Immigration, Christ in the stranger, unity in diversity: a powerful sermon from Duncan

On a missiom

If I had been Duncan, I would have felt a sense of humble joy this morning after Elaine spoke about Scripture Union camps and working with children. (I’ll be posting Elaine’s very moving talk later.) Because Elaine’s theme – the fact that each child on the list of the names of those coming to a camp is an individual with their own unique personalities and personal stories, an individual to be welcomed and included – exactly meshed with what Duncan had felt he should speak about this morning – disparate individuals united and motivated by the Gospel.

Certainly for me in the congregation the unplanned synergy of these two contributions to the service was no mere coincidence, but a sign of God whispering to Elaine and Duncan over the last few days, and speaking rather clearly to us this morning. It’s always encouraging to have further examples of the reality of God’s active presence among us.

So, to the sermon. Duncan focussed on the first of the passages for today, and included the final verse of Acts 12.

25 When Barnabas and Saul had finished their mission, they returned from Jerusalem, taking with them John, also called Mark. 13 Now in the church at Antioch there were prophets and teachers: Barnabas, Simeon called Niger, Lucius of Cyrene, Manaen (who had been brought up with Herod the tetrarch) and Saul. While they were worshipping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, ‘Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.’ So after they had fasted and prayed, they placed their hands on them and sent them off.

Immigration and blessing

Duncan told us that this event took place in Antioch, a major city in present-day Turkey, to which many Christians fled from Jerusalem on account of the persecution there.

This passage gives us pause for thought on how we should respond to the current wave of persecution against Christians and their consequent seeking asylum elsewhere. Many of those making the hazardous crossing of the Mediterranean Sea are our Christian brothers and sisters: Duncan reminded us of the report last week of 12 Christians who had been flung overboard and left to drown because, at a time of great peril, they had refused to call on Allah for help but persisted in using Christian language in their prayers.

According to the International Society for Human Rights, 80% of all examples of religious discrimination across the world are against Christians. Over the last few years, hundreds of thousands of Christians have fled from Iraq, and thousands more are fleeing from Syria.

Antioch, where many first century Jesus-followers fled to, was where they found a hospitable welcome and were first known as ‘Christians’. It was a city with a vibrant Christian community which became the launch-pad for mission.

Cut to the UK in 2015 and the run-up to the election. Immigration is high on the agenda. But much of the comment is very negative – there seems to be a fear of ‘difference.’ What is often not noted is the blessing which is brought to our country by Christian immigrants from Asia, South America, Africa and the Indian sub-continent, people who have seen God working in power in their own nations, and bring with them a liberating vision of an active God. Through them UK Christians are energised and blessed. We need more of this reality, Duncan suggested, not less. We should seek a vision of God’s global church, and welcome among us brothers and sisters from elsewhere.

Individuals united

And then Duncan examined some of the individuals whose names are mentioned in the reading.

John Mark – not much is known about him, but he is equally significant in the story of the Church as the ‘big names.’ Not many of us, Duncan commented, are ‘big names’, but we are all of equal significance.

Barnabas (whose name means ‘son of encouragement’) came from Cyprus, and belonged to a Jewish priestly family – he was a Levite. He was involved in the events of Pentecost, and was willing to sell a field and contribute the takings to the common pot shared among the Jesus-followers. A man of commitment and devotion.

Simeon called Niger Very possibly Simeon was of African origin

Lucius of Cyrene  Cyrene was part of present-day Lybia – from there came the Simon who carried Jesus’ cross.  The city is currently under major attack by ISIL. Lucius was a long way from home.

Manaen  He had been brought up with Herod the Tetrach, the son of Herod the Great who tried to kill the infant Jesus. Manaen was therefore very close to, or part of a family who had opposed Jesus. And yet he too was now in the Church.

Saul, whom we know as Paul. He’d held the jackets when Stephen was martyred and yet, transformed by his vision on the Damascus Road was a member of the fledgling community he had sought to persecute. Paul was now among those who had been compelled to flee to Antioch because of the anti-Jesus mission he had been deeply committed to!

So that church in Antioch was made up of folks with different backgrounds, different homelands, different personalities and back stories, different social statuses. All very different people! And yet the church at Antioch is an amazing picture of unity in diversity.

The Hilton Dimension

Here we are then, trying to move forward in Hilton Church. We don’t have the degree of obvious diversity which was evident in Antioch. And yet we are, each one of us, very different. The responses to the Faith in the Future exercise revealed different ways of viewing the world, different ways of seeing.  We expressed our aspirations in ways which could be seen as competing, and this could be a recipe for disagreement.

But at Antioch a wildly varied group of people worshipped together, fasted together, were together open to the Holy Spirit, and God brought them together in unity. There would be future disagreements of course, as there are among Christians anywhere, but undergirding their differences was a God-given, and God-sustained unity.

The same can be true of Hilton Church. Unity and diversity. There is room in the Church for diversity. Duncan encouraged each of us to ask what we are personally passionate about in regard to church and mission. What energises us, what vision do we sense we have been given by God?

If we feel a whisper summoning us to be involved in a particular ministry in the Church, then we should bring it to the elders, and they will contribute discernment, and encouragement, and blessing to us in our call. (I’ll also be posting Duncan’s statement to the Church this morning about the way ahead, and it fleshes out this vision a little.)

Duncan concluded by calling us to prayer, fasting and reflection.

Perhaps Gods whispers to Duncan and Elaine this morning resulted in a unity of theme in what they shared is a gentle God-given reminder to us. ‘Hey guys, I am here, and I am not silent, and I will not fail you as you look forward, and go forward.’

Meditation

It was recognised at Antioch that God wanted Barnabas and Saul ‘set apart’ for God’s mission. They were ear-marked for mission. What am I ‘earmarked’ for from a divine perspective? Perhaps God has been talking to me for a long time, trying to get me to listen, but I’ve been so slow to hear.

Perhaps setting myself apart for a particular challenge seems simply too costly in terms of time and commitment and the potential of the challenge to turn my life upside down.

Perhaps I love the stuff I’m doing now for God, and work well within my comfort zone and am trying to drown out the whisper calling me to do something new.

Perhaps I’m bored with what I’m doing and want something different, but God says ‘this is what I want you to do. Let me set you apart for it each day, so that you can do it with my creative presence.’

Perhaps I’ve messed up in the past, and can’t face putting myself on the line again, and God says ‘It’s OK! The past can be redeemed. I can grow in your life a wider range of fruits than would have been possible had it not been for your past failures.’

God sees our names. God knows our future stories as well as our back stories. God has dreams for us. When we get to the end of our lives will we have fulfilled our God-given potential?

 

 

 

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