We always try to offer good value, so this morning you will be getting two sermons for the price of one. We have a subject and a passage, so the first sermon is on the subject, and the second on the passage. I hope that's clear!
I know it's a problem with the way my brain works, but I always tend to see ambiguities and alternatives, even when most normal people see something very straightforward.
Take a square, for example. How many sides can it have? Most people would say four. But I will count at least six sides: top, bottom, left, right, inside and outside.
It's probably a consequence of this quirk, but I've been struggling with the title of this morning's sermon for several months. This has been made worse by a serious case of déjà vu. You may not believe this, but 27 years ago I heard a sermon entitled 'This World Is Not My Home'. The speaker stood up and said: 'When I first saw the title, my first reaction was, "Yes it is!", my second reaction was, "No, it's not!" and my third reaction was, "Yes it is." So, those are my three points: yes it is, no it's not, and yes it is.'
Well, when I saw this title, the first obvious answer to the question was 'Nothing,' the second obvious answer was 'Everything,' and the third obvious answer was 'Nothing.' I have been struggling not to make those my three points ever since. So, in the end, I gave up.
"What do we have to give?"
It's probably being a parent, but the first thing I hear through this question is my children asking "Do I have to?" You suggest doing something fun that might be slightly educational too, and they say "Do I have to?"
If you take the question to mean, "What are we required to give? What must we give?" then the answer is very simple: nothing.
Grace means that God freely gives to you everything you need. You don't need to do anything or give anything in return.
"What do we have to give?"
You could take the question to mean, "What do we have that we are able to give? What can we give?" In this case, the answer is also very simple: everything. There are two compelling reasons why the answer is 'everything.'
Firstly, look at what we have. Everything we have has been given to us, and everything has been given to us so that we can give it away.
Secondly, look at what we are. It is the nature of God to be generous and self-giving. As His children, we inherit that nature. God does not hold back from us any good thing, and we as His children cannot hold back any good thing from other people.
"What do we have to give?"
The third way to look at the question is to ask "What is it that we provide, to give away?" Again, the answer is clearly nothing.
We give nothing of our own, because we have nothing to give. It all comes from God, and all belongs to Him.
There is a joke about some scientists who finally worked out how to create life, and decided they no longer needed God, so they challenge Him to a test. God goes first and from a handful of dirst creates a beautiful flower. Then the scientists start to put some dirt into their machine. "Hey," says God, "stop that - go get your own dirt!"
So, if anyone asks you what the sermon was about today, you will be able to tell them: nothing, everything, and nothing. You will remember that, won't you?
The second sermon is about the passage. Let us read Acts 3:1-10.
The story goes on to describe Peter's second sermon, which resulted in Peter and John getting arrested.
The story, I would imagine, is familiar to many of us. It is very easy to preach on a passage like this, to make a number of good points that everybody agrees with, to have most people get to the end of the service and say 'that was a good sermon,' and for the whole experience to make no impact on anyone.
The difficulty we face this morning is not that we fail to understand the truths demonstrated in this passage, but that we think it is all completely irrelevant to our lives. It seems to be irrelevant in at least three important ways.
If we can get over, or around these problems, we might, perhaps, see in this story, a message that is frighteningly relevant to each one of us.
This story takes place a few days or weeks after Pentecost, just a few months after Jesus' death and resurrection. These were amazing times!
But, like them, we have met Jesus. Like them, we have started to follow Jesus, and like them we do not know where the story will take us. We know, because we have read the story before, how it will all end up. But they, at the time, knew no more than we do.
Part of our difficulty in identifying with their situation lies in the fact that most of the things we recognise as being Christian had not been invented yet. They didn't have churches run by Pastors, they didn't have church buildings or Sunday services, they didn't have the New Testament or any creeds or statements of faith.
What they did have was the promise that Jesus would continue to be with them in the person of the Holy Spirit, and that He would show them how they could continue and complete His mission to bring about the Kingdom of God and destroy Satan's power. I would like to come back to this point.
The main people in this story were Apostles! Many would consider they were two of the greatest three Apostles that ever lived.
But every Christian has the Holy Spirit living within. All the resources of the Godhead are available to each one of us. We have been given every blessing in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus. We have been given all that pertains to life and godliness.
Think of your greatest Christian hero. You can be as godly as that person. You can be as spiritually effective as they are or were. You might not become as well known - we are not all called to be famous - but God is not holding you back.
Having it all is one thing, knowing what to do with it is another. Have I described the parable of the piano to you?
Being saved is like being a pianist. You can't be a pianist without a piano, so God gives you a piano. And from the moment you are given the piano, you can play it. Anyone can play the piano - you just press the keys and sound comes out. But learning how to play it well, how to get the best possible sound from it - that takes a lifetime of dedication and practice.
Peter and John might have had wonderful experiences and become mighty apostles, but they had received no more of the Holy Spirit than you or I. They might have been given different gifts, but their gifts were no more or less important than the gifts given to you and me.
They chose to follow Jesus wholeheartedly, to learn the lessons He taught, to take the risk of obeying Him, to work at the skills needed for obedience. And nothing prevents us from becoming as godly and as spiritually effective as they were - nothing apart from our own desire.
The third difficulty is that we see Peter and John doing a healing here, and later there are other miracles. Most of us find it hard to identify with people who do such things.
We have a tendency to divide gifts and areas of ministry into the miraculous, which is open to only a few special people, and the ordinary things that the rest of us get up to. But this divide does not exist, other than in our minds.
All Christian ministry is an exercise in the miraculous and the supernatural. The Evangelist cannot save anyone, the Healer cannot heal anyone, the Teacher cannot enlighten anyone, the Worship leader cannot bring anyone into the presence of God. We are all totally dependent on God's supernatural power being demonstrated.
What matters is not what we do, but that God saves, God heals, God restores, God brings wholeness and forgiveness, God turns the emptiness and despair inside into a sense of purpose and joy.
However, God only does these things when we have first been obedient - when we have prayed, when we have shared our faith, when we have loved. So, as it turns out, healing is actually a good example of the type of ministry we are all called to. God calls us to do something we cannot do, we do our bit, and trust that He will supply a miracle. The process is the same, whether you are praying for the sick or inviting your neighbour to an Alpha supper.
It's possible at this point that you are convinced in your mind that this story is relevant to us here today, but it still feels that the sort of things being described in these chapters are a million miles from anything you can recognise.
For example, a few minutes ago I said that the early Christians had...
"...the promise that Jesus would continue to be with them in the person of the Holy Spirit, and that He would show them how they could continue and complete His mission to bring about the Kingdom of God and destroy Satan's power."
The truth is that we have the same promise and the same mission. The problem is that we do not live as though this were the case.
Like many others, I have been wrestling with this problem for years. Some time ago, I believe as part of the answer, God gave me two words, and a message that went with them. Back in January, in the week of prayer and fasting, I was given the freedom to share these words and the message. The words are: reality and hunger. And the message, in a very abbreviated form, is this.
God is calling us to a place of honesty, where we acknowledge and express what is really going on. He is calling us to celebrate spiritual reality, and admit spiritual hunger.
We are to learn to be honest with each other, if we are to communicate in reality with people outside the church.
We are to learn how to recognise what God is really doing. There is a real spiritual discipline required - to take note when God answers a prayer, or gives you a particularly appropriate word for a friend or neighbour, or grants a fresh insight into a passage of scripture. I firmly believe that He is constantly blessing us in ways that we fail to notice or just take for granted, and we need to learn afresh that we are living in a spiritual universe as well as a natural one.
If the people around us cannot recognise that our lives have a real, effective and powerful spiritual dimension, why should they take any notice of our words? Unless they can see a spiritual reality, all we can offer them are words, and they get enough of those from the crackpots who believe in pyramids and crystals.
But learning to recognise, acknowledge and celebrate what God is doing is just the start. Honesty requires us to admit that while God really does speak with us, we do not have all the answers. While we see amazing answers to prayer at times, at other times our prayers seem to go inexplicably unanswered. While we know God in a real way and enjoy His presence with us, we desperately hunger to know Him better.
One of the things that really puts people off Christians in general and evangelicals in particular is the image we give that we have everything worked out, we already know the answers, we already have the truth. They cannot identify with our apparent certainty and clarity, when they mainly know uncertainty, doubt and confusion.
I am not suggesting that we pretend to be less sure about our faith than we are, but when we are not sure, admitting it would be a really good move.
If we are prepared to be a part of Jesus' continuing mission on the earth, we need to take the risk - to admit and live out the spiritual reality we know, and be honest about the hunger that makes us desire to know Him more.