Acts 19 : 1-7 Mark 1 : 4-11 Sermon

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1 Sermon The story of how the Christian faith spread and grew, as told in the book of Acts, is mightily impressive. It begins in Jerusalem, which was at the time an insignificant place on the outskirts of the Roman Empire - and it ends up in Rome - the capital of the known world. It begins with just a handful of bewildered believers - and it ends with a much bigger number of bold, confident believers. It begins when the faithful few were all Jewish like Jesus himself - and it ends with an emerging church which is international and multi-cultural. So how did it all happen? How was such an enormous change able to happen in just a few years? The simple version is that those who found faith in Jesus Christ were so inspired by what they experienced, so excited by what they discovered, that they spread the word and convinced others that they too should believe. That certainly happened. That is the heart of the story. And before I appear to skip over that too lightly lets remember that this alone should be enough to challenge our complacency in a culture which treats religious faith as just another lifestyle choice to be picked up or left down when it suits us. The faith first spread through people who were committed and dedicated and enthusiastic and there really is no reason why we should not be the same. But in fact what happens in the book of Acts is also a bit more complex than that. And the challenges with which it confronts us are actually a bit deeper than that. What happened was not simply that people who had never heard of Jesus were told about him and came to believe in him. It is also that those who did believe in him were willing to admit that they might not have understood everything, and were ready for new discoveries, new experiences, new understanding. That aspect of the story is at least as important as the conversion rate.

2 The Christian faith had not yet been formalised into writing and defined in print, so perhaps it was more natural for them than for us to think of the Christian faith as something which should evolve and grow. It was perhaps more natural for them to expect that their understanding would develop as their experience increases. That is why the short passage we read this morning is a significant one. It is a record of how one small group of believers (around 12) were humble enough to be willing to change and ready to move forward. Think for a minute how the conversation might have gone Paul meets the small group of believers and he asks them did you receive the Holy Spirit when you were baptized? And they reply look, we don t know what you are selling but we are not interested. Paul says, I m not selling anything, just trying to tell you about the faith! They reply, we ve got our own faith. We were baptized in the exact same way Jesus himself was baptized. If it was good enough for him it was good enough us. Away you go with all your gobbledygook. And they chased Paul away and continued to do things as they always had, as sure as ever that they were right. That doesn t sound totally unrealistic, does it? Think how you react when you are approached by someone in the street wanting to talk about religion, or when the Jehovah s Witnesses ring the doorbell. Now of course I m not suggesting we should be swayed by everyone who tries to convince us of some new idea. Indeed I would suggest that some ideas, especially those which are closed and narrow, are best avoided. But I would also suggest that the arrogance which assumes I am right and anyone who thinks differently must be wrong is an enormous barrier to authentic, growing, living faith. You see there is a difference between faith and certainty. There is a crucial difference between having faith in God and being certain of our own beliefs about God. And I think it is true to say that had the characters we read of in the book of Acts been guided by certainty rather than faith the

3 church would never have grown and the faith would never have spread. They would still be meeting in a small room in Jerusalem, talking about the past and arguing among themselves. Perhaps the real miracle in that book is not simply that lots of people came to put their trust Jesus, but that people who had very strong faith, even people who had been with Jesus and heard him teach and seen him resurrected, were able to grow in faith to such an extend that they would be ready to let go of their deeply held convictions, and trust in the new thing that Spirit of God was doing. For their faith in God allowed them to recognise that they probably didn t know everything. Their faith in God actually stimulated them to want to learn more, to grapple with difficult problems, to find new solutions and new answers so that they were able to spread the good news across the Roman Empire and beyond. That is what we get a little glimpse of in today s story. The story of a small group of people who believed and who knew what they believed, and who knew why they believed, but who were ready to change those beliefs in the light of new experience. It is a small incident in the big scheme of things, but an important example of what living faith was like in the earliest days. The incident it also important because it offers us a classic model of how spiritual growth happens. It had begun for them with their awareness of need. That was what John had preached that there was something wrong in their lives and they needed to repent. How hard that can be to accept, and yet admitting it is the vital first step to any kind of growth or enlightenment. This is known by any who have been helped by the recovery movement. It is easy to mock a meeting at which each person introduces themselves by standing and saying, I m John and I m an alcoholic, but that open and honest confession of need is such a powerful thing, and without it nothing good can grow. Perhaps we should introduce ourselves in church

4 by saying I m Ian and I m a sinner. Actually we do it is built into our liturgy. We begin every act of worship by confessing our sin and acknowledging our need of forgiveness. That may seem a bit formal, a bit routine, but it is vitally important. Unless we build our faith on that basic truth then nothing good can grow. Yet the time comes when we discover that there can be more to our faith than that. The gospel describes heaven being thrown open and the spirit of God coming and interacting with people, bringing faith alive and enabling new things to happen. And our group of believers in the book of Acts, having already got to a place of repentance, are now told by Paul that there is more to it than that. They are now told that they can let God come and change them on the inside. Repentance, acknowledging that you need to change your ways, is where we must begin - but it is not enough. The Holy Spirit would change them and give them the power to change the world, which is remember, exactly what happened. It happened because those who had taken the first steps of faith, the difficult but vital first steps, were ready to release their grip on what they were sure of, and trust that God might have more for them. So the book of Acts tells how the early church grew and prospered, not through people who stood firmly on certainties, but through people who were ready to learn and to grow under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. The early church did some powerful and radical things with that attitude. They broke down all sorts of barriers. They struggled with the prejudices of their day, but eventually managed a radical inclusiveness, a genuinely new kind of community which could include as equals people who were Jews and Gentiles, males and females, rich and poor. They also did some pretty ordinary things. They visited the sick and looked out for one another through difficult economic times. They prayed together and broke bread together and welcomed strangers as friends. And always they were open to new possibilities, new ways of thinking, new ways of living, new ways of being guided by the Holy Spirit.

5 And here we are 2,000 years on, when we both benefit from, and perhaps are limited by, a much more settled form of the faith. We have many generations worth of wisdom and tradition and practices which keep us generally in the right path, which protect us from getting excited and distracted by every new fad and fashion. But those same wisdom and traditions and practices can, if we are not careful, keep us to narrow, too restricted, too blinkered; living as if we already know all that there is to know, standing on our firm certainties rather than looking for new possibilities, rather than trusting the flow of the Spirit. So we are reminded that God is always bigger than we have yet understood, that the possibilities of faith are always greater than we have yet experienced, that the boundaries of God s kingdom are always wider than we have yet imagined. And none of that is a new idea. It is a description of the beliefs of those among whom the church first grew and spread. May it also describe our beliefs, as we wait for the same holy spirit to open up new horizons for us.

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