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The Church has left the Building

Sermon , Easter 5A (Mothers’ Day), May 10, 2020.

Acts 7:55-60 55 But Stephen, full of the Holy Spirit, looked up to heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. 56 ‘Look,’ he said, ‘I see heaven open and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.’ 57 At this they covered their ears and, yelling at the top of their voices, they all rushed at him, 58 dragged him out of the city and began to stone him. Meanwhile, the witnesses laid their coats at the feet of a young man named Saul. 59 While they were stoning him, Stephen prayed, ‘Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.’ 60 Then he fell on his knees and cried out, ‘Lord, do not hold this sin against them.’ When he had said this, he fell asleep.

What a moment and what a vision in the moment given to Stephen and to us today! 

Like Moses up on the mountain; Elijah in the rocks, God’s people looking up at a cloudy fiery My Sinai, Solomon and the people when the Temple was filled with the glory of God; like the Shepherds at night when angels sang at the birth of Jesus, like Peter, James and John that day on the mountain of Transfiguration: now Stephen “sees the glory of God” It’s King Jesus. As Stephen becomes the first of many Christians to be killed for their witness to Jesus in the presence of dying, angry, stubborn, ‘un-listening’, unjust, self-preserving people, resurrected and ruling Jesus is there. 

And the Holy Spirit is filling this man and this space.

I am sure Luke tells us of this moment to give us confidence in Jesus’ presence and his rule that is ever-present, even if hidden in the world. 

I have heard many a question asked about what God is up to in our time of testing – this pandemic threat. I have heard a few views on what the results of this COVID time will be:

  1. A ‘resetting of the environment on planet earth – 150,000 Flamingos in of all places, Mumbai!

  2. A re-evaluation of family – and how foundational family is – a time to truly ‘reconnect’. 

  3. A pause for self-reflection – a forced time of self-evaluation – priorities, job, career, direction, losses, gains; what my life needs to be about…..

All good things. 

I read with interest a comment by an Aussie Journalist on Saturday. Frank Furedi said 

“Most research carried out on disasters during the 19th and 20th centuries emphasise the impressive degree of social solidarity with which the community reacts.  He quotes Sigmund Freud; “One of the gratifying and exalting impressions which mankind can offer is when in the face of an elemental crisis, it forgets the discordancies of its civilisation and all its internal difficulties and animosities, and recalls the great common task of preserving itself against the superior power of nature,” Freud observed.

Despite what the news services choose to tell, people band together in times like these and become renewed in their awareness of and commitment to relationships and community. 

But the other thing about disasters is that they do change things. 

Furedi says,

“Time and again our fears of natural disaster have served as a catalyst for human ingenuity. The Lisbon earthquake of 1755 encouraged the application of science to the construction of an urban infrastructure. After the floods that hit The Netherlands in 1953, the Dutch constructed an ingenious system of dykes that represents one of the technological wonders of the world.  The sinking of the Titanic led to a review of passenger safety, leading to a significant reduction in the hazards of sea journeys. (The Weekend Australian, Saturday May 2, 2020)

Might be the same for cruise ships after the Ruby Princess!

He sums up: 

“…..most important, this terrible pandemic can provide a timely reminder that belonging to a community is the most precious asset that human beings possess”.

Community becomes precious. That is good. But there is much more, and Stephen and the others get to see it in their dark time. 

They see Jesus there in this violence and injustice. They, and now we, are allowed to see the first human raised from the dead present at the first murder of one of his followers – and Jesus’ presence transforms this death into life, this end into a beginning, this old way into a new way, this hate into forgiveness, this darkness into joy that lasts…

And that is the thing: because of Jesus’ presence, this hard thing became a catalyst for a new thing. 

This death was pivotal for Jesus’ mission. It changed things, as any disaster does. 

From this day onward, we hear in Acts that the little first church was scattered. Under persecution, the Spirit scattered his people and their message far and wide. 

The Holy Spirit used this tragic tough dark moment to revolutionise his church and move it from being a little ‘in-group’ in one measly city in the world, to fanning out into every known country in the world full of people from every nation and language in the world. 

Friends, I ask, is that what the Spirit is doing now? Transforming us into a new shape and space in his mission for this time? Our social distancing has actually re-connected us and we are more able to be together scattered and carry the gospel further?

What is Jesus up to at this COVID time? I am not sure anyone can really answer that question fully. I don’t think those first Christians would have has a clear picture of God’s big plans for his mission through them either. They just went and they took him with them wherever they went! Or rather, the Spirit took them with him wherever he went!

Will we listen and be led into new places, new ways, new shapes of church? 

I can imagine us being more connected as a community and at the same time being more scattered. We are connected people who know each other and care for each other, and we are scattered people being the gospel in our local streets and places. 

Is the Spirit showing us that we are big church in small church? We gather as one and we go and gather as twos or fours or eights in groups. 

We are large worship gatherings, buildings, organisation, leadership, institution, solid, trustworthy, rightly ordered under Jesus, and we are small, closer relationships, agile, household based, on the lookout for people in our street, people at work, people at the club.

We are a church as a network, a co–op of house based gatherings around our area all connected together with the big church face-to-face, and now, like never before, able to access the larger gathering via digital means, and even in real time/live, in any given week. 

Is this the lasting gift of COVID time? A big church that can be small; a network of small groups of Christians engaged in relating, caring, serving; all connected within the big group – and both where Jesus is present in his glory; forgiving, empowering, sustaining, revealing his new creation and converting people into it. 

Friends, is the Spirit showing a different way to view ourselves – a big church small: Sunday worship always but people in my house in the week; conversations in my street, my club, my work, my park, connected Christians in smaller places where we can talk longer and deeper, we can eat together, we can listen to the Word, we can invite.

Stephen is asleep with his King Jesus. Many are as they await the final great and glorious day of the final resurrection. 

We are not asleep yet. Sometimes we act like we are. So distracted, so busy, so settled with what is, as if nothing has changed and the world has not been rearranged. 

Even worse…. Sometimes we might be like those in Stephen’s time who just blocked their ears and kept on talking longer and louder than him to keep their needs and fears and vision of life. 

All the while they got angrier and angrier at the direct challenge to their comforts and expectations, and dreams and beliefs. They show that we would rather silence Jesus and his call than be challenged by him and change. 

Friend’s we are wise to not block your ears and keep on talking at this time as some did in Stephen’s time. We are wrong to kill the messenger who threatens our current way of living and being church.

Better to simply hear the magnificent words of the First Martyr – the first one being killed for his witness. His words echo the Other One who has already been killed for his witness, and all to raise up dead sinners to the new life of his glory.

“Lord, receive our spirit, today. Make us one. Scatter us and gather us as one. In it all let your rule reign so that our sins are not held against us but your good rule is proclaimed to this community”.   

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