Readings: Acts 1:15-17, 21-26, 1 Jn. 5:9-13 & Jn. 17:6-19
I want to speak to you about three things this morning–bearing witness, salvation and prayer–and how each of them are an essential part of Thy Kingdom Come, the global prayer initiative of the Archbishop of Canterbury which, I am proud to say, St Andrew’s is supporting and participating in this year.
Our first reading this morning, from the Acts of the Apostles, concerns the selection of Matthias by the remaining eleven apostles, to replace Judas Iscariot, who committed suicide after betraying Jesus.
It was important for Judas to be replaced so that there was twelve apostles. The reason why the number twelve was so important, was because it related to the twelve tribes of Israel. The twelve apostles, represented the twelve tribes of Israel, and the new communities they were to form, from those people who were to become disciples of Jesus Christ, were to become the new people of God. In a sense, they were to become the new Israel.
For centuries, the people of Israel had waited for the Messiah to come, who would save them from oppression and reconcile them to God. Jesus was the Messiah, but of course he did not come in the shape or form that the people of Israel expected. And the way in which he was to save them, and reconcile them to God–through his own death and resurrection–was again the exact opposite of what they expected.
They were waiting for a warrior king, like David, to come with his army and defeat the armies of Rome in battle, and restore Israel to its former glory. And because it would have been so hard for people to believe, that is why it was so important for the apostles to bear witness to Jesus as the Messiah; as the Son of God.
So not just anyone could be an apostle. The qualification for apostleship, was to have followed Jesus continually from his baptism by John to his ascension; and to have witnessed his resurrection. Matthias obviously satisfied these criteria. The apostles bore witness to Jesus Christ as the Messiah and Son of God. Their testimony was crucial to so many people in the early church coming to faith. In today’s reading from the First of Letter John, we hear that even though the testimony of the apostles is significant, there is a testimony which is even greater, and that is the testimony of God Himself.
John tells us God’s testimony is that,
“Those who believe in the Son of God have the testimony in their hearts. Those who do not believe in God have made him a liar by not believing in the testimony that God has given concerning his Son”
What John was really saying, is that to believe in the Son of God, was to believe that Jesus was God incarnate. This belief, is faith itself. God’s testimony that John talks about therefore, is faith.
John also said,
“I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God, so that you may know that you have eternal life.”
What John was meaning here, is that to believe in “the name of the Son” is to enjoy a relationship with Christ that grants true believers special privileges, specifically “eternal life.” And for John, eternal life had the same meaning as salvation.
When it comes to the meaning of salvation, I personally favour the Apostle Paul’s understanding. Like John, Paul believed that salvation included being granted eternal life with Jesus Christ at the Second Coming, but perhaps more importantly, it also meant being reconciled to God in the present life.
As I mentioned at the beginning of my sermon, for centuries the people of Israel had waited for the Messiah to come and rescue them from oppression, AND to reconcile them to God. They believed God had abandoned them; that they had been separated from God and His love. The Messiah would reconcile them to God.
And that is what Paul believed had happened through the death and resurrection of Jesus–that all who believed in Jesus as the Messiah and Son of God, were reconciled to God in the present life. They were all brought into a relationship with God. I personally believe this understanding is extremely significant, especially in relation to people coming to faith today. But more on that shortly. In the meantime, let me return to talking about the apostles.
What we have in the gospel reading today, from John’s Gospel, is a prayer from Jesus to his Father on behalf of his disciples. Jesus was sent by God, to reveal God to the world. But now the time has come for his earthly ministry to end. He is about to die and return to the Father. It will now be his disciples, to whom Jesus has revealed the Father and given them His words, who must carry on the ministry that Jesus has begun. They must proclaim his gospel to the world. A world that is full of violence, greed and hatred. A world with an arrogant ignorance of the true meaning of God.
Jesus is sending them into this world, but he is not sending them unprepared. While he was with them, Jesus protected the disciples in the name of God, and he has given them everything that God had given him. And now, he prays to God for them; that God will protect them from the evil of the world while they are in the world proclaiming the word of God.
To quickly recap: I have talked to you this morning about how the apostles bore witness to Jesus as the Messiah, as the Son of God. I have also talked to you about salvation, about how all who believe in Jesus as the Messiah, as the Son of God, will receive eternal life with Jesus at his second coming, but who are, more importantly, reconciled to God, that is to say, are brought into a relationship with God, right here and now. And I have talked to you about how Jesus prayed to God for his disciples, that God would protect them from the evils of this world as they proclaimed God’s word in the world.
So how does this relate to Thy Kingdom Come? Well, Thy Kingdom Come is essentially prayer for more people to come to the faith. Specifically, we are praying for people that we know–family, friends or work colleagues–to come to the faith. And now we are the ones, like the apostles, who bear witness to Jesus as Messiah, as Son of God. The way in which we bear witness to Jesus, might have a significant impact on whether these people come to the faith or not.
One of the most difficult aspects of the Christian faith for people to understand and accept is the notion of salvation, and especially the idea of eternal life that is associated with it. But if we can explain it to people in terms of being brought into a relationship with God, particularly in the context of the people of Israel having been reconciled to God, then perhaps that might be easier for them to accept.
And finally, as we pray for others to come to faith, and as we bear witness to Jesus in the world today, then just as Jesus prayed to the Father for the apostles and their ministry in the world, we can be sure that Jesus prays for us as well, and for our ministry in the world today in his name.
The Lord be with you.