- 23 November 2021
- Dan McKinlay
Good morning friends. Well, as you gleaned from the reading we’re at the very end of Luke’s accounts of the early church; the Acts of the apostles. It’s been quite the journey.
I remember as a child one of the greatest treats about being at my grandparents house was being able to watch looney tunes for hours on end. And if you’ve watched the same you will know how it ends, the music fires up and the writing across the screen in cursive says ‘That’s all Folks!’ – A bit like this behind me!
Now it would be tempting for me, on my final Sunday, to say similar to you! Thanks for the memories, that’s all folks! But I don’t think that is really how the Christian life works. We don’t say good bye forever because we know that we will be together again, one of the great hopes of faith in Christ.
We come today to the end of our series in Acts and I think for many of us we’ve been able to look at the mission of the gospel through the apostle Paul in a fresh light. But the book of Acts doesn’t simply tell the stories of the early church in a way that then says ‘and that was it was like in a land far away and in a world long ago.’ No, of course not! There is no ‘That’s all folks’ at the end. The reason for that is because of the mission of God. God’s purpose in the world is to bring the knowledge of Christ to all people, and that mission is unstoppable. The mission will go on and on until Jesus himself returns, because the message of Jesus’ death and resurrection continues to go out. In Acts 28, Paul may be in prison, at SHAP, ministers may come and go, but the work of the gospel will go on. And that same mission is something that we at SHAP pick up and participate in today. How thrilling!
I am conscious however that we have skipped over the story of Paul’s shipwreck in our readings. That notorious journey from Ceserea Maritima to Italy took a particularly nasty turn when the ship was hit by a storm – maybe like the one we have coming in today – and Paul ended up shipwrecked with other prisoners, eventually landing on Malta. Yet even in the midst of those events, God still worked out his plans and purposes. Despite it life Page of 1 4 threatening circumstances, the gospel actually comes to that island for the first time and, although we don’t hear what happened next, we know today that this was the defining moment in Malta’s history when Christianity first came to that land.
This morning I want to focus on what happens when Paul gets finally to his destination and to think about how that moment in history 2000 years ago gives us a vital part of our purpose as a church today.
After the long journey Paul finally arrives in Rome. And it is clear that already there is a bit of a stir amongst the people. We hear than individuals were travelling from around the country to show their support of him and we learn that this was something that greatly encouraged Paul. And so when Paul arrives in Rome there would have been some discussion of his arrival, and Paul’s first post of call is to the local Rabbis and teachers.
Paul explains to these Jewish leaders what circumstances have brought him to Rome. He tells them that he is in prison because of ‘The Hope of Israel’, the Messiah. Paul is using this moment to continue reaching out to his own kinsmen in the hope that they will see that Jesus is indeed Lord. Time and time again Paul is not self interested but rather he’s grasping opportunities to share the gospel.
Now thankfully for Paul no one in Judea had thought to send a letter to the Jews in Rome telling them that a particular troublemaker was on his way to them. That will have been a good thing for Paul because it would afford him just a little bit of time without him suffering the same sort of persecutions and outrage that he did before. That said, it’s not long until things follow the familiar pattern. Here’s what happens:
The people come to hear what Paul has to say; some believe and others start to disagree amongst themselves. It’s been a classic example of how the gospel spread in the early church from Judea to Samaria and then to the ends of the earth, just ads Jesus predicted in Acts chapter 1. And it’s also a good picture of what happens today! The word is preached and people either believe or they don’t.
And that friends is why Luke chooses to make a note on why this is the case. HE gives us an excerpt from one of Paul’s sermons in Rome where he quotes the prophet Isaiah: ‘Go to this people, and say, “You will indeed hear but never understand, and you will indeed see but never perceive.” For this people’s heart has grown dull, and with their ears they can barely hear, and their eyes they have closed; lest they should see with their eyes and hear with their ears and understand with their heart and turn, and I would heal them.’
For Paul, it was his own people, the Jewish people, just as the prophet had said, who would simply not turn to their Messiah, their saviour. The great tragedy of judaism, and I realise that in this part of our city we will know or even have a family background in judaism, but the great tragedy is that many find themselves waiting on the Messiah who has already come. Just as they did in this gathering in Rome, the Jewish people look past the shoulder of Jesus Christ, the one who in every way fulfilled all that the Old Testament would have to say about the Messiah, and they search for another who is yet to come.
But this is not unique only to the Jewish people. There are many we will know and maybe meet who are exactly the same. You will tell them of the Messiah, of Jesus. You will talk about his life and his death and resurrection, his offer of eternal life, and they too will hear but not understand.
Imagine you are at the Buckingham palace garden party, expectant because you may meet Her Majesty the Queen. Everything is set for the queen to be there; triangle sandwiches, Pol Roger Champagne. And then you see a small entourage moving through the garden. It’s her! And it is your turn to meet her. Except you can’t recognise her. She’s wearing a yellow two piece outfit, her royal courtiers by her side and corgis at her feet, but you just cannot recognise her. You seem but you can;’t perceive. And so it is with those who are faced with Jesus in the gospel. They can understand that he died on the crosse but they cannot recognise the significance for themselves. What a tragedy. But why can’t they see?
I think we can easily imagine ourselves to be Christians because we are thought out and intelligent people. But recognising Jesus has very little to do with our intellectual capacity. Faith in Christ comes by theSpirit of God. We need the work of the Holy Spirit to understand. We’re Christians because God opened our eyes, transformed our minds and gave us a new will to live for Christ. It’s spiritual rebirth, renewal of our hearts and minds, that enlivens us to the things of God.
And so as the book of Acts closes, it sounds a distinct note of hope. Paul is there in Rome, the capital of the ancient world. He is surrounded by both Jews and gentiles, non Jews, and he has God’s promise concerning those gentiles that ‘they will listen’. And Paul remains there for a further two years, preaching and seeing hundreds come to him who would hear what he had to proclaim, it is marvellous.
I will leave this parish today. And I will leave this country in a few weeks time. But the mission of God will go on. And it will go on through you, brothers and sisters. Yes the ministry team will be here and the good work we do as a community will go on. But it is through each of you that the kingdom of God will continue to grow. And so my parting word is this: take heart, be faithful to the gospel by pursuing a fruitful ministry; one with the priority of salvation at its heart. Many will reject the gospel, and that is hard. But many will not. People need Christ, and we might be the ones God has put in their lives to make the introduction. And as for us, we will indeed see one another again, when we are welcomed to take a place -not to this table behind me as we are about to do- but around the table of feasting that is in heaven, which God has prepared for us. Those in Christ have an eternal life together to look forward to.