Easter 7: 2 June 2019

The Very Rev’d Frank Nelson

Psalm 93

Acts 15:35-16:6

Revelation 4:1-11

Two readings tonight which offer the preacher rich pickings and a sense of being spoiled for choice – not always the case with readings set down for particular days by the Lectionary. While each is deserving of at least one full sermon in its own right, I want to tackle both and see whether there are some insights, some calls to challenge, encourage and act on as we move from the Season of Easter towards that of Pentecost – the season of the Holy Spirit. These two reading don’t actually sit comfortably together. What do I mean?

Take the passage from the Book of Revelation (4:1-11). It follows immediately on from the seven letters to the churches of Asia Minor which we have been reading through the Sundays of Easter. It is completely heaven-focused with an open door inviting us to step over the threshold into heaven. What do we find there? An extraordinary description of a throne with someone seated on the throne – described as looking like jasper and cornelian. Very strange. But there’s more – rainbows and elders dressed in white with golden crowns; flashes of lightning, rumblings and peals of thunder, seven torches and seven spirits of God; there’s a sea of glass and, perhaps strangest of all, four living creatures that resemble a lion, an ox, a human and an eagle. Now where have we come across those four before? Ah yes, they appear as the bottom four figures on the reredos – and they are associated with the four Gospels. Matthew is portrayed as a human, Mark as a lion, Luke as an ox and John as an eagle.

These living creatures, each with six wings and full of eyes all around and inside (I can’t quite get that) spend their time, day and night, singing the praises of God. “Holy, holy, holy, the Lord God the almighty, who was and is and is to come.” Even the youngest treble in the Cathedral Choir will immediately make the association with the Sanctus – that song of praise, sung to many different musical settings, which is found in the Choral Eucharist. Not to mention, of course, the inspiration for the hymn we have just sung (Holy, holy, holy, Lord God almighty). The passage ends with the twenty-four elders worshipping the one seated on the throne using the words, “You are worthy, our Lord and God, to receive glory and honour and power, for you created all things, and by your will they existed and were created.” Clearly this one who is seated on the throne is a big deal – nothing less than the Creator of the world, of all that is, both seen and unseen.

Revelation 4 invites us into the worship of heaven, joining the whole company of the heavenly host – angels and archangels and all the faithful people of God down the ages – as we sing God’s praises. The passage paints a glorious picture of endless worship. In terms of being in this world in which we live and move, it seems difficult to get further away.

Not so when we turn to consider, even very briefly, tonight’s reading from Acts 15 and 16. Instead of glorious worship we find two of the early leaders of the Christian church embroiled in a bitter dispute – which leads to their parting and going off in their own directions. Let me give you a little more information about the context of Acts 15 and what is happening in this chapter.

The first half of Acts describes the incredible spread of Christianity from the Day of Pentecost. A small group of frightened disciples, huddled away in Jerusalem behind locked doors, experiences something which blows their minds and completely changes them. We will read part of that story next Sunday but for now enough to know that the promised Holy Spirit comes upon them, and thousands join them – believing that Jesus is the Messiah, the one who was crucified has been raised from the dead, and that salvation is to be found in the name of Jesus. As the chapters unfold we find the Gospel message spreading at a phenomenal rate. When a certain man called Saul seems set to derail the whole thing, he is converted and begins to preach, eventually becoming one of the great figures of the early church.

We race through the chapters hearing about Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch, the first African to be baptized; the good woman Tabitha, the first deacons and the martyrdom of Stephen, Peter’s extraordinary vision and his visit to Cornelius – the Gentile. The beginnings of persecution and the first description of the followers of Jesus as Christians.

And then we run into a roadblock. The powerhouse of this early Christian movement – one could not really call it a church yet – is Jerusalem. After all, that was the focus for all Jewish people – and the first disciples, and Jesus himself, were Jews. They were steeped in the Law of Moses with its multiple rituals for keeping clean and holy, and, of course, the indelible mark of circumcision. And this was the problem. There were plenty of people who were not Jews, not circumcised, Cornelius among them, who found themselves deeply attracted to Jesus and his teaching. But what to do with them? Should they first become Jews – keeping all the detail of the Law of Moses, and being circumcised? There were those, especially the people who were based in Jerusalem and considered that they held the truth of Gospel, who said, Yes, non-Jews must be circumcised; they must keep the whole Law.

But there were others who were out in the field, those who travelled widely preaching the Gospel – Paul particularly but also people like Barnabas, who thought differently. They said, and Peter’s experience with Cornelius backed this up, that God was doing a completely new thing. This was not about making people good Jews – but a whole new way of being God’s people. Later Paul would write that in Christ ‘There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.’ (Galatians 3: 28) The fledgling church was in danger of being torn apart by these two factions.

Acts 15 opens with the Apostles and elders meeting in Jerusalem. This is the first recorded Synod – the governing and decision-making body of the church. They met to listen to what Peter himself had experienced with Cornelius, and the stories that Paul and Barnabas told of their contact with the Gentiles – or Greeks (a catch-all word for those who were not Jews). In every case it seemed that the Holy Spirit of God knew no boundaries. If people believed in the Lord Jesus, they were given the gift of the Holy Spirit.

It is interesting to speculate what would have happened had things gone differently and the conservative faction in Jerusalem won. Certainly you and I would not be here tonight, and the church would probably have fizzled out centuries ago. As it was wise heads prevailed and a sensible compromise solution was found. You can read it for yourself in Acts 15: 19ff. Paul and Barnabas are sent off to Antioch to lay to rest the doubts and unsettledness caused by the meddlers from Jerusalem and to really open up the church to all who believed in Jesus Christ – no matter what their previous background had been.

But, sadly, even the Church of Christ is made up of fallible people who have petty jealousies and fall-outs with previously good friends. This is the situation in tonight’s reading from Acts. Paul and Barnabas have a falling out and they go their separate ways. Not, it should be said, that they did not continue to preach the Gospel, or that people stopped listening to them. But the unity that had been there earlier was no more. Sadly that has been the case ever since. The history of Christianity is actually a sorry story of division and mistrust and the splitting off of one faction after another. It is really only in the last fifty or so years that there has been any really concerted effort to understand the different branches of the Christian Church and to recognize that, despite differences, we are indeed all Christians.

What a far cry from that glorious vision of heaven in revelation when the whole heavenly host worships God with one voice.

Yet this is the reality. And we are part of that reality. There are ever so many different understandings of church in this city of churches. Some talk to each other. Some don’t. It is enough to make you weep, and I am sure it does Jesus.

In many parts of the world this ten day period between Ascension Day and Pentecost is a time of special prayer for the unity of the church. A time when we pray for a greater tolerance and understanding of differences within the Christian family, recognizing that the same Lord calls us all, and the same Lord equips us with different gifts and skills.

What binds the whole together? Surely it is the worship of God as we saw in Revelation. The singing in a multitude of languages and cultures of that greatest of hymns of praise, “Holy, holy, holy, the Lord God the almighty, who was and is and is to come.”