Sermon: Pentecost, 21 May 2018, Rev. Paul Weaver, St Aidan’s

St.Aidan’s West Epping, 20th May 2018 (Pentecost)

Rev. Paul Weaver

THE HOLY SPIRIT AT WORK
(Acts 1:1-21; Ps 106:26-36; Romans 8:22-27; John 15:26-27;16:4-15)

A long time ago, people got together to build a city. They built a tower, planning to reach right up to heaven. Very impressive in its time – but why did they do it? According to Genesis 11, they wanted to make a name for themselves: pride was a major factor. And they wanted to stick together and ensure that they weren’t scattered over the earth: fear was also a factor.

But in those early days who would try to scatter them? They knew that God’s purpose was for people to spread out and populate the world, so that they could fulfil their responsibility to be in charge of the world on his behalf, and to take care of it.

What then was the point of the tower? Was it a fortress to protect them from God? Or did they actually think that they might be able to invade heaven? What is clear is that they were banding together in resistance to God and his purposes.

And what does God do? No thunderbolts or earthquakes or mass destruction. He simply confuses their language so that they can’t understand one another, and effectively work and live together. And very soon they are indeed scattered.

Of course we know this as the story of the Tower of Babel, or Babylon – they are the one word. Indeed it really became the Tower of Babble! Whether you see it as literal history or not, the point is the same. We can’t effectively gang up against God. If we work together in resistance to God, that resistance will ultimately fail. To use the traditional theological terms: sin not only keeps us at a distance from God – it pushes us away from each other. We certainly see that in today’s world. And the multitude of languages we are aware of in the world are a reminder of that reality.

However, two thousand years ago, the curse of Babel was lifted – at least for a moment in time. The barrier of language was broken down: not by professors of linguistics or language experts, but by a motley bunch of very ordinary people. Many would have seen these people as country bumpkins from the backblocks of Galilee. But on the day of Pentecost, these uneducated people were communicating across the language barrier to people from many lands and backgrounds.

How did this happen? The Holy Spirit was at work in a new way.

Pentecost was a great Jewish festival: 50 days, 7 weeks after Passover. Jews and worshippers of the Lord had come to Jerusalem from lands near and far. It was a Harvest Festival, but this time a new kind of harvest was to be gathered. It was also a commemoration of the giving of the Law: but as God had spoken uniquely then, so God would speak again in a new and wonderful way.

Luke tells us that there were about 120 followers of Jesus who had been gathering together after the resurrection. Jesus had now ascended. But before that strange event, he had told them that very soon that they would receive the Holy Spirit and be empowered to bear witness to him: in Jerusalem, in Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth. This book of Acts gives a kind of outline of how this actually happened. The Gospel would indeed go north, south, east and west, even to Rome, from where it would reach any other place where people lived.

What actually happened that extraordinary day? Luke tells us of the sound of wind and tongues of fire.

Fire speaks of the presence of God in his holiness and his cleansing power: remember the burning bush. Wind speaks not only of power, but also of life: the same word in the scriptures can mean wind, breath and spirit. God has come anew in the person of the Holy Spirit, bringing new life to his people, bringing new power to fulfil his purposes. John the Baptist had promised that the Messiah would baptize with the Holy Spirit and with fire. Now the promises of both John and Jesus were being fulfilled.
People heard the disciples speaking powerfully, and started coming near to listen to them. What is going on? It seems pretty over the top!
Are these people drunk? It’s far too early for that. They are in no danger from a breathalyzer test! Are they mad? No: they are certainly enthusiastic, but what they are talking about is meaningful. These are words of praise to God for his wonderful works. Are they just speaking their own language? After all, they seem to come from Galilee, and Galileans have a very obvious accent. But they are in any case likely to know not just Aramaic – the local language – but also some Greek, and perhaps even some Latin for dealing with the Romans.

People might be surprised by Galileans speaking like this in familiar languages, but something more is happening. It seems that these uneducated people are communicating in a whole collection of languages: languages they would surely never have learned. And we heard from Acts 2 that list that Luke provides: a list of the different places which were home to people who heard the disciples that day.

That barrier expressed by the different languages of the world was for a moment lifted as God ushered in a new era – the era of the Holy Spirit.
In the Old Testament we read of the Holy Spirit coming upon kings and judges and prophets when God has a special task for them. But now the Spirit has come on all these followers of Jesus, enabling them to speak about God’s great deeds of power, bearing witness to the Good News of Jesus.

And when Peter stands up to address the crowd, this is no longer Peter the coward, Peter the denier of Jesus. Peter now speaks with courage and conviction and clarity and power. And what he communicates as he begins his speech is the reality that God is doing something new, and that this new thing has been foreshadowed in the scriptures. He quotes from the prophet Joel, who speaks of that wonderful day when God will pour out his Spirit on all kinds of people. This, says Peter, is the day.

And the Spirit has been poured out not just on respectable educated Jews, but on these Galileans. The Spirit is being poured out on male and female, young and old, slaves as well as free, just as Joel prophesied. Barriers of gender, age, rank are no longer relevant as far as God’s purposes are concerned. God’s Spirit is for all.
And as the message goes out in all kinds of languages, the barriers of race and language are also no longer to be seen as a barrier to the purposes of God.

Everyone – whoever they are, wherever they come from, whatever their story – everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved. And if we were there to hear the rest of Peter’s message, we would begin to understand that the Lord who saves his people is not just the Lord God, the holy one who perhaps seems sometimes to be the distant God – it is in fact the Lord Jesus upon whom people are to call.

The Holy Spirit is the Spirit who brings people together. He overcomes barriers, and he challenges us to overcome those barriers which get in the way of fellowship and service and witness.

How appropriate it is that in Australia the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity leads up to Pentecost. For it reminds us of the Spirit’s call to beware of barriers which keep Christ’s church divided. How appropriate it is that we have at this time one of our annual local ecumenical services, and at this time we review and ratify the covenant in which our local churches acknowledge our fellowship in Christ. We may not see institutional church unity in the foreseeable future, but we can worship and share and learn and work together in fellowship: valuing our own traditions and approaches, but also appreciating and learning from aspects of the life of the church which we see in other denominations and traditions. And that ecumenical fellowship will bear witness to the Gospel which breaks down barriers between us and God, and barriers between God’s people.

The Holy Spirit is the Spirit who breaks down barriers. The Holy Spirit is the Spirit who draws God’s people together in love and service and fellowship. The Holy Spirit is the Spirit who empowers us to bear witness in our lives and actions and words to the Good News of Christ.

The Spirit is God himself at work in God’s church, and at work in our own lives. May we rejoice in his presence, and respond to his call to live as Christ’s followers, both as individual Christians, and as members of his worldwide church. Amen.
Paul Weaver

Sermon: Easter 6, 6 May 2018, Rev. Paul Weaver, St Aidan’s

St.Aidan’s West Epping, 6th May 2018

“FAITH THAT IS REAL”

Rev. Paul Weaver

(Acts 10:44-48; Psalm 98; 1 John 5:1-12; John 15:9-17)

Over the past few weeks we have heard a number of passages from the First Letter of John. There are verses in this letter that would be familiar to many of us, including that wonderful statement that “God is Love” from Chapter 4 that we heard last week. But the letter as a whole is not really a well-known part of the New Testament.  It is traditionally believed that the book was written by the Apostle John as an old man in the closing years of the first century. And there are good reasons for believing that the tradition is true, although the letter itself does not mention the name of the writer. In many ways, it seems more like a sermon than a letter like those of Paul.

Some people might think that it sounds rather like the message of an old man. As I said a couple of weeks ago, Paul’s letters are clearly organized. There is a clear flow to his argument, and specific subjects are covered in particular sections of his letters. But John’s First Letter is not like that. It can seem to go round in circles. What John does is to take a number of themes and reflect on them and relate them to one another.

Themes like light: for this is where we find the great statement that “God is light, and in him is no darkness at all”. And then there are themes like life, faith, truth, and witness. And of course, love.

If you haven’t already done so, let me encourage you to read through the whole letter yourself: it’s only five chapters, a few pages. We will actually have one more reading from the letter next week, although for some strange reason the five verses of next week’s reading include four verses from today’s reading! I’m not sure what that’s about: I wonder whether we will recognize them when we hear them again at St.Alban’s!

What is the letter about? John is aware of some ideas in the church which are causing confusion. He writes about Jesus Christ and who he really is. He writes about Christian faith and what it involves. He writes about Christian living and how it works. John wants to direct people to the truth of the Gospel, not just for the sake of having correct doctrine, but because what we believe is always worked out in how we live, and what we say and do.

It is true when you think about it. For instance, if you believe that infidels are God’s enemies and deserve to be wiped out, and that you will receive a heavenly reward if you help to do that, you will be able to justify becoming a suicide bomber. If you believe that God actually hates homosexual people, you will feel it is OK to act abusively towards them. If you believe that everyone who doesn’t hold exactly the doctrine you do will go to a terrible eternal hell, you might feel compelled to pressure people into your kind of faith. Our beliefs in all sorts of ways have a significant impact on our lives.

To help us think about the reality of our Christian faith, John indicates three things that are vital in our relationship with God through Jesus. One writer has described them as “the tests of faith”. I mentioned them a couple of weeks ago. There is the test of belief: and John insists that what we believe really matters, for otherwise we will take the path of falsehood and confusion. There is the test of obedience: John calls us to live lives of obedience to God and his laws, not in order to make ourselves acceptable to him or to win his approval, but rather as an expression of our relationship to him, and as a response to his goodness to us.

It is not enough for the child to say to mother “I love you”, if that child never listens, never helps, never obeys, never shows respect. So it is in our relationship with God. Of course we are far from perfect, but John calls us to ask ourselves: does obeying and pleasing God matter to me? Do I seek to take that path as I live my life?

And then, along with belief and obedience, there is the test of love. We heard Jesus’ powerful words in today’s Gospel, calling his followers to abide in his love. And we heard his message that love is uniquely demonstrated by the one who lays down his life for those he loves. Of course, the very next day after saying this Jesus himself would lay down his life on the cross, not simply as a victim or a martyr, but in order to deal with the problem of human sin and evil, and to restore us to full fellowship with God and bring us the fullness of salvation. Jesus did not just teach about love: he lived it out.

And here in Chapter 5 of his letter, John says some important things about Jesus, and some important things about the Christian life. True Christian faith means trusting in Jesus who is the Christ, the Messiah, the promised Saviour and King.

Faith means trusting in Jesus who is the unique Son of God: not just a special man, but one who shares the very nature of God, as a human child shares in the human nature of its parents. John wants us to know that in Jesus, God has come to us in person, sharing our human life and existence. And John insists that we can have confidence that this is true because of the witness that has been provided: not just human witness, but the very witness of God himself. We might find the three witnesses to Jesus mentioned by John rather strange, but John wants us to see that they have God’s authority.

These witnesses are the Spirit, the water and the blood. What is John getting at? The Spirit is the Holy Spirit, God present with us, to encourage us in the truth and to strengthen us in our faith. The experts are somewhat divided about what John describes as “the water and the blood”. Some people think John is referring to what happened when the soldier pierced Jesus’ dead body on the cross, and blood and water came out from his side. I think it is more likely that John is referring to the witness of God connected with Jesus’ baptism and his crucifixion.

You will remember that God spoke at Jesus’ baptism, acknowledging that Jesus was his Son, and that he was well-pleased with him. But then God’s witness to Jesus is also borne not simply in the awesome darkness of Good Friday, but in its sequel: the defeat of death in Jesus’ resurrection. How can salvation be assured, says John, if Jesus is not the Son of God, if he does not in himself bring together the holiness of God and the frailty of humanity? Salvation is found in him: and so John brings out the importance of believing the truth about Jesus.

But John is not just interested in what we believe. He is interested in how we live. Does having our doctrine right make us a real Christian? John makes clear that there is more to it than that. Does trying to obey God make us a real Christian? According to John there is more to it than that. We only have to look at the Pharisees to see how a serious attempt to live a godly life can be distorted intro legalism and judgementalism.

Well, does being a loving person make us a real Christian? We know sadly how often the idea of love is corrupted into sentimentality or into lust and greed: something far away from the love God seeks from us.

John wants us to see that it does matter what we believe. It does matter that we are serious about obeying God. It does matter that we love our neighbour. If our faith is the real thing, we shall love God, we shall love our neighbour, and we shall seek to obey God. True obedience is expressed in a loving life: as Jesus says in today’s Gospel, “if you love me, you will obey my commands”. And so a true love for God will be expressed in love for our neighbour.

Faith, obedience and love: you can’t really have one without the other. They are all characteristic of the true Christian life. And so John challenges us. If these are characteristic of the true Christian life, how are we going? John is not calling us to judge others. Nor is he calling us to despair because we don’t measure up to how we think we should be going. The whole point of the Gospel is that we receive forgiveness of all our sins through Christ. But John is asking us: what road am I on? Is this the direction of my life? Am I trusting in Jesus, even with my doubts and questions? Am I seeking to obey him, even though I fall short, and continue to need his forgiveness? And am I seeking to show love in my life, doing what I can to serve and care for the one who needs my love?

We are not saved by correct doctrine, or by some NAPLAN score for obedience and love. We are saved by God’s grace, through his love shown to us in Christ. But as we respond to that love shown in Christ, let’s ask him to help us follow him as his people in faith, along that path of deepening obedience and love. Amen.

            Paul Weaver

 

Sermon: Easter 5, 29 April 2018, Rev. Paul Weaver, St Aidan’s

St.Aidan’s West Epping, 29th April 2018

 Rev. Paul Weaver

THE GOSPEL FOR THE OUTSIDER

 (Acts 8:26-40; Psalm 22:26-32; 1 John 4:7-21; John 15:1-8)

Last week I pointed out that since Easter our Lectionary has been taking us through the First Letter of John. But it has also been bringing us some highlights from the first half of the Acts of the Apostles.

Acts begins with Jesus talking to his disciples before his Ascension. He assures them that the Holy Spirit will come to them and give them power to bear witness to him: not only in Jerusalem, but also in Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth. And in a sense, this book by Luke shows us how that great promise began to be fulfilled. On the day of Pentecost, thousands were converted, and Luke makes it clear that many who heard the message of Jesus that day came from different parts of the world.

In Chapter 8, which we heard the last part of this morning, the focus is on Philip, one of seven people appointed to look after the needs of Christians who were poor, so that the apostles could focus on preaching the Gospel. But like Stephen, another of these seven, who became the first Christian martyr, Philip’s gifts were not just administrative! He also was a gifted communicator, and indeed had a very effective ministry to the Samaritans, seeing many of them healed and led to Christ. Another step forward for the Gospel, as Jesus had indicated!

But suddenly Philip received a divine command to go around 100 kilometres south, to the old Gaza road used by traders and travellers going to Egypt and Africa. And so, instead of preaching to crowds of enthusiastic people in Samaria, Philip found himself talking to one solitary fellow from Ethiopia. His country was probably a bit north of the fascinating country we know as Ethiopia today: probably closer to the Sudan. This man was a top-ranking official in the government, assisting the queen, who was the effective ruler of Ethiopia, while the king concentrated on trying to be the semi-divine son of the sun! The man was probably black, very unlikely to be a Jew. But many Jews lived in North Africa, and like many local people, no doubt this man had found that the idea of a single Creator God, a God who is righteous and who calls people to be righteous, made far more sense to him that the local pagan traditions and practices.

This man had made the trip to Jerusalem to worship the God of the Jews, and to learn more about him. He was someone who wanted to understand more about the living God. But he faced barriers. He was a eunuch, which made him officially unable to be admitted as a full Jewish convert or proselyte. He would be called a “God-fearer”, but he would never be able to go beyond the outer court of the temple, or share fully in worship.

It was probably while he was in Jerusalem that he had got hold of one or more scrolls of the Jewish scriptures, probably in the Greek translation which was becoming more widely used. As Philip drew near to the chariot, which may well have been part of a caravan of travellers, he heard the Ethiopian reading aloud: in fact it was so loud that Philip could recognize the passage he was reading. And before getting too condescending, we need to keep in mind that silent reading has really only been normal in the last few centuries!

The Ethiopian was reading what is to Christians a very famous passage: Isaiah Chapter 53, about the Suffering Servant. Perhaps he had already read some earlier chapters about this Servant of the Lord, who had been raised up to bring healing to God’s people, to preach God’s message, and to bring light to the nations; a servant who would face discouragement, rejection and suffering. According to this passage, the servant would not only suffer: he would die. His death would be unjust, and yet the servant would accept it without complaint. But somehow this death would also bring forgiveness of sins to others, and indeed it would lead to the servant’s ultimate triumph, all in accordance with God’s will and purpose.

Now that’s a lot to take in, especially if you were not brought up learning about the Old Testament, and if you have just heard some vague stories about Jesus the teacher and healer, executed in Jerusalem some time ago. Philip asked the right question as he came up to the chariot: “Do you understand what you are reading?” “How can I understand unless someone guides me?” asks the Ethiopian. And of course Philip is more than happy to do just that. “Who is this all about?” asks the Ethiopian. That was the big issue of this passage, and it mystified many able Jewish teachers. But Jesus himself had pointed his followers towards a deep understanding this chapter, and when the disciples reflected on his death and resurrection, it had suddenly made real sense, and taken on a new and wonderful significance for them.

Jesus was the one who was led to death without complaint, like a sheep or lamb. He was the one who was denied justice, humiliated and crucified; whose life was taken from the earth. But Philip was not only able to tell the Ethiopian that Jesus was the one to whom this passage pointed: he was able to explain how Jesus’ death on the cross was God’s way of dealing with human sin and evil. God himself was in Jesus the Suffering Servant, the promised Messiah, bearing the curse of sin, its penalty, its alienation. He bore our sin and triumphed over evil. His death brings us healing, spiritual wholeness, and it reconciles us to God.

Philip would have explained all this, showing how Jesus fulfilled the great promises of the Old Testament. He showed the Ethiopian that Jesus had come to bring light and salvation to all the world. He had not come only for Jews, but for all people. Philip told this outsider the Good News, the wonderful News of Jesus. What this man needed to do was to see that Jesus had come and lived and died and risen for him, as he has for all of us. What he now needed to do was to accept by faith God’s tremendous gift of forgiveness and life, depending on God’s wonderful love in Jesus the promised King and Saviour.

And that’s what this Ethiopian official did. He decided to put his faith in Jesus as his Saviour, and to seek to live out that faith, following Jesus as his Master and King. And to express that commitment, to express that decision to become Christ’s follower, he asked to be baptized when they came to a stream or pool near the road. And so Philip baptized him: and that is the end of the story as we have it. Next thing we know, Philip is preaching the Gospel in the old Philistine town of Ashdod. And the Ethiopian is on his way home rejoicing.

Was there already a Christian church in Ethiopia for him to link up with? We don’t know. Certainly there were no follow-up classes to join in, or correspondence or internet courses to enrol in. Not even any specifically Christian literature to study. What he had was his scroll or scrolls of the Old Testament, and his understanding of them as Philip had explained them. And he now also had the Holy Spirit at work in him, strengthening and encouraging and guiding him along the path of faith and discipleship.

Well, was it worthwhile for Phillip to be sent all that way to speak to this one man? In the plan of God it was. Philip continued up the coast and continued what seems to have been a very effective ministry pointing people to Christ and building up the church. And we know that the ancient church of Ethiopia looks back to this man and sees him as the founder of that church which has survived over the centuries.

The Ethiopian certainly was glad that Philip had been sent to show him the way of salvation. And after all, the Lord is like the good shepherd who leaves the 99 sheep in a safe place, so that he can go looking for the one who is lost. It was not only the Ethiopian who rejoiced that day. It was the angels of heaven and the Lord himself who rejoiced to see this unlikely man enter the family of God, and find his place in the kingdom of heaven.

And Luke who recorded this story wants us to see God’s plan for the Gospel going forward, as the Gospel reaches into Africa and as outsiders find their place in the family of God. Of course if Philip had not been open to the leading of God’s Spirit directing him on his long journey, this would never have happened. But Philip was abiding in Jesus, the vine, the source of life and growth. He was ready to bear fruit because he stayed connected to Jesus. On this Harvest Festival, let us remember that Jesus wants us to bear fruit for him: the fruit of a truly Christian life and a truly Christian character, but also the fruit that comes when we are ready to bear our own witness for Jesus. We mightn’t see ourselves as great evangelists like Philip – or for that matter like Billy Graham who died earlier this year, and whose ministry touched so many lives – but in our own way, by our own words and actions, we can point people towards Jesus.

But we must beware, for we can point people away from him by our unkindness, our lovelessness, our judgementalism, our arrogance. Let us stay connected to Jesus the true vine, and allow Jesus’ challenge to bear fruit in our own lives. We never know whom we might influence to look more closely at Jesus. May our light shine before others, that they may see our good works, and hear our gracious and helpful words, and give glory to our Father in heaven, drawing close to our Saviour Jesus Christ, the true vine and bringer of life. Amen.

Paul Weaver

 

Sermon: Easter 4, 22 April 2018, Rev. Paul Weaver, St Aidan’s

St.Aidan’s West Epping, 22nd April 2018

 Rev. Paul Weaver

THE POWER OF SACRIFICIAL LOVE

(Acts 4:5-12; Psalm 23; 1 John 3:16-24; John 10:11-18)

“There is no greater love than this: that a person lays down their life for those they love.” Famous words that naturally come to mind as Anzac Day draws near. And in Australia, where we have so many of the good things of life, we are right to be thankful, and to honour the memory of those who served and who risked their lives for our country. So many of them came back injured or changed, and so many died in the service of our country and its allies. Let us never forget, or take for granted, those who have served us at such great cost.

Of course those famous words I quoted come from Jesus, as he spoke to his followers the night before his death for us on the cross. Jesus, the good shepherd, as we heard in our Gospel just a moment ago. The true shepherd, the one who really cares for the sheep, is not just a hired hand who simply wants to get through the day without trouble and get his pay at the end of the day. If danger comes, the hired hand isn’t going to risk his life. The sheep don’t matter that much!

But the good shepherd is not only ready to risk his life for the sheep: he is willing to give his life for the sheep. Surely that is beyond the call of duty!

And yet the good shepherd does it willingly. He does it not because he is forced to, but because that is what is needed. We joined together this morning in perhaps the best-known and most-loved of all the Psalms: Psalm 23 – “the Lord’s my shepherd”. God our shepherd cares for us: he provides for our needs, he is with us when life is tough, and as his people we are assured that we shall always be at home in his presence.

Jesus the Good Shepherd adds another dimension to that beautiful picture. No longer is our loving shepherd the unseen God, for God has come among us in person to demonstrate his love. Jesus is the Lord, the Good Shepherd, whose sacrificial love brings us salvation, and who has saved us from our spiritual enemies of sin and evil and death. The good shepherd shows us divine sacrificial love. The good shepherd also guides us along the path of life, as Psalm 23 reminds us. And the path of life is also the path of love.

In his first letter, John wanted to help his readers to stay on the right path. He knew that his readers – and us too – so easily stray off the track, and go off in the wrong direction.

Reading this letter, as our lectionary has us doing these Sundays after Easter, we find a number of ideas that keep on reappearing. It’s a lovely and interesting letter, but to some people it must be a bit frustrating. It’s not a neatly organized letter, like those of Paul for example. It has important things to say, but seems to keep going round in circles.

In the letter John has some themes that he keeps coming back to. We can think of them as right belief or faith, real obedience and genuine love.

Belief, obedience and love. John points out that they all matter, and they have much more to do with each other than people might think. Indeed they are all mentioned in today’s reading, and they are all essential parts of a true Christian life.

John wants us to belong to the truth: trusting in Jesus the Messiah, the fulfilment of God’s wonderful promises, the great Saviour and King, and indeed God incarnate: God coming among us to live – and to die for us. John is concerned that if we invent our own version of Jesus, we will indeed wander off the track and turn away from the blessings that come because of who Jesus is and because of what he has done for us. We need to hold onto the truth about Jesus.

But John wants us also to be serious about obedience to God’s commands. It is disobedience to God that got us into our human mess in the first place. In his commandments God showed us the way to live. By rejecting God’s call and setting our own standards, we separated ourselves from God’s blessings and God’s promises.

But God did not give up on us: coming amongst us in the person of Jesus, he again showed us how to live; but more than that, he took care of our moral and spiritual debt, so that he could forgive us without trivializing our sinfulness and without compromising his standards of righteousness. As forgiven people we have not yet spiritually or morally arrived, as we were reminded a couple of weeks ago when John emphasized the importance of admitting and confessing our sins. But confession is not merely about setting the count at zero so that we can start sinning again.

I guess we are right now concerned that all these confessions from bank executives mean nothing – unless there is a real determination to change their banks’ dishonest ways. So it is to be with us. As John says, we open up to God’s blessings as we seek to obey God’s commandments and do what pleases him. It is not about perfection here and now, but it is about the direction of our lives.

Right belief and true obedience, and then genuine love. We receive the blessings of God’s love, and he commands us to reflect that love in our lives. As John writes: “this is his commandment, that we should believe in the name of his Son Jesus Christ and love one another just as he has commanded us”. And love is not just a matter of nice feelings: love is active. We see someone in need, and we are in a position to help. Love is not just about feeling sorry for them or even saying a prayer for them: it means actually doing what we can to help. God did not just feel sad that we had turned away from him: he acted in love to deal with our problem of sin. That is what love does: it does.

And love can be costly: it can involve effort, generosity, inconvenience, and it can involve overcoming our feelings. There are people whom we find it easy to love, but sometimes God calls us to show love to people whom we find it hard to love: it may be something about their appearance or background or manner, it may be something they have done which has put up barriers between us. As John puts it: “let us love, not in words and speech, but in truth and action.”

Obeying God and loving others may not be something which puts our life at risk here in Australia, but it certainly can have its costs. In our reading from Acts, Peter had healed a man lame from birth. He and John had found themselves under arrest and under questioning by the local authorities, who obviously realized their connection with Jesus, and who also would have been aware of claims that he has risen from the dead.

It would be natural for Peter and John to soft-pedal and try to keep themselves out of further trouble. But Peter – being Peter of course – went straight to the point. A wonderful healing had indeed taken place. How? It was “in the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified, whom God raised from the dead…and there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name….by which we must be saved.”

For Peter, being open about Jesus and the message of Jesus was part of his obedience; it was an expression of his faith and of his love for Jesus. And it expressed his love for other people, for he wanted others to receive the salvation which he had received, and which is offered to all who trust in Jesus.

Many of you will be aware of the Christian footballer Israel Falou, who has got into a good deal of trouble for his comments on homosexuality on Instagram. His comments have been seen as homophobic and have been widely condemned, but he believes that he was being true to his Christian faith and to the message of the scriptures. He also believes that he was being loving to the person who contacted him on the web about the subject, by explaining the implications of the Gospel message.

I think I see where he is coming from, although I am not sure that he has been wise. Giving simple answers on social media is not the same as having a personal conversation with someone. Difficult issues have to be handled with sensitivity and understanding, and generally they are best addressed personally, not through the megaphone of social media. And I also think there are aspects of scripture that he has missed in trying to give a clear answer to the questioner. But I do have to acknowledge that he is following in Peter’s footsteps in being open about the message of Jesus as he understands it. And his experience reminds us that the Christian message for all sorts of reasons does not have the social acceptance that it once had.

It is a message of grace and love, but it is also a message of clarity, which is not a popular thing today. People want religion to be warm and fuzzy and vague, and preferably undemanding. To challenge this misunderstanding is to risk unpopularity!

This week then we remember those who have made great sacrifices. Those who have served our nation and people in time of war. And our Saviour Jesus who gave his life to bring us forgiveness and hope. And we also remember those who have given their lives or made other great sacrifices in faithfulness to Jesus.

The demands of faith are not always easy: right belief, real obedience and genuine love can be very demanding. But our true shepherd has shown us the way, and when it is hard, he is with us – even in the darkest valley, that valley of the shadow of death. Amen.                                       Paul Weaver