Daily Devotionals

Openness and Obedience | Acts 12.25-13.3

Acts 12.25-13.3

Today’s devotional is the final one before we take a break over the summer; if Acts were a TV series, this passage would make a good season finale somewhere in the middle, leaving us wanting more, wanting to know what happens next on their mission. 

This short snippet has a number of things we can learn and understand better, both about the leadership of the early church and about our own spiritual lives. We heard the background story of the church in Antioch in the daily devotional two days ago, in Acts 11, so let’s unpack today’s reading starting with verse 25.

Then after completing their mission Barnabas and Saul returned to Jerusalem and brought with them John, whose other name was Mark.

The mission here is found in chapter 11, just after the section covered in the devotional – following a prophecy from Agabus, Barnabus and Saul are sent from Antioch to take money to Jerusalem to support them through the coming famine. 

Now in the church at Antioch there were prophets and teachers: Barnabas, Simeon who was called Niger, Lucius of Cyrene, Manaen a member of the court of Herod the ruler, and Saul.

Who are these people, and why are we told about them? Barnabus and Saul are well known, but the others less so. This is the first point we can learn though, that the church in Antioch had a diverse leadership team – certainly geographically and culturally, and probably ethnically as well, as Simeon’s nickname ‘Niger’ may well have been due to him having dark skin. The diversity here is fitting; Antioch was the home of the Roman governor of Syria, and had large Jewish, Greek and Syrian communities, as well as many others, and so it makes sense that they had a diverse group of leaders to allow them to care for and minister to a diverse city. We can see elsewhere that cultural or ethnic divisions can cause problems in the church, such as earlier in Acts where the Greek Christians are concerned that their widows are being overlooked, and so by having diverse leadership they can better keep unity. Let’s look at verse 2 now. 

 While they were worshiping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, “Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.”

The church in Antioch here is a great example for us; their communal life makes room for God to speak. They were worshipping the Lord and fasting – worship is a regular part of our corporate and personal devotional lives today, but fasting is less popular! 

In a number of places throughout Acts we are told that the disciples fasted; often they fast for a specific reason, like in verse 3 here where they are fasting as part of their discernment and sending process. Verse 2 doesn’t give a reason, though, so perhaps fasting was just a regular part of their community life; there is something powerful in denying the food we need for survival and putting it second to hearing from God. If you’ve never tried it, why not give it a go – it’s not the most enjoyable spiritual discipline, but it’s one that we see demonstrated in Scripture. If you find it difficult then why not consider gathering a group to fast in community with? When I’ve tried taking the time to fast, I’ve found it often coincides with bountiful blessings of food and cake being offered to me, but it’s worth the sacrifice! This is the second point though, that we need to live our lives in such a way that we make room for, and are open to, God speaking to us by His Spirit. So we come to verse 3.

Then after fasting and praying they laid their hands on them and sent them off.

This is the final point: they obey God’s instruction, and so should we. This isn’t a blind following of any and every prophetic whim – they take the time to fast further and to pray, and as a community they help discern the calling of their members. But seeking God’s will and engaging in spiritual disciplines isn’t enough without obedience. They lay hands on Barnabus and Saul, and then actively send them off into the world to carry out God’s plans. By the openness to God and their obedience, the Antiochian church enabled Barnabus and Saul to make an impact for God’s Kingdom that lasts to this day. 

How can we live our lives in a way that allows room to hear from God, and in what situations do we need to be obedient? 

Let’s pray.

Father God, thank you for the example of the Antiochian Church, for their faithfulness and obedience to you. Help us to learn from them in our ministry and care of those from different countries and cultures, and give us the discipline to carve time out to listen to you. Please would you speak to us individually and corporately by your Spirit, and help us be obedient to your commands.

Prison Break | Acts 12.1-11

Acts 12.1-11

What a story! One of many dramatic stories in Acts, perhaps one of the most dramatic. And like all good stories, it has heroes, and it has a villain. Let’s start with the latter.

This villain is unpleasantly real and violent. King Herod, Herod Agrippa I, is the grandson of the Herod who had all the infant baby boys murdered at Jesus’ birth, nephew of the Herod who had John the Baptist killed and was involved in Jesus’ trial. He is from a line of corrupt, evil rulers.

And to increase his own position and popularity he acts with violence and evil to garner support – to try and bolster his base, you might say. He has James, a key leader of the Jerusalem church, violently killed. There’s no evidence of even a sham-trial, just a brutally swift extra-judicial murder.

I actually found myself very cross at verse three: “After he saw that it pleased the Jews, he proceeded to arrest Peter also.”

After he saw that it pleased the Jews… Pontious Pilate, rightly, gets a bad name for washing his hands of doing what he knows is right, in order to please the crowd. Herod goes further here and seeks to do yet more evil, because it pleased a crowd. And his timing is deliberate – looking to have Peter killed just after the Passover, when Jerusalem will be at its most full of devout Jews. Herod wants to broadcast his wicked persecutions to as wide an audience as possible – to benefit from murder as much he can.

If I’m honest, I found it hard to have anything but contempt for Herod – he seems of the line of the worst of violent, evil, self-promoting and self-serving men. But then I was reminded of a passage spoken by C.S. Lewis’ fictional demon Screwtape as he teaches some younger demons how to tempt humans to evil:

‘The great sinners seem easier to catch. But… They are capable, you see, of real repentance. They are conscious of real guilt. They are, if things take a wrong turn, as ready to defy the social pressures around them for [God’s] sake as they were to defy them for [evil]. It is in some ways more troublesome to track and swat an evasive wasp than to shoot, at close range, a wild elephant. But the elephant is more troublesome if you miss’.

I was reminded that great perpetrators of evil can hold the potential to become great advocates of good.

And I recalled Paul, such a wild elephant who did turn and do much good instead of much evil. And I began to wish that instead of doing evil, Herod had repented and done good. That he had broken with his family tradition of violence and wickedness.

Here then, is a challenge: Praying for the end of injustice at the hands of the unjust, that wickedness would be toppled, is absolutely right. But let’s also remember to pray for the wicked, for the enemies of righteousness and the persecutors of the church, that they might turn in repentance.

I wonder if Herod offers another challenge too; I don’t know what you feel about your ancestors or heritage, what you think your forebears were like. Whether those who came before you did good or evil. Maybe it is more complicated than that simple dichotomy, but let’s not think we must follow in unrighteous footsteps, but instead follow in the path of the righteous. God has grace and power to lead us on that path.

Enough of Herod the unrighteous, let’s turn now to briefly reflect on the heroes, on the faith-filled action of the church. They pray, fervently for Peter. That feels particularly bold and faithful, given that they may well have done the same for James, only to see him killed. For me, this asks the hard question of why are some fervent prayers answered, and some not? It’s a question I have a good amount of experience wrestling with, and the short answer I’ve come to is that I don’t know why. But, if you find that question a struggle too, I want you to know we can still walk in God’s path wrestling with it, together. And although I don’t think scripture allows us to lean on some-hollow-feel-good crutch of ‘everything happens for a reason’, I do think it implores us to recall us that God is good and loving, and that he can, and often does, work good from even the most depraved schemes of violent men.

And sometimes, more often than a natural-pessimist like me would notice, God’s delivering hand works mightily to burst us out of darkness and imprisonment, whether at the hands of evil men, or some other oppressive situation. Even when we, like Peter, are so resigned to our fate that we don’t expect, don’t believe, that God can actually be breaking us out.

Because the Lord who sent his angel to rescue Peter is the same Lord who has sent his Spirit to be with and within us. Whatever prison we find ourselves in, whether one created by others, or circumstances, or of our own making, he is able to break us out – and furthermore, he will be with us throughout any imprisonment and beyond. We may be required to put on our belt, fasten our sandals or wrap our cloaks around us – but we will certainly be asked to follow his leading. We may have to do some of the walking ourselves, but it is God who will do the opening of the gates that he needs us to go through.

After all, this same God sent his son to be with us, to break us out and rescue us from dark imprisonment without the light of Christ in our lives. He prevailed against the gates of our sin and the futile efforts we might have made to save ourselves. Charles Wesley’s famous hymn celebrates this better than I can:

Long my imprisoned spirit lay,
Fast bound in sin and nature’s night;
Thine eye diffused a quick’ning ray – 
I woke, the dungeon flamed with light;
My chains fell off, my heart was free,
I rose, went forth, and followed Thee.

Charles Wesley

Let’s pray together:

Lord, we pray fervently for salvation and liberation from wickedness and injustice for all who are oppressed. Please bring architects of unrighteousness to humble repentance and turn evil deeds to good, including us and our actions, when that’s needed. Whatever chains cling to us, please free us and help us to rise, go forth, and follow you,

Spirit-filled Christians in a Spirit-driven Church | Acts 11.19-26

This passage shows how the mostly Jewish Jerusalem-based community of Jesus became a multi-ethnic movement, and how the good news went as far as Antioch: a big trade city in the North and  the largest Cosmopolitan city in that part of the Roman empire. As many turned to the Lord, Barnabas was sent from Jerusalem to Antioch to help lead this church community. And Barnabas, so amazed by what he saw, travelled to Tarsus to bring Saul to Antioch. Barnabas and Saul then led and taught the church in Antioch for a whole year. And so, the Church in Antioch became the first large multi-ethnic church in history, a ‘headquarters’ for international mission, and, most importantly, a place where the disciples were first called “Christ-ones” or Christians.

There are three interesting points about this passage which I found helpful to reflect on.

First, it was how and to whom the followers spread the gospel. They first started to travel and spread the good word, as verse 19 says, because of persecution. So, they didn’t actually have a choice to not go – to an extent, they were refugees. And by travelling, they reached out and talked to people. This is amazing as, I think, if I had been persecuted, I wouldn’t be in the right state of mind to share the Gospel. But they were persistent in and faithful to their mission: although persecution was difficult, the disciples did not let that get in the way of their evangelism. It’s also interesting to note who they’ve reached out to. Although some spoke only to Jews, others spoke to the Hellenists or, in other words, those who were uncircumcised and were non-Jews. These were people who, at that time, would normally be quickly ruled out as ‘receivers of the good news. Instead, these non-Jews became believers and turned to the Lord.

Secondly, the disciples didn’t spread the gospel and bring people to the Lord through their own powers. Verse 21 says ‘the hand of the Lord’ was with the disciples when they evangelised, and verse 23 says that Barnabas saw the ‘grace of God’ in the Gentile Converts when he arrived in Antioch. Barnabas saw that they were Spirit-filled followers of Jesus in a Spirit-driven church, and this was so powerful that he got Saul from Tarsus to come to Antioch too. This is a theme that we’ve consistently seen in the book of Acts: God and the Holy Spirit were there with the disciples, every step of the way, as they preached the good news. And that their success in spreading the Gospel was through the risen, ascended and glorified Lord pouring out His Spirit on them and the church.

Thirdly, this passage reminds us that, as Christians, we are part of a multi-ethnic and multicultural community who build each other up. Just as Barnabas went to Antioch from Jerusalem, and just as Saul was called to Antioch from Tarsus… We, too, are called to play our part in creating that community. Just as Barnabas, whose name literally means ‘son of encouragement’, encouraged the church to ‘remain faithful to the Lord with steadfast devotion’, so should we encourage one another of faithfulness and devotion. This can be through supporting each other with Scripture, words and prayer, but also by calling out any injustices and wrongs that we might see. We are also encouraged to look to Barnabas who was so beautifully described in verse 24 as ‘a good man, full of Holy Spirit and of faith’. But what does this mean for us? As Christians, we are each on our own journeys of discipleship – to be someone full of the Spirit and faith. But we are also reminded that we are on this journey together as a community and as a family.

This passage has really encouraged reflection. When have we let ease, convenience, and comfort trump mission and evangelism? How often do I tell those who are ‘unlike me’ about the gospel? Is my evangelism and my life truly Spirit-filled and Spirit-led? Or how often have I said, ‘Lord, fill me with Your Spirit, but only in my little comfort zone’? Do I encourage and build others up? Am I, like Barnabas, full of Holy Spirit and of faith?

As we pray and reflect, let’s think of who we can reach out and tell the Gospel to, and who, in our church communities, we can encourage today.

Let’s pray.

Father God, thank you for reminding us that we are part of a multi-ethnic community of Your followers. Help us play our part in creating, strengthening and building that community, Lord. Fill us with your Holy Spirit and with faith, and help us to remain faithful to You with steadfast devotion. Lord, please show us how you want to use us, show us who you want us to reach out and tell the Gospel to, and show us who we can encourage in our church communities,

God’s Dreams Come True | Acts 10.30-48

“I’m gonna be a history-maker” were the lyrics to a Christian worship hit by Delirious in 1997, alongside many songs by others of a similar theme. I turned 20 that year and I suspect there are many of my generation who may have since thought – I haven’t been a history-maker, have I failed God?

The song was released in the heights of the charismatic renewal, and our collective failure, I would suggest, was thinking that WE were ever meant to be the history-makers! – the big names on history’s pages, the ones getting the adventure and the glory, leaving a legacy of wonder!

No. God is the history-maker; we are the support act – here to humbly serve behind the scenes.

In our reading today, God gets centre-stage and ousts Peter from it – God makes yet another history-making, world-changing move. On top of the death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus; and on top of the outpouring of the Holy Spirit on the Jews at Pentecost, and then on the Samaritans; God now opens wide the door (or rather, takes the door off its hinges for good!) to welcome the Gentiles in on the gift of salvation. Peter gets stitched up and has no choice but to follow where God leads him.

In yesterday’s reading, Peter was astounded to be told by God to change his beliefs about people. His previous categories were clean (Jews) and unclean (non-Jews). Non-Jews could only become clean through conversion, circumcision and obedience to the Jewish laws.

However, Peter learned from a 3-times-repeated, crazy vision from God, that he should call no person unclean. Immediately after that crazy vision, it just so happened that some Gentiles arrived at his house and Peter let them in. Unheard of for a Jew. Next he accompanied them on a 3 day journey from Joppa by the sea to Caesarea 40 miles up the coastline, and ended up walking into a Gentile house – again, unheard of for a Jew.

Peter, still reeling probably from the shock and radical rearrangement of his theology, and perhaps looking around, curious to know what a Gentile house looked like – preaches the gospel to the gathered crowd…

Jesus of Nazareth, who did great miracles and was crucified, is actually the LIVING Lord Jesus Christ, risen from the dead (and, by the way, Peter adds, we were eye-witnesses – we ate and drank with him – i.e. he was no ghost!) This Jesus is the judge of the living and the dead and he offers you forgiveness of sins… 

and then BOOM!

Peter’s sermon was short-lived. God interrupted him and stole the show. He clearly needed to make it unquestionable for Peter (and later for the apostles to whom he had to justify himself) that these Gentiles were welcome to be in his church. So God suddenly poured out the Holy Spirit upon the gathering. They began to speak in tongues and praise God, just like Peter and the disciples had found themselves doing on the day of Pentecost! So convinced was Peter that this was the real deal, he baptised them all there and then.

At last, God’s long-awaited dream and promise to Abraham, to be a blessing to all nations, finally began to come true – from then on, Gentiles were slowly but surely welcomed into the church – and apostles like Paul began to take the gospel to all the corners of the known world – including pagan Britain! This was a history-making, world-changing move of God. 

The gospel is not confined to those we deem acceptable; it has been released to the world, to be received by ANYONE who wants God’s mercy.

Let’s pray. 

Heavenly Father, we praise you for your impartiality and generous grace, that make the forgiveness of sins and resurrection to eternal life possible for ALL people who call on the name of your Son, Jesus Christ, to be saved. We repent of times when we have excluded others from the gospel because of our own self-righteous attitudes or because we were afraid to proclaim it; we repent of times when we have excluded ourselves from your love because we couldn’t believe it to be true for us. Please give us your spirit of wisdom and revelation to see who you really are and to respond in trust and obedience, wherever and to whomever that may lead us,

Peter’s Vision | Acts 10.9-18

Acts 10.9-18

I don’t know about you, but when I read this passage, the phrase that really jumps out to me is ‘what God has made clean, you must not call profane’. Profane here could also be translated as ‘common’ meaning basically the opposite of sacred. I wonder whether there is anything I think of as common or the opposite of sacred that perhaps God wants to use for his glory. I wonder if my judgement as to what is sacred and what is profane truly is in line with God’s, or whether, like Peter, I need God to show me what he thinks.

With that in mind, let’s look again at the passage. Peter is a good Jew. Good Jews don’t eat the kinds of animals Peter sees in his vision of the sheet. Pigs, reptiles, birds of prey are all off the menu in a Jewish household. The rules about unclean and clean foods in Leviticus 11 make this pretty clear. They are supposed to keep kosher. The reason for this is that the Jewish people are a holy nation, set apart for God. They display their purity and holiness through obeying God’s laws, which include both moral laws and rules about ritual purity. But here in this passage in Acts we see God doing a new thing. A new thing promised right from when he chose Abraham. And it is exciting.

Abraham, was promised that all the nations of the earth shall be blessed in him. We see glimpses of this in the Old Testament when people from other nations, like Rahab and Ruth, become part of God’s family in spite of not being of Jewish descent. But here in the book of Acts we see how God’s rescue plan in sending his son Jesus is not just for the Jews but for the Gentiles, the non-Jews, too. 

At the time, Jews wouldn’t have even considered eating with non-Jews. But now with these food restrictions lifted, the way is opened further for Peter to visit Cornelius, a God-fearing Roman, which we’ll hear about in the next daily devotional. In the rest of Acts and the letters of St Paul we see how God meets with gentiles and how the Jews scrambled to keep up theologically with this movement of God. We see the early church trying to wrap their heads around whether or not to encourage non-Jewish converts to Christianity to keep the whole Torah with all its purity laws. We see later on in Acts 15 that barriers to becoming a Christian were being gradually removed and what was deemed to be essential refined. Non-Jewish christians did not have to keep kosher or get circumcised for example. And the legacy of this is us- the worldwide church is made up of many nationalities. God shows no partiality. His rescue plan through Jesus is for people from every tribe and tongue.

So how does this impact us now? We know that our saviour Jesus Christ a saviour for all people, and we need to tell people about Him! 

Also I feel challenged by the verse ‘what God has made clean, you must not call profane’. To be fair to Peter, in not wanting to eat the unclean food on the sheet, he was simply obeying the Torah. He needed a vision from God to show him that it was now acceptable to eat these things and to eat with non-Jews. But perhaps there is a parallel for us now. Perhaps as christians we can be guilty of expecting people to look and behave like us before they can become Christians. But our God welcomes all. To use a somewhat glib example, you don’t need to like quiche, drink tea and wear retro knitwear to become a part of God’s family.

Let us pray,

Father God, thank you that your saving grace extends to all who put their trust in you. Thank you for including me in your family. I pray that you would forgive me for times when I have been judgemental towards others or put a limit on your love. I pray that you would use me to be a light to the nations. Help me to see others through your eyes – with love, compassion, and a longing for them to come into your kingdom,

The Church of Miracles | Acts 9.32-43

Acts 9.32-43

The last verse before today’s passage finishes with the words ‘the church throughout Judea, Galilee, and Samaria had peace and was built up. Living in the fear of the Lord and in the comfort of the Holy Spirit, it increased in numbers.’ However, Luke isn’t content with just giving us a summary of what’s going on – in today’s passage he expands on what he means. What a church living in the fear of the Lord and in the comfort of the Holy Spirit looks like. And it is good news.

We’ve been following the story of Saul for a few days now, but here the camera pans back to Peter as he’s travelling around the surrounding area around Jerusalem to visit the scattered church after the persecution starting a few chapters earlier. We follow along, expectant to see what God might do. 

It becomes obvious from the very start that God is powerfully at work among these communities. We focus in on two miracles in the two cities Peter visits – Aeneas, the paralysed man walking again in Lydda, and Tabitha brought back to life in the town of Joppa. 

Let’s look at these two examples. Was there something special about them? Or why did the miracles happen to these two people in particular?
The story of Aeneas healing is short and without a lot of detail. We only know he had been paralysed for 8 years and after an encounter with the power of God he can now stand again. He is ‘found’ by Peter in a seemingly random encounter. In contrast we learn a lot about the life of Tabitha. She has lived a life full of good works and been a blessing to the community around her, especially to the widows it would seem since they are there by her deathbed mourning, showing Peter all the beautiful tunics and other garments she had made. Beside her, Aeneas is looking very ordinary.

If we wanted a pattern to know who will receive a miracle, we’re not going to find it in today’s text. Maybe Luke is being deliberate in telling these stories back to back to rock us out of that assumption. 

So what unites them then? Aeneas and Tabitha are both part of the community of the believers – or ‘saints’ as Luke calls them. Peter even addresses them both by name, indicating that they are known by the community of believers. Another thing that is similar is the emphasis on this being the work of God. Neither time does Peter take nor is given the credit. To Aeneas he says ‘Jesus Christ heals you!’ – not Peter – Jesus heals you. And Peter never touches Tabitha but falls on his knees and prays before calling to her, ‘Tabitha, get up’. There’s nothing special about Peter, only that he knows the power of the name of Jesus, because he has seen it again and again. Lastly, both of these miracles result in people turning to the Lord. The rumours of Aeneas, the paralysed man, being restored to health makes the whole village and surrounding area turn to God, and likewise, because of Tabitha, many people in Joppa become believers.

Can you see the footsteps of God at work? If we zoom out a little, what has just happened? Aeneas and Tabitha’s lives have been radically transformed, yes, but if we retrace Peter’s steps we see the transforming power of the Spirit powerfully at work everywhere in these newfound communities. And people are turning to him in faith. 

So is there a pattern of miracles? Yes, but it’s not about who gets healed. It’s a pattern of miracles that seem to follow the early church around wherever they go – of God’s abundant goodness. We have seen earlier in Acts this pattern of miracles surrounding the newfound church. And here at the first mention of a church outside of the city of Jerusalem, we see it again. God is on the move.

Can you see the footsteps of God at work in our midst as you look back on the last couple of days, weeks or years? I’m not saying everything is always easy with God on our side, but I have seen the all-transforming power of God’s Spirit at work turning seekers into followers and changing situations for good that looked hopeless. I believe that the same God at work in the early church still moves among us. Let’s look to Him in anticipation even this day.

Let’s pray,

Lord, thank you that you dwell among us. Help us to look to you in hope of your transforming power to be at work among us, even today. We know nothing is impossible for you. Increase our faith we pray.

Radically-changed Relationships | Acts 9.19b-31

Acts 9.19b-31

Often, when I think of Paul’s early days and introduction into Christian life, I think about his light-from-heaven-flashing, voice-of-our-saviour-calling conversion on the road to Damascus.  It’s pretty dramatic, not gonna lie – and in a good way.  We’re called to think about the radical change God made in his heart, the grace he offers to us as sinners, and the complete 180-turn Paul’s life took when his eyes and heart were turned towards Jesus.  Those are certainly good and true things.  Yet, this passage here focuses on Paul and the church.  Not the ones that received the letters he later wrote, or the ones that he’s famous for helping plant, but the community he joined when all that they had known of Paul beforehand was that he was a dangerous persecutor of the Christian faith. 

It’s pretty unbelievable that that happened – in fact, so unbelievable, that it almost didn’t happen.  Verse 26 tells us, “when he came to Jerusalem, he tried to join the disciples, but they were all afraid of him, not believing that he really was a disciple.”  When I first read this, I couldn’t shake that in my imagination, if I’d been there, I’d have been one of them.  I wasn’t very pleased with this.  

With hindsight on how the story turned out, perhaps we’d all wish we’d have been Barnabus instead, who rocks a nickname like the ‘Son of Encouragement’.  And for sure, there’s so much to learn from Barnabus.  Barnabus, who took the time to go to Saul. Who was able to reiterate Saul’s story of seeing the Lord, hearing the Lord, and preaching in Damascus to the apostles because he’d first listened to it carefully.  Who acted like a bridge, welcoming Saul into the community of believers.  Maybe one of our challenges here in reading this passage is examining how we can be more like Barnabas.  Where are we called to be active in inviting somebody into our community?  Are we willing to spend the time and energy that that takes? Do we risk ourselves for it? 

But it’s still a struggle reading the responses to Paul’s initial arrival at Jerusalem. We can celebrate Barnabus, ask ourselves those questions, and try to spur ourselves on to emulating that and fostering a more welcoming community, but the thought keeps coming back up: were the disciples’ reaction to be afraid and disbelieving of Saul really so wrong?  He wasn’t just any other person.  The disciples in Jerusalem didn’t know the hindsight we get now in reading the story, who Saul became and the simple fact that he was telling the truth; at their moment in time, all they had known of Paul was his persecution of Christians beforehand.  Perhaps “wrong” isn’t the right word, but “human”.  Put in the same position, the disciples’ weren’t being particularly cynical or doubtful – but rather their initial response (whilst definitely good that it later changed) was also understandable. 

So what do we do then with that? How do we try to create community? Are we simply called to act like Barnabas, and how does that make sense when so much of the disciples’ reaction also seems to make sense from the human, limited perspective that we still live and share in?  There’s more to unpack and more answers that I don’t know, but I think I find comfort in the following: that ultimately whilst this community is ours, it belongs not to us but to God; and it’s not created by us or our strengths, but by God.  We’re called to partner and build on the relationships that he has set for us through the Spirit, but not ever from scratch.  Paul joining the disciples here is an incredible, unlikely thing; it wasn’t done based on his own actions, the disciples’ or even Barnabas’ – but rather through God’s power to bring radical change not just to his heart, but to also to his relationships.  When we remember Paul, we often think about how God renews hearts.  This passage reminds us that we can be equally confident that God renews relationships and communities too.  The Church and the unity we have through the Spirit given to us, is a part of the gift and pursuit of our risen, ascended, and glorified Christ.       

Dear father, thank you that you are glorified just by who you are. Thank you that you are kind and good to us, and that you can bring change and transformation not just to our hearts but also in the relationships we have with others and the communities we live in. We pray that we would give you these things, and you would do what you want with them.  We pray for our spirits to be cooperative with yours, for us to act in your will, and that you would make us more like you.  Thank you for your grace.  In Jesus’ name,

On the Road to Damascus | Acts 9.1-19a

Acts 9.1-19a

Here in chapter 9 we are with Saul, also known as Paul. The first we heard of him was in chapter 8, as he approved of Stephen being martyred. Here he is extending his persecution of the church from Jerusalem to Damascus.

But as he is close to Damascus, his designs are suddenly thwarted. The light flashes, Saul falls to the ground and hears the voice of Jesus. “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting”

Isn’t that amazing? Jesus is so close to his people, that to persecute us is to persecute him. It is sometimes like this for us, with our families or close friends. When someone close to you is hurt, you take it personally, and are hurt and angry on their behalf. That’s a picture of what it’s like with Jesus. When his people are attacked, he takes it personally.

Even today Jesus is with his people, and as Christians across the world suffer under violent, terrifying, cruel persecution, Jesus is persecuted too. How good it is to have a saviour who knows our pain.

So, Jesus speaks to Saul, and orders him into Damascus, blind, until Jesus calls Ananias to go to him. When he meets Ananias, Saul’s repentance is complete, his sight is restored, and he is baptised and receives the Holy Spirit.

Here we see that anyone can be saved. How far the grace of God extends – even to Saul the persecutor. In his grace, God chooses to save Saul. He says to Ananias that Saul is ‘my chosen instrument.’ Saul isn’t saved because he is good or has anything to offer God. Saul is saved because God is kind and forgiving.

Are there people you know, and think ‘God would never forgive them’ or perhaps you think that of yourself. Hear again the good news: no one is too evil for God to bring them to repentance and forgive them.

Here we see the triumph of God over evil. The weak and suffering church has a mighty God. He is able, not only to defeat evil, but to convert and transform his enemies into his children. 

Saul begins as a dangerous persecutor. In his power he arrests and imprisons followers of the way of Jesus, trying to destroy the church. The church is powerless to stop him. But God is great and mighty. Not only can he stop Saul, he can transform him. 

In this, God is much greater than the heroes we see on TV and in films. They outsmart and defeat the bad guys, but they can’t bring them back to the light. God can do both.

This is such good news for us. We who have been enemies of God. He can transform even us to be his servants and be made like his Son.

It’s good news too, because Saul will be God’s instrument to bring God’s name before the Gentiles. What Jesus began on the road outside Damascus, he continues today as the good news about Jesus goes out to reach all the nations.

So we, with our persecuted brothers and sisters around the world, can rejoice. Jesus is with us, knowing our pain. Jesus is mighty. Even the most hard-hearted, evil people can be made new and used by God. Jesus is kind and forgiving. Those who repent can be saved, whatever they have done. 

Let’s pray.

Father, you are perfect in holiness, yet you forgive us and come to live in us by your Spirit. Even Saul was not too far for your love and power to reach him. Thank you for your grace and generosity towards us. Thank you that we are no longer your enemies, but your children. Please comfort your suffering church. Help us to be confident in your love and transforming power. In Jesus’ name,

A ‘Chance’ Encounter | Acts 8.26-40

Acts 8.26-40

In Brother Andrew’s book, God’s Smuggler, he recounts numerous tales of how he smuggled bibles behind the Iron Curtain. One of the things that struck me as I read it was how Brother Andrew’s ears were always open and ready to hear and respond to the voice of the Spirit. But it wasn’t a booming voice of God accompanied by a few lightning bolts for good measure. It was, well, it was all pretty normal, it was pretty every day stuff for Brother Andrew. And it sounds like it is here too, for Philip.

Philip is open and ready to respond to the voice of the Spirit. ‘The Angel of the Lord says “Get up and go toward the south to the road that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza.” And so Philip did. Then the Spirit nudges him to go over to the chariot, where the Ethiopian court official was struggling his way through the book of the prophet Isaiah.

Can you see how the risen Lord Jesus is orchestrating this encounter and speaking to Philip? And reading between the lines, it seems that Philip was ready to listen. He wasn’t preoccupied with his own concerns and to do lists, he wasn’t distracted about what he was having for dinner or what he’d watch on Netflix later on that night. His every day life, his way of living was one of listening and obeying the guiding of the Spirit.

I wonder how many times I’ve either not heard God’s promptings for me because I’ve been so fixated on what I think I should do with my day. Or how many times I’ve dismissed the guiding of the Spirit, or outright disobeyed because it was too costly.

Philip isn’t some super-Christian. He’s just the same as you or me. And so what if we began each day with an attitude of ‘here I am Lord, send me’? What would the Lord use us for?

So next in the story, Philip approaches the carriage and asks a very simple question – ‘Do you understand what you are reading?’. His question is not particularly clever, or notable, it just opens up the space for a conversation. But as a result, Philip is invited into the carriage and they start opening up scripture together. The Holy Spirit speaks through Philip and opens up the official’s eyes to the true meaning of the passage. All this from a simple question.

How good are you at asking helpful, gentle, loving questions which create space to talk about Jesus?

You may have heard the incredible stats that Jesus asks 307 questions in the Gospels. He is asked 183 and only gives answers to 3 of them. Asking questions was Jesus’ way of empowering those he spoke to, giving them space to express themselves and explore what they were thinking. Jesus didn’t feel the need to put words in people’s mouths or to give extensive teaching about what they should be thinking. Jesus made space for people to think for themselves, so did Philip with the court official and so should we.

And then, remarkably, through this conversation, the Ethiopian official gave his life to Jesus! Jesus is powerfully at work here. They come across some water and the official declares he wants to get baptized. Who was Philip to stop him?

Now this isn’t to say we should always baptize people in puddles as soon as they give their lives to Jesus. But it is clear that baptism is an essential part of the start of the Christian life. Baptism symbolizes the death of our old lives and our new life in Jesus, it is a washing from our sins and a promise to God. It is an act of obedience and is an essential part of discipleship.

Philip doesn’t just leave the official once he has become a Christian. He walks this next step of discipleship, baptism, through with him. Notice Philip doesn’t feel the need to walk the whole journey of discipleship with the official. God clearly had other plans for Philip. But Philip knew could trust that the God who had orchestrated this encounter would also find a way to welcome the Ethiopian official into the church and to grow his faith.

And so we too should seek to walk the next step alongside those we share our faith with. If you meet someone on the street and share your faith with them – invite them to church, if a friend expresses interest in finding out more about faith – invite them to alpha or read the bible with them, and if they become a Christian, help them find a church, get baptized and begin the journey of discipleship. And then trust Jesus to do the rest, it is His mission after all.

Let’s pray:

Father God, thank you that you partner with us in your mission to the world. Help us to have listening ears and obedient hearts to the prompting of your Holy Spirit. Help us to ask loving, gentle and helpful questions which open up conversations about faith. And help us to know our part in walking alongside those we encounter, and to know when to trust you to do the rest. Fill us with your Spirit Lord, and send us out, in Jesus’ name,