Acts 5:27-42 & Matthew 10:40-42 – Presence and Rewards

by Dan Spragg

You’ll recall from Genesis 1 the claim that we as humans are made in the image of God. Now a lot of the time this has been interpreted, especially by us modern Westerners, that each of us as individuals is made in the image of God. I kind of feel like that’s a bit presumptuous, that I, by myself, contain the image of God. I like to think that not one of us by ourselves is the image of God, rather, we are together, a beautiful mosaic in which the image of God is seen in all its depth, variation, complexity, and nuance. And then, when we consider the work of Christ and what Jesus showed us, that within this big picture of who we are, God’s Spirit is leading us towards more honestly or, more explicitly living as that larger image of God as we find ourselves being brought home to God with Christ. We are made in the image of God and in Christ we find ourselves being led back to our true identity. We might ask what is the church in the midst of this? What is our function? What is our purpose? When we consider our solidarity with all humans in every time and place when we consider the activity of Christ to draw all into the fullness of God, when we consider what the essence of church might be, and when we consider the context of our time and place in the world, what is the point of us being church? If we take that communal view of our being made in the image of God then our solidarity with all means that we, as the church, are not here to serve ourselves. We are here to call attention to the love of God, so that all may come to know the fullness of God in their lives. All this to say, as I’ve said a little bit recently, we aren’t here to build our thing, Jesus builds the church, we are always being sent, and the movement is always outward. The church does not exist for itself. The Spirit of Pentecost blows and we are filled from the inside to move beyond ourselves. Outwards, beyond our walls, beyond our meetings, beyond our circle of friends, beyond our traditions, beyond ourselves… It’s not about us.

A big sweep of the book of Acts shows a rapid expansion outwards of the message of Jesus beginning with that small group of disciples on the day of Pentecost. Essentially the spread of the gospel accompanied by the work of the gospel in people’s lives multiplies so quickly that all any of the apostles can do is try to keep up. They are doing some amazing work. There are healings in the street, the poor are being loved and welcomed. The Spirit of God is at work and more and more are coming to know the love of God. The Christian community prays with passion, they share their homes with anyone and everyone, their resources are shared so that no one goes without, and they are growing… fast! The reading today is interesting! We catch a glimpse here of how the institution wants to respond. The council in Jerusalem, which represents the Jewish establishment – think long-standing traditions and rules for all areas of life – they don’t like what’s going on. The establishment sees this new thing as a threat to their ways, and so they have some of the apostles put in prison and very nearly have them executed! The threat must be eliminated to protect the establishment. It’s a classic example of a system turning hostile when something new that it doesn’t understand turns up. Luckily there’s some wisdom and non-reactive behaviour in their midst and the apostles aren’t executed after all. ‘If there’s any substance of God at work in this’, says Gamaliel, ‘then we won’t stop it even if we try. But, if this is simply another fad, it will pass.’ There is wisdom in that and some direction for institutions too I think… something along the lines of paying attention so that things that are of God might be seen and supported. Something along the lines of not reacting and instantly opposing any new thing that comes along.

The movement of the spirit is always outward and it is always the church’s job to follow and respond. The only way we can be responsive. But we ourselves, sitting here deep within the Presbyterian Institution know what it is like to sit within traditions and structures, behaviours both accepted and not accepted that mostly go without saying. A small but useful example is, when the Pandemic was ramping up three years ago and we went into lockdown, some people seemed somewhat surprised that the Book of Order didn’t have any protocols for what to do when a global pandemic shuts down the country. It didn’t have any processes that were made for a time such as ours. It didn’t know, for example, what to do with Parish Council meetings that had to be held via video conference. Can you make decisions when you’re not meeting in person? Like most traditions and structures the Book of Order was written after the fact. It simply does not compute when new instances arise. So too is the reaction when new initiatives are springing up. When we find ourselves in a new time and place, with new and different circumstances, the old frameworks of how we make decisions and how we order our life just don’t fit sometimes. The rub-up against systems and structures that either respond with agility or remain rigid – and therefore usually suck the life out of the new thing – can happen anywhere. It can happen nationally, regionally, or locally… it can happen wherever there are certain ways of doing things that have been around for a while. Of course, we talk about systems and structures and traditions as if they are entities on their own… but we know they are simply there because we are there. What is our response to the outward leading of the Spirit? Churches are notoriously slow at making changes – it’s not particularly in our nature to be agile. It takes more energy. It is often complicated and chaotic. It is full of surprises. But what is our response, what should our response be? Can we be willing to let go and move beyond our normal responses, beyond those parts of our institution which prove inflexible and get in the way of the Spirit moving us outwards?

As we’re caught up in the big story of God, drawing all humanity into the fullness of life we are to respond. Now, what we do is important, but how we do things is more important. And, more important still is why we do things. What we do is important because of the time and place we are living in. Our context will determine what will work and what doesn’t to a large degree. As I said last week, we are no longer in a time of ‘build a church and people will come’, so we need to do different things. But more importantly, is how we do things – I would describe this as the way we are when we are doing things. The Celtic Christians were convinced that the gospel message needed to be shared but how they shared it made a big difference to why it was received so well. They told stories, they invoked people’s imaginations, and they linked the Christian view of God to the land, the water, the hills, and the trees. And, as they lived in communities of prayer, study, and work amongst the towns they embodied the message as much as they talked about it. Just as people today are likely to drift off or ignore someone completely if they stand on a box on a random street corner and preach a gospel of judgment, the Celtic Christians knew that how they communicated the message of Jesus was really important and they knew that living the gospel life authentically and transparently was also vitally important.

So, the ‘what’ is important, and the ‘how’ more important again, however, the ‘why’ is the most important thing. In this little part of Matthew’s gospel chapter 10, Jesus is still speaking to his disciples, still giving instructions to them before they go off into the surrounding towns with Jesus’ message of the Kingdom of God. Jesus here speaks of ‘rewards’ and of being welcomed. That those who welcome them, are actually welcoming him and in doing so are welcoming God into their midst. It’s easy to read ‘rewards’ as some sort of transaction, some sort of spiritual payment that might happen. But I wonder if it is more about ‘presence’ as opposed to presents (the unwrapping kind). As God draws near, through these disciples, through the message of a prophet, through the message of a righteous person; as these people are welcomed, as these people are shown the kindness of even a cup of water; God draws near and the life of God is open for them to step into, to participate in, to become a part of. The ‘reward’ is a life now opened up to the presence and awareness of God. A life open to the joy, hope, peace, and love of God’s way. This is the ‘why’. The ‘why’ is the most important thing because the way of joy, hope, peace, and love, is the answer to the things in us and in others that aren’t the way things should be. Things like loneliness, anxiety, fear, uncertainty, hurt, hopelessness.

Let me expand just a little. How often is it now that we hear of celebrities or well-known public figures who have mental health issues such as anxiety, depression, and extreme loneliness? One of our politicians was in the news for this, this week. These are occurring with more frequency not because our current round of celebrities can’t hack fame and fortune, but because these things are on the rise in our society and culture in general. We are more connected to one another as humans than we have ever been, yet we are the most lonely and anxious we’ve ever been. In 2019, New Zealand artist Benee, 19 years old at the time, recorded and released her song titled, ‘Supalonely’. The lyrics describe, essentially, what the title alludes to. Underneath its poppy dance production is a “melancholic track about the pitfalls of creeping loneliness and self-doubt.”[1] The song took off, eventually ending up being in the top 40 charts in over 25 countries[2] and, in 2022 recorded its 1,000,000,000’th listen on online streaming services.[3] It has resonated so much because Benee sharing her experiences speaks to a larger truth in our world. The reason we know about celebrities and what they do is because they are famous. But I believe part of the reason we want to know about them is because we can see a little of ourselves in them. The celebrities we like are often those who we relate to, even just a little bit. Their stories are often our stories, albeit often just a little more extreme. This is our ‘why’. Our ‘why’ is because we believe the way of God can help. It can set us free, it can heal our brokenness, it can lead us all into abundant life.

Our world is good and beautiful and humanity as the image of God in the world is diverse and rich and wonderful. But our world is also hurting, there is loneliness, anxiety, depression, fear as well as a raft of practical needs present. The Spirit of Christ is calling all humanity to come home into the arms of goodness, truth, beauty, grace, and love… And we are called to follow and to respond to where the spirit is leading – by trying different ways of doing that, of thinking through how we might be and embody that life, and by remembering ‘why’ we do it in the first place. It doesn’t happen easily or without resistance. As we step out and respond to God’s lead, the institution may respond with, ‘That’s not the way we do things!’ But, we must remember our why and continue pushing on. Not for our own sake but for the sake of our beautiful world.