A Sermon Preached by Canon Simon Butler
3rd May 2020 (Live-Streaming)
When I was a young adult I was very enthusiastic about my new-found Christian faith and I felt it was vital that I shared my faith with as many people as I could and to try and do my part to convert people to become Christians. I tried to tell people about the Christian faith. I had bought some tapes – that shows my age – of Christian music and would play it loudly at home. But the truth was, that when I was asked to think about how many people I had converted, the answer was none.
Decades have gone by now, but the same question still hangs over me: “How many people have you converted?” Because the answer, as far as I am aware, is still “none.” I’ve been a parish minister for nearly 30 years. I have preached hundreds of sermons. I’ve taught the Christian faith to adults, children and enquirers, innumerable people. I’ve baptised hundreds but, as far as I know, no-one as made a commitment to God in Jesus Christ specifically because of me.
That doesn’t bother me as much as it used to. In fact, I think maybe this is the way it is supposed to be.
In the Book of Acts, we’re told that on the day of Pentecost, we’re told that the apostles were filled with the power of the Holy Spirit, they began to speak in strange languages, and a crowd gathered and they were hearing the apostles praising God and they wondered ‘what does this mean?’ And then Peter steps forward and gives this wonderful sermon. He says that what it means is that what the prophet Joel predicted has now happened: the Spirit of God has now been poured out on all flesh, on all kinds of people. And Jesus Christ, who was sent by God to do all sorts of good, you crucified him. But God raised him up. And now it is time for you to be baptised and if you do that your sins will be forgiven and you’ll be filled with the power of the Holy Spirit.
Acts says that people were cut to the heart and that thousands of people were baptised that day.
Now let me be honest. I’m envious of Peter because I’ve never had that kind of response to one of my sermons. Three thousand people baptised!
But here’s mu question: what would have happened if Peter, after baptising those people, had then said to them, “Great, you’re baptised now, you’re filled with the Holy Spirit, you’re forgiven. Now, go home, keep the faith. Be good.” What if he had done that? What if he had just simply sent people home? What would have happened?
I suspect nothing. Nothing would have happened. Today there would be no church. Today there would be no Christian faith. Because we aren’t converted by a sermon. We’re converted by something else. What made the difference was what happened next. “They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, and to the breaking of the bread, and to the prayers.” They came together as a group and they began living out this faith together. They were converted by the church.
I love preaching and I think preaching is very important to the life of the church. Through preaching, we help people to encounter the word of God, not just the written word of God, but the continuing living Word of God that continues to speak to us. Through preaching we can explain, we can guide, we can help. Through preaching we can inspire, and we can open up some doors of possibility. When I preach I hope there’s always going to be a little bit of healing, a little bit of transformation, that kind of possibility. But, even at the end of a sermon you’ve got three thousand people coming forward, it isn’t the sermon, it isn’t the preaching that converts people. It’s what happens next.
“All who believed were together and had all things in common. They would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all as any had need. Day by day as they spent much time together in the Temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.” This is the first description of the first church.
It isn’t talking that converts us. It isn’t talking that transforms us. It’s coming together to live out this ministry of Jesus. It’s coming together to learn how to forgive each other, to learn how to love each other, to share with each other, to have hope together. This is what transforms.
As this church gathers together they do several very important things: they worship together, they pray together, they are taught together by the apostles, which I suppose today would mean doing bible study, and they do a few other things that I find interesting. They eat together, breaking bread. They had meals together. Now, why were they doing that? Because that’s what Jesus did. His ministry was centred around having meals. Why is that? Because meals are a way to express gratitude, to express joy, to share with others. For Jesus these meals were an expression, a foretaste of the reign of God that is beginning to dawn. And what Jesus does at those meals is to bring together a wide assortment of people: tax collectors and Pharisees together, prostitutes, fishermen and lepers and all other kinds of people. What Jesus was doing was breaking down the barriers, the distinctions between men and women, the good and the bad, the religious and the non-religious, the sick and the well, the important and the insignificant. Meals of grace, hope and healing as people gathered together.
And so the early church did the same thing. Let’s get together to have these meals of healing, celebrating with the body and blood of the Lord Jesus among us. Soon ever more barriers came down. Soon they were adding Gentiles to their number. They were bringing in slaves and masters. These meals were changing the world.
There’s something else that they did. They would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all as any had need. Why did they do that? Because that is what Jesus did. Jesus said, “If you want to follow me, then sell everything you’ve got, give everything to the poor. Then come follow me.” Even those who didn’t follow Jesus in his itinerant ministry were encouraged to follow him in his attitude by giving things away, of not piling up things here, but piling up your treasures in heaven. Respond to the needs of those around you. This is the kind of radical generosity, radical sharing that Jesus was about. And we see the early church doing the same thing.
You know there’s a law in the Old Testament, the law of jubilee that every fifitieth year debts were supposed to be cancelled, land is supposed to go back to the original owner. The reason for that law, even if we don’t know if it was ever carried out fully, was that it was an attempt to eliminate poverty on a regular basis. In a sense, Jesus was living out jubilee every day in his ministry. He hates poverty and he wants to eliminate it. And the early church hated poverty. They wanted to eliminate it. They wanted to share so that everyone has what they need. They were living out ‘love your neighbour as yourself.’ By doing this they were literally saving people’s lives and today we can do the same thing.
By doing all these things, devoting themselves to the apostles’ teachings, by having fellowship together, by worshipping, by praying, by sharing meals, by sharing their resources, the result of that is that they have the goodwill of all the people . And day by day the Lord was adding to their number those who were being saved. Not those who were saved, past tense. But God is adding to their number those who are being saved. It’s a continuous activity. By being part of the church, by living this out together, we are in the process of being transformed into the image of Christ, day by day. We’re being saved.
We will soon begin to return to church. We miss it don’t we? There’s something missing from all this virtual worship, necessary as it might be for a season. But we need to come together. But perhaps we should avoid just going back to the way things were, despite the natural temptation to do so. Instead, maybe this is the moment to remember how the church began, what the church valued, how the church learned to be saved. When we return to St Mary’s, I hope we can think about all of the ways the early church learned to be church, to practice fellowship, eating together, worshipping and learning together, practice the sort of inclusion we see in the gospels around the meal table with Jesus. Churches, at their best, are places where we meet people as they are an accept them just that way, when they extend unconditional love. Not a love that sees people as a means to any end, but a genuine, self-giving love. Because if people discover such things from us, it won’t be me that has converted them, they will have been converted by the church. Amen.