Many of us here will recall what has become known as the Miners` Strike. During those terrible days I got into conversation with a Police Officer who had been sent from his leafy suburb to police one of the violent demonstrations in the Yorkshire Coal Field. I simply recall him saying: “I`d never realised that people hated us quite so much”. “How times change” we often say. That people could turn on the Police in such an aggressive and violent way was, at the time shocking and unthinkable but, times change. And it caught my attention that earlier this week a prospective Member of Parliament felt it necessary to assure a Christian congregation that their right to hold their beliefs would as he put it `be protected` if his party came into Government. Such a statement would have been unthinkable only a few years ago… but times change.
Now, I`m not one of those who subscribes to the notion that Christians are persecuted in this land; I wouldn`t echo the words of that Police Officer but it`s become clear at least that a sizeable proportion of our population have become more confident in declaring that they are not of the Christian faith. That of course is their right but how times change. For example I`ve been told on more than one occasion by those who did their National Service that in those days if you didn`t `own up` to any particular religion you were always marked as `C of E`! Not any more, it would seem. In fact it`s interesting to note how in News reports these days `Christians` are singled out much more as a distinct community.
Now there may be some good I all of this and I don`t want, this morning to debate the reasons for this huge change which many of us have tried to deny; and others are only just appreciating ……. but things have changed. As for prescriptions as to what to do about it? well again, we could spend a lot of time on that…. and we will need to if we are going to be faithful in the years to come but I begin by recalling some words of Robert Runcie- the former Archbishop of Canterbury. He was roundly and I believe unfairly criticised back in the 1980`s for drawing the nation`s attention to the problems of our inner cities and he said of that time “We held our nerve”.
It`s a very `stiff-upper-lip` prescription but in the face of change and grief at losing what many of have held dear this will be important. Of course, we`ll also need a sense of perspective. I mean there is nothing essentially new about Christians finding themselves in the minority…… As I`ve said before, it`s just that we`ve become used to being at the top table. No, we have trod this path before and many of our brothers and sisters across the world know it to be as painful as it is blessed.
But the point is that we know this is a path we have trodden before …… and we gain our sense of perspective because of our Scriptures. I mean this is how we know how to negotiate such challenging times and that short passage we heard from the Acts of the Apostles this morning is a case in point. (Acts 4.5-12) Today we were treated to a snapshot of another moment when loyalty to Christ was seen as questionable; a position to be derided and scorned. And for our reflection this morning I`ve spotted two things which our forebears did which sustained their faith and which might help us.
Firstly, to put things in context we`re part of the way through hearing how Peter and John were put on trial for healing a lame man just outside the Temple. Peter had invoked the Name of Jesus, the man was made well and consequently they were dragged before the authorities to explain themselves.
At first glance it might seem insignificant but the first thing I want us to notice is how Peter quotes Scripture at his accusers. He says `This Jesus is “the stone that was rejected by you, the builders; it has become the cornerstone.”` Peter is quoting from Psalm118 and my point is that when people do this; when Christians turn to Scripture verses what`s going on is that we`re making a link between our experience and a much bigger story; the story of what God is doing in his world. In other words, when it`s seen against this different backdrop; what we`re going through is given its true meaning and becomes navigable…. We can see a way forward.
Now, Peter and John were taking their cue from that empty tomb. It`s THAT part of the Christian story that helped them make sense of things. Of course, the authorities saw things differently. They were livid with Peter and John because we`re told they had been proclaiming `Jesus and the Resurrection`. Now resurrection for them was a very potent word. It didn`t mean “There`s life after death”; resurrection was the most apocalyptic thing you could say. Resurrection was what was supposed to happen at the very end of all things when God finally put the world to rights. So what they heard was Peter and John claiming that Jesus is the one through whom God`s Kingdom had come. That he was the fulfilment if Israel`s story; the one promised in all of their Scriptures and they were having none of it.
You see, in the face of their persecutors Peter and John saw Jesus set against the backdrop of God`s purposes….. and they clung on to what I`ve often called the Big Picture. They remind us that what you get with Jesus is whole new way of understanding yourself and the world. And if this way of understanding ourselves and the world is true; then the many other ways of understanding the world with which we rub shoulders; and which often seek to marginalise, diminish or ridicule the Christian vision are mistaken. Nowadays when we make such claims about the significance of Christ we`re usually put into the category of `old-fashioned`, `not politically correct` or `bigoted` but the issue, the point of tension is one of world view.
But here is also the place from which we can derive our strength and confidence. You see the future hope of the Church and of Christian faith in this land rests not on how adept we are at marketing and management but whether we are a people who understand that we have this story… and whether we will keep turning to it as the source of our hope and inspiration.
Let me give you a small example. In the Book of Genesis we heard the story of Joseph; sold into slavery -into Pharoah`s court…. God was with him and he made a name for himself and his family came to live a settled life in Egypt. And then at the beginning of the Book of Exodus we hear a pivotal phrase: “Now there arose a new King over Egypt, who did not know Joseph…”(Exodus. 1.8) and from there begins the story of Moses and of the peoples journey to freedom. But it was at that pivotal moment the people will have said “How times change”…. And it`s here in their story that we find an echo of our own.
Part of the problem of course is that we`re not Jewish enough; but my point is that in time to come so much will depend on whether we have the gumption to delve deeply into the experience of our forebears who in the Scriptures tell us of what it is like to strive to be God`s people when “Everything`s changed”. So the first thing is remembering that Jesus points us to this backstory of the faithfulness of God.
The second thing to notice about that passage- and it`s true of the whole of the Acts of the Apostles – is that the Apostles begin to do the things Jesus did and they are treated as he was treated. The healing of that lame man is a case in point; that hastily convened court resembles the one Jesus faced; St Stephen as he is stoned to death copies his Lord in praying that his murderers will be forgiven.
In other words, what Jesus promised comes true. In the Gospel of Matthew he says: “You will be dragged before governors and kings because of me….(but) When they hand you over, do not worry about how you are to speak or what you are to say; for what you are to say will be given to you at that time; for it is not you who speak, but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you”. (Matthew 10.18-20) And sure enough, there in our passage we`re told Peter is `filled with the Holy Spirit”.
What I`m driving at is that a future Christian community will firstly know its story (where it`s come from and where it`s going); and what kind of God we`re dealing with…. But secondly we`ll be a people who are dedicated to letting the life of Jesus come through in all that we say and do. It means being committed to holiness; to a life that begins each day with the prayer `Come Holy Spirit`; to being someone who really knows what it means to say with St. Paul “It is no longer I who live but Christ who lives in me” (Galatians 2.20)
We may be inclined to say `How times have changed`. I`m not altogether dismayed by any of this because I suspect that over many preceding generations we Christians have made far too may accommodations with the mistaken world views of those around us and so some sharpening of the edges is perhaps overdue.
Now, a few moments ago I mentioned Archbishop Robert Runcie. I had the privilege of leading Evensong with him when I was a Curate. He struck me as a good and humble man and he kept my feet on the ground by reminding me that there`s no promotion from being Parish Priest! But he`s remembered by many for the Sermon he gave at the end of the Falklands War. People said he was being controversial but what those who criticised him couldn`t cope with was that firstly, he spoke of war from first-hand experience as someone who had been awarded the Military Cross for not one but two acts of gallantry under fire.
Secondly because he refused to be seduced by expectations that he would take his cue from somewhat naïve and populist appeals to nationalism. Instead he looked on his experience and what he called the `failure` and the tragedy of war as a Christian. People complained but he called us to pray for grieving Argentinian people because he saw what we had all gone through against the backdrop of that bigger story of God`s purposes for his world…. Because that`s what Christian people do. And this is what we`re called to do. Times change. The generations to come will BE Church in ways that are very different to what we have known. What matters is that we remember our story; and that by God`s Holy Spirit, we learn to think and pray and act ……. as Christians.