The Great Miracle
Acts 4:32-37 – 19th April 2009 – First after Easter
Today I want to talk about the Second Great Miracle of Easter
The Church has been founded on two miracles
The first was that Jesus died for our sins and was raised from the dead
The second is that people of the Church have managed to get on with one another.
There are other miracles in there
There is walking on water
There is turning water into wine
There are healings.
There are still things like that today
Other miracles of provision – cheques arriving in time, of special knowledge, of prayers being answered, people having miraculous escapes
But by themselves these are simply something spectacular
They do not change lives.
It is these two great miracles- the death and resurrection
And the Holy Spirit enabling the people of the Church to get on with each other
These are the great miracles that we are founded on.
It is this great miracle
That a group of people with all their prejudices
All their vanity
All their ambition which wants their ideas, their agenda to be pushed
With all the selfish and arrogant thoughts that rage through every human heart
All of that has somehow been transformed
And people that ought not
Have found it within themselves to love each other.
That is our great miracle – us.
Miracle In Jerusalem
Now after Jesus has risen from the dead, it might have been kind of handy if God had said
“Now Jesus, don’t just stay on earth for 40 days,
How about 400 years, and anyone who doubts you
Can come down to Jerusalem and see this man who has been alive all this time
And then they will believe in you
And it will be really easy, because everyone will not need to have doubt any more
Because there is a guy who has been living for 400 years.”
Philip Yancey had said that if Jesus was an American he would have been marketing his resurrection on the streets of Jerusalem, he would have turned up on Pilate’s porch on Easter Monday “Remember me, I’m back.”
But that is not the way that God does things
After 40 days, Jesus ascends to heaven, and God relies not on people seeing the first miracle – the resurrection
But the second miracle, difficult people getting on with each other.
When people fall out with the Church, they don’t complain about no walking on water
They don’t walk out the door and say “I’ve been coming to that Church for twenty years and not once has water been turned into wine.”
No, when people leave Churches they say “That lot up there, they say that they love, but they don’t”
“They pretend that what they stand for is forgiveness, but they are just the same as everybody else.”
But when it works, somehow God enables the people of the Church not to be same any more.
We are in the season of Easter, which celebrates God pouring out his power onto the planet.
Drenches the planet
God blows on planet.
That’s what Spirit means
And what happens
Dead people are raised
And living people are able to get along with one another.
That’s the incredible miracle
That’s our trademark.
Dead people raised
Living people made slightly less annoying.
That’s a huge miracle.
We are a difficult bunch
If it needs the whole power of God to get along, but that’s what happens.
So what are the features of this life (vv32-37)
- One heart and soul
- No one claimed private ownership of their belongings
- Great power they proclaimed the resurrection
- Great grace was upon them all
- People sold possessions and no one was in need
Pride and Sin
Someone has said that what wrecks us as people is sin, and that the biggest sin is pride. Both those words have “I” in the middle. The biggest damage happens when “I” dominates the middle. Rather it is to be one with our fellow humans.
What the Holy Spirit does with the Church is take the “I” out of the centre
And instead we have one heart and soul, and togetherness
The second miracle.
And yet the greatest moments in art, in sport, happen when there is less “I” and people submit to something bigger than themselves.
If you were to ask people what is the greatest achievement that Britain managed last century, what was it – it was the defeat probably of the Germans in the Second World War, and then from that to build a fairer society.
Who did that – Churchill, Attlee, Montgomery – or countless individuals whose name we will never know.
Or in sport – I would argue that the greatest moment in sport happened in the 1970 World Cup final when Brazil beat Italy. And that was about a team.
The highest points of human achievement are when we come together.
I have at home a database of various articles and quotes which I read. I can type in a topic name and they all come up for me. I am in the middle of putting the whole thing onto the web, so you can catch it there.
However, I was stunned when I typed in the word “Community” this week, and the fourth article out of 22 that came up was entitled “Sunderland”
I was flabbergasted that I had no memory of it being there, and that it should come up the week we have the best representation of the city of Sunderland.
Highs and lows, but the fans stay faithful
· Sunderland Football Club was founded by James Allen in 1879 and its first home was at Blue House Field in the Hendon area of the city
· Sunderland left their most famous home, Roker Park, in 1997. The Stadium of Light is the club’s seventh home
· Arguably Sunderland’s finest moment was in 1973. New manager Bob Stokoe led them to a 1-0 FA Cup final victory against cup holders Leeds, the first time a second division team had won the Cup for 40 years. The match is remembered for Ian Porterfield’s goal and Jim Montgomery’s double save
· The FA Premier League Fan Survey 2001 revealed that just 25% of Sunder-land fans earn more than £30,000 a year, while at Chelsea only 38% of season ticket fans earned below this threshold
· In the same survey 77% of Sunderland season ticket holders typically bought a new club replica shirt, the highest number nationwide
· Famous faces on the terraces include Tim Rice, Steve Cram, Kate Adie, Alan Price, marathon runner Khaled Khannouchi, Lord Puttnam, Gina McKee and Dave Stewart
· Sunderland was once the biggest shipbuilding port in the world, the last yard closing in 1988. The shutdown of the last coalmine at Wearmouth in 1994 brought an end to the traditional industries in the region
· Sunderland was granted city status in 1992
With the disappearance of coal and shipbuilding, Sunderland FC is one of only three PLCs left on Wearside, with a physical presence which belies its financial standing. The 49,000-capacity Stadium of Light, high above the river, dominates the city. Four permanent gas flames outside the main stand illuminate the night sky.
Built on the site of a big undersea colliery, which closed in 1993, it is dedicated to the working people of the area with a plaque, beside a big colliery wheel, proudly evoking the club’s roots: “Sunderland is a club for all … we have a unique vision of the future but we will never forget our past.”
Underneath it says
“Our unique vision is to see ourselves stay in the Premier League and to see an Alan Shearer led Newcastle get relegated.”
That is the second great miracle.
So what do we ask, at the heart of our Church life,
We ask for unity, for divided we fall.
And so I ask is there is anyone here with whom you are at odds.
Then do your best, “As much as it depends on you” to make things right
Ask “Is there something we need to talk about.”
If you have huge reservoirs of hurt, or anger, then these things need brought to God
If you feel you have been forgotten, if you can’t be bothered any more, if someone said something and you think there may have been an edge to it, or a claim of superiority.
The we need the great power of the Holy Spirit
We need the Second Great Miracle
We need one heart, one mind.
The disciples had found another economy.
It involved people first of all saying “none of this is mine.”
Somehow letting go of what belonged to them.
Some of the great movements of Church history happened when people did exactly that.
Right back to Jesus who told people not to take a purse.
Of the early Christians, they did not cling to wealth.
Or the people of St. Francis or St. Anthony of the Desert who sold all they had.
Later on it would be people on Iona having the same amount
Or someone like C.T.Studd the missionary who gave away his possessions;
You see we are rather afraid – notwithstanding the great early safety of Messrs Coutts and Co. and the Bank of England – we are, I say, rather afraid that they may both break on the Judgement Day. And this step has been taken not without most definite reference to God’s word and the command of the Lord Jesus who said “Sell that ye have and give alms. Make for yourselves purses that wax not old.” He also said “If you love me, keep my commandments” And again “He that saith I know him and keepeth not his commandments is a liar.”
Let us spend a moment to simply consider that nothing is ours. It has been loaned by God.
So think of your home – it is not yours, it is loaned from God
So think of your favourite gadget – it is not yours, it is loaned from God
Think of your property – it is not yours, it is loaned from God
How does that make you feel, that kind of an exercise,
Is there not something quite freeing, quite liberating about that.
Whenever people who have money see money being given away, they see it as a madness, because they have been trapped into thinking that their survival depends on more.
This crisis is a chance to change.
I was talking to a minister from Ruchhill about this on Thursday.
He was saying that when things are strong, there is never change – if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it
But if something is fragile, then there is the chance to change.
How do we get out of this economic mess – do we spend, do we go back to the same drug that got us into this mess.
Or do we find a different way.
I have time and again talked about the Logan Tower washing machine as saying something very important to our community.
About finding ways of sharing things.
You can’t just say to folk, you can use my stuff whenever you want because it does get broken
Nor can it be kept just for you.
There has to be ways of giving stuff away,
Of not buying things that we do not need
And of giving away.
Last year our congregation gave almost £73,000.
We have to keep ways of our sacrificial giving.
The Jesus community always says money is not good or bad, it’s not something that we’re going to be embarrassed with, but how we spend it we’ll be playing by different rules.
The Congregation Witnessed
And then what the congregation did, and particularly the apostles did was they bore witness to the other great miracle, the resurrection of Jesus.
It seems that the resurrection of Jesus can only be believed from within the confines of a miraculous community.
If we can be a good community, if we can love, if we can share
If we can find ways of getting on top of this money thing
Then we become a place where the resurrection can be preached, preached like people believe.
This is what a yearn for
A community where the resurrection is believable
So that this must be a community which is at one.
Did you know that there is a link between
Burying a grudge
Giving away offering
And making the resurrection believable
Believing the First Great Miracle, depends on people seeing the Second
The Presence of Grace
And there is a fourth ingredient – the gift of grace.
Grace here is not gone into details about.
It could be that people have a power given to them that allows them to conquer an addiction
It could be something in their head, that enables them to no longer be guilty about their past
It could be that someone who moves through a constant cycle of temporary, broken relationships has the power to commit and stay still
It could be that someone who has prayed for a special person to come into their life has that prayer answered
It could be that someone who has not had that special person, has the grace to be happy being single
It could be that someone discovers that they are not frightened any more
This miracle happens in this community
They are one
They count their possessions not as their own
The share their money
The witness to the resurrection
And they receive grace
And that is the miracle that God chooses so people believe.
This miracle repeated
This miracle has been repeated time and again in the Church’s history.
Very few of have seen the First Great Miracle
But the Church has ensured that people have seen the Second.
And we got it in the Church in which one of the leaders is a wealthy Jewish landowner who sold his property
Another is a black African,
Another is a man from north Africa
And another is a guy from Syria, who has been implicated in judicial executions
And in this diverse mix, we first received the name Christian
It happened in the earliest years of the Church
I love some of the quotes from the early Church, about living differently – that Church that was persecuted, that left very few records, but somehow managed to grow from about 25,000 in AD100 to about 20,000,000 people.
One of the Church’s opponents, the Emperor Julian, complained
“They don’t just feed their own poor, they feed ours as well”
A lawyer called Minutius Felix complained
Because they love one another before they even know one another, they practise a cult of lust calling one another brother and sister indiscriminately. Minutius – Felix.
And then the miracle got to him, and he stopped attacking the Christians and became one of the them.
There is a Church called Richmond Craigmillar in Edinburgh which works with bereaved children
There is a community called 174 which runs out of a converted Church in Belfast
There was the old Iona Community which did the job of brining ministers to work alongside carpenters in the building of the Abbey at Iona,
This is not a miracle that people make for themselves,
It happens when God is trusted,
When the resurrection is believed
And the Holy Spirit which yearns to hold people in the bond of peace
Is allowed to work in human hearts.
I want to close with the story of Ernest Gordon.
Ernest Gordon was a Scot, a naval officer who found himself sailing around Singapore in 1942. This was not a good place to be in 1942 and he was captured by the Japanese.
Ernest Gordon was put into a prison camp, it turned out to be one of the worst prison camps that the Japanese had.
The Japanese were trying to build a railroad, so they could invade India,
And it meant building a railway through Thailand, and Burma, and meant going through this terrible swamp, which had these terrible diseases.
And so they flooded this swamp with prisoners, because it was dirty hard labour.
Ernest Gordon estimated that 80,000 men died in the building of that railway, 393 men per mile.
He was an officer, and was not meant to be used for manual labour, but they had not signed the Geneva convention, the Japanese, so he was made to work. He caught malaria and dyptheria, and dyssentria.
The dyptheria was so bad that it burned away the back of his throat. When he tried to eat rice it would come back up his nose, his legs were paralysed, so they took him down to the death hut, where they lined up men who had only a few days to live, head to toe in this area. Several hundred men were in the area, waiting to die.
At this time, something very strange happened in the camp.
The healthier soldiers and sailors went out to dig, and every day they would come back in to the camp, and they would counted back, and all the spades that they had used, they too would be counted back.
You did not want an unaccounted shovel in a prison camp.
On this day, there were only nine shovels, when there should have 10 shovels.
The officer started shouting at the men, but the men said nothing.
If you don’t tell me who stole this shovel, I will kill everyone of you.
He cocked his rifle and pointed it the first man in the line. At this, another officer stepped forward and said “it was me who stole the shovel.” At this the guard went berserk and took his rifle butt and hit him with the butt, and he stabbed him with his bayonet, and kicked him, long after he had died.
Then the men went back to the camp, and they found the missing shovel. This officer hadn’t taken the shovel at all, he had given his life to safe that first man, and possibly more of them.
That night the men were talking and one of the soldiers said, “I remember this verse from Sunday School, greater love have no man than this, that he lay down his life for his friends.”
And the Japanese have won, because we have become like animals. If there is a gristly piece of meat floating in the soup, then we all fight to take it, so that you don’t get it. It’s beast against beast. We’re not like that, we can’t let them win. We have got to change.
So they said, “There’s a chap here who has studied philosophy at Cambridge University, perhaps we should appoint him chaplain. What’s his name?”
“It’s Ernest Gordon”
“Oh, I’m sorry he’s already in the death hut.”
So they went down, and they found Ernest Gordon in the death hut, waiting to die, and they said to him “Is it true that you studied philosophy at Cambridge University”
“Well we wondered if you would be our chaplain”
“Well, I’m not sure if I really believe in God.”
“Well, that’s okay but will you be our chaplain.”
So they took him out of the death hut, and they built a special bamboo hut for him, and a Methodist and a Catholic came each day, and they massaged his legs, and they found ways to force food down him, and they brought him back to health.
And in the meantime, as he is resurrected, he starts reading the Bible from cover to cover, beginning at Genesis, and he becomes a believer.
And the first thing he does is he says “We’ve got to have a proper chapel”
So they build a chapel at the highest point at the swamp.
And they say we’ve got to have a proper burial for each man who dies, because when they die we just throw them in a pit. And when they die, we must give them a proper burial, because it has to be made known that when they leave they create a hole in this place, they leave a hole in the universe, they matter.
And as he started doing these things, the whole moral of the camp changed.
This was in the 1940s (when people did these things at school) and they discovered that there was a knowledge of nine different languages amongst the men in the camp: Greek, Hebrew, Latin, German, Russian, Spanish, French…
And they started this camp university, and the men would go out and work in the railway, and then the would come back and study. And they would take classes. At first the Japanese thought this was crazy, and they were alarmed by it, but they saw that the men were happier and better workers.
There was a soldier there who had served as the libriarian for the London Symphony Orchestra, and he had photographic memory, and he wrote out every note of every symphony by Beethoven and Schubert and most of Mozart, and they carved instruments out of bamboo and they had a prison orchestra and they started giving concerts and they had a theatre troop, and every one of these men said
“We hope that this is not all that there is.
“We hope that we do not spend the rest of our lives in this place which is like Dante’s inferno
“I hope that I can get back to the heather covered hills of Scotland
“I hope that I can get back to the parks of London
“I hope that that’s where I spend the rest of my life
But as long as I am here, I will act like a Scot, I will live like an Englishmen,
I will live out by the values of my world, even in this hellhole.
As it turned out, Ernest Gordon enjoyed being a chaplain, soon the allies came and liberated the camp.
The prisoners pled for the lives of the guards who had so brutalised them – don’t kill them, don’t murder them, treat them justly.
And Ernest Gordon came to America, he served there as chaplain until the year 2002 when he died.
This is a good image of the Church. We are called to live in the present, to live in the future, to live on earth as it would in heaven.
God’s will will never be done in our lifetime, as it is in heaven. But we are called to establish little pockets of the kingdom, even in the middle of a swamp, and to trust that one day we will be back in those places, in the park, on the hills.
And it happened in Burma
And it happened in Antioch
And it happened in Jerusalem
And it happens in Sunderland
And by God’s grace, may it continue to happen here