is not recorded in the bible you no doubt know the church tradition that Peter later travelled to Rome and became the first overseer or bishop of the church in that city and started the line of bishops which leads to Pope Francis. God works with ordinary humans because, despite everything, we are made in the image and likeness of God. Peter’s journey started by simply responding to the call of Jesus and that is where each of us starts.
As a church we should also take seriously the healing ministry that Jesus bestowed upon the apostles and thence to his church. Some churches may place more emphasis upon this than others, and some perhaps too much or in the wrong way, but the fact is that we are called and empowered to seek healing in the name of Jesus. Each week we pray for the sick but the church even anoints oil for healing. In my previous church we had a person licenced to the healing ministry and each week during communion he would be in the side chapel to pray with and anoint any in need of healing that week. If anyone feels called to offer themselves for that ministry perhaps that is something we could do in St Mary’s – it is certainly not something that we should be ashamed of, rather it should be clear that healing lies at the core of both Jesus’ ministry and of the ministry of Peter and the church.
But most of all we should take to heart the message that God did not create us or his church to exhibit a sprit of fear and pessimism. We are called to have faith, to have joy, we are called to worship the one in whose image and likeness we are made, we are called to love one another and to serve those around us in the name of Jesus – the same Jesus who was resurrected from the dead and who tells us that God is not the God of the dead but of the living. So are we dead because of pessimism or are we alive to Christ?
People of God – Get up!