John 13:31-35 Acts 11:1-18
One of the great historical mysteries of the church is how it went from being a few frightened disciples in a locked room to being the official religion of the Roman Empire in 300 years. All achieved without any force or coercion, only martyrdom, self sacrifice for a lot of Christians in the process.
What was it about these Christians which was so striking, so notable, that the pagan Romans flocked to become Christians, despite the many persecutions which we all know about?
This may also give us a clue as to why the church is now challenged by falling numbers
in many (but not by any means all) places.
I think we get a clue in the two passages that we have read today as to why this might be the case.
It was what the Romans witnessed when they encountered Christians that made the difference.
Firstly, they saw something supernatural happening
In the passage in Acts, Peter is persuaded that a Roman centurion should be baptised and welcomed into the body of the church because he observes something very extraordinary.
First he has a dream about all sorts of animals which were unclean for Jews to eat and a voice calling him to kill and eat. ‘Do not call anything unclean that God has made clean’, says the voice
But, he might have thought, ‘you know, dreams….well, we all have dreams…’
But ‘right then’ as he wakes he receives a message from a Roman centurion asking him to come and see him in Caesarea.
He went to the Roman’s household with six other disciples (witnesses to make sure he is doing the right thing) and as Peter says in the passage in Acts ‘as he began to speak, the Holy Spirit came on them [the Romans] as he had come on us [the disciples] at the beginning’- meaning at Pentecost.
For a Jew, the idea that the Jews were God’s chosen people and that God showed special favour to them and not to Gentiles like the Roman was hard to shift, despite the dream that Peter had had. So this story makes me conclude that the arrival of the Holy Spirit on those Romans was pivotal in making the decision to accept them into the church, so the Holy Spirit coming on them must have been completely visible – noticeable, unmistakable for Peter and his six companions and was for them complete unchallengeable confirmation that God was welcoming gentiles into the church.
This physical manifestation of the supernatural Holy Spirit’s presence could easily have been repeated again and again as Christianity expanded over the world and as more and more gentiles were baptised. And a huge leap forward in the development of the church began.
One of the privileges that we have as clergy leading services is that we can see the reactions of everyone, as we preach. If we are doing our job properly, we are constantly scanning the faces in front of us to see reactions. So we can tell when you have gone to sleep. We can pretty well tell if you are thinking about lunch.
But most importantly, we can also tell when the Holy Spirit rests on you.
Sometimes people say to me: ’I don’t go to church because whenever I do I cry’. But crying in church is GOOD. it is one sign of the Holy Spirit resting on you. Amanda, in particular, is acutely sensitive to the operation of the Holy Spirit. And I am learning a lot from her in this area, in particular.
But it is not just in the area of seeing the supernatural work of the Holy Spirit which so impressed the pagan Romans and led to the vast expansion of Christianity throughout the Roman world.
Tertullian who was a Roman living in the late second century wrote what the pagans in his day said about Christians: He wrote: ’Behold, how these Christians love each other! How ready they are to die for each other!’
Jesus’s command to his disciples ‘to love one another, as I have loved you’ which he gave at the Last Supper as we have just heard was a ‘new commandment’. In Leviticus 19:18 the Israelites were told to love their neighbour ‘as themselves’ but Jesus’s commandment for his disciples was much higher than this – to love each other ‘as I have loved you’.
The Greek word for this love is ‘agape’ and agape love involves self sacrifice – it’s not just a wishy washy feeling of love – it means putting your own selfish interests to one side and loving the other person in the pew to such an extent that you would die for them.
Just turn to your neighbour and ask yourself ‘would I die for this person?’ Well this is what we are being called by Jesus to be willing to do.
It is this love which is so obvious to those who are not Christian disciples and this love which is so attractive that it drew pagans to become Christians.
Not only did they show love for other disciples but also for others, for their non christian neighbours
The best example is during an outbreak of the plague in Alexandria where instead of fleeing to the countryside to escape the plague, they stayed to care for their own — and for others. Even without any knowledge of medical science, the simple act of providing food, water, and shelter to sick people vastly improved survival rates n times of widespread disease.
It also sent a powerful message of solidarity to those pagans who happened to receive a helping hand.
Now, of course, we in Itchen Valley do not have to suffer yet the sort of persecution which meant that we are daily putting our lives on the line for our fellow Christians – but our fellow believers are, of course, suffering this in the Christian genocide in the Middle East and in particular in Iraq and Syria. But even so, our close neighbours, particularly in these villages, watch with interest the way that we behave towards each other and towards them.
‘Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another’. As one theologian puts it ‘this is real self-sacrificing love, that they are to place other believers’ needs above their own’.
Do our neighbours know that we are His disciples by the way in which we love one another?’
How might we show our love for one another in this Parish today?
Just let me give two examples of how, short of giving up our lives for our fellow disciples,
we might love them, as Jesus loves us:
Firstly, how we speak about each other.
Of course, I think our wonderful APCM last Wednesday was an example of the courtesy, consideration and polite behaviour that I have always experienced and come to expect in the Valley and our PCC meetings are the same.
But being positive about others is not always easy because it involves a bit of self sacrifice
doesn’t it? I don’t mean that we think like Gore Vidal who apparently said: ‘Every Time a Friend Succeeds, Something Inside Me Dies’ but, nevertheless, there is a temptation to describe someone else’s success, in terms of what I did to facilitate it, or to say, about someone else’s decision, that we would have made another one. But, if we are Christian disciples, we cannot do this, we need to speak positively within our community about everyone in our church, to be encouraging about everyone in the church however strange or odd we might think they are.
But loyalty always comes at a price to our own pride; but this is a price worth paying and one which Jesus expects us to pay.
Just imagine what an impact it would have on our community of villages if it became known that our church was filled with people who are consistently courteous and positive about each other!
When people say I find it so difficult to talk about my faith, we might find we had to do no more than this: always speak positively about other disciples in the church and maybe others would ask us ‘why we are different?’ ‘why won’t we gossip?’ ‘why don’t we moan about each other?’
That would make evangelism incredibly easy, wouldn’t it?
Secondly, by being there for those in the church and also for those outside who are suffering at any time. Not just because we interested in what is happening in their lives. But to offer them real support and, in particular, prayer.
I think this is key to any Christian visiting anyone – do we invite Jesus into the meeting? Do we pray for them? If we do, then we are bringing real help and real hope which they may not receive from anyone else. Because in many circumstances only the Lord can help, at the end of the day.
So visiting, even when it is inconvenient, and we have more important things to do. Praying for someone out loud in their presence, even when it is embarrassing and we would rather not. That is the self sacrificial aspect of love – something we would rather not do, in the same way as Jesus in Gethsemane asked God to release him from going to the Cross doing something we would rather not do, this is how Jesus loved us.
Its a truism that people these days may not read the Bible, but they read Christians.
Whether it is seeing the powerful impact of the Holy Spirit or the way that Christians act towards each other and others what non believers observe of us, how we behave to them, but also how we behave towards each other is what will determine the future of our church whether it grows or fails whether there is a church to be a part of for future generations.