Looking Back

Sermon at St James, Colwall, 12 May 2019

Acts 9:36-43

To listen to the recording of the rest of the sermon as you read:

Whether reading a good book or watching a film we all enjoy a story especially if there are some twists and turns.  Now the story that is different for each of us but the one which each of us knows intimately is the story of our own lives from childhood to where we are today.  Most of us occasionally look back over the journey we have taken so far and reflect on the major turning points, those pivotal moments when we went one way rather than another.  But there are some people who say we shouldn’t look back because we start saying ‘what if’ and ‘if only’ which is unproductive thinking.  We are told “Look at Lot’s wife” and we all know what happened to her.

A Primary school teacher was giving her class a lesson on the Old Testament and described how Sodom and Gomorrah were going up in flames when Lot’s wife looked back and was turned into a pillar of salt.  One of the boys in front of her put up his hand; Please Miss, my Mum was driving the car yesterday and she looked back and she turned into a lamppost.

Nevertheless and despite Lot’s wife a look back over our own lives and sometimes the lives of others can be instructive.

Today in our reading from Acts Luke gave us a surprisingly detailed account of Peter, the apostle, being called to Joppa on the coast and a long way from Jerusalem.  There a woman called Tabitha, already a follower of Jesus, had died and the mourning rites had already begun.  So Peter goes in and prays and speaking to Tabitha he raises her from her deathbed.

But how and why is Peter there in the first place?  Look back for a moment at the important points in Peter’s life.   As a rough, tough fisherman living in Bethsaida on the Lake of Galilee he had met with Jesus and been captivated by him to the extent that he left his fishing tackle behind on the beach to travel with Jesus.  He was the first of the disciples to call Jesus the Son of the Living God because he had heard his teaching and seen his actions.

Peter was a bold, blunt man who got things wrong when he denied he knew Jesus but who was the first to see the truth.  He was the first man to see the empty tomb and the first to start speaking after Pentecost.  He had always been at the centre of the group around Jesus and after the terrible events of the trial and crucifixion became the driving force behind the Gospel message.  To find this man of such humble origins moving as a pastor amongst Jews and Gentiles on the Mediterranean coast, miles from Galilee, is quite extraordinary and as we know Peter with Paul became the founders of the Christian Church which today numbers two and a quarter billion believers.  We need to pinch ourselves so that we never forget this.

God was surely working his purpose out through this former fisherman and we believe that he has continued to do so through billions of others since.  And yet there are some philosophers and scientists who say that all our actions are determined by our genes and our cultural, family background.  We can’t help what we do and we are deceiving ourselves that we have free will to choose.  Of course, there is some truth in this but it is not the whole truth.  People like Peter prove otherwise, breaking away from their origins, putting their faith in Jesus and his resurrection and shaking societies’ foundations to the core.  We are free to believe.

So when we look back over our lives, whatever age we are;  when we reflect on our lives so far, we will see turning points, perhaps not as dramatic as Peter’s, but pivotal moments when we could have travelled another way than we actually did.  And then as we review our lives in this way we will have to ask the fundamental question of anyone who believes in our Lord as the Son of God.  We have to ask whether we can see God working his purpose out in any of those moments.  After all Christ has no body but ours.  No hands, no feet on earth but ours. Ours are the eyes which bring his compassion to the world.  So is God working through us?

I want to finish with a quotation from William Temple who was Archbishop of Canterbury from 1942 – 44 when he died but in that brief time he made the church more socially aware, brought Christians and Jews together as well as Christians of all denominations.  In looking back over his life he said this:

“When I pray, coincidences happen, when I don’t, they don’t”