A reflection by Dan Spragg
If you’re paying attention you will notice that this reading from Acts was also included in
last week’s service. You’ll understand why I say ‘paying attention’ later on! The reason I’ve
included it for this week is that there was just something too good in there to let it go.
Here’s a quick recap:
Peter and the apostles are on fire! Ever since Pentecost and the empowering of the Spirit of
God they have been propelled into the ride of their lives. People are receiving their
message of the good news of God and thousands are coming into the way of Jesus. To say it
was hectic seems like it would be an understatement. Now of course, as we discussed last
week, when something new and exciting is happening the establishment seems to always
have something negative to say about it. And they do. The council in Jerusalem rounds up
Peter and the apostles and brings them in for questioning. It looks like blood is about to be
spilled. The council aren’t happy because this new move of God doesn’t fit their way of
doing things or their way of seeing the world, and it most certainly wrestles control away
from them. So, they are about to start the execution when someone speaks up and this is
what is too good to not take notice of. Here’s the bit I want to highlight
“One council member, a Pharisee and teacher of the Law named Gamaliel… said,
“Fellow Israelites, consider carefully what you intend to do to these people. Some
time ago, Theudas appeared, claiming to be somebody, and some four hundred men
joined him. After he was killed, all of his followers scattered, and nothing came of
that. Afterward, at the time of the census, Judas the Galilean appeared and got some
people to follow him in a revolt. He was killed too, and all his followers scattered far
and wide. Here’s my recommendation in this case: Distance yourselves from these
men. Let them go! If their plan or activity is of human origin, it will end in ruin. If it
originates with God, you won’t be able to stop them. Instead, you would actually find
yourselves fighting God!”
I like this guy, and not just because he seemed to have enough brains in his head to stop an
unwarranted execution! He sounds like the wise old mob boss who knows always more
than they let on if you know what I mean.
‘If their plan or activity is of human origin, it will end in ruin. If it originates with God, you
won’t be able to stop them. Instead, you would find yourselves fighting God!’
So, this is why I chose the image of a wave for our cover today. When you see a decent
wave crashing you know that there is a whole lot of force behind it and try as you might,
there is no fighting it. Or another image could be of a steamroller – quite hard to stop once
it has started moving. I used to work on the management team for the annual Easter Camp
held at Spencer Park. At that time we had between 4-5000 young people coming to camp
each year. The Camp director used to say to me, ‘organising this camp is kind of like dealing
with a steamroller… once it’s moving the best you can do is just stay out of its way!’
It iskind of funny in a way, that Gamaliel was referring to this little group of early Christians
after their teacher had already been killed… he didn’t realise obviously that this was already
a thing in motion! Perhaps he was already picking up on the signs of this new thing taking
root? And it is kind of funny that he was talking to this little band of early Christians and
now we look back upon 2000 years of momentum. ‘If it originates with God, you won’t be
able to stop them.’ Personally, I do think it is curious for example that Christianity survived
for so long as a state-endorsed religion. So much of Jesus’ teaching seems to not align
particularly easily with being wedded to power and authority imposed in the way that state
systems usually impose them and yet the good news that Jesus revealed to us still rings
true… ‘If it originates with God, you won’t be able to stop them.’ The other thing to note of
course about this is that this is the story we are a part of. This is the wave we are riding, this
2000 year old wave. That is important for us to remember.
This little piece of the story of the ups and downs of the early Christians stood out to me for
a number of reasons. I can see so much of our story, at our time and place in the world, in
their story. I also think that if we as people who follow Jesus together are needing to be
agile and responsive as I’ve been suggesting over the past few weeks then this suggestion
from our friend Gamaliel might be a good way for us to be. I’m becoming more and more
convinced that our most important work as Christians is discernment which is simply “[the]
act of perceiving or discerning something” often directed in the church as stopping to take
notice and actively figure out what the activity of God might be at this very point in time.
And therefore what we are to do as a result.
A good friend of mine, the Rev Darryl Tempero was to do a reflection/devotion at the
Presbytery Gathering in March. It was scheduled for the Fri/Sat after we went into
lockdown… so, it didn’t happen but he did share via another avenue what the point of his
reflection was. He had titled it, ‘The Third greatest commandment.’ Now Jesus said there
were two but Darryl has become convinced there are three. 1. Love God. 2. Love
Neighbour. And, 3. Pay Attention. Pay attention. Be aware. Wake up!
It is interesting that the majority, if not the entirety of the wisdom traditions found in all the world’s religions
talk about awareness as being the most important thing that one can cultivate both as an
individual and as a community. Pay attention… be aware… How does one not get run over
by a steamroller? Pay attention! How does one know when you are swimming against the
current? Pay attention! How does one know when the next wave is coming? Pay attention!
It is good advice for living an abundant, healthy, well-filled life as individuals and also as
communities. How do we know when something is not quite right? Well, we are present
enough to notice the signs. How do we know when it is time to make a change? Well, again,
we are present enough to see the signs and in doing so we are paying attention to what and
where the presence of God is leading. In response, we make adjustments, we try new
things, we allow for change… ‘If it originates with God, you won’t be able to stop [it].’
Now if we have questions as to why we would put ourselves through the energy that it
takes to pay attention, for it does call for energy to be used, then I will let our reading from
Isaiah speak for itself.
All of you who are thirsty, come to the water!… Listen and come to me; listen, and
you will live… [for] Just as the rain and the snow come down from the sky and don’t
return there without watering the earth, making it conceive and yield plants and
providing seed to the sower and food to the eater, so is my word that comes from my
mouth; it does not return to me empty. Instead, it does what I want, and
accomplishes what I intend.
…My plans aren’t your plans, nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord.
In our being agile. In our responding to the Spirit’s leading. ‘If it originates with God, you
won’t be able to stop [it].’ This seems to me to be reason enough to trust God and have a
go. If it is of God it will live and we won’t be able to stop it. Why? Because the Good News is
always looking for another heart, another location, another life to settle into and get to
work in and through. The Good News of God will not return until it has found fertile ground
to put down new roots in.
I finish today with a prayer from Thomas Merton, a 20th century monk who was
responsible for bringing contemplative spirituality into the mainstream thought of
Christianity once again. I always find this prayer helpful as a practice of posture.
Perhaps especially when paying attention is seeming difficult or when a step into the
unknown is called for, but perhaps I don’t know the full picture of what is ahead which can
make me hesitate.
My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going. I do not sense the road ahead of me.
Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think I am following your will does not mean
that I am actually doing so.
But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you.
And I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire.
And I know that if I do this, you will lead me by the right road though I may know nothing
Therefore will I trust you always, though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death.
I will not fear, for you are ever with me, and you will never leave me to face my struggles
‘If it originates with God, you won’t be able to stop [it].’