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Sunday Service, 12th July 2020

Opening prayer

Merciful God, we rejoice that your purpose for us is life: Casting light into our darkness, bringing order from our chaos, breathing life into barren souls. God of life, we adore you.

Compassionate God, we rejoice that your offer to us is new life: calling us to confession, holding out forgiveness, freeing us from guilt. God of new life, we adore you.

Inspiring God, we rejoice that your promise to us is full life: giving purpose to our days, bearing fruits from Spirit gifts, guiding us to live love’s truth. God of full life, we adore you.

Almighty and Eternal God, Creator, Redeemer, Inspirer, you have not left us wondering endlessly and wandering aimlessly in our desire to know you.

In Jesus, your Son, you have made yourself perfectly known.

In Christ we have treasure beyond compare for in him we see you.

In Christ we sense glory without measure: for your fullness dwelt in him.

Through Christ we learn of you: for we are drawn to know more and understand fully.

We commit ourselves to the quest. In Jesus’ name. Amen

(Adapted from Seasons and Celebrations by Donald Hilton.)

Hymn 212 Morning has broken. Listen here.

Scripture Reading

Acts 22: 116 (NRSV)

‘Brothers and fathers, listen to the defence that I now make before you.’

When they heard him addressing them in Hebrew, they became even more quiet. Then he said:

‘I am a Jew, born in Tarsus in Cilicia, but brought up in this city at the feet of Gamaliel, educated strictly according to our ancestral law, being zealous for God, just as all of you are today. I persecuted this Way up to the point of death by binding both men and women and putting them in prison, as the high priest and the whole council of elders can testify about me. From them I also received letters to the brothers in Damascus, and I went there in order to bind those who were there and to bring them back to Jerusalem for punishment.

‘While I was on my way and approaching Damascus, about noon a great light from heaven suddenly shone about me. I fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to me, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” I answered, “Who are you, Lord?” Then he said to me, “I am Jesus of Nazareth whom you are persecuting.” Now those who were with me saw the light but did not hear the voice of the one who was speaking to me. I asked, “What am I to do, Lord?” The Lord said to me, “Get up and go to Damascus; there you will be told everything that has been assigned to you to do.” Since I could not see because of the brightness of that light, those who were with me took my hand and led me to Damascus.

‘A certain Ananias, who was a devout man according to the law and well spoken of by all the Jews living there, came to me; and standing beside me, he said, “Brother Saul, regain your sight!” In that very hour I regained my sight and saw him. Then he said, “The God of our ancestors has chosen you to know his will, to see the Righteous One and to hear his own voice; for you will be his witness to all the world of what you have seen and heard. And now why do you delay? Get up, be baptized, and have your sins washed away, calling on his name.”’

Sermon by Rev. Robert Gemmell: Paul – a man for all seasons

Jesus’ post-resurrection commission to his followers: “Go then to all people everywhere and make them my disciples” must have seemed almost a ‘mission impossible’ to that group of relatively ordinary men and women. Their particular lockdown was now behind them. The Holy Spirit had empowered them for the task. But a long and winding road lay ahead for them.

In Acts 1:15, Luke numbers their group at around 120. Pentecost saw those numbers increase dramatically with thousands being added to the cause. Out from that tiny country and from that seemingly insignificant group of ordinary people a movement was born, a movement that would indeed spread to the uttermost parts of the earth.

By 64AD we read of Nero persecuting the Christians in Rome. Tacitus, the Roman historian, recorded that a vast multitude of Christians fell foul of the fury of Nero. How then did that small group of believers become ‘a vast multitude of Christians’ in a setting hundreds of miles from the birthplace of the Church?

Luke, within the pages of the Acts of the Apostles, records something of the history of the Early Church, a Church in which Peter continued to exercise a leadership role in the life of the fledgling group. Others, like Phillip to whom we referred a few weeks ago, ministered in different ways and in different places. New believers were added almost daily. However the most significant part of the jigsaw centred around the conversion and subsequent calling and ministry of the Apostle Paul.

What was it about Paul that equipped him for his particular work? What kind of man was he? We know that throughout his life he struggled with a serious handicap, probably a physical handicap. And yet, if you count up the aggregate miles he covered during his missionary journeys we reach an amazing total of around 6,000 miles – some by sea but most made on foot.

Dick Shepherd was a great minister and preacher of a bygone age within the Church of England. It seems that he was once asked as to why so many people flocked to hear him. His answer was quite simple: “I am not much of a preacher but I am a good mixer.” There are those who would suggest that Paul was also a ‘good mixer’. Do you remember what he said to the Corinthians? “Among the weak in the faith, I become weak, like one of them in order to win them. So I become all things to all men so that I may save some of them by what ever means are possible.” 1 Corinthians 9:22.

Through the very circumstances of his birth Paul was able to mix with anybody on an equal footing. First of all he was a Jew and proud of being so. He never forgot that God had given the Jews a very special place in history. He was a Jew and proud to be a member of the Jewish nation.

The Jews were always very particular that their children should receive a good education. One of their great scholars said that Jewish children began learning the Law early in life so that it would be printed on their minds and they would never forget it. Between the ages of 6 and 12 Saul, as he was then known, no doubt revelled in the educational programme of the day, mixing history and practice of all things Jewish. For most boys, reaching the age of 12 would complete their formal education. But Saul went on from there to an intensive study course of the Old Testament, leading to him, possibly in his early 20s, becoming a Rabbi or teacher. And from there he went on to become a Pharisee. The Pharisees were those within the Jewish faith who separated themselves from ordinary folks and from ordinary life in order to keep every detail of Jewish Law. Saul was a man who had a real passion for the history of the nation and for the Law of God. It could be said that as a Pharisee Saul might have seemed unapproachable to many of his fellow Jews. Conversion to the Christian faith obviously helped him overcome that particular problem.

But Paul’s calling wasn’t to be an Apostle to the Jews. He was chosen to take the Good News to the Gentiles. Here again we find that his life and circumstances fitted him perfectly for his ministry.

Paul was a Jew, but he didn’t belong to Palestine. He was a citizen and native of Tarsus and Tarsus was one of the busiest cities in the world of his day and one of the most cosmopolitan. It would have been difficult for anyone to grow up in Tarsus and not catch a world vision, to dream of other countries and other nations. Did Paul dream his dreams, dreams that in time would afford him that ‘world vision?’ Tarsus also had one of the most famous universities of the ancient world. It isn’t too fanciful to suggest that someone with the intellect of Paul picked up the odd bit of conversation from those who talked and argued about all kinds of philosophies and all kinds of problems as they walked the streets of the city. Yes Saul was a Jew, but he never forgot Tarsus. When he was accused of being a reckless revolutionary, his proud reply was: ”I am a Jew, born in Tarsus in Cilicia, a citizen of no mean city.”

But Paul wasn’t merely a citizen of Tarsus, he was also a Roman citizen. Once again, something of which he was proud. Roman citizenship conferred certain rights on an individual – a person could not be imprisoned without a trial, nor could that person be scourged, and if he wasn’t satisfied with the justice in some provincial court, appeal could be made direct to the Emperor.

These were particular rights that Paul made good use of at different times in his ministry. After he was arrested and imprisoned in Philippi the local magistrates proposed to release him and say no more about the arrest. Paul responded: “We were found ‘not guilty’ of any crime yet they whipped us in public and we were Roman citizens. Then they threw us in prison. And now they want to send us away secretly. Not likely. The Roman officials must come here and let us out.” Acts 16:37.

When he was about to be scourged in Jerusalem he demanded: “What right have you to scourge a man who is a Roman citizen?” Acts 22:25.

“Go then to all peoples everywhere and make them my disciples.” Paul wasn’t just a man for all seasons. He was also a man for all nations. A man, called by God and equipped by him to take the Gospel through Asia Minor and over into Europe – to take the Good News to the Gentiles. Do you recall the Lord’s reassuring words to the doubting Ananias shortly after Paul’s conversion? “Go [to Paul] because I have chosen him to serve me, to make my name known to the Gentiles and kings and to the people of Israel.” Acts 9:15.

Paul, chosen by God, equipped by him for ministry, ministry essentially to the Gentiles, a ministry within which he could meet any man or woman, Jew or Gentile on equal terms. If the Gospel was going to be taken out into all the world, then the person at the helm would have to be one who was steeped in the faith, in the history and Laws of Israel and yet one who understood the world outside Judaism, one who could open the door to the Gentiles. Such a man was Paul, a man for all seasons with a ministry to all nations.

I wonder what you would think if the Apostle Paul applied for the vacancy at Wardie and you were a member of the Nominating Committee. What questions would you be asking? What particular areas would you want to clarify? Would you, for example, be questioning him on his attitude to women in general, to women in the ministry, to same sex marriage? Would he be the kind of minister you would choose as your sole nominee, or might you think he was too challenging?

I was sitting at my desk wondering how to apply the work and ministry of the Early Church to our lives today. How can we possibly equate our lives and daily living alongside the ministries of folks like Peter and Paul? And then the words of an old traditional African American spiritual came to mind – ‘There is a balm in Gilead’. One of the verses of that song reminds us that

If you cannot preach like Peter
if you cannot pray like Paul
you can tell the love of Jesus
who died to save us all.

How can I – how can you – tell the love of Jesus to others? And how can we tell it if we can’t preach like Peter or pray like Paul? Some of the best-known words of St. Francis of Assisi are: “Preach the Gospel at all times. When necessary use words.”

Hymn – There is a balm in Gilead. Listen here.

Prayer of thanksgiving and intercession

O God of grace and glory, we give you thanks for the rhythm of the seasons and the constant provision for our needs in life.

We are grateful for the commitment of those who look after our quality of life, through food production, health care and civic security.

God of compassion, we pray for the many who are oppressed, or persecuted, or find themselves in tough family situations.

Men and women ground down by lack of food and opportunities of inclusion.

Children oppressed by discrimination, disadvantage and a lack of resources.

The downtrodden and all who consider themselves unable to make a positive contribution to the life of the world.

Be with them, Lord, and be with all those who follow you as we who seek to empower and encourage anyone disadvantaged by the offer of support, however small. We know that such small acts carried out by many can change the world. Give us the courage to act and your comfort when we are not brave or confident enough in ourselves to do so.

We know we do not always deserve your mercy and love but we know that you do not withhold these from us. May we never take you granted. May we treasure your Word and its message and be increasingly aware of our responsibility as disciples and have the strength to act.

In gratitude to You for Jesus Christ our Lord and in whose name we pray. Amen.

The Blessing