Old High St Stephen’s, Inverness
Sunday 21 April 2013: Year C, The Fourth Sunday of Easter
Faith, renewal and service
In the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.
On this joyous Sunday, we’re celebrating eight people who have chosen to associate themselves with the work of the church, and to follow Jesus wherever that might lead them. Ian, Martin, Alana, Alexandra, Ashleigh, Louise, Kirsty and John have been meeting together with a number of other enquirers and members of the congregation in our Christian Basics course over the last few months. This year I tried to freshen up my new member’s course, adding new material and activities to it. But what really made a difference was the participation of existing members of the congregation. Many of you came along to the special meal we had during the course, during which we thought about what worship is about, and celebrated the Sacrament of Holy Communion around a table in the St Stephen’s Hall. Some of you brought along delicious food- thank you for that, for food and drink always oils the wheels of conversation! But just your presence and your willingness to get to know our enquirers and to discuss faith with them was wonderful. And there were a few of you who came along almost every week to Christian Basics and helped me immensely by being willing to take part in our discussions. To all of you, I offer hearty thanks.
Our new-style Christian Basics, which has helped to bring eight people to the stage where they want to profess their faith, is something we ought to both celebrate, and to ponder. During our Future Focus process, we identified that we thought that our congregation wasn’t particularly good at ‘faith sharing’, and that we should try to improve that. Because we are a kind of ‘middle of the road’ sort of church, we haven’t often thought much about how we share our faith. Many of us are a bit suspicious of people, or Churches, where they jump on newcomers and try to convert you. But it’s pretty obvious, in this day and age, that we need to find ways of sharing our faith, and making the invitation to people to join with us in the Christian church. It’s interesting that of the eight men and women who are joining the church at this point, four of them are being baptised (Louise’s baptism will take place next week). That reminds us that for the upcoming generation, faith is not part of growing up the way it used to be for so many people. So we need to find new ways of speaking to people about our faith, and taking to them Jesus’ invitation to ‘follow me’.
I think that our Sunday nights over the last few weeks have shown us that we can do faith sharing in this congregation. Our enquirers have been so faithful over the last few months, that the Kirk Session has decided that we should continue to try to develop these Sunday night sessions. It’s a good time for many people to come to church. And it’s a place where we can perhaps develop new ways of worship and education. Perhaps it can be a place where people who just want to find out can meet with us, outside of our more formal Sunday morning services. Here was can offer a welcome, friendship, a chance to ask questions and to hear what the faith is all about. I’m excited about Sunday nights and where they might lead us. Why not come and join us- and bring along a friend- as we try to develop a new way of reaching out to welcome people into the life of the Church- and invite them to meet Jesus Christ.
But what does it mean to follow Jesus Christ, and to be part of his church, in this day and age? We are up against awesome obstacles as we seek to be faithful to Christ and build up the Kingdom in this day and age. Yesterday, our Kirk Session was grappling with some of those difficulties as we met together in a conference in which we reviewed our Future Focus programme and sought ways of moving forward as a congregation. In our opening worship, we read the story from the Book of Acts about the healing of Tabitha, also known as Dorcas, which we read again this morning. It is a rather lovely story, and it seemed appropriate both for our Kirk Session yesterday, and for this service today, for it tells us some deep truths about what it means to be a Christian. I have entitled this sermon ‘Faith, renewal and service’, and now I am going to do what it says on the tin, and consider each of these words.
We are not told very much about Dorcas, but we are told that she was ‘a believer’. If someone had to use one word to describe you, would that be the word, I wonder. But today we heard some people stating publicly that they ‘believe’; and we all joined with them together in saying, ‘I believe’. Faith is not simply a matter of saying you believe in certain facts. For we say that we believe in God, Jesus Christ, the Spirit of God. It’s not like saying, ‘I believe in gravity’. It’s the kind of believing which is a personal relationship. And it’s about trust.
When we say we believe in God, we are using the word like a soldier who might say, ‘I believe in my commander. He may be taking me into danger, it might be risky- but I trust him’. It’s why Christians can sing, ‘The Lord’s my shepherd’- here’s someone we believe in enough to follow even through deep, dark valleys. Jesus uses the language of sheep and shepherds in our Gospel reading today. ‘My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me’ he says. Apparently that’s exactly how shepherds operated in ancient Israel. They didn’t have sheep dogs- the shepherds spoke to the sheep. Often a number of herds might be mixed up on a hillside, but sheep would follow the voice of the one they knew was their shepherd. The one who is known, the one who is trusted, the one whose voice we recognise- he is the one we believe in. For Christians, Jesus Christ is that shepherd, for he says, ‘The Father and I are one’- his word is the word of God for us. We live in a cacophonous world. We are surrounded by voices- our friends, our family, colleagues, but also voices from the radio and TV and the Internet, entertainers, politicians, rogues and saints who all want us to listen to them and to follow them. A believer in Christ hears his voice through all the noise and nonsense- a voice we can trust to see us through life and even through death and into eternity, as he says to us, ‘I give [you] eternal life, and [you] shall never die’.
The Apostle Peter is visiting a nearby town when Tabitha dies, and her friends ask him to come and visit. What happens next is perhaps stretches our credulity, for this is a miracle story, and many of us find such stories hard to believe. But it is a story which is very touchingly told. When Peter arrives, he goes into her room, and rather as Jesus did on similar occasions, he sends everyone out of the room. Then, he ‘knelt down and prayed; then he turned to the body and said, “Tabitha, get up!” She opened her eyes, and when she saw Peter, she sat up. Peter reached over and helped her get up’. Peter puts this terrible situation into God’s hands. He obviously thinks that God is not quite finished with Tabitha in this life. And when she does get up, he is there to, very tenderly help her.
Whatever the origins of this story, it speaks strongly of the early Christians strong belief in resurrection. When all else fails, Peter’s prayers and care bring resurrection- life from death. And after all, we are Easter people, who believe in a resurrected Lord and Saviour.
In our Gospel passage, Jesus promises eternal life to those who are believers in him. But I think that God also brings new life in other ways too. The Christian church in Western Europe is having a very difficult time today. The world seems to be changing too fast for us to keep up. We are very challenged because patterns of church life, patterns of worship, ways of speaking about faith which seemed effective even very recently no longer cut the mustard. Our culture seemed, in the past, ready to at least pay lip-service to the voice of Jesus Christ. But now that cacophony I spoke of a moment ago, all those other voices, seems often to overwhelm the voice of the Good Shepherd. There are plenty of people who will say the church is dying. But resurrection is at the heart of our faith. Death is never the end, for Christians. And so I believe that even if there are aspects of our familiar church life which seem to be ending, which seem to be dying, perhaps that’s because new things are being born. We believe in Christ, so we believe in renewal and resurrection, life out of seeming death. Tabitha and Peter were believers. They had faith and trust in Christ- and also hope.
And there is one other thing to note about this woman Tabitha. She said that was known as a believer. And we have said that believing is also about trust and hope. But belief in Christ also has practical implications for how we live our lives. Another early Christian, who wrote the Letter of James in our New Testament, warned his fellow Christians that ‘faith without works is dead’. In other words, we cannot really claim to have faith unless our faith in Jesus is shown in how we live our lives. Tabitha was known as a believer. And why did people think that? Not just because she told people she had faith, or because she went to the Christian’s worship services. For we are told that the believer Tabitha ‘spent all her time doing good and helping the poor’. And when Peter arrived at her house, the friends of Tabitha (or Dorcas) had physical evidence of the results of Tabitha’s belief. We are told that ‘When [Peter] arrived, he was taken to the room upstairs, where all the widows crowded around him, crying and showing him all the shirts and coats that Dorcas had made while she was alive’. These widows wept for Tabitha, or Dorcas, because she had done so much for them, and other poor people. They wanted to show Peter what sort of a woman she was- look what she did for us. She had lived our Christ’s command to clothe the poor- literally!
Christianity appeared when the Roman Empire was at its height. It was a very hierarchical society, with an Emperor and a nobility who lived in great wealth, all the way down to people who did not own any other property, because they were treated as other people’s property- slaves. The nearest there was to any form of help for the poor was whenever an Emperor or a noble wanted to look good and they provided ‘bread and circuses’- bread for the poor and big show for the population- chariot racing or gladiatorial combat. But Christians actually looked after the poor- their own poor and anyone else they could help. Their faith taught that doing good to the poor was like doing something for Jesus, their Lord and Saviour. This is what Tabitha was known for, and what the early Christians were known for. And it changed the world.
There are plenty of people today who will knock faith and claim that it is the cause of all the problems of the world. This is nonsense. Christians are very often at the forefront of trying to deal with the problems of the world. In our nation today there are people who cannot feed their children. But the food banks are provided by a Christian charity, and the food often comes from Christian people (and it looks like we will have to do more and more of this). If we want to be known as believers, if we want the voice of Christ to be heard in today’s world, then we need to be doing our faith, and not just talking about.
The story of Tabitha or Dorcas speaks of faith, renewal and service- all essential aspects of the Christian life. For the Spirit of God is surely at work when faith develops and blossoms, when resurrection happens in the midst of death and renewal comes in times of despair, and when people love their neighbour because they love their God. Ian, Martin, Alana, Alexandra, Ashleigh, Louise, Kirsty and John, that is the adventure of faith that lies ahead of you. And today we have all promised to walk that road with you. May God bless each of you as you discover more deeply the meaning of faith, the hope of resurrection, and the joy of service. And may God bless all of us as we walk that path with you!
Ascription of Praise
The God of grace who calls you all
to his eternal glory in Christ
restore, establish and strengthen you.
All power belongs to God for ever and ever, Amen.
Based on 1 Peter 5.10-11: c.f. BCO 1994, p584
Biblical references from the Good News Bible
© 2013 Peter W Nimmo