Theological no-man's land - St Bride's: Reflection

St Bride's: Sermons

Theological no-man's land

Acts 16: 16-34

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16 And it came to pass, as we went to prayer, a certain damsel possessed with a spirit of divination met us, which brought her masters much gain by soothsaying:

17 The same followed Paul and us, and cried, saying, These men are the servants of the most high God, which shew unto us the way of salvation.

18 And this did she many days. But Paul, being grieved, turned and said to the spirit, I command thee in the name of Jesus Christ to come out of her. And he came out the same hour.

19 And when her masters saw that the hope of their gains was gone, they caught Paul and Silas, and drew them into the marketplace unto the rulers,

20 And brought them to the magistrates, saying, These men, being Jews, do exceedingly trouble our city,

21 And teach customs, which are not lawful for us to receive, neither to observe, being Romans.

22 And the multitude rose up together against them: and the magistrates rent off their clothes, and commanded to beat them.

23 And when they had laid many stripes upon them, they cast them into prison, charging the jailor to keep them safely:

24 Who, having received such a charge, thrust them into the inner prison, and made their feet fast in the stocks.

25 And at midnight Paul and Silas prayed, and sang praises unto God: and the prisoners heard them.

26 And suddenly there was a great earthquake, so that the foundations of the prison were shaken: and immediately all the doors were opened, and every one's bands were loosed.

27 And the keeper of the prison awaking out of his sleep, and seeing the prison doors open, he drew out his sword, and would have killed himself, supposing that the prisoners had been fled.

28 But Paul cried with a loud voice, saying, Do thyself no harm: for we are all here.

29 Then he called for a light, and sprang in, and came trembling, and fell down before Paul and Silas,

30 And brought them out, and said, Sirs, what must I do to be saved?

31 And they said, Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and thou shalt be saved, and thy house.

32 And they spake unto him the word of the Lord, and to all that were in his house.

33 And he took them the same hour of the night, and washed their stripes; and was baptized, he and all his, straightway.

34 And when he had brought them into his house, he set meat before them, and rejoiced, believing in God with all his house.

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I suspect that I am not alone in finding today quite possibly the weirdest Sunday in the Church's calendar. 

Thursday was Ascension Day, which drew to a close the forty day season of Easter, when the Risen Lord was amongst his disciples.  Christ departed from their midst, with the promise that he would be sending them the Holy Spirit, to empower them to fulfil the great and mighty task he had set them.  But the Holy Spirit doesn't arrive until Pentecost - which is next Sunday.

So today we find ourselves in a kind of weird theological waiting room, or no-man's land: Christ has gone, the Holy Spirit hasn't turned up yet, and in between the two, the disciples are left contemplating the monumental task that Christ has entrusted to them without having any of the necessary means of fulfilling it.

I have to say that the Christian life in general, and Christian ministry in particular, can feel a bit like that at times.  In common with most clergy, I occasionally find myself facing tasks or undertakings that feel overwhelmingly daunting, or simply beyond my own capabilities.  Yet, somehow, one has to keep calm, keep faith, keep in touch with God, and just get on with it.  And the remarkable and miraculous thing is that, somehow, occasionally against all the odds, things have a way of sorting themselves out. 

Some of you will have heard me describe the task I took on when I went to my previous parish, to a job that was supposed to have been axed, serving a tiny, very elderly, very embattled and embittered congregation, with a reputation for being resistant to change; and I was charged with the task of turning that place round.  And somehow, against all the odds, we managed it.  By the time I left it was a flourishing, united, growing place, with a new sense of purpose and identity.  And I still don't know entirely how we managed it -  what I do know is that I did what I could with such gifts as I had, and encouraged others to do the same - and somehow the Spirit of God took that and ran with it. 

But I am sure we all recognise the experience of feeling helpless and overwhelmed by a task, or a set of circumstances that seems more than we can bear - which must have been how the disciples felt between the Ascension and Pentecost

The Anglican priest and writer on Celtic Spirituality, David Adam, left school at 15 to work in a coal mine, before feeling a call to ordination.  He was for some years vicar of Lindisfarne in Northumberland.  In his book Border Lands, he describes two incidents from his own life which, in their rather different ways, take us to the very heart of that kind of experience in the Christian life.

On one occasion, he found himself so utterly overwhelmed and out of his depth, that, in his own words, he felt the need to run away.  He went up into the Cheviot Hills and spent some time there alone amidst the grandeur of the landscape; aware of the stillness about him; accompanied only by wildlife.  He then describes what happened

'... I reached the summit, climbing over a great heap of stones into a Bronze Age fortress.  I sat in this great circle of stones to get my breath back and looked out towards the sea in the direction of Holy Island.  A great storm was brewing and coming my way.  I watched the looming clouds racing towards the hills, yet they never came.  The hills seemed to break the clouds and divide them: the storm went north and south, but it did not come over me.  In that ancient stone circle, built to protect ancient man, I suddenly felt protected.  I was surrounded by the Presence and Power of God.  He would not leave me or forsake [me].  I could not slip out of His love or care.  The words of a hymn came to mind, and I spoke them as an act of faith:

The storm may roar without me,
My heart may low be laid
But God is round about me
And can I be dismayed?'

He then tells another, rather different story.  He was watching a young boy and his father preparing to climb a rock face that had a slight overhang.  The father was big and strong and obviously experienced, and before the climb he reminded his son of the dangers and the need to be careful.  David Adam continues the story:

'... Before they proceeded, the father bound them together by a rope and shackles: 'Now if you get into difficulties, I will be there and able to help you.  Don't be afraid, you know how strong I am.  I will not let you fall.  Even in the worst bits, when you cannot see me, know that we are joined together.  You just need to give a tug on the rope and I will respond.  Don't worry about anything: I am there all the time.  I won't let anything hurt you.'

I watched them go off on this great adventure.  The father knew the way and could have scaled it quite quickly, but he set his pace to that of his son.  The father led the way and they both began to ascend.  I could see the confidence the father gave the son.  I could see the father on the rock face even when the son could not.  I watched them until they reached the top.  What a wonderful relationship.

He then makes this observation:

'It is good when we know that our safety and well being are not dependent on our own strength, our own cleverness, or even our own virtue.  Our [Heavenly] Father cares, and our well-being and safety are dependent on His presence and His love.  It is of primary importance that we experience that loving relationship with God that is expressed in the word 'Father'.

I was reflecting in my sermon here last Sunday that one of the hardest lessons that any of us has to learn on the journey of faith is that of trust; it is also the most important lesson of all.  Because if we never learn to trust, we shall never know what it is to surrender ourselves to be held by the love and the grace of God.  We shall never know what it is to scale the rock-face and to know the joy and exhilaration of the summit - and in the process to discover that it really, really is the case, that even when life seems to be at its bleakest, we are never actually alone.

And it is precisely that kind of confidence and faith that is exemplified by Paul and Silas in our second reading this morning from the Book of Acts.  Having stirred up the wrath of the locals at Philippi, they were set upon by a crowd, stripped of their clothes, beaten with rods, and chained up in the innermost cell of the local nick.  There they are in the middle of the night, isolated and abandoned and beaten up - and what are they doing?  They are praying and singing hymns to God - the God whom they have learned to trust utterly and absolutely.

And what is even more fascinating is the impact that they have upon their fellow prisoners, by behaving in that bizarre and unexpected way - and most remarkably of all the impact that they have upon their jailer.  The thing I most love about that story is that, as we heard, when the earthquake takes place, and all the prisoners (not merely Paul and Silas) suddenly find themselves released from their chains, and the poor old jailer is literally suicidal at the thought that all of his charges must have escaped, Paul shouts to the jailer: 'It's alright - don't harm yourself - we're all still in here.'

And it is at that point that the jailer realises that he is dealing with something other than a normal human situation.  The point was that the prisoners had been released, not that they had done a runner - and what a truly wonderful parable that is of the true nature of freedom.  Because, as David Adam discovered when life was at its bleakest for him, true freedom is about release, not about escape.  Similarly, life with Christ is never about escaping from the bad things of life or avoiding the things that cause us the greatest fear - but it is very much to do with being released from their power.  Little wonder, perhaps, that Paul's jailer and his family end up being baptised.

So, wherever we happen to be on our life journey, and on our faith journey, as we await the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, next Sunday, we can wait hopefully, and joyfully, and confidently.

'Do not be afraid', says the Lord, 'for I have redeemed you.  I have called you by your name.  You are mine.'


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