Sermon: 28th April 2019

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There is nothing new under the sun, we read in Ecclesiastes, and the church continually faces the same challenges it did at the beginning – living out God’s call in a world hostile to its own Creator. So again today we are called to do that, and we do it by living the way Jesus taught us. Doing good, loving our neighbors, praying for our enemies, and sharing the gifts we have been given – time, talent and treasure.

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It has been a difficult week for everyone here, I am certain. We are saddened, maddened, frustrated, anxious, worried, angry, and much more. I know that I cannot begin to grasp all the feelings that must go through those of you who have lived here for decades or your whole lives, who have lived through war and bombings and death and loss. I am sheltered from this, as a foreigner, who did not live through the Civil War, or the tsunami, and because I cannot follow the local discussions in Sinhala and Tamil, where I’m confident much more is being said and much deeper feelings expressed than I can capture in the English-language media. So part of me is reluctant to speak, for fear of sounding shallow, or naïve. And that danger remains, and I ask your forgiveness if anything I say sounds that way, for I am deeply aware of how much wiser most of you are in these matters than I. But as Christians, we are called to look at our faith, and our Scripture, and our community, and to wrestle with difficult, perhaps impossible questions of what do we do now, how do we respond, how are we called to live? For if we cannot respond in faith to events like we have experienced this past week, if our faith only speaks to easy days and simple questions, then it is not the faith which can save us or our world.

It seems to me, then, providential that we read today and for the next several Sundays from the Book of Acts. For the season after Easter the lectionary, the schedule of Bible passages that I normally follow, offers passages from Acts instead of the Old Testament. Now Acts is the one history book in the New Testament. The Old Testament has a bunch of them – Genesis and Exodus, for starters, and Kings and Chronicles and Ezra and Nehemiah. But the New Testament has just one, written by Luke, the same person whose gospel we have been reading for most of the last four months, but a book with a very different approach. The gospel was generally speaking a biography, a life of Jesus, obviously, and it took us basically on a one-way journey from Bethlehem to Jerusalem. All the gospels move inward, into the heart of Jewish faith and history. Acts turns around, and looks out. It drives not to a conclusion – the Cross and the tomb – but outward as the disciples discover faith and mission in the weeks after and then months and years after Easter.

Now for probably almost twenty years I have always preached on the gospel reading for each Sunday that I have been asked to preach. It seemed the right thing to do, to focus on Jesus and his life and ministry, not on thoughts about Jesus in the letters of the New Testament; they would do better for Bible study, maybe. But a few weeks ago as I looked forward, beyond Easter, and wanted to let the Sunday School know what passages we would focus on each Sunday, I decided it might be interesting to tackle these Acts passages, and look at how the church lived through its first years, and what that might have to say to us. I had no idea that this Easter, the tragic events of Easter, and other things happening in our world today, would make the life of the early church recorded in these passages to appropriate, so relevant to our time. I hope you will come to agree with me that we can learn ,much from looking back, but we do so with the goal of looking now at how God calls us to live as followers of Christ Jesus.

Most people find the heart of this passage in this exchange between the high priest and the disciples: “We gave you strict orders not to teach in this name,[a] yet here you have filled Jerusalem with your teaching and you are determined to bring this man’s blood on us.” 29 But Peter and the apostles answered, “We must obey God rather than any human authority.[b] 30 The God of our ancestors raised up Jesus … and we are witnesses to these things, and so is the Holy Spirit whom God has given to those who obey him.” Refusing to follow orders from ‘the establishment’. Obeying God rather than any human authority. Insisting on speaking out, not remaining silent about the good news of God’s forgiveness and gracious love. Indeed. But how do we do these things in practice?

There are Christians who have taken ‘obeying God’ to mean ‘the more aggressive I can be, the more I obey God.’ Christian history began with a persecuted minority, sharing secretly the good news that the rabbi Jesus was indeed the Messiah, the promised presence of God with God’s people, but that secret movement became in history people who conquered by the sword, people who demeaned and attacked other religions, Christian nations that colonized and subjugated peoples they considered lesser. The first Christians came to Taprobane, Serendip, Ceylon, peacefully in the fifth century, living in Anuradhapura. But they came again in the 16th century, and beyond, full of imperial ego and political bravado that came not from profound faith but economic strength and military power. Hardly the stuff of Christian witness. They may have claimed to come in the spirit of Acts 5, obeying God, not human authority – but I must question that. The Church in the West was, and is, far too lined up with political power to truly obey God. The Church where it lives on the margins may have far more to teach than the Church where it thinks it rules.

So how then might we understand what it means to obey God rather than human authority, God rather than man in these days now? Perhaps we should ask that sometimes too simple but still useful question, What Would Jesus Do? Not what would a powerful institution do, but what would the babe from Bethlehem, the carpenter from Nazareth – what would he do,what did he teach people to do, and what would those who seek to follow him seek to do, following in his footsteps?

Let’s look back to Luke’s Gospel, the Sermon on the Plain that we looked at earlier this year. It starts out “They had come to hear him, and be healed of their diseases, … and he said: “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled.” How do you do that, here, from St. Andrew’s Scots Kirk? In each of the mission efforts of this congregation – the Thursday lunch, Mulleriyawa Ward 8, Helping Hands, Netherlee Cottage – you and our friends in this country and beyond live out the command to obey God. And we continued that this week. You visited Mulleriyawa Ward 8 on Wednesday, through your fellow members who went. You brought New Year’s treats and lunch, my granddaughters came along to learn what it means to care for those who have less. You served lunch to our needy neighbors on Thursday as usual. Fewer came in person, but Shewanta and others went out into the streets to find those who couldn’t come because of police alerts and such and we sent out food packets and all the food was used. The Netherlee ladies were with us last Sunday, and needed special efforts to get them home when tuk-tuks couldn’t come our direction – and you ensured they were cared for. We worshipped and we stood together as a community of faith around the holy table, and the brunch table in the church hall, because we obey God, not human authority. And we meet today because of that as well. We offend no one, we do not seek to show off how special we are – but we follow Jesus, doing as he did.

And then Jesus continued “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, and If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them.” And this becomes, perhaps, more challenging. For this too is what it means to obey God and not man. The events of last Sunday were horrific, period. Nothing can ever be said to diminish their horror, their injustice, their sinfulness. But also nothing justifies attacks on innocent Muslims, or on Pakistani refugees who themselves have fled violence and persecution; nothing ever permits Christians returning evil for evil. Nothing permits anyone allowing that to happen – not police, not military, not anyone who stands aside when people harm other people. For evil only begets more evil, and how could anyone want more evil in our already troubled world, our troubled nation, our troubled city. Where have been the peacemakers, the followers of Jesus or of Buddha or of Allah or of Shiva – for no faith endorses evil, and all who seek a higher power must seek the wellbeing of the whole world, of all people? Anything less than that is sheer tribalism, not true religion of whatever tradition. Where have been those standing up against the fear that terrorism intends to create? I am saddened that the Catholic Church has cancelled services this weekend, saddened by what that says about fear and about the failure of public security. We need not be reckless – and I do not believe we are being reckless worshipping this morning – but neither ought we give in to simple fear. We have heard Pastor Dhanan over past months speak to us of the fruit of the spirit – and fear was not one of those. Certainly, we avoid danger – but we do not give in to fear.

So we care for the poor and the sick, we overcome fear, we pray for all people – and we share the gifts we have been given for the good of our community – time, talents and treasure. We will mark one way in which those gifts are given as we ordain Stanley Gooneratne as an elder this morning. In our tradition, we ordain elders, we set them apart in recognition of their gifts of faith and wisdom and their willingness to commit those gifts to the life and ministry of a congregation. But as we ordain Stanley, and as we speak of the gifts he offers, we do so to recall the gifts we each have and bring to the work of God in this place. In your work, in your family, in the neighbors you care for, in your service to the community – in all these ways you continue to do as Peter said – you obey God, and live out the life we have been shown in Jesus, rather than giving in to human authority, and conceding to the ways of the world, ways we have seen far too clearly in these past days.

There is nothing new under the sun, we read in Ecclesiastes, and the church continually faces the same challenges it did at the beginning – living out God’s call in a world hostile to its own Creator. So again today we are called to do that, and we do it by living the way Jesus taught us. Doing good, loving our neighbors, praying for our enemies, and sharing the gifts we have been given – time, talent and treasure.

Last year a young American missionary decided to try to carry the gospel to the residents of the Andaman Islands in the Indian Ocean. These people have had no contact with outsiders, are susceptible to new diseases, the Indian government forbids entry onto the islands, and this missionary did not speak their language or find any people in the region who might know even a little about them. The islanders killed him. Some Christians defended his actions; I could not. It was sad, but we have been called to be wise as serpents and innocent as doves, and he was neither. His actions were not ‘obeying God instead of humans.’ His actions were thoughtless and self-centered. He was trying to be a hero, instead of a disciple. And hero is a Greek idea, not a Biblical one

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