Youth Initiative Services

Our Youth Initiative (a group for school aged children, year 6 upwards who meet Sunday evenings in term time) did a fantastic job of leading their service on Easter Sunday evening. It was a service open to all ages and was a great time of praise and reflection on how much we are loved by God and the importance of remembering Jesus sacrifice on the cross and his resurrection.

The plan is to have a Youth Initiative led service every term. The next two dates for your diaries will be Sunday 29th May and Sunday 17th July. The services start at 6pm and aim to last 45 minutes followed by refreshments afterwards. 

Annual Meeting

Our Annual Meeting this year will be on Sunday 8th May, 11:30am after our main service and Sunday School.  Between the main service and the meeting, coffee will be available in the hall. The meeting itself will be in church and everyone is welcome, although only those on the electoral roll can vote.

After the meeting there will be lunch in the hall. If you want to offer to bring anything for the lunch please see Sue Martin.

The meeting is a great chance to reflect together on what God has been doing amongst us over the last year and share some of the hopes, challenges and vision for St. George’s in the coming year.

This year in particular we will be giving thanks for Jenny Smith’s 25 years of service as Church Warden (and even longer on the PCC).

We will also be electing two church wardens and the members of the Parochial Church Council, which acts as the main governing body and trustees of St. George’s. Please be praying for the right people to be elected and do talk to Paul if you want to consider standing or suggest anyone to be asked to stand.

Can you trust the gospels?

Tuesdays, 7:30pm, Salvation Army, High Street, with Robin Plant

A Churches Together in Ramsgate Course

Almost everything we know about Jesus comes from the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. But how can we be sure that what they tell us is reliable? Where did they get their information from? And why should we prefer these four Gospels to others that never made it into the Bible?

10th May              What in the (ancient) world is a Gospel?

17th May              Chinese whispers or eyewitness testimony?

24th May              Have the texts been tampered with?

31st May               The Fab Four: What makes them special?

Robin Plant has a Ph.D. in Old Testament from Edinburgh University. From 2010–2012 he was director of graduate studies at the Evangelical Theological Seminary in Osijek,
Croatia, and has been a visiting lecturer at Canterbury Christ Church University, St.
Augustine’s College of Theology and the Maryvale Institute, Birmingham. He is an elder at Newington Free Church, Ramsgate.

Calling an Enemy to Life

In this account of the conversion of Saul a number of different labels are used for Christians. As we think of the meaning behind each label and how it relates to this conversion account we find some deep insight as to what it means to be a Christian.

This sermon recorded at St. Luke’s on the same day it was preached at St. George’s.

Name Calling in our Contested Culture

I said last week that we live in an increasingly contested culture. People are now less willing to allow other people to hold or speak about their own views. Indeed, opposing views are often portrayed as dangerous and in need of being silenced.

One technique increasingly being used to silence the opposition is to use derogatory names for your opponents.

Snowflakes

So, for example you will sometimes see liberal young people who insist on politically correct language, being labelled as snowflakes.

It is a name, that conjours up something that is overly fragile and plays on the liberal emphasis of the importance of acknowledging everyone’s uniqueness, just as every snowflake is apparently unique.

However, this is not the name that ‘snowflakes’ would use for themselves. They might use a term like, ‘progressives’ or ‘liberals’.

Gammon

On the opposite side, those who hold on to traditional values and ways are sometimes called ‘Gammon’. This comes from the idea that people sometimes get flushed red faces as they argue for issues like Brexit or family values.

But of course, Gammons would not refer to themselves as ‘gammon’, but might call themselves ‘conservatives’ or ‘traditionalists.’

What do you call people who follow Jesus?

So, those are some of the names people use in our contested culture, but what do you call people who follow Jesus?

Well I think the answer is it depends who you are!

Some people who are anti might use a label like ‘Bible basher,’ but we ourselves are perhaps happier with the more universal name: ‘christian.’

And yet, this name for followers of Jesus was not the original name. A little later in Acts, Luke tells us:

The disciples were called Christians first at Antioch.” (Acts 11:26)

So what were Christians called before that point? Well in Acts, there are a number of labels given to Christians and it is interesting to see who Luke shows using them.

Today’s reading is probably one of the better known stories in the Bible as it tells the conversion of Saul, who later became the apostle Paul. It is an important story as it is told three times in the book of Acts, and Paul refers to the events a number of times in his letters.

But as we read this particular account, notice that there are actually 5 different labels applied to what we might simply call Christians.

Luke, the narrator calls them  disciples. (vs. 1, 10, 19).

Saul the persecutor refers to them as ‘belonging to the Way.’ (2)

Ananias arguably uses three different labels:

  • Saints (13)
  • those who call on your name (14)
  • Brothers (17)

I think the labels are important and help us to understand what is going on with this conversion. It is also important to see who uses each of the labels for Christians. So let’s consider each of the labels and see how they help illuminate the account of Saul’s conversion.

Disciples

The first labels is ‘disciples’. This is probably the second most common name for Christians used in Acts and in this passage, Luke as he tells the story uses it as the fall back label for Christians.

It is an important word, because at the end of Matthew’s gospel, Jesus tells the apostles to go and make, ‘disciples’ of all nations. A disciple is someone who is learning from and becoming like their master. This is what we are fundamentally called to be as Christians, to learn from and become more like Jesus.

I wonder, though, how many people that call themselves, ‘Christian’ truly see themselves as disciples. The word, ‘Christian’ is quite a passive label, but the word, ‘disciple’ is more active. It suggests a desire to grow and develop and to undergo activities like coming to church, reading your Bible and praying to help that happen.

  • Some people even say, that the reason many people did not return to church after the pandemic, is because they did not see themselves as disciples. Church had become a habit and when the habit was broken by lockdown, there was no longer a reason to return to it.

Yet, if you see yourself as a disciple, then you will be eager to return to church, because that is one way you grow and serve as a disciple.

So, ‘disciples’ is a fundamental way of describing Christians.

But, it was these disciples, that Luke tells us, Saul was threatening to murder and was having arrested.

Belonging to the Way

The second name given to Christians comes in verse 2: ‘those belonging to the Way.’ This is the way Saul describes Christians when he asks the High Priest for permission to go and arrest the ones in Damascus. In other word it is a name used by an enemy of Christians.

The phrase, ‘The Way’ is used at other times in Acts, but each time it is used by people who are enemies of Christians, rather than by Christians themselves. So in chapter 19, the members of the Jewish Synagogue that didn’t believe Paul’s teaching are said to have ‘Maligned the Way.’ Later on when there is a big riot in Ephesus it is described as a great disturbance about the Way. In Acts 22, Paul himself says he persecuted followers of the Way.

In other words, it seems that this name’s usage is linked with persecution of Christians. Perhaps it is a bit like people using the word, ‘snowflake’ or ‘gammon’ today as name calling. It was used as a name to deride Christians.

But how might it have derided Christians? And why was it used of Christians at all?

It’s origin may have come from the fact that in John 14:6, Jesus calls himself, ‘the Way’ or from the parable in the sermon on the Mount, where Jesus calls on his disciples to follow the narrow, ‘Way,’ rather than the broad Way that leads to destruction.

So, why is it a way of deriding Christians? Christianity may have been originally seen as a distinctive way of following the Jewish religion that was despised by those holding on to the old traditions. So, perhaps the name is a kind of short-hand for ‘the so-called Way.’

Yet, it was a useful label, because it cuts out the heart of the Christian message.  To call it, ‘the Way,’ is to focus on the annoying distinctives, whilst ignoring the person at the heart of it: Jesus. This then ignored the claims about the death and resurrection of Jesus that was at the heart of the Christian gospel and was what gave it its power.

To be a disciple requires a master to follow.

To follow a Way needs no master.

The name Way neutralises Christianity of its power, whilst leaving a reason to persecute it.

So, Saul saw himself as seeking to silence a group of people following a new philosophy that seemed to challenge the traditional Jewish outlook he had grown up with and was deeply committed to.

Yet, as he travelled to Damascus to carry out this mission, something radical happened. A bright light shone around him and Jesus spoke to him from heaven. What Jesus said, deeply challenges Saul’s outlook.

Jesus says, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?”

In other words, although Saul thought of his work as stamping out a way of thinking and acting. Jesus says, what he is actually doing is persecuting a person, Jesus. Jesus is both at the heart of Christianity and identifies totally with his disciples who are being persecuted.

This revelation of Christ reveals to Saul that Christianity is not a strange Way of living, it is about a deep and profound relationship with the crucified, resurrected and ascended Jesus Christ.

This revelation would completely transform Saul’s life.

  • It is worth again checking about our understanding of what it is to be a Christian. It is easy to see being a Christian as just following a Way: go to church, read your Bible, pray, live the kind of life the Bible teaches and so on. These are all important, but being a Christian is first and foremost about having a relationship with the crucified Christ who died for you, the resurrected Christ who brings new life and the ascended Christ who is Lord of all. Let’s be careful not to cut Jesus out of our Christian life.

But for the moment, he is left blind and waiting to be told what to do.  A physical situation that must have imitated his stunned state of mind.

Saints

So, we come to Ananias. Ananias is a disciple, who lives in Damascus. He is one of those Saul had come to Damascus to arrest.

Jesus comes to Ananias and tells him to go and meet with Saul, to place his hands on him to restore his sight.

Ananias is understandably not convinced this is a great idea. It sounds a bit too much like putting your head in the lion’s mouth!

He says to Jesus, ‘I have heard about the harm he has done to the saints in Jerusalem.’

Here, Ananias is referring to Christians as saints. Now we often think of saints as referring to particularly good Christians. Yet, in the New Testament it is a term used to describe all Christians. It literally means, ‘Holy Ones’ or those set apart as God’s special people. Holy things are God’s things. Saints are God’s people, they belong to him,

Why does Ananias use this name here? I think because he wants to show that what Saul was doing in persecuting Christians was sacrilege. It was seeking to destroy what belonged to God. It was the equivalent of vandalising a temple. Here is someone who deserves God’s judgement for a direct attack on God himself.

Later on Saul, comments on his own conversion in his first letter to Timothy:

  • “Even though I was once a blasphemer and a persecutor and a violent man, I was shown mercy because I acted in ignorance and unbelief. The grace of our Lord was poured out on me abundantly, along with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. Here is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners–of whom I am the worst.” (1 Timothy 1:13-15)

Ananias is correct what Saul was doing was profoundly wicked and anti-God. Yet, Jesus confronted Saul not with judgement, but grace. Treating him far, far better than he deserved. This is amazing grace.

Yet, it is also a sign, that no matter how much you may feel you have gone against God in your life, Jesus’s grace is always big enough to offer you salvation and welcome you as one of his disciples. If he could call Saul to salvation, he can call you too!

Those who call on Jesus’ name

The second phrase Ananias uses to describe Christians is ‘those who call on Jesus’s name.’ This perhaps more powerfully than any of the labels for Christians emphasises that to be a Christian is to enter into a relationship of deep trust of Jesus. It is a label that emphasises what is wrong with the name, ‘the Way’, a label that does not even suggest the need for Jesus to be a key part of the faith.

Jesus picks up on this label, when he tells Ananias what he is calling Saul to do and become.

Rather than seeking to silence, Jesus’ followers, Saul will now carry Jesus’s name.

Rather than persecuting and hurting Jesus’s followers, Saul will suffer for Jesus’s name.

Saul is being called to switch from being zealously anti-Christian, to being zealously pro-Christian. Yet, in being called to switch sides, Saul is also being called to change his ways of campaigning.

No longer, will there be threats of violence, but a willingness to face persecution and suffering for Jesus.

Those who criticise religion today, say that religions cause wars. I think it is true that religion causes people to hold views that will profoundly conflict with the views of others. That is true of all strongly held views, whether religious or not. Yet, the question is how you carry out the conflict.

Jesus led the way for Christians not with the sword or seeking military power to force his views on people, but by going willingly to the cross, dying and rising again. Following his example, the early Christian church did not seek to impose their views by violence or threats. Rather, as Jesus called Saul to do, they carried the name of Jesus around the world, seeking to persuade people of the truth with a courage that was willing to suffer for Christ.

Such an approach does not cause wars! Yes, there have been times since then when Christians have acted more like Saul before he was converted in order to try and spread or defend the faith, but that is not the way it has to be or is even meant to be. At heart Christianity is the faith of a crucified king, not a warrior king. It does not promote violence, even though it may cause conflict.

Brothers

So, Ananias has a mission from Jesus, to go to the man who had come to Damascus to arrest people like him and pray that his blindness will be released.

Ananias as a true disciple does what Jesus commands and comes to Saul and says something deeply profound. He says, ‘Brother Saul…’

In Acts the most common word used to describe Christians is: ‘Brothers’ or perhaps better: ‘Brothers and Sisters.’ It is a name that emphasises that as we come into a relationship with Jesus as our big brother and God as our Father, so we become a family, a new community.

In calling, Saul, a brother, Ananias makes clear to him, that despite what he has done in the past to hurt Christians, now he is welcomed as part of the Christian community, to be one of them.

This one word in this context speaks of Ananias’s obedience to Jesus, his acceptance of Jesus’s grace to Saul and his willingness to welcome Saul into the community of disciples.

  • Alongside seeing ourselves as disciples, it is so important that we see ourselves as brothers and sisters of each other as well. We need to work to improve our community life, so that we can find support from one another, but also welcome new people to join and find friendship, support and company.

Even as we seek to connect more powerfully with Jesus as his disciples, lets also seek to connect with one another as brothers and sisters in Jesus.

What is in a name?

Names can be used to deride others, but the labels we give and the way we identify ourselves can also be quite profound.

In particular let’s see that as Christians we are not just about following a way of living, but we are those who belong to Christ and are called to be disciples of Christ actively seeking to grow in knowledge and obedience of him, celebrating his grace towards us and others and constantly seeking to welcome new people into our communities.

Freeing the Word of God

We live in a world of competing ideas. If we are to fulfil Jesus’s call to make new disciples then we need to be confident in the gospel and courageous in sharing our faith. How can we manage that? The story of the early church in Acts is a great place to look.

Below is a YouTube video of the sermon recorded at St. Luke’s on the same Sunday and below that a transcript version to read.

An Increasingly Contested Culture

Have you noticed how things have been changing in our culture over recent decades.

It used to be that the dominant attitude what was what was called a pluralist or multi-cultural outlook. All beliefs are equally valid. You can believe what you like, just don’t try to make me change my belief. The aim was to create a society where everyone got on and lots of different ideas could be held together without any serious conflict.

That kind of outlook is still around, but it is being replaced by an increasingly contested culture. That is we live in a society with a number of different views where people increasingly view different ideas as dangerous or damaging and need to be shut down. We see that with  ‘cancel culture,’ where speakers are barred from being able to speak at universities, because their views are considered dangerous. It also shows itself in the term, ‘culture wars’, which describes the increasingly contentious debates between different viewpoints – mainly in the USA, but increasingly here as well.

And this more contested culture shows itself in all kinds of different ways. The strength of feeling and conflict over Brexit, the debate online about whether vaccines for Covid should be taken, the barring of people like J.K. Rowling for daring to question the idea that trans women are truly women and so on.

People with different views are no longer considered wrong, they are considered dangerous and need to be silenced. This viewpoint is also carried over into attitudes to religion. So, for example in 2007, Christopher Hitchens wrote a book: God is not Great! How religion poisons everything. 2007 book. He and many others consider people of faith not just wrong, but dangerous and in need of silencing.

And in many ways the Christian message is being subtly silenced. For example how often have you heard the good news about Jesus articulated on mainstream media recently? Decades ago, there would have been films or programmes about Jesus over the Easter weekend on TV. I did check out the TV schedules for the main 5 channels. On Good Friday, the only Christian  item was ‘Easter at Kings’ on BBC”, which I guess was some choral music for people to enjoy – but hardly mainstream. Also, Channel 4 did show a recent film, Risen about the resurrection – they put it on at 1:30am on Saturday morning – hardly prime time! BBC1 Prime Time on Easter Sunday showed the Lion King, followed by Doctor Who, whilst ITV had Britain’s Got Talent.

So, how can the Christian message be set free in a culture where so many different ideas are increasingly seeking to be dominant and silence other dissenting views and the Christian message itself seems to be cut out of the mainstream media.

The answer comes down to us.  We need to have confidence and courage.

In our passage from Acts this morning, the Jewish authorities are seeking to silence the early Christians, to cancel them from speaking about Jesus. They are in power and they use drastic measures: they arrest them and put them in jail. But God has other ideas. He sends an angel releases them from jail and sets them free to carry on speaking the word!

That’s an amazing miracle, that sets the good news free, but what is perhaps even more remarkable is that the apostles have so much confidence and courage to carry on speaking about Jesus, when there is such strong opposition.

So as we come to this passage let’s ask the question:

Why can we be confident about the good news?

How can we find courage to share the good news about Jesus?

Why can we be confident in the Good News about Jesus?

Firstly, why can we be confident in the good news. In a sense this is two questions. We need to be confident that the good news about Jesus is good news, that it actually offers people something valuable and worthwhile, that it is a message that matters. But also you need to believe that it is true.

In our passage, the angel’s speech shows us why the gospel matters, whilst Gamaliel’s speech gives us pointers to why we can be confident it is true.

So why can we be confident in its value?  – Angel’s Speech

As the apostles are released from jail, the angel tells them to go back to the temple and carry on preaching ‘the full message of this life.’ (5:20)

Last Sunday we celebrated Easter. It is the heart of our faith, the fact that Jesus was resurrected from the dead. This was part of the core message that the disciples preached in Jerusalem and continues to be proclaimed by Christians today. Earlier in Acts, the disciples said to the people of Jerusalem:

“You killed the author of life, but God raised him from the dead. We are witnesses of this.” (Acts 3:15)

They saw that the resurrection showed not that Jesus was God’s anointed one, but that he was the author of life, the one who could rescue us from the power of death and sin. Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 15:56-58:

“The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ. Therefore, my dear brothers, stand firm. Let nothing move you. Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord, because you know that your labour in the Lord is not in vain.” (1 Corinthians 15:56-58)

In Christ, we have victory over death. Only Christ can bring us eternal life. Isn’t this the most valuable truth to share with others?

We can be confident that this good news is valuable.

But is it true?

So why can we be confident in its truth?Gamaliel’s Speech

When the apostles are re-arrested and brought before the Sanhedrin, the Jewish council that condemned Jesus to be crucified, Peter gives a bold speech, which leaves them on the point of killing them too.

But, at that point, a prominent Pharisee, called Gamaliel, stands up and makes an interesting argument that helps us see why we can be confident that the gospel about Jesus is true.

For Gamaliel, the issue at stake is whether the Christian movement is from God or not. If it is not, he argues that it will simply die out. If it is from God, he says then it is pointless trying to stop it, because you will be fighting God!

Why does he say that the movement would die out if it wasn’t from God? Because he says that is what happened to similar movements at the time. He gives two examples of two movements focussed on powerful leaders. In both cases, when the leader was killed, his followers gave up and the movement died out. They had already killed Jesus, if this movement is not from God, then it two would die out.

You might want to counter this argument and say, I can think of movements that haven’t died out when the leader died. After all what about the other major religions. Islam didn’t stop when Mohammed died, it carried on expanding. Similarly Buddhism didn’t fizzle out when Buddha died. Yet, the difference is that both Buddha and Mohammed were around and teaching for much longer than Jesus and the religions they taught were based on a way of life rather than a message about a person. Christianity stands or falls on the person of Jesus and he was killed after only three years of teaching. Surely, after his death you would expect his movement to die out! That is if the resurrection did not happen.

But it did not die out. Rather it grew and spread into a variety of cultures around the world and continues to spread around the world today. Christianity has passed Gamaliel’s test. The passion and bravery of those first disciples in convincing so many so quickly to follow Jesus points to the truth of what they claimed to have witnessed. Jesus had indeed been raised from the dead and he can bring us eternal life.

We can have confidence in the good news about Jesus.

But, how can we have courage to share the good news about Jesus?

How can we have courage to share the Good News about Jesus?

I think there are five things in this part of Acts that can help us see why the apostles were so courageous and are essential for us to have courage to. The first two come from the context, the other three from Peter’s speech at the Sanhedrin.

Context:

  1. Prayer – 4:29-30

Firstly, behind their courage was prayer. In these early chapters of Acts, Luke emphasises that the disciples gathered together to pray.

While they were waiting for the Holy Spirit to come in chapter 1, what did they do? They prayed.

When the disciples were arrested and told to stop teaching about Jesus the first time, what did they do? They prayed. In particular that time they prayed for God to enable them to speak the word with great boldness. The miracle of the release from prison and the boldness in carrying on preaching when they had just been arrested showed that God answered their prayer!

Let’s take prayer seriously and let’s pray for boldness to share the good news, for God to work in hearts and minds to turn people to him.

Let’s pray as part of our Sunday services, at our daily prayer meetings, 4 times each week and in other small groups when we meet and lets pray for courage to share the gospel.

  1. Community – 4:32-36

Secondly, the apostles were part of and supported by a deeply committed and generous community, where everyone was cared for and looked after.

God does not call us to be lone wolf disciples. We need the support and care of one another if we are to be able to stand up and speak courageously about Jesus.

Also, the invitation to come to find life in Christ includes an invitation to become part of his family. If the family is dysfunctional, then the message is undermined, but if our communities are a good place to be a part of, the that will add to the attractiveness of the gospel.

Let’s be concerned to build strong communities of faith.

Peter’s Speech:

That’s the context in which the apostles speak boldly about their faith, but Peter’s short speech in the Sanhedrin, also reveals what enables them to have the courage to speak about Jesus despite the threats against them.

  1. The command of God – 5:29

The third point, is that what they are doing is obeying God! The Sanhedrin may have claimed to have the authority to tell them to stop talking about Jesus, but the disciples recognised that their authority came below that of God’s.

When we seek to tell people about Jesus, others may tell us we should not or look upset or annoyed that we are doing so. That may be because we are doing so in an insensitive or unhelpful way – and we need to be careful not to do that.

However, ultimately if we are serious as Christians, then we know that we have to do what God tells us to do, even if it upsets, angers or annoys those who seem to have power over us.

  1. The example of Jesus Christ – 5:30-31

Fourthly, there is the example of Christ. What is remarkable is that Peter stands before the Sanhedrin the very ones who condemned Jesus to die and does not bow in fear.

Why? Well because of what he tells them: that the one they had hung on a tree to die, had now been raised by God and was seated at God’s right hand.

In other words, you can do whatever you like to me, as you did to Jesus, but I trust that like Jesus God will ultimately give me his life.

It is the very gospel message that gives Peter the courage to speak the gospel message.

And for us too, we need to see that whatever people may threaten to do to us, it is nothing compared with the glorious resurrection that we have in following Jesus.

  1. The partnership of the Holy Spirit – 5:32

Finally, Peter’s courage comes from knowing that he has the Holy Spirit. We do not witness to the Christian message alone. The Holy Spirit is working with us, to witness to the great truth about Jesus. In Acts, that is the role of the Holy Spirit that is emphasised.

Jesus said to the disciples just before he ascended into heaven:

“But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” (Acts 1:8)

After they prayed in chapter 4, it says:

“After they prayed, the place where they were meeting was shaken. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke the word of God boldly.” (Acts 4:31)

God does not leave us powerless to speak, rather he gives us the strength and the words we need when we need it through the work of the Holy Spirit

Confident and Courageous?

We live in a contested culture, where conflicting ideas and philosophies can knock our confidence in the gospel and where we can be intimidated into not wanting to speak about Jesus.

Of course there is wisdom in knowing when it is wise to speak and when best to be quiet. We need to share the good news with sensitivity and gentleness and preferably in the context of good relationships.

Yet, there are moments when we know it is right to take the opportunity to speak about Jesus and what stops us is lack of courage.

As we read through Acts and look at the example of the apostles, we can see that we have every reason to be confident that the gospel is a message of life for all that is truly from God and that as part of God’s people we can gain courage to speak this wonderful truth.

Hope in Darkness

This was the talk at our Easter Sunday service 2022. The YouTube video is from an all age version of the talk at St. Luke’s on the same day.

Where can we find hope we can be confident in? Especially in times of darkness? The resurrection shows that we can have a confident hope in Jesus.

Past Hope

What does the word, ‘HOPE’ mean?

Hope is when you think things will become better in the future. We might hope in things or people that will make things better.

But can we be certain that things will become better?

25 years ago, in 1997, there was a lot of hope that the world was heading to becoming a better place. The Labour Party even used the song, Things can only get better as their campaign song for the election they won that year under Tony Blair.

And there were a lot of reasons to have hope. There seemed to be a renewed certainty that some of the things we put our hope in were becoming more certain:

Hold up A3 sheets with these pictures on.

  • Peace – the threat of a major war in Europe seemed impossible now that communism had collapsed in Eastern Europe and Russia. The cold war had ended.
  • Money – over the following ten years there was low inflation and steady growth.
  • Health – people were living longer, drugs were improving with new break throughs over disease. We were confident in our NHS.

Present Darkness

Yet the last few years have stopped us feeling as certain about a future hope based on the things we rely on.

One by one tear these things in half.

  • Health – the Pandemic has shown us that no matter how good our science and health is, we cannot prevent a new disease causing a major pandemic with radical effects on our lives.
  • Money – the financial crisis in 2008 which led to years of austerity and now the rapid rise in the cost of fuel and other things, mean we cannot be certain that our money will get better.
  • Peace – the war in Ukraine has left us far less certain that peace across Europe can continue and reminded us of how horrible our world can be.

The truth is that if we put our hope in health, money or peace then we cannot be certain that things will get better. We can lose hope and the world can feel very dark.

Hope in Jesus?

Before Jesus died on the cross, people had seen him as someone who would bring them great hope! If you look a bit later on in Luke’s gospel it says, 24:21:

“…we had hoped that he was the one who going to redeem Israel.”

Perhaps there were three things about Jesus that people hoped in:

Hold up sheets of paper…

His Words – Jesus was someone whose words had amazed them, he seemed to be able to teach about God in an inspiring and powerful way, that offered hope of a better future in God’s Kingdom.

His Salvation – Jesus seemed to have power to save people from their illnesses and even raise the dead. They had seen him do lots of amazing miracles.

His Kingship – Jesus seemed to be the one who would be a new and better king. Who would offer a wonderful leadership for God’s people.

His followers and many of the people of the time hoped that Jesus would be all these things. But the leaders didn’t like him. They didn’t like his words because he criticised them, they were jealous of his miracles and they thought trying to make him king would destroy their power. So they had Jesus killed on the cross.

Tear up sheets of paper…

Kingship – On the cross the Roman soldiers shouted: ‘If you are the king of the Jews, save yourself.’ (Luke 23:37). But Jesus did not save himself. He died.

Salvation – The Jews shouted, “He saved others let him save himself, if he is God’s Messiah.” But Jesus did not save himself. He died.

Words – When Jesus died it seemed that all his promises and his vision had come to nothing. It was as though his words had died with him.

For Jesus’s followers and friends on that first Good Friday, it must have been a moment of sheer devastation. All their hopes looked like they were destroyed.

At the Tomb

All they could do on the first Sunday afterwards was come to the grave to anoint Jesus’s body. To be sad at his death.

But when the women came to the tomb, they found that Jesus’s body was missing and two angels appeared to them and said to them:

“Why do you look for the living among the dead?

He is not here! He has risen!” (Luke 24:6)

The angels then reminded them of what Jesus had said to them:

“The Son of Man must be delivered into the hands of sinful men, be crucified and on the third day be raised again.” (Luke 24:7)

In other words, what had happened did not show that Jesus’s words had proved useless. What Jesus had said, proved to be exactly what had happened. He had been crucified and they were about to discover that what seemed utterly impossible had also happened he had indeed risen again on the third day!

Resurrection Hope

The resurrection shows that the cross does not tear up our hopes about Jesus, rather it shows us that nothing can take away our hopes in him. Not even death could defeat him.

From the scraps, unfold the fresh truths about Jesus.

Words – His words have proved powerfully true. Surely, we can trust his words and follow his words more than the words of anyone else. After all who else has risen from the dead.

Salvation – Also, we can trust his salvation more than anyone else. Who else has shown not just that they can heal people, but bring people through death itself. More than that his death on the cross is shown to be the ultimate act of salvation by bringing us forgiveness of our sins and helping us to be friends with God again so that we can have eternal life.

Kingship – It also shows us that Jesus is truly God’s chosen king. The one who has the right authority to lead us in our lives and show us how to live for the best.

What seemed to be destroyed by the cross, becomes even more true because of the resurrection. Out of darkness, God has brought us certain hope.

Resurrection People

So, how will you respond? Will you become one of God’s resurrection people. Finding a certain hope in Jesus that cannot be found in other things in this world?

Will you seek to live by his words, trust his salvation and follow him as your king? If we believe the resurrection to be true, then surely this is the only way to respond?

Zacchaeus’s Second Chance (Luke 19:1-10)

We love to hate rich people that seem to have behaved badly, but how does Jesus feel about them. In this climactic encounter in Luke’s gospel Jesus meets Zacchaeus, a rich chief tax-collector, probably the most hated man in Jericho. How did Jesus respond to him?

Below is a You Tube video of the sermon recorded at St. Luke’s on the same day as a shorter version was preached at St. George’s and underneath that is a transcript of the sermon.

Rich People we Love to Hate

Throughout history we have loved to hate those who are both rich and have behaved in an outrageous way.

Even in the news in the last week, three prominent rich people have been roundly condemned in the mass media:

Prince Andrew widely assumed to have been mixed up in Epstein’s exploitation of young women for sexual gratification.

Roman Abramovich, the Russian billionaire and owner of Chelsea football club has been in the news, because of his ties with Putin and his oppressive regime that has invaded Ukraine.

Peter Hebelthwaite, C. E. O. of P. & O. Ferries, which abruptly sacked 800 crew in order to employ a cheaper foreign workforce was declared by a group of Scottish MSPs to be the  ‘Most hated man in Britain.’

Rich people who have done wrong become a favourite target of the mass media and social media condemnation. I guess there is that strong sense of injustice: there they are enjoying far greater material blessings than us, despite and often because of their abuse of power or oppression of others.

They are public renowned figures, that we can easily condemn from a distance and feel self-righteous in the process.

Yet, they are also personal figures, human beings like you and me. This was perhaps brought home by the queen’s insistence that her son, Prince Andrew escort her down the aisle at his father’s and her husband’s memorial service. It was a controversial act, condemned by some, yet it showed a mother’s concern for a son and desire to show solidarity and forgiveness at an emotionally sensitive moment.

So how as Christians should we think about these issues. How did Jesus respond to these issues? Luke’s gospel helps us with this. It is a gospel which shows us far more about Jesus’s attitude to wealth and money, but also about his concern for the lost.

Jesus and the Rich

In Luke, Jesus is often very critical of the rich. In chapter 6 as part of a series of blessings and woes he says:

“But woe to you who are rich,

for you have already received your comfort.” (Luke 6:24)

Parable of the Rich FoolLuke 12:16-21

In chapter 12, someone approaches him asking him to adjudicate in a dispute about an inheritance. Jesus’ responds with a warning about being rich. He tells the story of a rich man who when he has a good crop stores up his riches to enjoy at a later date. But, God says to him, ‘You fool!’ Tonight you will die, who then is going to enjoy your riches!

Jesus’s point is that hoarding riches for yourself does you no good from the heavenly perspective.

Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus – Luke 16:19-31

Later on in chapter 16, Jesus tells another story about a rich man. The rich man dies in this story as well, along with a poor beggar called Lazarus, who used to beg at the rich man’s gates. Lazarus is brought to heaven and gets to share the delights of heaven with Abraham, whilst the rich man is left a tortured soul in hell.

When the man complains, Abraham says, that the rich man has had his time enjoying life and his riches, whilst Lazarus suffered. Now it is only right that the situation is reversed.

The Rich Ruler meets Jesus – Luke 18:18-23

Both those parables are unique to Luke, but in chapter 18, just before today’s reading, Luke tells about an event, that is also recorded in the other gospels.

A ruler comes to Jesus and asks what he must do to inherit eternal life. Jesus’s response is shocking and radical: “Sell all you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven, then come and follow me.” (Luke 18:22)

Luke says the ruler was very rich and when he heard it he became very sad. He was not willing to give up his wealth for eternal life.

Jesus then says, “How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God. It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.” (Luke 18:24-25)

Luke’s gospel makes clear that Jesus has a lot to say to challenge the rich and wealthy. Far from condoning the gathering of wealth he warns that failure to use it for God’s purposes and to care for others shows that you are outside God’s Kingdom.

Jesus and the Hated

But, Jesus also has a lot to say about those who are condemned by the people generally and labelled, ‘sinners’! Again this is a particularly strong theme in Luke’s gospel.

Levi called by Jesus

Back in chapter 5, Luke tells us about when Jesus called, Levi one of his disciples. Levi was a tax-collector.

Now, tax-collectors were generally looked down on by the Jewish people of the time. They worked for the Romans, who were seen as the enemy who had conquered their land and were oppressing their people. More than that, they took money off people to give to the Romans, often taking more than they really had to to help line their own pockets.

People had to give them the money, otherwise, Roman soldiers might come knocking!

It’s no wonder the tax-collectors were despised and hated. They were seen as those who had betrayed God’s people and so God himself. If anyone was outside the Kingdom of God, surely it was them!

Yet, Jesus called Levi, a tax-collector to become one of his followers. More than that, when Levi threw a banquet for Jesus and his friends, Jesus ended up meeting with lots more tax-collectors and sinners.

The Pharisees, the strongly moral religious group criticised Jesus for this. Wasn’t he condoning their wicked behaviour by spending time with them?

Jesus’s response was clear:

“It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but those who are ill. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance.” (Luke 5:31-32)

Jesus was not condoning their past behaviour, but he still wanted to help them to a place where they were part of God’s kingdom again. He wants to bring them to repentance, a turning from their past wrong ways to living God’s way.

Parable of the Lost Sheep, Coin, Son

That story is in the other gospels, but a similar situation also occurs in Luke’s gospel, where Jesus is criticised for hanging out with sinners and tax-collectors and Pharisees, this time in Luke 15.

On this occasion, Jesus responds with no less than three parables to make his point. In each parable, something is lost, then it is found and then there is a celebration because it is found. You probably know them as the parable of the lost sheep, the lost coin and the lost or prodigal son.

In each case, the lost thing or person represents sinners, the one seeking represents God and being found represents a return to God’s family and God’s ways or repentance. Each time it is God who has a party when people repent.

Jesus does not disagree with the Pharisees that these people’s past behaviour was wrong, but he does challenge them to rejoice when they see people turning back to God, rather than wishing that they remain condemned.

Parable of the Pharisee and Tax Collector

Then finally in chapter 18, just before our reading, Jesus tells another parable. This time about a Pharisee and a Tax-collector.  The Pharisee tells God how good he is and the tax-collector pleads for God’s mercy. Jesus says it is the tax-collector who goes home right with God!

All these stories show that Jesus’s concern is not to join in societies condemnation of those who do wrong, like the self-righteous pharisees, but to seek to help those people back into God’s family and to God’s ways. When that happens it is a reason to celebrate!

Jesus and Zacchaeus

So, we come to the meeting of Jesus and Zacchaeus. Only Luke records this event, but he makes clear it happens at the climax of Jesus’s ministry. In fact it is the last event Luke records before Jesus enters Jerusalem, the place he is heading in order to be crucified.

It happens in Jericho, which is on the road to Jerusalem, the last major stop before reaching the temple-city. Jesus has clearly built up a good reputation among the people through his teaching and healing miracles and crowds from Jericho come out to see him.

Amongst the crowds is Zacchaeus. But Zacchaeus is a figure of hate in Jericho. He is also short. So the crowds become a barrier to him seeing Jesus and so he climbs up into a Sycamore tree to see Jesus.

Zacchaeus was:

But, it is not so much Zacchaeus’s height that is the issue. Verse 2 tells us two key things about him. He was a Chief Tax-Collector and he was rich. In fact, Jericho was probably a good place to be a tax-collector, because it was a wealthy town on an important trade route. So Zacchaeus was probably very wealthy!

But how was Jesus going to relate to him. Jesus had a long record of calling tax-collectors. But he also had a long record of challenging and condemning the rich and wealthy.

Jesus seeks the lost

When Jesus reaches the tree that Zacchaeus is in, he stops and looks up. He says to Zacchaeus, ‘I must come to your house today.’ Why must Jesus go to Zacchaeus’s house?

Well, verse 10 probably gives us the answer, Jesus says, he, the Son of Man, has come to seek and to save the lost. Zacchaeus may be rich and well off in human terms, but in spiritual and eternal terms he is lost. He has been living a life outside of God’s ways and God’s families. Like a lost sheep he needs to be brought back into the flock, like a lost coin he needs to be found and returned to the purse, like a lost son, he needs to return to his family. And this is what Jesus is all about!

Zacchaeus

And so Jesus visits Zacchaeus and the result is transformational!  Zacchaeus sees this as Jesus’s offer of a second chance and grabs it gleefully.

  • Repents: From Greed to Generosity

Zacchaeus shows that he is repenting from his old ways. As a tax-collector his main motivation has been greed, getting as much money as possible no matter how he treated people or who he worked for.

Now, Zacchaeus shows he wants to reverse that and become someone who is generous and not greedy.

He offers to give away half of his wealth to the poor and to repay four-fold those he has cheated. Zacchaeus has come to realise that wealth is not there to be hoarded, but to be used for God’s good purposes.

  • Believes: A Son of Abraham

Secondly, Jesus says that Zacchaeus is a son of Abraham.

What does he mean by that? It maybe that he is just saying to the other Jews in Jericho, look Zacchaeus is family! You should be pleased that he is now coming back into the fold.

Yet, in the Bible, Abraham is also seen as the father of all those who believe. Jesus goes on to say that ‘salvation has come to this house.’ When Jesus tells people they have been saved in the gospels, he usually links it to their faith! So, it is likely that Jesus is saying, look here is someone that has come to believe! He believes that belonging to God is far better than having loads of stuff belonging to you! That it is better to have treasure in heaven than treasure on earth! That God will welcome him back with rejoicing!

  • Is Saved Today!

So, Zacchaeus repents and believes and Jesus says he is saved.

But, importantly he says, “Today, salvation has come to this house.” The word today is important. Jesus does not say, that when Zacchaeus has sorted out his finances and shown he has really changed he will be saved. He doesn’t have to achieve anything to be saved.

He doesn’t have to do anything to make up for his past sins. He is forgiven on the spot. The sins are remembered no more.

His decision to change his ways and trust in Jesus, to repent and believe means that his status is changed instantly. He is accepted by God, accepted by Jesus and his salvation is secured.

So, what are we to learn from these events?

Is Jesus seeking you?

It may be that you are here and realise that you are a bit like Zacchaeus before. Perhaps life has been all about trying to get rich without worrying about the consequences for others or using your wealth for God’s works. You’ve seen no need for God, just money.

But perhaps God is seeking you and wants to invite you back into his family. Are you ready to believe he is offering you a second chance? Are you ready to believe he can forgive you for your past greed? Are you willing to repent and move to a life of generosity rather than greed?

Will you seek God’s salvation?

What is our attitude as a church?

And if you are already a member of God’s family and part of his church, then are we still living with the priorities of Jesus. He said he came to seek and to save the lost. Is that our desire or are we slipping into the ways of the Pharisees?

Are we content to sit back and criticise bad behaviour in others from a distance? Easily joining in the condemnation of the crowd?

Or are we actively praying and seeing how we can help people to come to Jesus and be transformed like Zacchaeus?

Survey on Orders of Service

Over the last two months we have been experimenting with three different orders of service at St. George’s. Each one is an approved Church of England order and a Eucharistic or Holy Communion service. They are not the only options and each option could be tweaked or changed in various ways.

The three orders are (the colours refer to the covers used in church):

  • Beige. Most like the order of service in use at St. George’s in recent years. It is Common Worship Order 1 with Eucharistic Prayer B. It includes optional extras like: the Kyrie Eleison and taking of the bread and wine.
  • Green. The shortest of the orders of service. It is Order 1 in Common Worship with Eucharistic Prayer H and no optional extras.
  • Blue. This is most like the traditional Book of Common Prayer service (1662), but in contemporary language. It is Order 2 in Common Worship.

Below are PDFs of the orders of service. It would be good to read through them again before completing the survey.

Easter 2022

We seem to be living in a time of one crisis after another. It can feel like we’re part of a very dark world.

Easter is a story of hope in the midst of darkness. The events occurred 2000 years ago in a world which was also very dark. It was a world of insecurity because of wars and illness. Into this world came Jesus. He did amazing things, bringing healing and the promise of a better world. Yet they put him to death on the cross.

Had darkness won? Did evil have the final say? Is death the end?

What happened next was remarkable. Jesus, buried in a tomb came alive again. He showed himself again and again to his followers, showing that death had been defeated, evil was overcome and that light shines in the darkness.

Join us this Easter to celebrate these events and find hope in  darkness today.

Easter Services at St. George’s and St. Luke’s

Holy Communion, Maundy Thursday, 14th April, 6:30pm, St. George’s Church
Join us as we remember Jesus’s last supper with his disciples in which he gave them a way to celebrate and remember his death.

The Easter Story, Good Friday15th April, 10:30-11:15am, St. Luke’s Church
An interactive retelling of the Easter Story for all ages. In the style of a crib service we build up a montage portraying the Easter Story.

Good Friday Meditations, 15th April, 12noon until 3pm, come for a many 30 minute slots as you like, St. George’s Church
The Meditations are a chance to think about the events of that Good Friday, and even to ponder why we now call it good. The three hours will be broken down into half hour sessions. The idea is that you can stay for the whole time or come to any of the sessions throughout the afternoon. Over the course of the afternoon, we will read through the events recorded in the Bible of that day with periods of prayer, quiet and reflection.

Easter Sunday Eucharist, 17th April, 9:30-10:30am, St. George’s
Join us to celebrate the hope that comes through the resurrection of Jesus. Hallelujah! Jesus is alive!

The Easter Family Service, 17th April, 10:45-11:30am, St. George’s
Join the Sunday School at St. George’s at their own special Easter Sunday service.

St. Luke’s have their own events on Easter Sunday morning.

Easter Sunday Youth Initiative Service, 17th April, 6pm, St. Luke’s
Youth Initiative (YI) will be leading a service that will help us celebrate Easter as we think on the theme – How much are you worth? 

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