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Acts not Artefacts

Ordinary Sunday 33: 17 November, 2013
Fr Philip Gill
Assistant Priest, St Peter's, Eastern Hill and Lazarus Centre Chaplain

Anglo-Catholic Christians offering fresh expressions of Church

In our sermon series this month we explore the broad sweep of Holy Scripture in relation to a new sense of enthusiasm for sharing what our tradition has to offer those seeking fresh expressions of Christian worship and discipleship. This new sense of enthusiasm is typically called Catholic Evangelism.

Bishop Graham has explored this theme through the Old Testament and Fr Samuel has engaged with the Gospels. Next Sunday Fr Hugh will look at the Epistles with a similar aim. Today we consider how the Acts of the Apostles might help to inform and empower us as Anglo-Catholic Christians seeking to welcome those who yearn for Christian worship, teaching and fellowship that celebrates the incarnational aspects of our faith. Incarnation, God becoming flesh, that outrageous idea that the creative force of the universe entrusts this revelation to humanity — first into ordinary family life, then into the life of the synagogue and the temple and finally into a deadly turmoil of religion and politics.

In seeking to understand the Acts of the Apostles most fully some have suggested the work be retitled. Perhaps, they say, The Acts of Paul would be more adequate because of the prominence of Paul in the latter part of the story. Others have suggested The Acts of God because of the lengths to which the author goes to make clear that God is behind this movement. Still others opt for The Acts of Jesus because it is he who commissions his followers, his Apostles, to go out into the world. One popular suggestion for retitling is The Acts of the Holy Spirit suggesting the centrality of the Holy Spirit in driving the mission from Jerusalem to the ends of the earth. The intricate narrative of Acts really deserves the fuller but unwieldy title of the Acts of God, Jesus, the Holy Spirit, Paul and the other Apostles!

Acts begins by relating events in Jerusalem following the resurrection of Jesus. The risen Jesus tells the followers that they would receive the Spirit and be his witnesses in "Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria and to all the ends of the earth." He ascends leaving his followers staring into the heavens — and who could blame them. They are chided by two men in white robes who remind them they would see Jesus return as he has left them, insinuating that they should be looking out toward the mission field rather than staring into the sky.

The Spirit then comes upon the believers in that special way on the Feast of Pentecost. The believers pour out from the upper room so enthused by the power of the Holy Spirit that those who see them take them to be drunks. It is Peter who acts as interpreter to these events. He recalls for them the words of the prophet Joel:

In the last days it will be, God declares,
That I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh,
And your sons and daughters shall prophesy,
And your young men shall see visions,
And your old men shall dream dreams. [1]

He tells his hearers that with the raising of Christ and the coming of the Holy Spirit these times have come. He urges them to repent and to be baptised. Luke then gives us one of several cameos of life in the infant church:

So those who welcomed his message were baptised, and that day about three thousand persons were added. They devoted themselves to the apostles' teachings and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. [2]

But there was another response to the proclamation of the Gospel in Jerusalem in those days. The believers suffered persecution that led to exile, imprisonment and death. The deacon Stephen is martyred. We are also introduced to Saul the zealous persecutor who following his conversion to Christ would become Paul, Apostle to the Gentiles.

In the midst of this turmoil comes a shift in focus from the ministry of Peter to the ministry of Paul. Paul is arrested for preaching the Gospel. As a Roman citizen he claims his right to have his case heard by the Emperor in Rome. Acts concludes with Paul in Rome under house arrest but freely able to share the Gospel.

Acts is meant to provide Christians of every age with the opportunity and the challenge to step into its narrative — we are being asked to take our place in this story of Acts — to step into the mission where the Acts of Paul and the other Apostles, the Holy Spirit, Jesus and God are intertwined with the acts of creation and the acts of all human beings in every age. One of the best illustrations of this sometimes perplexing intertwining of these Acts comes from the pen of US writer and Episcopal priest, Barbara Brown Taylor who, while trekking in Turkey, rounded a bend with her guide and companions to be confronted with a huge, overrun, dilapidated cathedral. It was not like the manicured ruins we might encounter in England. It was abandoned with grass growing in the nave and sheep grazing under the apse. The remains of a huge fresco or mosaic could still be seen under the dome. Reflecting on the experience Taylor writes:

It is one thing to talk about the post-Christian era and quite another to walk around inside it. Christianity died in Turkey — the land that gave birth to Paul and that he found so fertile for the sowing of his gospel — the land of Ephesus, Galatia, Colossae, Nicaea. The last Armenian baptisms were recorded as late as the 1890s, but today the Christian population of Turkey is less than one percent of the total.... Looking around that magnificent Georgian cathedral that had been abandoned for almost a thousand years, I imagined my own parish in its place: the beautiful wooden rafters rotted out and the ceiling collapsed, shards of stained glass hanging from the windowpanes, the carved stone altar removed to some museum along with the processional cross — vestiges of an ancient faith no longer practiced in the land. [3]

These are sobering observations indeed and reflect a possible future that Christians in most modern western societies face. We know some of the causes only too well: declining numbers, aging congregations, perceived lack of engagement with young people, within a context where many draw an all too easy distinction between notions of religion and spirituality often expressed as "I'm a spiritual person but I'm not religious". If, however, the Acts of the Apostles tells us anything about the mission of the Church and the movement of the Spirit, it is that there will be at least two responses to the proclamation of the Gospel. Some will accept and others will reject this Good News from God.

Acts also tells us that opposition, rejection, and even persecution are not reasons for giving up the mission with which we have been entrusted as witnesses to Christ to the ends of the earth. Indeed it is in the midst of these things that the Holy Spirit works to bring about the purposes of God. To that end our parish is embarking on an intentional pilgrimage to discover more of what it means to be bearers of the good news in the Anglo-Catholic tradition and in a time and place becoming more and more indifferent to the Gospel.

Over the coming two years we will be exploring resources that can enrich our faith and make our outreach more effective. Our journey began with the Feast of the Assumption Mass. Now we are working towards the visit of Bishop Stephen Cottrell who will be with us in 2015. Bishop Stephen is a prolific advocate for the Christian faith with a deep appreciation for Anglicanism in the Catholic tradition. I have not met him, but in this wondrous electronic age we can get to know much of his sense of energy for mission very easily. He is out there! I'll leave you to explore the wealth of information about his views on the web.[4] In a recent sermon on the occasion of the collation of three new archdeacons for his diocese, the diocese of Chelmsford, Bishop Stephen commented:

There is, I believe, a gospel paradox at work here: in the Chelmsford diocese we have too many churches; and the solution is to have more! What I mean by this is we have too many churches where the model of church is a Vicar and building. And this cannot be sustained either theologically or financially. And we need more: a new biblical and theologically coherent model of church, where the church is the people of God, not the minister and the building, a worshipping and witnessing community serving its locality and, where appropriate, developing new expressions of life and Christian community. [5]

In his context, as a church leader seeking to encourage ministry and discipleship in an uncertain future, he is driven by a vision much different from that of Barbara Brown Taylor. Some undiscerning folk might understand such a vision of church, with its talk of worshipping and witnessing communities and new expressions of life is not amenable to an Anglo-Catholic theology and practice. That would be a very short-sighted conclusion. In 2004, for example, a report from the Church of England's Mission and Public Affairs Council entitled Mission Shaped Church, outlined amongst its descriptions of fresh expressions of church the phenomenon of "traditional forms of church inspiring new interest". "There is evidence", the report states, "of an increase in attendance at cathedral and other churches offering traditional styles of worship". [6] We need to keep in mind that those drawn to worship for the first time can and do experience St Peter's as a fresh expression of Church. I know I did in 1995!

If the Acts of God, Jesus, the Holy Spirit, Paul and the other Apostles tell us anything it is that we will be surprised, disturbed, even shocked. St Peter and the other Apostles were taken to places and did things they otherwise could not have imagined. I wonder how St Paul would feel standing in that abandoned cathedral with Barbara Brown Taylor. I wonder how St Peter would feel worshipping with us today. I wonder what expression of Church we will be in 2015 when Bishop Stephen is among us — and beyond.


Notes:

  1. Acts 2.17
  2. Acts 2.41-42
  3. Barbara Brown Taylor, The Preaching Life, Cowley Publication: Cambridge Massachusetts, (1993) pp.4-5
  4. For example www.stephencottrell.org
  5. Bishop Cottrell's sermon on the collation of archdeacons
  6. Church of England's Mission and Public Affairs Council working group, Mission Shaped Church: Church Planting and fresh Expressions of Church in a Changing Context, Church House Publishing: Londao, pp.73-4


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