What kind of person are you?
What kind of person are you? Acts 16: 16-34 22/4/18
This is a very special day for the church, and especially for Janice, Liz, Christine, Alison and Lynda. Today we as a church welcome them to start a new part of their journey of faith, to become elders of this Kirk. At a time that is difficult for the national church and uncertain for the local church we accept them into the leadership of this church. Basically what I am saying is that as far as we are concerned, everything was going fine before today, so if anything bad happens to this church from this point on we all know who to blame.
I think there are moments in my life where I have got to a point of decision, and at that point of decision suddenly thought...what am I doing?
The moment I was ordained as minister of Castlemilk West. I had trained for over ten years to get to the point where I was minister of a church, a real minister. And then at that point I was ordained I suddenly thought, ’What have I done? What am I doing, I’m not ready for this.’
Years later and I am getting married to Roseanna. Now just to be clear, I married late in life. I was brought up in a scheme in Glasgow called Corkerhill. When I went to university I had a neighbour who had sat beside me in English, she was exactly the same age as me, but she had had two children, got married and divorced before she was 20. I got married when I was 30 and we had to make sure we had thought it through before we got married. People left the church when we got engaged. According to some they wanted me disciplined by Presbytery for even thinking of marrying a Roman catholic divorcee (and what was worse...a Celtic supporter). So we had to really think hard before we took on all that agro. And yet when I got married I remember thinking. ’What have I done? What am I doing, I’m not ready for this.’
Which was nothing to what I was thinking 9 months later when Iona was born. As I held Iona in my hands for the first time and Roseanna was whipped off to somewhere to be cleaned up, I remember looking at that little bundle of life in my hands and thinking, ’What have I done? What am I doing, I’m not ready for this.’
So I would not be surprised if at this very moment, as you start this new part of your journey of faith you might be thinking ’What have I done? What am I doing, I’m not ready for this.’ If you are then I have some words of comfort for you. It’s not about you. When you worry about yourself and what you will do and how you will do it then you will probably get it wrong. The truth is our life is not about us, but how we think of others. God will work though you to help others. Don’t worry about it. So you will be the right person at the right place at the right time.
And today's reading shows that through these incidents with Paul. God can work through Paul, God does work through Paul. And he does it in two ways. And hopefully these two ways will help reassure you.
The first way that God works through Paul is despite Paul being Paul. Sometimes we read scripture and we don’t really read scripture right. There are these weird lens that we read scripture with, that colour everything that we read. For instance the presumption that if one of the Biblical heroes does something that they do it with a great heart, that they always know what they are doing, that God automatically agrees with what they are doing. We read the scripture with uncritical eyes. And if we ever doubt that something in the scripture is good, that we secretly think that even it maybe wrong, then we pretend that we must just have misunderstood it. I don't know why we read the scripture that way, but sometimes we do. Like the first incident with the scripture today. We read this part like this... There is a slave girl who is possessed by an evil spirit, maybe now-a-days we would say she is mentally ill. Her owners think that she can tell the future and they make a lot of money out of her, they exploit her. This evil spirit calls out to Paul and his troop as they go out to prayer, day after day they are confronted by this evil and then one day Paul cures her. The owners don’t like that and have Paul and others arrested.
That’s one way of reading it. The sanitized way of reading it. And reading it that way makes Paul out to be a superhero. And because he is a superhero and we can’t live up to that, we don't even try to live up to that....so the passage has nothing to tell us.
But if we didn't read it that way? What if we read it as if Paul wasn’t the good guy. You could see that this lassie with the evil spirit, or mental illness hunted out Paul every day because she sensed Paul could help her, and Paul did nothing to help her. Every day Paul heads to the place of prayer, heading to a time when he sought out what God would want him to do, seeking out how he could show God’s love to the people of that area, and he ignores her, even thinks of her as an inconvenience. She wasn’t on his radar. She was just a slave girl ranting away. She was just a slave girl ranting away and getting in his way. If Jesus was telling this story Paul would have been the priest or the Levite in the story of the God Samaritan, one of the ones that are going off to the temple and who walk by the guy who was beaten up by robbers. Until one day Paul got fed up with her ranting and healed her...which was probably what God wanted him to do the first day. God didn't work through Paul, God worked through Paul despite Paul. And that is a message for us.
Because sometimes I think we get too scared about making the right decision. We are so scared that we might do the wrong thing that we don’t do anything, and that stops us from doing the right thing. And this passage shows us that God always thinks of us as a work-in-progress. God never gave up on that girl. Every day he would drive her towards Paul because he knew that Paul could help her. And when Paul didn’t help her He sent her back the next day. And God never gave up on Paul. God knew that Paul had it in him to do the right thing. And every day he gave him another opportunity.
I think that’s why Paul got it right first time around in the next incident. Here’s what happens. The Romans had a great way of making sure that their officials couldn’t be bribed. It was a simple thing. If you were bribed to make sure a prisoner escaped, then whatever should have happened to that prisoner, happened to you. Lets imagine that you are a guard that is looking after a prisoner who is gong to be crucified the next day. Let’s imagine that this prisoner is very wealthy. And the prisoner says, ‘Just let me go and I will give you a fortune. You can pretend that my men attacked the prison very early in the morning and knocked you out.’ That might be a bit tempting. Except that the money isn't going to do you any good. If the prisoner isn't crucified then the guards who were watching over him are all crucified. What this gaoler was terrified of, was if the prisoners escaped then their fate became his fate.
Paul and Silas could have escaped. They could have seen the earthquake as an act of God, telling them that he was freeing them. That they should escape. But I suspect, that during their time locked up, they not only sung hymns and prayed. I suspect they also reflected on what had got them in the prison in the first place. And maybe they started to blame the slave girl to start off. If she hadn’t been annoying them then they wouldn't have healed her and then ended up in prison. But then maybe they thought a bit more. Wasn’t that slave girl loved by God, and yet they had ignored her for days. Maybe the slave girl was the reason they were in that area, so that she could feel God’s love for the first time. Everyone in her life up till then had used her, maybe they should have been the first people in her life to care for her. Maybe at that point Paul and Silas thought again about their mission of evangelism. That maybe just talking about God's love wasn’t enough, that their mission wasn't to tell people about God's love, but to show people God’s love and then tell them why they cared. Maybe they then looked at their time in prison differently. Instead of prison being a hindrance to their mission, maybe it was a time out, arranged by God, so that they could reflect on how they were doing His mission.
So if they were in the prison because God wanted them in the prison, then what did God want them to do in the prison? So then they have an earthquake. And their first thought is...escape. But then their second thought is...what effect does our escape have on others? Maybe the way they can show God’s love in this situation is not to think of themselves, but to think of the gaoler...and not escape.
Here’s the weird thing. We are told that Paul went to pray every day and then presumably did his outreach stuff. We are not told it was very successful. The success comes when he is trapped in a prison, by just showing concern for the person who is holding him prisoner. It wasn’t from a place of strength that Paul is successful, it is from a place of weakness, and Paul just being open to God.
So here is my words of advice. Don’t be worried that your not ready for this. We all know, and God especially knows, that you are a work in progress. None of these elders next to me are finished works of progress. We are here to learn from each other, and more importantly to reflect on how God wants us to do things.
And if you feel we are too weak and not strong enough, or not theological enough, don't worry about it. Paul did his greatest stuff for others, for God, when he wasn't thinking about it, in the case of the slave girl, and when he thought he couldn't do anything for God because he was trapped in a prison cell.
God will work through you, sometimes despite yourself, and sometimes when you have gotten yourself in a place where you are truly listening to what God wants you to do. We know that, and the reason we know that is because we have reflected on our lives and we have felt it. Those times that God has work through is despite us being numpties, and sometimes because we have been reflective enough that we have truly sought out what God wants us to do, and we have been wise enough to be obedient, no matter what the cost.
We welcome you as you start this new stage of you journey of faith as elders, and we look forward to walking that journey with you, as we share with you our insights, and as you teach us yours.