I wonder if you might try something for me. Would you look at your elbow? Not the bit on the inside, but the pointy bit on the outside. It’s really quite a difficult thing to do, isn’t it? If I’d asked you to look at spot just between your shoulder blades, then you’d have known it was impossibly, but your elbow, surely you ought to be able to see that. But you can’t. In fact there are all sorts of bits of our body that we can’t see, our faces, for instance. How do you know what you look like right now? Have you got something between your teeth? Is there an extra bit of lipstick on your cheek where someone has kissed you in greeting?
Often we can only find out what we look like when someone tells us.
When I used to work for Vauxhall, one of my jobs was to go and visit car showrooms. When I arrived I would have a bit of a look round before I went in to meet with the Sales Manager. Then I would say annoying things like, “Why is there a letter missing from the sign above the door?” or “Why are there still brochures for last year’s models in the display stand?” or, more positively, “It’s much easier getting here now you’ve sorted out the new parking.” or “It’s great to see the way you’ve got the display set out in here”
There were two reasons that I did this. The first was that the people going in and out of that showroom every day, who worked there, had become so used to seeing these kind of things that they didn’t notice them anymore. The second reason was that even if they noticed them, they had forgotten or didn’t understand the impact that these things have on outsiders, on those who didn’t see them daily.
In this Easter season, we are working our way through a set of readings from the book of Acts. As we found out last week, this book was written by Luke, the same man who wrote one of the accounts of Jesus’ life. Luke was very careful in his writing to gather the evidence, test it, and present it to his readers as something that was a trustworthy witness.
Two weeks ago, we heard about Peter’s eye witness testimony to the crowd in Jerusalem at Pentecost, “This Jesus God raised up, and of that we are all witnesses”. Last week we thought about what we have to do if we are convinced by that eye witness evidence, as Peter said to that same crowd, “Repent and be baptised everyone of you in the name of Jesus Christ so that your sins might be forgiven; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is for you, for your children, and for all who are far away, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to him”
This week the story has moved on a bit. The last verse of last week’s reading told us how that day ended. 3,000 people were convinced by the witnesses and decided that they were going to follow Jesus. Today’s reading tells us what happened next. What did all these new believers get up to, what difference did it make to their lives? What did people on the outside of the group of the believers witness, what did they see them doing, how did they see them living? Luke writes, “Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved”
There are three things that I would like to draw out from these verses. There are two places and one attitude.
Imagine for a moment you are a neighbour of one of those 3,000 people who repented and were baptised at Pentecost. What would you witness them doing?
You would witness them going to the temple. Perhaps the person you are watching used to go there occasionally, for the festivals, but now they’re going every day. Meeting with those who spent time with Jesus, learning what he taught about loving God and loving each other. They’re going to worship as well, joining in the prayers and psalms, praising God with the others.
You would witness them in their house. Well, sometimes you would, being visited by a whole gang from the church, sharing food and drink. More often you’d see them on their way out to someone else’s house, usually carrying a basket of food or a skin of wine to add to the meal. Maybe you feel a little lonely.
You would witness their smile. Something seems to have changed in them. They greet you gladly. When people let them down they make generous assumptions rather than presume the worst. They sing under their breath. Alleluias come drifting over the garden wall. It could be annoying, but somehow it isn’t, it’s kind of sweet really.
One day, as they pass the door you decide that you really must find out more about what’s been going on. You grab your coat and follow them down the street, hurrying a bit to catch up so that you can walk with them.
Day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.
Now, I don’t know about you, but I would love it if we could say that here in Shelton and Etruria. “Day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved”.
Before I go any further I want us to be clear about one thing. Luke very clearly writes that it is the Lord who added to their number. There is no 1-2-3 recipe book method to this, it is not something that we can do or not do. It is not that if we get it right we will automatically see more and more people here each week. It is God who gives growth. Having said that, we do have a part to play in creating the conditions that are required for growth. God calls us to take our responsibilities for this seriously. With this in mind, I think that it is worth us thinking about what people witness when they look at us, and how we might learn from what people witnessed when they saw the people we read about in Acts.
This can be a difficult thing to do. As I suggested earlier, knowing what we look like can be a challenge. We might need to find a mirror or a trusted friend. Even when we can see things, maybe we don’t really notice them anymore, or have underestimated the impact that they have on those who see us.
So, with these things in mind, I’m glad that we’re not doing this on our own. One of the reasons that we are given the Holy Spirit is to guide us to show us ourselves, so that we can be open to change. The Holy Spirit has no blind spots, and knows us better than we know ourselves. As we examine our lives, we can ask the Holy Spirit to bring light and honesty to our eyes.
So, the first question is: Do people witness us going to the temple? Obviously not. The temple is in Jerusalem, and I’ve never been there. However, they might see us doing the things that the first followers of Jesus did when they got to the temple. They might see us learning more about our faith. Studying the Bible so that we can understand our faith more deeply, so that we can live it out more richly. They might see us gathering to worship. I wonder what people think when they see our worship. I’ve been part of church all my life. I have no idea what all this looks and sounds like to someone who comes through the door for the first time. Is it attractive? Does it communicate the beauty and love of God? I don’t know. Those of you who have joined us here at St Mark’s recently have a really important role to play in this conversation. You probably have a really helpful perspective on this. What did you witness when you first joined us for worship?
The second question is, what do people witness in our life of fellowship? Are we seen to be sharing our lives with each other? Eating together was a very important part of community life in the middle East, it still is. It doesn’t tend to play such a part in life in Stoke. When Liz and I moved here, we found that quite difficult, as we came from churches where eating together was important. To be honest I’m still not sure whether this is an area of life where we need, as a church, to be more counter cultural and build community by eating together more, or whether we need to find other ways of sharing our lives that fit the culture here better. Maybe that’s something to talk about over coffee.
The third question is, what do people witness in our attitude? Do they see joy and gladness. Do they hear us praising God and giving God the credit for the generousity we receive? I’m not talking about pretending to be happy when everything’s going wrong, that would just be false. What I am talking about is an attitude of heart that knows that we are forgiven and have received great things from God, rejoices in that and extends the same openness and generousity of spirit to others.
You might have noticed that I have now asked three questions, but have not supplied any answers. That is because I can’t, except for myself. As people who seek to walk with Jesus, we have the task of examining ourselves. Of asking these questions of ourselves, perhaps in the company of someone we trust who can point out where we’ve missed a bit. As a community we have the task of chewing over these questions together.
As we do this I pray that our friends and neighbours, families and work colleagues will witness us spending time learning and worshipping, sharing our lives with glad and generous hearts, praising God and knowing the goodwill of all the people, so day by day the Lord may add to our number those who are being saved. Amen.