Unity of Spirit

Acts 18.1-4 (p1114)

1 Corinthians 1.10-17 (p1144)

A Naval chaplain I knew well repeatedly told the story of the visitor to the monastery. At evening mealtime, one of the monks stood up and shouted out  87 – to which the holy men laughed and laughed. The visitor was bemused and asked the Abbot what was going on. Oh – he said – that was a joke. We all know each other’s anecdotes so well – we don’t retell them we just give its number. The visitor replied – could I give it a try? Yes of course! So he shouted out 22. There was no reaction at all. What’ wrong? Someone told that one just yesterday. Try again. This time he bellowed 67. Again the reaction was underwhelming. Hmm actually 67 isn’t very funny said the head monk. Have another go! With all his voice he yelled – 43. But again it didn’t raise even a titter. The Abbot look ruefully at the visitor and said – It’s the way your telling them.


Whilst the monastic tradition is not part of our Presbyterianism, but there is still within it an attraction. For idea of a community living, working and worshipping in unity invokes a deep sense of harmony. The idea of a group striving for the same goal guided only by the Spirit is very appealing.  And so, whilst we do not have a cloister around us, the idea of our congregation as such a community has always inspired me. Hopefully, it has a resonance with you also.


And today we heard that very same harmonious lifestyle in our portion from Acts. For here was a highly mobile preacher settling for a brief period with friends to work together, share together and worship together. We can imagine them chatting as they sewed their animal hides into tents. We can imagine their mutual meals together talking over local events and characters as well as spiritual issues. Moreover, we can imagine them together professing a faith that was vastly bigger than their daily vista and ready to encompass anyone who also heard and believed.


Similarly, we can feel Paul’s frustration with the Corinthians at a later date. For they have obviously asked him which community member was right and who was wrong in some dispute or other. And we can see in our mind’s eye his agitated dictation to a hapless scribbler of a written reply where he remembers who he baptised. Then remembering more names that the poor scribe had to add in somewhere on the scroll. Yet we can also feel his determination to make clear no one owns the Gospel which is infinitely beyond the hold of one person, one community or one organisation.

Indeed, in his words we sense his desire that this community should live now as he had lived earlier that self-same city. The way he had lived and worked with Aquila and Pricilla. And that was in harmony, in unity and in submission to the singular truth of the Christ risen.


Today we celebrate our gift day and we do so in the meal that is the very essence of community. So much so, it is called communion; communion of Christ with his Father, communion of Christ with his followers and communion between those very followers.


Yet we leave the word communion rather at home if we do not share our gifts. And therefore we should indeed feel a sense this morning that all our time, talents and resources we are giving are being blessed, that they are being rededicated and they are being refocussed on our Christian life and work in this place and for this place.


Yet even when we are generous towards our community, we still feel the sort of tensions self-evident in Corinth. So how do we deal with it?


One of the most inspiring projects at the moment for our nation must be astronaut Tim Peake’s mission on board the International Space Station. For, from time to time, we hear him interviewed about his collaborative work with Russians and Americans on a host of scientific research and indeed just keeping this huge structure whizzing around the earth.


During these various video clips, we never sense any tension between crew members. And I suppose throwing things at each other in zero gravity might be difficult.


Yet there must be from time to time differences of opinion and even personality clashes. My time at sea taught me that any group living in close quarters rarely is without some disputes even dislikes. Yet the odd thing was even someone I did not get on with well at sea, when we meet years later we were always great friends. And the reason is simple. We had a shared experience of meeting challenges together, we had shared work and pastimes together and he had shared a unity of purpose together. Moreover, we had shared community together – a team where people were concerned for each other even if that was less than obvious from time to time.


Here then is the real power of living in community, living in harmony and living in achievement. And it is in giving with open heart, in accepting with a good grace and working together for one goal, for one source of unity and for one voice of concern, love and reason. And that objective, fount and calling is always the gospel that Christ has risen. The gospel that Christ is with us and Christ always binds us together.


Now let us enter communion – one renewed with God, one renewed with Christ and one renewed with each other – now and forever more.






I am not a number!

Acts 17.1-15

The American preacher, Donald Strobe, tells this story. There was once a census taker who was making his rounds in the lower East side of New York. He went into a tenement and interviewed a mother of a large family bending over her washtub. “Lady, I am taking the census. What’s your name? How many children have you?” She replied, “Well, let me see. My name is Jean. And then there’s Marcia, and Duggie, and Amy, and Willie, and…” “Never mind the names,” broke in the harassed bureaucrat, “just give me the numbers.” She straightened up, hands on hips, and with a twinkle in her eye, said, “I’ll have ye know, sir, we ain’t got into numberin’ them. We ain’t run out of names yet!”



Well, that story reminders us that sometimes we can feel like numbers. Numbers on a bank statement or credit card at a call centre. Numbers on a computer screen at an enquiry desk. Numbers in a file or on a letter. In fact, this modern world of ours seems to run on people being numbers rather than personalities.  I suppose it comes from the need for everyone to be more productive at work or ensuring the data protection act is not breached or, more likely, just the desire to get back to something more important than little you. For we have all had the experience that the glowing screen is more alluring to a clerk or clerkess rather than your need no matter how pressing. As I say, it is a moment like that we feel we are no more than a number.


Paul must have felt that to some extent in Thessalonica. He went there to give them the great news of Jesus Christ. But,  they saw only a trouble maker, a fermenter of change and a disturber of the dying past. And so the natives of that town did what we often do with troublesome parties. They reduced him to a stereotype, to a problem to be solved even to a non-person to be brushed away. And, as a result, they had no qualms about raising a mob against him, complaining to the authorities about him and generally treat him as an irritating statistic rather than person.


Berea on the other had treated Paul and his friends differently. They must have seen beyond the apostle’s vagabond appearance, his wild preacher’s passion and hear what he was saying. They grasped the essential truth that Christ does not care for humanity as some statistical database but for each as an individual. Moreover, they found in that message their own concern for someone maybe not in the best position with the law and helped. Put simply, they say a 3D flesh and blood human being and not a cardboard figurine.


Today we could say Thessalonica and Berea are faraway places whose happenings we know little of and care less. Yet that really isn’t true. For these very places are on our TV screens nightly. Since, you see, Thessalonica and Berea are in the Macedonia Greek border region; an area full of migrants many who are refugees from the most appalling atrocities this new century has seen.


Now some are there for economic reasons and a very few have malevolent intent. Yet the vast majority are just ordinary humans like ourselves in desperate need of valuing, respecting and sheltering.


Nevertheless, the news reports go on to show these real individuals with real feelings being treated as a number, a statistic and as a problem. And so the sad outcome is that many are ailing as numbers and dying as numbers. And that is true, even if amongst them, are modern day Pauls and modern day Peters and modern day Jesus Christs.


In my youth, a favourite TV drama was the Prisoner with Patrick MacGoohan. The story was that our hero resigns from the secret service and is then kidnapped to the sinister village. Set in Port Merion, Wales, the village is a place where nothing is what it seems or explained. The only certainty is that there is no escape. As the actor explains – the Village is there to stamp out any sign of individuality. So much so, every resident is known by a number. Indeed, every episode started with McGoohan shouting – I am not a number – I am a free man!


Today we have the opportunity not to be a number Since we are free to choose. Free to choose not to be a Thessalonian rabble-rouser but a Berean Christian. Free to choose to see others not as statistics but fellow beings with emotions, needs and aspirations. Free to choose to value, respect and care for individuals in need not as data points or information bytes but as names- human names – beloved names known unto God.




Waiting around

Acts 1.1-14


It is a new term that has sprung up since the financial crisis and it is staycation. Basically, it is a holiday that you have by staying at home. Now, of course, this on the face of it this seems less than exciting compared to the pleasures of far off places. Yet having had a few in my time, these sojourns into the familiar can be enjoyable. Since when we look again at local attractions we usually find something new to see or something really worth revisiting. Put simply, staying put in body doesn’t mean stay in the same place mentally or spiritually.


Well the very start of Acts made clear that the disciples stayed put after the resurrection. Indeed, they might have remained living in the very room of the last supper. They probably did so through fear of the authorities out to hunt down Christ’s followers. They may have stayed out of a sense of curiosity as to what God might do next. They may have simply stayed because they really couldn’t think of anything better to do or go.


Nevertheless, whatever the reason for their staycation in Jerusalem, that period of static reflection was rewarded. For it helped them accept that the solution to their perilous situation was not a cataclysmically intervention by God as their question about restoring Israel suggests. Instead the first steps out of their predicament lay at their feet. The first responses to the radically changed future were in their hands. The light of their way forward was dawning not outside themselves but inside their minds and hearts and souls.

And so they stayed together in community. They stayed in contact with God by listening. They stayed and built up their courage, their sense of call and the vision of their new destiny through prayer.

We too in our personal lives face crises. Moments when darkness and light seem to intermingle in a most perplexing and uncomfortable way. Too often the immediate reaction is to do something.  It is moments like those we need to remember that group in the upstairs room. We indeed need to bring to mind their thoughtful, prayerful and faith-filled staycation. For, it was that pause for reflection that was the first step in turning them from followers to leaders. The first step in turning the fearful to the faithful. The first step in turning runners to stayers. Let then the first moments of any trouble we encounter be given over to God and our first actions be at his say so.


However, the staycation recipe of the followers of Jesus had another and vital ingredient. And that was their openness to the supernatural. Since we could rationalise away their sightings of an alive Jesus coming amongst them. But if we do then we are left with a problem. For, if they had not truly experienced these miraculous happenstances, what helped them eventually to unbar the doors?  Who irresistibly moved them from the upstairs room to the open air? Why finally did they risk the transition from Staycation to vocation? Put directly who else could possibly have forcibly ejected them out of hiding into building the church? None other than the encounter with a supernatural phenomenon which was the risen Christ – the risen Christ who inspires – the risen Christ who emboldens – the risen Christ who is always ready to lead us forward.


Yet when we talk about supernatural things we are necessarily cagey. For such discussions too easily bring to mind the old adage that a person who talks to God is regarded as pious. But the person who claims God is talking to him or her is deemed mad.


And as a result when faced with a crisis, we still often look not for the supernatural but the natural. But that rejects the super-nature of our Lord and Master.


Instead then let us have faith in an actual risen Christ walking beside us each moment of the day. Let us, when stuck in a dark room, expect to meet the risen Christ. Let us, whatever the situation, feel the living presence of the risen Christ.  Since then we will be gifted his encouragement. We will find a peace that is beyond understanding. Moreover, we rediscover hope no matter the circumstances. And I can no better express this sustaining power of the Holy Spirit than quoting a pre-war doyan of French cycling. Being of Jewish descent, they waited for the inevitable knock on the door from the German Nazi occupiers. When it happened, he turned to his wife and said until this moment we have been living in fear, from now on – we will live in hope.

May we never doubt then that the supernatural Jesus brings faith – faith even in the riskiest hour.



But still we hang back – we want our staycation in a crisis to simply be our hideout from troubles. We want the darkness of indoors to cover us rather than being a place filled with challenging hope. We want the doors forever locked against the risk that the risen Christ often calls us to. May I even put it this way – we demand the natural of the ordinary instead of the extraordinary of the supernatural.


So much so – we ask why not cop out, why try to move outwards and onwards -why hazard a possibly dangerous new world?


Well I suppose it depends in the end where you want to see your name listed. Will it appear in the also-rans. Will it appear amongst those who sold their faith for the limits of rationality. Or will it be in the best and most honoured choice of all – and that is appended to that list in Acts. The list of those who stayed the course – those who overcame their situation in faith – those who conquered their crisis of risk, danger and evil, those indeed who turned their mortal selves into immortal saints and so made Christians of us all, now and forever more.




prodigal son and father