Through the Bible in Just Over a Year – Acts

It is very clear from the first paragraph that Acts is volume two of Luke’s account of the ministry of Jesus, who continues to be very much present among his followers as the church is born and they continue the work he began. The story is obviously selective, as we saw last week that John’s was, but Luke’s guiding principle is set out clearly in 1:8. The believers are to receive the Holy Spirit, and then the gospel is going to spread out from the city of Jerusalem, to the ‘county’ of Judea, and to the neighbouring territory of Samaria, which was considered Jewish by the Gentiles but foreign by the Jews, rather as Wales might be to Americans and to the English. Then it would spread to the ends of the earth. The rest of the book is the story of how this happened.


The Spirit comes, as promised, during the Jewish Festival of Pentecost, which celebrated the firstfruits of the harvest, and the disciples, who have now become ‘apostles’, are supernaturally gifted not just with speaking in tongues but also with boldness to preach and demonstrate the gospel. Within a very short time the church has grown to thousands of members, who are seeking to live out their community life of prayer, learning, generosity and service. Then in chapter 8 Philip takes the gospel to Samaria, and the same supernatural life springs up.

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The focus then shifts to Paul, who is dramatically converted in chapter 9, and who will be the one to take the gospel into the world of the Gentiles. His missionary journeys fill the rest of the book, until his arrest and transportation to Rome to face trial.


One significant feature alongside the spiritual power and success of the church in Acts is the fierce opposition they face, almost from day one. As a general rule opposition comes not from the occupying Romans but from the religious Jews: Paul’s appeal to be tried by Caesar in 25:11 suggests that he thinks he will fare better there than before the Jewish Sanhedrin. But even within the church there is opposition: the conversion of some Gentiles is a matter for deep suspicion, Abraham’s call notwithstanding, and it takes the first General Synod in chapter 15 to allow Gentile believers into the church. The study of opposition is an important area with which to engage in the church today, riddled as we are by hostility to new things. Acts suggests that it doesn’t take very long at all for traditions to get set in stone and to become hostile to the work of the Spirit.


Significant in the book are the ‘we’ passages, in which Luke switches to the first person, suggesting strongly that he himself was an eyewitness to the events he describes. As with his Gospel, he shows concern for medical details, and for women and the poor and helpless.


But what of the ends of the earth? The book seems to end with a whimper rather than a bang, as Paul is imprisoned in Rome and fades from view. However it may not be like that. Paul arrives in Rome, not the end of the earth but its centre, to which all roads lead and presumably from which all roads go. There is some evidence that the Roman legal system allowed two years for accusers to come and make their case, after which prisoners were acquitted and set free. But even while under house arrest Paul preached freely. So there may be more of a bang there than we think. And of course as has often been said we are Acts chapter 29 as the story goes on and more and more unreached people have the opportunity to respond to the good news of God in Christ.

Image: “All Saints Episcopal Church, Jensen Beach, Florida windows 010” by Stephen B Calvert Clariosophic – Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons –

Through the Bible in Just Over a Year – Isaiah Part 3

First of all, apologies to my regular readers for missing a week. Busy busy busy doing discipleship around the diocese. I’m now back in the office so here we go with the third section of the book of Isaiah, from chapters 56 – 66.

So far we have heard Isaiah of Jerusalem warning the people of imminent punishment by exile, and Deutero-Isaiah comforting them and telling them that their punishment is over. The final few chapters of the book once again presuppose a very different audience in a very different situation, suggesting a third prophet, whom we have quite logically named ‘Trito-Isaiah’. The people are now no longer wicked, idolatrous and godless, nor ravaged and in despair. They have returned to Jerusalem, the city and the Temple have been rebuilt, and all their hopes and dreams have come true. And yet …

You know that feeling when you come back from a great holiday? You’ve been looking forward to getting back home, but then it all feels just kind of … flat. It was pretty rough for the people in exile, but it certainly wasn’t boring. Now, though, they have lost vision. They need a new hope, a new future, now that everything they had hoped for has happened. So the prophet addresses the people with three main themes.


He turns his attention, firstly, to a much bigger and more eschatological vision for the future. ‘There is more to life than this!’ he tells them. There are images of glory for the nation which are far more exciting than mere comfort and more of the same. The prophecy ends with a vision very much in keeping with John’s in Revelation: there will be a new heavens and a new earth, a reign of peace and prosperity, and a special place for those who are God’s people.

Secondly he sets before the people a much wider vision of their role among the nations. This is a theme which we have seen time and time again since the call of Abraham: God’s chosen people are chosen to give the good things of the kingdom to everyone else. Perhaps the most purple of the passages in this section are chapters 60 and 61, both of which are calls to an outward-looking focus.

But thirdly he sets before them a reminder of things past, implying a warning for what might yet be to come. The God who allowed them to be punished for all those years in Babylon is still an active God, capable on the one hand of silencing their enemies and raising them to glory, but also equally capable of further punishment if they do continue to refuse him and live out their lives of relaxed, selfish comfort. These three themes together act like carrot and stick to encourage the people to wake up out of their self-satisfied but unsatisfying stupor and live lives of what we would nowadays call 24/7 discipleship.

Today first Isaiah might be addressing the godless, the evil and the depraved of our society. Deutero-Isaiah would be addressing the poor, broken and downcast victims. But Trito-Isaiah might well be addressing C of E ‘churchgoers’, calling us to a more glorious vision of the future, a more outward-looking and missionary lifestyle, and a whole-life discipleship which means that we really mean it when we sing ‘Love so amazing, so divine, demands my soul, my life, my all.

Reflections on Discipleship – The Number Zero

My job at the moment is developing discipleship in one Anglican diocese, so as you can imagine I do quite a bit of thinking about what discipleship is, what it means, and what it looks like. Here are some random thoughts, gleaned from my reflection on the Bible and current thinking …

Well, we’re off! Last Sunday, on Jan 18th, we launched the Year of Discipleship in our diocese. Where I was we reflected on the story of the 12 spies casing the Promised Land, mixed our metaphors by talking about ‘Tiggers’ and ‘Eeyores’, and decided whether we were more keen to get our hands on the grapes (the good things promised to us by God) than we were scared of the giants (the things which might stand in our way). We prayed a liturgy of rededication at the start of the year, and ate grapes, praying that God would keep our eyes fixed on the grapes rather than on the giants.


That evening I started re-reading Vincent Donovan’s classic Christianity Rediscovered[1] which I have been meaning to do for ages. It’s the story of a Roman Catholic Mission to the Masai in East Africa in the mid-60s, and it must be 30 years since I last read it. I was struck like a sledgehammer blow at a passage in which Donovan writes to his Bishop. He reports that after his few months at the Mission, which has been around for seven years, there are thriving schools, an active hospital, with an ambulance service to bring sick people to it, financial aid for those in need, and compulsory religious instruction for children in the schools. Relationships with the Masai people are cordial. Sounds great!

But then his letter goes on:

‘Almost never is religion mentioned … The best way to describe realistically the state of this Christian mission is the number zero … There are no adult Masai practicing Christians … no child, on leaving school, has continued to practice his religion, and there is no indication that any of the present students will do so. The relationship with the Masai, in my opinion, is dismal, time-consuming, wearying, expensive and materialistic. There is no probability that one can speak with the Masai, even with those who are our friends, about God … In other words, the relationship with the Masai … goes into every area except that very one area which is most dear to the heart of the missionary …  I suddenly feel the urgent need to … go to these people and do the work among them for which I came to Africa … and just go and talk to them about God and the Christian message.[2]

This he did. His first conversation with a local chief was greeted with the puzzled response

‘If that is why you came here, why did you wait so long to tell us about this?’

a comment which he was to hear again and again. Needless to say, his new-style mission met with phenomenal results and growth in discipleship.

I had a flashback to a conversation  in the past with a rural priest who told me that ‘Of course, we’re not here to evangelise the village!’, a comment greeted by nods of agreement from his congregation.

I don’t know how you react to this story, but I wonder whether for some of us it might be the time to start of a new kind of church, which is proud and confident to talk about its Lord. If Donovan’s experience rings true, it is worth asking the question ‘What is stopping me, and my church, from simply talking about Jesus?’ Many of us, of course are already doing this, but my suspicion is that some aren’t. Maybe it’s time to begin.

[1] (London: SCM, 1978)

[2] p 15

For our Diocesan Year of Discipleship blog, click here.

Reflections on Discipleship – Fears and Fantasies

Last Sunday I was preaching at a St Andrew’s Day Patronal Festival, and although I must have read the passage in question (Matthew 4:18-22) hundreds of times, I was struck afresh by two things, both of which I believe are good news for would-be or slightly nervous disciples.

You see in my experience people have some pretty powerful fantasies about what it would mean if they really decided to follow Jesus, to surrender everything to him. This passage speaks powerfully into some of those fears.

I noted firstly that here and elsewhere Jesus often calls disciples in pairs. Here we have Andrew and his brother Simon, followed by James and his brother John. In John’s account of the story, these two pairs are followed by Philip and Nathaniel. It seems to be a bit of a pattern. I wonder if this is because Jesus knows just how difficult it can be to swim against the tide on your own. People often feel, I reckon, that to follow Jesus will isolate them. Their friends won’t like them any more, or understand them: they won’t fit in at work, or down the pub, or at the golf club, or wherever it is they live and move and have their being. They’ll turn into religious nuts, unable to take a place any more in normal society. So it is significant that in the case of these disciples Jesus calls them together. We’re stronger when we’re not alone. Later on Jesus is going to send them out to put into practice the things he’s been teaching them, and again they are sent out in pairs. We’re meant to support one another in this enterprise of discipleship, and I believe Jesus knows that. If you are feeling some kind of sense of call to go deeper with Jesus, the first job is to ask who else around you is feeling the same call, and whether you might respond together. Tragically it can be the case that church is the last place where we can really speak about our relationship with God. But if we can foster a culture where such conversations are common currency, I bet we’ll see more people discovering the same call, so that we can strengthen and support one another as we respond and obey.

But the second bit of good news might just be even more important. Look what Andrew and Simon are called to. ‘You’re fishermen’ says the ever-astute Jesus (I reckon it might be the boats, nets and all-pervading smell of fish which gave him the clue). How do you fancy catching people instead of fish? I think this is significant because another common fantasy people have is that if I really obey the call of Jesus to follow him I’ll have to go to Africa. Serious Christians always seem to get called to some awful mission-field, so although I do like Jesus I’d better keep a bit of distance. I can’t tell you how many times over the years I’ve heard this fear expressed. In fact Jesus is calling them to do what they’re already good at, and presumably enjoy, but with a new twist.

When I was 18 I went off to university to become a chemistry teacher, but for reasons I won’t bore you with (but which you can read about in my God’s Upgrades … My Adventures) it didn’t work out. But a couple of years later, when God got his hands on me again, I started the journey to Christian ministry. Now 33 years on the thing people say most often about me is to thank me for my teaching ministry. There are, of course, several aspects of my ministry which go the other way, and I’ll spare you the details of what people say I’m lousy at, but the point is that my instinct to teach was a good one, but that God wanted to take it to a new level. He hadn’t created me to teach people about chemistry, but about his Word and what it means to live for him.

So if God is calling you to go deeper with him (or if you are involved in caring for and nurturing those who he is calling) look for the stuff you’re already good at, passionate about, and experienced in. It may well be that God doesn’t want to turn your life upside down, but merely to enhance what he has already put it in your heart to do for him.

What’s Church For? Luke 10 Church

Over the past few weeks I’ve looked at some different models and understandings of church, both biblical and not-quite-so. I haven’t anywhere near finished with church yet, and I’m aiming to get a bit more gritty as we continue this series, but first I thought I might try out on my dear readers a model which is certainly drawn from Scripture, and which I believe ought to capture the essence of what church is for.

I can’t claim this will be a scholarly exegesis of Luke 10, nor am I even sure that what I am about to describe suggests as clear a paradigm as I might wish it would, so I simply want to say that this model is to me a highly suggestive one, which we might do well to think about.

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The story goes that in the previous chapter Jesus has sent out his 12 disciples to drive out demons, heal the sick and preach the kingdom (in that order). Then at the start of Luke 10 he sends out a larger group, of 70 or 72 depending on which manuscripts you read. Again they were to heal the sick and proclaim the kingdom, although this time Jesus recognised in his instructions that there might be the possibility of them facing a bit of opposition (was this something he learnt from feedback when the 12 returned? Discuss).

Anyway, and here comes the church model, the 72 return in v 17, obviously delighted at how their deliverance ministry had gone. Jesus seems thrilled too, and in v 21, enabled by the Holy Spirit, he is filled with joy, not, interestingly, because some demons had been kicked out, but because this newly-formed team of beginners had learnt so much from the experience. But in between these two verses Jesus is found giving further teaching to the disciples, both to reassure them about their authority in him, but also to direct their enthusiasm more correctly. The section ends with him again telling his disciples how privileged they are to have been a part of this ministry.

That’s all we get, but bear with me, because it seems to me that this might have been more than a one-off occasion, and if so might provide a radical vision for the nature of church, or at least church services. Just imagine a Sunday morning meeting which looked like this:

Everybody gathers full of the Holy Spirit and joy because of what they have seen God doing through them during the previous week to heal, set free, and give new life. The church leader shares in their enthusiasm, but also gives them a bit more teaching. Then they’re all sent out again to see what God is going to do in the week ahead. The next Sunday they come and celebrate together again, receive more teaching, and so it goes on, as more and more people experience the new life of the kingdom of God.

The problem is, though, that most weeks when we gather we haven’t actually seen God do anything, nor, quite honestly, do we have any expectation that he’s going to do very much in the week ahead. So all we have left is ‘church’: the celebration is non-existent, so we just sing hymns and say liturgy; the teaching is pointless so we just listen to platitudes or academic theology, and then we go home to our lunch.

I’m not sure where we break into this cycle, but wouldn’t it be interesting to try?