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God’s Surprise Gift to the Church

Here is the first half of the talk I gave at church this morning.

No surprises?

Over the next few weeks, the Lectionary for the Easter season insists that we include a series of readings from the book of Acts. We’ve celebrated that Jesus rose from the dead in resurrection victory and, at the beginning of June, we will celebrate what is often called ‘the birth of the church’ at Pentecost. To get us ready, the Acts readings give a series of scenes from the early life of the church. In other words, a spot of revision so that this important event doesn’t find us taken by surprise or unprepared, just like Lent prepares us for Easter.

Let me read to you this week’s passage, from Acts chapter 9: “Meanwhile, Saul was still breathing out murderous threats against the Lord’s disciples. He went to the high priest and asked him for letters to the synagogues in Damascus, so that if he found any there who belonged to the Way, whether men or women, he might take them as prisoners to Jerusalem…”

[Look around] Do you know what happens next? This is such an important story, that I expect most of you have read it many times and can tell me exactly what’s coming. Even people who’ve rarely darkened the doors of a church or opened a Bible might have an idea what is meant by a ‘Damascus Road experience’. The problem is that familiarity means we can lose the sense of surprise at what happens next and, in turn, lose our wonder at God’s mighty works. Because our lives are often full of other surprises, we might even lose sight of the assurance of being held by a loving, heavenly Father who is never caught on the hop.

Life is full of surprises

Before I finish off the passage, let’s think a bit more about our experiences of being surprised to limber up our listening ears. I’ll tell you about three recent stories of mine but have a think about your experiences too.

Firstly was the news that led to me standing here and speaking today. I’d hoped Adrian was recovering and I was looking forward to hearing how he would tackle today’s topic. It was an unwanted surprise when he got in touch last week to say that he wouldn’t be able to speak today. On the other hand, I’m grateful that he let me know with time in hand. If you need help, don’t be afraid to raise your hand. It might be an unwanted surprise for the person you ask but I expect they will value the opportunity to help share your load.

Secondly, Jane and I recently had a trip to Manchester. Wednesday lunchtime was going to be down the ‘curry mile’. No prizes for guessing what it is known for. My taste buds and my tummy were well up for this but, as we walked along, it seemed none of the restaurants were open and it seemed there were just a few places doing takeaway kebabs and burgers. Then it struck me that Muslims are still marking their fast month of Ramadan, which runs from 1 April to 1 May this year. What a disappointment. Thumbs up though to Jaffa, a Mediterranean restaurant that was open and provided our best dining-out experience of the trip – so both bad and good surprises packed into one lunchtime.

The third story I want to share is an example of happy surprise and, I think, quite remarkable. Do any of you know where Hambleden is? It’s the village that sits on the peninsula of land that juts out into Rutland Water — a pleasant place to go for a walk but not a top tourist destination. I checked and it doesn’t even make Trip Advisor’s list of 72 things to do in Rutland! Jane and I went for a walk there in early April. We’d made a late start and, about halfway round, decided to take a shortcut for an early finish. As we arrived at our car, another couple was returning to the one parked in front of us and we exchanged pleasantries about the weather. I think it was his voice that tipped me off and I realised that we were face to face with a couple of my university friends whom I’d not seen for quarter of a century. They were also visiting the village for the first time on a whim. An obscure location, the timing of my original plans all awry and, bang, a wonderful opportunity for a surprise reunion.

Surprises – I’ve had a few – and I expect you do too! Let’s finish off our reading but, now that you are primed and ready, pay attention for who gets a surprised in the passage. Read Acts 9:3-22.

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