Closing address to the meeting of the Anglican Consultative Council
When I heard that you had been studying Acts in your time together, my mind went, for some reason, to acronyms. I imagined myself coming to address the Anglican Communion Theological Society, or perhaps the Anglican Council for Tea and Sympathy, which goodness knows you may be in need of by this stage of your meeting. And I have finally come up with an answer to a question which Archbishop Rowan asked me a year or two ago, whether there might be an organization whose acronym would be ACRONYM: I propose that we set up the Anglican Communion Renewal Of New Youth Ministries – and in fact I think that’s just what we need right now, certainly where I come from. But actually I was delighted when I heard that you had been mulling over Acts, because I’ve been doing that as well; and I believe there are fresh things to be heard from within this great book, which comprises roughly one-eighth of the whole New Testament and yet is often neglected as we analyze the gospels and squabble over Paul.
Acts, in its own way, is all about what books such as Daniel and Revelation, in their very different ways, are all about: the kingdoms of the world and the kingdom of God. And we who live in the swirling seas of world history, with all kinds of political winds blowing this way and that, could do worse than chart our own course by that which Luke marks out as he tells his tale, in which he is not simply telling us a story for antiquarian interest but in order to sketch a model of the calling of the church. In fact, as I shall point out later, the fact that his tale takes his hero right into the swirling seas and stormy winds is enormously significant both for his story and for ours – not least since that is the route by which Paul finally arrives in Rome, to announce under the very nose of Caesar himself that God is King and that Jesus is Lord. If we can get our heads around the twin themes of shipwreck and kingdom, and the way they actually go together, we may be able not only to understand something of what Luke was trying to say but also something of what our living and loving God may be saying to us today, this week, at this moment in the history of that battered little ship we call the Anglican Communion.
1. Jesus as King and Lord
It is hard to tie down a single theme and declare that it is the main one in a book as large and sprawling as Acts, but if we look to the key passages at the very beginning and the very end we are struck by Luke’s dramatic insistence that Jesus is the true King of Israel and the true Lord of the world. The Ascension has been woefully misunderstood, both by the literal-minded, who suppose that Luke imagines Jesus engaging in a primitive form of space travel to another location within our space-time universe, and by the Deists, who suppose that if Jesus is now in heaven (whatever that means) he is of little immediate relevance to earth. Few first-century readers would have made either of those mistakes. As any reader of the book of Daniel could have told you (and Daniel was very popular in the first century AD), the one who dwells in heaven is the one who rules on the earth. As any watcher of the Roman Imperial cult could have told you (and the Imperial cult was the fastest-growing religion in the first-century Mediterranean world), the one who is seen being taken up into heaven is the one who is thereby revealed as divine, as the ruler of the present cosmos. That was how Augustus made out that Julius Caesar was divine. On the triumphal arch of Titus in Rome there is a carving of Titus ascending to heaven. For the Jew, the Ascension story speaks of the Son of Man being exalted to the right hand of the Ancient of Days, sovereign over the beasts of pagan empire. For the Roman, the Ascension offers a sudden and unexpected rival to Caesar.
Luke draws these effortlessly together: the Ascension happens as the real answer to the disciples’ question, ‘Lord, will you at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?’ Jesus’ verbal answer, to promise them the Spirit and to commission them to be his witnesses to the ends of the earth, should not be understood as a cryptic answer ‘No’. It is, rather, the pointer to the real answer, which is, as so often in the New Testament, ‘Yes, but not in the way you imagined.’ ‘You will receive power when the Spirit comes upon you, and you will be my witnesses to the ends of the earth’: and immediately he is taken into heaven. From the Jewish point of view, they are to declare that in Jesus the resurrection of the dead has already begun; the new age has broken in; Jesus is the Messiah, already ruling in his kingdom. From the pagan point of view, if the story means anything it means an implicit challenge to Caesar. The first thing we have to get our heads and hearts around as we read Acts is its unequivocal declaration and celebration of the fact that Jesus, the King of Israel, is the world’s rightful Lord.
Before we ponder what it means to say this today, we glance ahead to the very end of the book. There we find exactly the same point. The proclamation of the gospel has at last reached Rome itself – not that Paul was the first Christian in Rome, but that within the narrative logic of the book he is completing the command to witness to Jesus as King and Lord to the ends of the earth. Get the message to Rome and it will go everywhere else. And notice how Luke ends the book. Paul is under house arrest, yes, but the gospel is not bound. Some of you will remember Bishop Stephen Neill, that great missionary statesman who knew a great deal about shipwreck and the kingdom of God. Once, a long time ago, when we were in conversation I mentioned something about Acts, and Stephen became excited. ‘Do you know,’ he asked me, ‘what the very last word of Acts is?’ At that time, I did not. ‘Akolytos!’, he exclaimed. ‘Unhindered!’ Paul is under arrest and awaiting trial, but nothing can stop him announcing that God is King, and teaching about Jesus the King as Lord, ‘with all boldness, and unhindered.’ This is the framework within which Luke has told his tale: that Jesus is Israel’s Messiah and the world’s true Lord, and that in and through him the one true and living God has become king of the world, king in a way which ought to make Caesar shiver in his shoes, king in a way which sends his heralds scurrying out into the world, or for that matter languishing in prison as a direct result of their work, but still announcing his kingship with full, complete boldness and with unstoppable, Spirit-given power.
We know all this, and it’s good to be reminded that Luke says it so firmly, and yet if we’re honest it sounds . . . well, somehow rather unAnglican. It’s a bit too enthusiastic, too definite, too many hard edges. What has happened, of course, is that our Anglicanism has often become just a bit too much inculturated into the world of western Deism, where all beliefs are simply opinions, where all statements of theological truth are reduced to statements of personal likes and dislikes (remember Ronald Knox’s splendid line about ‘suave politeness tempering bigot zeal’ and correcting ‘I believe’ to ‘one does feel’?). But the cooling of ardour which some have embraced as a virtue, leaving room for tolerance, for generosity of heart and mind, for openness to fresh truth – that is all very well when you apply it, as we have often done, in the world precisely of private opinion. But when you are in Caesar’s world, where truth comes out of the barrel of a gun, or in his day the sheath of a sword, tolerance can simply be a fancy name for cowardice. The claim that ‘Jesus is Lord’ was never, in the first century, what we would call a religious claim pure and simple. There was no such thing as religion pure and simple. It was a claim about an ultimate reality which included politics, culture, commerce, family life and everything else you could think of. And if you stop saying ‘Jesus is Lord’ out of deference to the private opinions of your friends and neighbours, Caesar smiles his grim smile and extends his empire by one more street. After all, the great eighteenth-century virtue of tolerance was developed not least by those who were keen on extending their geographical or industrial empires, and who didn’t want God breathing down their necks to stop them. Keep religion in the private sphere and we’ll run the public square. And to that idea Luke says a clear No; and so must we.
The joke at the moment, of course, is that in America the people who want to keep religion out of the public square are on the left, frightened of the New Right that sustains the present White House. Here in Britain it’s the other way around; those of us who go around saying that Jesus is Lord and Caesar isn’t, so it’s time to remit global debts and look after our planet before it becomes uninhabitable, are accused by a sneering right-wing press of shoving our religion where it’s not wanted. That just shows how shallow much contemporary analysis actually is. But my point is this. It is becoming increasingly clear in our society – you only have to look at France to see the point – that under the superficial smile of tolerance is the hard fist of secular power. And the task of the church in this day, as in Luke’s day, is to find the appropriate ways of declaring that Jesus is Lord, openly and unhindered, recognizing that this is a statement about the real, public world as well as the world of private religious experience, indeed that it is only truly the latter, about me and my religion, because it is truly the former, about God and his created world. And this is part of the point of Acts as a whole: that whatever troubles the church may get itself into, whatever divisions and persecutions and disputes there may be, we must end up, whether in Rome in the first century or in Edinburgh this next weekend, saying to the powers of the world that Jesus is Lord and that they are not. That is our primary calling; it is for this task, not in order to wallow in our own spiritual experiences, that the church must pray for the fresh wind of the Holy Spirit.
Luke leaves us no choice. Let’s look now at how he has structured his whole book, and see how it works out and how his other themes fit within this overarching one.
2. King of the Jews, Lord of the World
The book of Acts divides fairly obviously into two. The first half, chapters 1—12, sees the early Christians announcing that Jesus is Israel’s Messiah, the true King, great David’s greater Son. That is the message of the early sermons, demonstrating from scripture that the resurrection constitutes Jesus as Messiah, as King. But this is no mere ‘religious’ message. The Chief Priests are furious that the disciples are ‘proclaiming, in Jesus, the resurrection of the dead’ (4.2); and the reason they’re furious is not because they are theological liberals who don’t believe in resurrection but because they are political and theological conservatives who know very well that resurrection is an extremely dangerous doctrine, because it speaks about Israel’s God turning everything upside down and creating a new world, a world full of a new kind of justice (rather than the kind which they operate and which always works to their advantage), a Magnificat world in which the poor get their rights at last and the rich are sent empty away. All sorts of other people as well are angry with the apostles, not least those who sense that the Jerusalem Temple and the Mosaic Law seem to have been upstaged by Jesus coming as the new place of meeting between God and his people. That is what generates the stoning of Stephen. And standing behind both Chief Priests and Pharisees is the one who supposes himself to be King of the Jews, and who is not going to be best pleased with rival claimants: Herod Agrippa, another descendant of Herod the Great, another would-be king of the Jews who finds himself facing the claim that Jesus is the true Messiah. Herod kills James, and wants to kill Peter; but Peter is rescued, and Herod puffs himself up like a pagan monarch, claiming to be divine – and is suddenly smitten down and dies a horrible death. Josephus, the first-century Jewish historian, confirms the account. But, says Luke, the word of God continued to advance and gain adherents. That is the end of the first half of the book: Jesus is announced as the true King of Israel, and the fake one is overthrown while the message about Jesus speeds on and flourishes.
The second half of the book, chapters 13—28, follows an interestingly similar course. This time the theme is the announcement of Jesus as the true Lord of the whole world, as of course the ancient psalms and prophecies had claimed about the coming Messiah of Israel. It has already become clear in chapters 10 and 11 that the message is for all people, Gentile as well as Jew; now we see what that is going to mean. Off goes Paul around Turkey and Greece, developing as he goes an apologia before the watching pagan world, a simultaneous celebration of the goodness of creation and a denunciation of the idolatry of that created order. He runs into trouble from his fellow Jews, but also from the pagan world – not, again, primarily for what we would call ‘religious’ reasons, but for nakedly economic, social and political ones. In Philippi Paul exorcises a slave-girl who has been making money for her owners by fortune-telling; and those whose income is hit by God’s liberating act of healing quickly seize on political charges. ‘These men,’ they say, ‘are advocating customs that are not lawful for us Romans to adopt or observe’. At last the shadow of Caesar falls across the page; ambiguously, of course, because Paul is himself a Roman citizen and uses that status to get out of jail and extract a public apology from the magistrates who have beaten and jailed him.
The hint becomes more explicit in the next chapter (17.7): ‘these men,’ say the accusers, ‘who have been turning the world upside down have come here also; they are acting contrary to the decrees of the Emperor, saying that there is another King, named Jesus.’ Well, precisely. That is what Acts is all about, because that was what the early Christians were all about. How refreshing – at least, I hope you find it refreshing – to discover that early Christianity was not a matter of teaching people a new way to be religious. It was not about reconnecting with your own inner self. It was not even about a new means of securing a place in heaven after you died – since the new world, the new creation, and the resurrection which would bring you to share in it, was far more important. No: the central thing was this, that Jesus, the Jewish Messiah, was the true Lord and King of the world, and was calling everyone to account. That is why Paul’s wonderful philosophical tour de force in Athens later in the same chapter ends with the news, the good news, that the one true God has fixed a day on which he will judge the world by a man whom he has appointed, and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead. The resurrection constitutes Jesus as Israel’s Messiah, the world’s true Lord, and hence as the one through whom God will put everything to rights, bringing peace and justice to the world at last. Just as the resurrection was rightly seen by the Sadducean Chief Priests as a highly dangerous doctrine, so the Athenians mocked at it, not just because they knew people didn’t get raised from the dead but because if it hadhappened it would mean that a whole new world had been born. And once more, looking with Luke’s eyes, we say: well, precisely.
But then, in Luke’s larger scheme, Paul gradually gets to the point where he has to go to Rome; and his clashes with the authorities become more and more frequent until several of the later chapters consist of little else. As in Philippi, so in Ephesus: the gospel message, this time denouncing idolatry, is threatening to put some people out of business, so they raise a political charge against Paul from which he has a narrow escape. Finally he arrives in Rome; and if we have kept Luke’s framework in mind we will realize with a shock what he intends us to think. In the first half of the book, Jesus is announced as King of Israel, and the would-be but idolatrous king of the Jews opposes him and comes to a bad end. Now, says Luke, Jesus is Lord of the world, and here he is arriving in Caesar’s capital, proclaiming the kingdom of God and teaching about Jesus the Messiah as Lord, openly and unhindered; and what do we suppose will happen next? Most of Luke’s readers will have known what happened next, albeit after Paul’s death: Nero’s suicide, the year of the four emperors, chaos come again. Once more Luke would say: well, precisely.
Jesus as Israel’s Messiah; Jesus as the world’s true Lord; and the apostolic task, in the power of the Spirit, is to announce him as such, to watch his kingdom come in power in lives and communities, and to risk the consequences. And among those consequences are of course the controversies that the early church had to face, the greatest among them being the integration of Jew and Gentile into a single family. Notice how it’s done, in the famous chapter 15. The issue is faced. The scriptures are searched. The decision is made: of course the kingdom of God welcomes people from every family under heaven; but of course that family must renounce the twin dehumanizing evils of idolatry and sexual immorality. It is, after all, supposed to be the model of a new way of being human, a way inaugurated by Jesus and now enabled by the Spirit, a way which anticipates the way of being human which will obtain when Jesus comes again to put all things to rights.
Let me reflect for a few moments on where we’ve got to so far before we move to consider what, for me, is the most powerful lesson in Acts, full of meaning for us today and in the days we now face. It is sometimes proposed today that in order to grasp the political meaning of the New Testament, you have to downgrade the theology; as though, for instance, a high Christology would lead you off in the direction of ‘religion’ rather than politics, or as though talk of the bodily resurrection would project you out into the world of ‘pie in the sky when you die’ rather than the hard, real world in which we are called to work for justice and peace. In fact, as Paul or Revelation would make just as clear as Luke, the opposite is the case. It is because Jesus is bodily risen from the dead, because Jesus is Israel’s Messiah, because he is the one and only Lord of the world, that the Sadducees are worried, Herod is worried, the Athenians are worried, the idol-makers of Ephesus are furious, and ultimately, if he knew his business, Caesar should be making his will. The point about Jesus going to heaven is not that we’ll go there to be with him one day, away from this wicked old world at last. The point is that from heaven he is ruling the world, ruling it through the faithful lives, the suffering and the witness of his Spirit-driven apostolic followers, calling it to account, demonstrating that there is a new way of living, a way which upstages all Caesar’s pretensions to have saved the world, or united it, or brought it genuine justice, freedom and peace. (All those claims, by the way, are the standard things that all empires have claimed, whether in the first century or the twenty-first.)
And this brings us back once more to the collusion between certain types of theology and certain modes of operating in the world. Ever since the eighteenth century, western protestantism has been pulled more and more towards a denial, explicit or implicit, of the great central truths of Christian faith – sometimes, indeed, towards watering them down while still saying the words, sometimes actually to open mockery of the idea of the Trinity or the resurrection or the full meaning of the cross. And what has happened, exactly as the eighteenth-century Deists intended it should, is that God is no longer a player on the world scene; Jesus is Lord far away in heaven, or in the secret places of my heart, perhaps, but he can’t tell me how to run my business or which way to vote. And when that happens Caesar smiles his grim smile and pulls in the rope, and the worlds of money and sex and power all dance to his tune, exhibiting that tell-tale imperial pattern, the pagan pattern, the pattern that says there is no resurrection, that Herod is King of the Jews and Caesar is Lord of the world, that Mammon, the money-god, is divine and rules our pockets, that Aphrodite, the goddess of erotic love, is divine and rules our loins, that Mars the god of war is divine and doesn’t mind who wins as long as people keep fighting each other. My brothers and sisters, is it surprising that, if every doctrine from the Trinity to the divinity of Jesus to his saving death and bodily resurrection and ascension has been dismissed as outdated, disproved or irrelevant, the church should then have no means of protesting against massive economic injustice, against the erosion and inversion of sexual morality, against rampant militarism – in other words, against Caesar and all his weapons? Is it not time to be grasped once more by the real authority of scripture, which is not about quoting a verse here and a line there but about being reshaped by the full story, the whole narrative, the entire drama of a book like Acts until the picture becomes clear and we see who Caesar is and how he works, who Jesus is and how he rescues God’s lovely world from corruption and slavery, and who we are called to be as his Spirit-led witnesses to the ends of the earth?
When, and only when, we are fired by that vision, we may be able to see more clearly the truth which is waiting for us in the great drama of the closing chapters of Acts, which bring us, I believe, very close to hearing God’s word to the Anglican Communion in the year of grace 2005.
3. The Storm and the Gospel
It has often been remarked that in both volumes of Luke’s work, the gospel and the Acts, we find the motif of a journey. Ten full chapters out of the twenty-four in Luke’s gospel have Jesus on the road, going up to Jerusalem, from the moment when we are told that this is to happen in chapter 9 to the moment when he finally enters the city in tears in chapter 19. Of course, plenty of things happen on the way, and Luke has used the motif of the journey both as a framework for a whole range of material he wants to place there and as a way of telling us that to be a disciple of Jesus is to learn to follow him on that journey, ultimately the journey to the cross and then to Emmaus and then to the ends of the earth. But the story is so familiar to us that we easily miss the way in which it works as a drama: the long journey (through which we know from early on that Jesus is going to redeem Israel, is going to become king indeed) comes at last to the place of darkness, the place where the forces of evil gather together and do their worst, the place where Jesus is mocked and beaten and crucified, where the sun goes dark at noon. We had hoped, say the two on the road to Emmaus, that he was the one to redeem Israel; but he can’t have been, because they crucified him. Foolish ones, says the risen Jesus, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets had foretold. Was it not necessarythat the Messiah should suffer these things and enter into his glory? And he expounds the scriptures, breaks the bread, and their eyes are opened and they recognize him; and he sends them out to announce the new way of life, the way of repentance and forgiveness, to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem, clothed with power from on high.
All this, as I say, is well known, though still deep and true and powerful. But now come with me to the equivalent climax of the Acts of the Apostles. You need to remember that for most Jews of the day the sea was a powerful symbol of untameable danger and evil. Think of the watery chaos before creation. Think of the Red Sea, and the Psalms which celebrate YHWH’s kingship over the mighty waters. Think of Jonah. Think of the monsters in Daniel, coming up out of the sea in a ghastly parody of the creation story, until they are brought to order by the exalted Son of Man. Think of the storm on Galilee. And now notice how Luke tells us, just as he tells us of Jesus setting his face to go to Jerusalem, that Paul has decided it is time to go to Rome (19.21f.). From then on, the scene is set. Messengers are sent ahead. Paul must get to Rome because his message – that the crucified and risen Jesus is the world’s true Lord – must be announced under Caesar’s nose, openly and unhindered. And almost at once all hell breaks loose. That’s what happens when the gospel begins to challenge the principalities and powers. The riot in Ephesus. The warnings of prophets on the way. Paul beaten and arrested in the Temple. Trial before the Sanhedrin. The plot against his life. Trial before Felix. A two-year imprisonment. At this point the alert reader who knew Luke, but not how Paul’s story worked out, might suppose that Paul, like his master before him, was on his way, via trials before Jewish and Roman courts, to crucifixion. But no; that isn’t how Christian theology, or for that matter history, works. Jesus’ crucifixion was and is unique; he died once for all, and our sufferings, though as Paul himself says they fill up the measure of Christ’s sufferings, cannot and do not repeat his unique achievement. Rather, Luke with consummate artistry has something different in store. At the equivalent point where, in the gospel, we come to the crucifixion itself, we come in Acts to the shipwreck, the moment when the forces of wind and wave do their worst and it looks as though Paul will be drowned at sea, or smashed on the rocks, or killed by the soldiers, or finally, in an almost comic touch, poisoned by a Maltese snake. The darkness and hopelessness of the storm at sea mirror the dark hopelessness of Gethsemane and Calvary itself. And then, finally, after the sailors have used one anchor after another to slow the boat down and prevent it simply accelerating into the waiting rocks, they manage to steer close enough in to land so that when the ship finally runs aground and starts to break up, everyone on board comes safe to shore.
And the point of it all is that God’s kingdom and Jesus’ Lordship must be announced before Caesar, openly and unhindered; and at this point it seems as though the cosmos itself has joined forces with the pagan world to prevent Paul getting there, to stop Caesar’s world from being challenged by the message of the crucified and risen Lord. We might imagine Paul arriving in Rome; Oh, Paul, we heard you’d been shipwrecked. Fancy having to go through such a thing. In fact, that’s exactly what they said on Malta: he’s obviously done something wrong, so blind justice is determined to kill him, whether by sea or by snakebite. Foolish ones, Paul would reply, and slow of heart to believe; was it not necessary that the gospel and its carriers should follow their Master, should pass through the dark waters, in order to come to Caesar’s city, Caesar who kills but cannot make alive, Caesar in whose empire Mammon, Aphrodite and Mars reign unchecked and unchallenged? Did you expect that the gospel would stroll in to Rome of all places with its hands in its pockets and whistling a cheerful tune? Was it not necessary that it should arrive having gone through fire and water, embodying the truth it comes to tell, the truth that you only live if first you die, that you only celebrate if first you suffer, that you only preach if first you drown. God forgive us for our pseudo-gospels of cheap grace, of cossetting self-fulfilment, of a Christ without a cross and a church which never got its feet wet.
And it is only now, now that we have the full sweep of Acts before us, that we can see where we are today in the Anglican Communion, why we have arrived at this point, and perhaps even where we must go from here. We know we’ve got to get to Caesar with the gospel. That is, we know in our bones, and more explicitly in this generation than ever before, that the task of the church is not to save souls for a disembodied heaven but to save whole human beings for God’s new creation, and so to be agents in the present time of that salvation and renewal which was accomplished when Jesus died on the cross and rose from the tomb to launch God’s new world. We know today better than for many generations that we have to announce to the principalities and powers that their time is up, that Jesus is Lord and that they are not, that the unchecked power of Mammon is an idol that has to be named and shamed, that the seductive blandishments of Aphrodite are a ghastly lie which has to be refuted and resisted, that the horrid trumpets of the war-god Mars appeal to all that is worst in us and will make the world a worse place. We know all this. We know we must resist paganism in all these forms in the name of Jesus the crucified and risen Lord. And we are eager to bring this message to bear, at the G8 summit next week, in working for peace in the Middle East, in sustaining healthy and appropriate human relationships, in supporting our brothers and sisters who live in daily fear and suffering because of their faith in several countries, and in many other ways. We are not a complacent church. We are struggling to be a faithful church.
So why are we surprised that we have been asked to go through fire and water? Why are we surprised that, just when our journey to bring the gospel before the powers is getting near some very significant achievements, the powers of the world would strike back at the very heart of our Communion? Is this not utterly typical of the way things always happen when the gospel is going forward in individual lives, in vocations, in local churches, in all kinds of Christian groupings? Was it not necessary that we should pass through these things and so declare, openly and unhindered, that Jesus is Lord and Caesar is not? Might we not have expected that one at least of the three standard themes of paganism, money, sex and power, would blow up a storm that might threaten to shipwreck us?
And might we not develop the theme a bit further? The sailors, as was the custom of the time, let down from the stern of the boat one anchor after another, slowing down the rush of the boat while bringing it in closer and closer to land. When we were faced, it seemed, with imminent shipwreck two years ago, we put down one anchor, a Primates’ meeting, in November 2003. We then put down another one, the Eames Commission. We then put down another, the Primates’ meeting earlier this spring. We have now put down another one this last week. None of them, perhaps, was or is sufficient in itself to prevent us coming to shore in a different manner than we might have wanted. But each has done its part. And now, even if we are going to run aground, there may at least be a chance that we may all come safely to land.
No doubt the picture could be developed and applied in several different ways, and we should not press it too far. We cannot tell if the good ship Ecclesia Anglicana may yet break up on a reef, or find its way, battered but still whole, onto a sandy beach. But that is not my point. My point is this: that we have in our day the greatest opportunity for the wholistic proclamation of the gospel of Jesus Christ that has occurred in our world for many a year. We are getting stuck in and getting our hands dirty with this multi-level gospel work. And we should not be surprised that all the forces in the cosmos seem to rage against us to prevent the message getting out, to prevent us even getting to the point where we can announce the message, because we are so taken up with surviving the storm at sea.
Let me just spell this out a bit as I close. We are living through a set of massive cultural shifts which, in different ways, affect the whole world. The old certainties by which the western world ordered its life over the last two centuries have been shaken to the core. Easy travel and communication have brought great blessings and great dangers. Many in the western world are looking once more for spirituality, for justice, for beauty, for relationship – all of which the church ought to know something about, though ironically people are looking everywhere except the church to find them. Many in the former communist countries are looking for something which is neither the communism they knew nor the western consumerism they are getting in its place. Many in the so-called two-thirds world are looking for freedom and justice and recognizing that they are much more elusive than they had been led to believe. And in this context the church is finding its voice in new ways. We are reaching out and grasping again the wholistic gospel of Jesus Christ, a gospel not just for souls and not just for bodies but for whole persons and the whole world, the whole cosmos which is groaning in travail. We are working in new ways for Christian unity and refusing to connive at the scandal of separation. We are learning from one another, and discovering that we have more in common than we had imagined. We are asking the hard questions about how the gospel applies to the real world and refusing to be put off by the sneers of the media and the threats of some politicians. We are starting to realize that the lies put out by the Enlightenment – that Christianity was disproved, outdated, and bad for your health – were the childish taunts of those who were anxious in case God’s kingdom might call them after all to costly obedience. We are on the threshold of a great new work of God, a work of wholistic mission and evangelism in which God’s kingdom will be announced, and Jesus will be named as Lord, openly and unhindered. And it is precisely at such points that we should expect the strongest winds and the fiercest waves to blow us off course, to turn the ship upside down, and to drown us all in the dark sea of postmodern amorality and factious in-fighting.
And the answer is that we must keep up our courage and see the thing through. Don’t be afraid, said the Lord to Paul in Corinth (18.9); speak and do not be silent, for I am with you. Keep up your courage, said the Lord to Paul after the hearing before the Council (23.11); as you have testified for me in Jerusalem, so you must bear witness also in Rome. Don’t be afraid, said the angel to Paul on the boat (27.24); you must stand before the emperor, and God has granted safety to all who are sailing with you. We must keep our nerve. We must say our prayers. We must hold fast to the risen and ascended Lord, at whose name every knee shall bow, not least Caesar, Mammon, Aphrodite and Mars. We are on our way with the gospel, in the power of the Spirit. Let us strive for that holiness to which we are called, and for that unity in truth which demonstrates to the powers that Jesus is Lord (which is why some in the media are salivating in their eagerness that our little boat should break up; let’s not make their day!). But never, never forget in the days to come: the reason you go through the storm is because you are carrying the gospel of God’s kingdom, to let the powers of the world know that Jesus is their rightful Lord. Let this be Luke’s message, God’s message, to us at this crucial turning point in our history: Hold on; keep up your courage; don’t lose your nerve; ride out the storm, so that you can stand before the powers, announce God’s kingdom, and proclaim Jesus as Lord, with all boldness and unhindered.