‘Never give up on anyone’ Bishop tells new Diocesan Lay Readers

Two new Diocesan Lay Readers have been commissioned for the Diocese of Derry and Raphoe at a service in Christ Church, Limavady.

Eleanor Craig from the Parish of Aghadowey and Brian Robinson from the Grouped Parishes of Aghanloo, Balteagh, Carrick and Tamlaghtard were commissioned on Saturday evening in front of scores of relatives, friends and members of other parishes by the Bishop of Derry and Raphoe, Rt Rev Andrew Forster,.

The service, which was led by the Diocese’s Warden of Readers, Rev Canon Derek Quinn, took place on the day the Church of Ireland celebrates the Conversion of St Paul.

In his sermon, Bishop Forster thanked Eleanor and Brian for “saying ‘Yes’ to God’s call and saying ‘Yes’ to the call of the Church”. He assured them that God would continue to richly use them and bless them and anoint them in what they sought to do in what lay ahead. He said the new diocesan readers had a heart for God’s word and a heart for sharing the truth of God’s word – and that was a wonderful calling.

“As the Bishop of the Diocese I say thank for you for saying ‘Yes’ to God’s call and the call of the Church,” Bishop Forster said. “And for each one of us, whatever our lives are, whatever our ministry is, it’s always about saying ‘Yes’ to the call of God and the call of his Church. And that ‘Yes’ doesn’t just happen once: again and again we need to say ‘Yes’ to God and ‘Yes’ to the call of his Church.”

Bishop Forster invited the congregation to think about the sort of people whom God chooses. This week, he said, the BBC had reported the execution of a Nigerian clergyman, Rev Lawan Andimi, by jihadists in Nigeria. In December, jihadists had also killed eleven Christians near Rev Andimi’s church. “Persecution is the daily experience of many followers of Jesus Christ.” The Bishop said. “I read about another young minister of the Gospel who – because of his faith in Jesus – was stoned to death by a group of extremists. We read about that in Acts, Chapter 7. His name was Stephen and we’re told that he was stoned to death by religious extremists.

“Standing there with the mob that cornered this young minister of the Gospel and stoned him was a man called Saul of Tarsus, and Saul of Tarsus decided that what he would do was hold the coats of those who were doing the stoning. Now, why would you hold the coats? Think about it for a moment: if you’re not wearing a coat you get a better aim, you get a better throw. So, Saul of Tarsus said let me hold your coat, you’ll get a better aim, you’ll hit him all the harder if I hold your coat for you.

“Now, today is the feast day when we remember the conversion of St Paul. In Acts, Chapter 9 we read of him going to Damascus to hunt down those who follow – it’s very interesting how the writer of Acts, Luke, puts it – to hunt down those who followed ‘the Way’. This is before followers of Jesus had been given the name Christian.

“I must say, I like that, ‘followers of the Way’, it’s a great phrase because it tells us that to be a follower of Jesus it’s not just about answering some questions, it’s about following the Way and saying ‘Yes’ to the Way of Jesus Christ, following the one who himself says he is the way, the truth and the life. We’re called to be followers of the Way.

“Now, what was Saul of Tarsus doing – the man we call Paul – what was he doing? He was on the road to Damascus because he had heard there were followers of the Way in Damascus and he wanted the same thing to happen to them as happened to Stephen. In fact, we’re told in Acts Chapter 9 he went to Damascus with murderous intent. He had murder in his heart, he had death on his mind. He wanted to kill those who were telling people they were followers of the Way. He went with murderous intent.

“And what happens on that road to Damascus? You know it, don’t you, because you know the story so well? But you know, I find it an amazing story because do you know what it tells me? It tells me that if God still had time for Saul of Tarsus, if God still wanted Saul of Tarsus’ life to change, God still has time for you, and maybe he wants your life to change as well. God wasn’t finished with Saul of Tarsus, and he’s not finished with you and he’s not finished with me.

“And Eleanor and Brian have seen this in their own lives, how God has drawn them to Himself, how God has called them to Himself. I wonder tonight, for any of us – maybe you’re not like Saul of Tarsus – but yet you feel that actions or motivations have pulled us away from God; well, if God wasn’t finished with Saul, he’s not finished with you either.

“And do you know what we call this? We call it the Gospel, and the Gospel is good news; it’s good news for you and it’s good news for me. It’s the Gospel of Christ that changes us and blesses us, that turns us around.

“Tonight, we celebrate two new readers sharing the Gospel of Christ because what happened to Paul that day on the road to Damascus – remember the story? The light shines on him and he falls down and he hears a voice from heaven, ‘Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?’ – what happened to Saul that night was redemption. And a reader’s ministry, a rector’s ministry, a bishop’s ministry is about the ministry of redemption, the good news of Jesus Christ that whenever we seem beyond hope, there’s hope in God; whenever we’re feeling messed up, there’s forgiveness in Christ. If God has time for Paul, He has time for you.

“Now, let’s think about this for a moment or two because whenever this light happens and Saul falls down, he hears the voice: ‘Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?’ And Saul says ‘Who’s speaking to me?’ ‘It is Jesus who you persecuted.’

“You know, there’s something really profound in that, that in the hurt and pain of the followers of the Way, Jesus was in that hurt and pain; in their persecution He was there. And, if we follow that on, I believe it tells you and me something of the heart of the Gospel again, that in your hurt, in your pain, in my hurt and my pain, Christ is there. There are beautiful words in one of the psalms that says He counts all our tears and stores them in His bottle. He knows your pain, He knows our hurts. And His love is there.

“You know, a reader’s ministry is a ministry of leading a service and preaching God’s word, but as we do that, we pastor people who hurt, people in pain. And who of us doesn’t know what it is to be in hurt or pain? Who of us doesn’t know what it is to feel isolated or alone? Who of us doesn’t know what it is, at times, to feel misunderstood and taken up the wrong way? Jesus understands. He’s in the heart of it as He’s in the heart of all those who are persecuted for being followers of the way – it’s the tender heart of God. And as we minister – readers, clergy, bishop – we minister the tenderness of God into the hearts of those who are in hurt and pain.

“And isn’t it interesting that it was this light that shone from heaven? And maybe the light shone right into the darkest recesses of Saul’s heart and Saul realised things had to be different. And the light of Christ can shine into the darkest recesses of our hearts. Maybe there are things that need to be different for us.”

Bishop Forster drew the congregation’s attention to another figure in Acts 9, the disciple Ananias, whom he described as one of the great heroes of the New Testament. “I think Ananias is incredible because he’s so in touch with God that he hears the voice of God saying I want you to go to Straight Street – which was the main thoroughfare through Damascus – and I want you to find Saul there and I want you to go and pray for him.

“And Ananias – you can hear all the warning bells ringing – Ananias goes, ‘Hold on a minute. Are you talking about the man who’s coming here to kill us? Are you talking about the man who’s coming here to persecute the followers of the Way, to persecute your followers? That’s who you want me to go to?’ And God says, ‘Yes’.

“And dear Ananias walks along that street called Straight. I wonder what was going on? I wonder was his heart beating out of his chest. And he goes into that room where Saul was and what does he say? ‘Brother Saul.’

“Isn’t that beautiful? ‘Brother Saul’ – to this man who a few days before had been his enemy; to this man who had been out to kill him; to this man who had held the coats while Stephen was stoned. ‘Brother Saul.’ The Gospel of reconciliation. The Gospel that brings people who are apart together. The Gospel that brings people like you and me – all different shapes and sizes and stations of man – brings us together, because of the love of God that unites us under our heavenly Father.

“Think about that dear man that night, Ananias, crossing the road to go to that house. I wonder if, for any of us, do we have to cross the road? Are there people that God is calling us to reach out to and say ‘Brother, or sister’, and draw them in to the Kingdom of God because that’s what Ananias did? And as we pray – we’re told the scales fell from Saul’s eyes – the ministry of reconciliation: be an Ananias; cross the road; bring people together; share the wonderful reconciling love of Christ; it’s the ministry of a reader, it’s the ministry of the clergy, it’s the ministry of the bishop; and let me tell you it’s all of our ministry for followers of Jesus.

“Who do you need to cross the road to? Who do you need to reach out to? Who do you need to share that love with and say ‘Brother Saul’?

“Are we going to say ‘Yes’? Are we going to say ‘Yes’ to God’s call? ‘Yes’ to God’s call to be the ministry of redemption? ‘Yes’ to God’s call to realise that Jesus is in the midst of the hurts and the pains, and to bring His love into the lives of those in hurt and pain; and ‘Yes’ to God’s call to cross the road to those who may be your enemies, whom we need to reach out with love to?

“Let’s let the scales fall, just like they did for Paul. Let the scales fall and let us be the sort of people who, like Paul became, say it’s all for Christ, all for Jesus, we do it all for Him. And you think of this man – from murderous intent to be a man whose words were read for us tonight, to be a man whose words we read in scripture and who inspires us.

“Never give up on somebody. Never give up on anyone. God can do it with Paul. He can do it with you and me and whoever we’re praying for. Let’s be those people who say ‘Yes’.”

“Tonight that’s what I want us to think about: what it means for each of us – not just our new readers but for each of us – to say ‘Yes’ to the call of God in your life.