Tuesday, 3 May 2016

When does the joy start?

At the end of Matthew’s gospel 28: 19-20 there is what is known as the Great Commission.
“Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father Son and Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold I am with you always to the end of the age”
All the elements in that Great Commission were spoken of today in our readings.
In our reading from Acts today we have documented one of the stages of that process of taking the gospel to all nations and a really important one. Moving from its Jewish base in Israel, then spreading to Samaria and Asia Minor, an apostle went to to Egypt and Thomas went to India.
Here we have Paul, having been as far as Cyprus but evangelising in what is current day Turkey being directed for the first time to Europe, something that would change the whole history of Europe and Christianity and henceforth the world.
The supreme, prescient importance of Christianity’s expansion into Europe became Crystal clear 700 years later when Christianity was largely and savagely wiped out or oppressed and subjugated from all its traditional strongholds in North Africa and the Middle East by the Muslim Arab invasions.
What Acts makes clear is that this expansion into Europe was urgent and by divine will. It related that Paul was “forbidden” to speak the word of God in Asia and God spoke to him in a vision in the night. A man from Macedonia appeared to him and said “Come here to Macedonia to help us”
Once in Europe the first convert is a woman called Lydia. As I wrote in our pew sheet notes it is often said that women were especially attracted to Christianity because of the enhanced status that the new faith accorded them, and in many cultures that would indeed be true but Lydia was already an independent woman of means, a trader in high quality merchandise who was mobile and travelled between Macedonia and Thyatira and was the head of her household.
This was not uncommon in the Greek world. No, it is obvious that Lydia’s conversion wasn’t about something as pragmatic as women’s rights - she responding to something much deeper in the gospel itself.
She was a worshipper of God – a God fearer – who was not Jewish but was attracted to the idea of the one God and the high moral standards of the Jews which is why she was at the “place of prayer”. Who knows what in Paul’s preaching touched her soul, we don’t know.
Perhaps, as a gentile outsider it was the thought of full inclusion. Perhaps it was the promise of forgiveness for all her wrongdoing, perhaps she had lost her husband and was taken by the notion of meeting him again in the future.
All these wonderful promises are either implicit or explicit in our vision in Revelation today. Which one draws you to the Christian faith. Which one sets your heart on fire?
What do you hope for your own personal future and that of the whole world?
In Revelation we have this new Jerusalem introduced in last week’s reading  further described. It is based on Ezekiel's new Jerusalem (Ezek. chapters 40-48) but with huge amendments. This city is for everyone, not just for Jews, and the city is not a place but a community. And there is no temple because there is no need for a special place to meet God, for God and the lamb are everywhere present.
The gates are never shut - access is always available. And it is open to all nations to walk in the city's perpetual light and he healed by the leaves of the tree of life. Revelation has its fair share of violence and hatred as befits a book written at a time of great persecution but in the end there is a wide and generous hope and joy. 
Perhaps in the end it was the restoration of hope and renewed joy written about in Revelation that led Lydia to want to be baptised.
Which leads us to the interesting question of how much joy does the resurrection faith give to each and every one of us. If any of us were not baptised already, which part of the faith would really motivate you to get baptised now at our ages?
So from Matthew’s Great Commission we have dealt with making disciples and baptism but Jesus ends by saying “And behold I am with you to the end of the age”.
But how can he be? He died and even if he rose he went to heaven to be with God didn’t he, so how can he possibly be with us forever?
Well John 14 tells us; “I will send you another helper to be with you forever” says Jesus
The Holy Spirit is God Himself with us. Jesus is with us through his Holy Spirit. When you receive the Spirit Jesus says
“In that day you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me and I in you. There is a mutual indwelling”
“Whoever has my commandments and keeps them, he it is who loves me. And he who loves me will be loved by my Father and I will love him and manifest myself to him.” (14:21)
Does that not stir your soul, Does that not excite you? Jesus will manifest himself in you by the Spirit who is the Spirit of truth.
This, I hope is the excitement, the joy, the presence that I believe Lydia felt that compelled her to want to be baptised.
There is a Christian poet called Adrian Plass who relates what I suspect is the feelings of many Christians in his doleful poem called “When does the joy start?”
When do the clouds part
When does the dawn break
When does the Earth shake
When does the choir sing
When do the bells ring
When will I rise with him? 

That time comes with the event that liturgically we have been working up to – the completion of the Easter miracle – Pentecost.

That’s when you’ll see me
That’s when my star falls
That’s when my God calls
Calls out to my heart
That’s when the joy starts
That’s when I’ll rise with Him.

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