Acts 16: 16-34
John 17: 20-26
A sermon preached to the ministers' spring school, but using the readings set for May 8th.
I was very moved by the ‘cardboard testimonies’ which Dave Hopwood showed us and what we saw of the power of God to transform lives. Seeing what was written on those bits of cardboard and especially seeing the faces of the people holding them light up s they showed their testimonies made me feel that I would want my ministry to be a channel of that transformative grace. In the context of this week exploring worship it also made me think about the ways is which worship can be a channel of transformative grace, taking us from this to this (card).
When we look at the story from Acts it seems that there are many transformations in this story – or at least changes from one state to another – from this to this.
Paul has been having a strange time, it seems.
The Council of Jerusalem had met and made the decision to lift the requirement that Gentiles be circumcised on becoming Christian. Paul and Barnabas are sent out to Antioch with a letter declaring this teaching against circumcision.
Then Paul decides to return to every city in which he and Barnabas have preached, to see how they are getting on. Barnabas wants to take John Mark (who let them down earlier) and give him a second chance, but Paul doesn’t trust him: so Paul & Barnabas go off in separate directions – Barnabas takes John Mark, and Paul chooses Silas to go with him. Paul then picks up Timothy to accompany them – and has him circumcised, so that they can go from town to town telling people they don’t have to be circumcised.
It seems that even then consensus decision-making wasn’t to everyone’s liking – or maybe the change from this to this isn’t always as straight forward as it seems.
Next Paul sees the vision of a man from Macedonia calling for help, so they travel there, where Paul baptises Lydia (the dealer in purple cloth) and her household.
Then we come to the chain of events we heard.
The first to experience change is the slave girl, whose spirit of divination is driven out by Paul.
But why does he heal her? Because Paul is ‘very much annoyed’. A change from this to this because the healer is fed up with the person he heals.
This in turn annoys the owners of the girl, who stir up the crowd who change from listening to Paul & Silas to attacking and imprisoning them.
We are told that about midnight, Paul & Silas are praying and singing “and the prisoners were listening to them”. There is an earthquake, the doors fly open and the chains restraining the prisoners are broken.
Yet the prisoners do not make a break for it. Maybe they have experienced a change, listening to Paul & Silas?
The jailor, fearing the worst, is ready to kill himself rather than face the consequences for losing all his prisoners, but is reassured by Paul that there is no need for panic.
Then comes the focus of the whole account, as the jailor asks “sirs, what must I do to be saved?”. Here is a man looking for transformation.
Paul& Silas preach to him and his household; the jailor washes their wounds and then he is baptised (in the same water?) and they all rejoice.
Whether any of these events change Paul or Silas is not recorded. Surely Paul, in particular, might need some change in his life – he seems to be acting against the council of Jerusalem, he’s fallen out with Barnabas, he gets irritated by the slave girl who’s following him round… yet in the midst of it he is preaching and baptising and seeing people change.
As we hear these stories of change from this to this we see that
They are not always straight-forward
Not always welcome
Not always done in a spirit of love and kindness
Yet it seems that God’s power makes change possible from even the most unlikely people.
How does this change happen? In the name of Jesus Christ.
So what is Jesus saying?
In John’s gospel, Jesus prays for us. He makes it clear he is praying for the disciples in the room and those who believe through them.
And for what change does Jesus pray? That they – we – may be one.
This is not a shallow ‘getting along’ – never disagreeing, always smiling – it is a oneness that sees us all properly encorporated into Jesus as one body.
From this rag-tag bunch – to this people who are in Jesus and who know Jesus is in them
People who are one with the Father
Who share God’s glory, see God’s glory and show God’s glory
People who know they are properly loved and held.
How does this change happen? Through this prayer of Jesus
But when does it happen? Not immediately, because the very next thing that John tells us is that Jesus goes out to the garden of Gethsemane, where he is betrayed and arrested.
Then follows crucifixion, resurrection and (finally) the coming of the Holy Spirit.
The change from this to this comes, but not immediately.
So how can worship bring change, even transformative grace, in the lives of God’s children?
There are, of course, dramatic testimonies of lives where God’s love rushes in and changes a life. But I want to tell you a quieter, more gradual story – of Dorothy.
Dorothy started coming to the 8am communion service at one of the Anglican churches where I was minister. It was a spoken service, using a fairly simple order, in an unheated church, and usually there were about 8 people kneeling to receive communion.
As I gave the chalice to Dorothy I noticed that she was crying. The next week, the same things happened – because it was a large chalice, her tears were falling into the wine. I went to see her and she explained that she had no church background but had started coming to church for some peace and quiet after her husband had died. She said ‘I’m still not sure what I believe, but when I kneel for communion I know that God is there and I am loved and everything changes. I am so grateful, all I can do is weep’. For the next 6 years she continued to weep, silently, into the chalice in pure gratitude for God’s presence. As far as I know, she still does.
We are changed by worship.
When we rehearse God’s worth – whether we praise God in beauty, in silence, in music, in movement, in breaking open the Word, in sacrament… – we remember who God is and what God has done and we are changed.
We are made one with the creator of all things, welcomed as beloved children, become channels of the grace and power of healing of the Holy Spirit. We are changed.
We come to this table with our real lives of pain and doubt and busy-ness and worry, we receive Christ, and we are changed.
Jesus promises us hope, healing, wholeness, as we are made one in him.
Take, eat , drink, and receive this sacrament to your holy comfort.